Chapter 14

JULY 4, Independence Day, Paradise Lodge

During the night some climbers' sleep was disturbed by the clattering of small avalanches and rock fall in the ice falls above camp and on the cleaver to the north. Just before sunrise most everyone was awakened by a roaring wind which traveled down the mountain. At first the tents were buffeted about and then were flattened by a blast of wind which pushed the tops of the dome tents onto the chests of those inside like a giant hand. The wind quieted a little.  Since it was too early to get up, most went back to sleep. At 6:30 I got up and put pots of snow on the stoves for water for coffee and instant breakfast. The wind continued thrashing the tents, and blew loose items lying around camp down into a crevasse. When anybody got out of their tent to pack, they had to hang onto unsecured items. Taking the tents down was a challenge. It took two to three people to hold down a tent and pack it after they removed the heavy packs, sleeping bags and crawled out. The empty tents caught the wind and filled up like giant balloons.

 A pattern of lenticular high wind clouds, which looked like a squadron of flying saucers, stretched to the east; and a huge stationary multi-layered cloud cap hung in a fixed position to the side of the summit. Typically these are the omens of a change in the weather. Since it had been nothing but fantastic, the change must be for the worst.   Joe Washington had given me the medicine staff with four eagle feathers. We had had four perfect days of weather.  It seemed like the same hand that stopped the ice fall before engulfing the teams in its path had pressed on the tents as a farewell gesture.

     Cloud Cap heralding the end of nice weather Photo: Dianne Roberts

Two days before, a number of porters had helped carry tents and food up to high camp and then returned to Paradise. Much of the food had been eaten but the containers remained. Jim and I piled extra equipment, food and garbage bags onto our packs, pushing the weight to well over one-hundred and twenty pounds. The extra food would be carried down to Camp Muir and given to the guides.

Five people were tied to each rope for the descent to Camp Muir. The trench-like path and foot holes made during the heat of the previous day had frozen during the night. Early morning stiffness and the irregularity of the downhill trail made travel difficult for the blind. With each step the weight of the body and the bulky pack drops down heavily on the forward leg, straining muscles and giving rise to a climbing malady called "downhill knee."

There are few exercises to prepare for going down a mountain. Justin and Judy were having problems with their footing. They would slip every few steps and lose their balance or fall and have to struggle to their feet under the weight of their packs. It was exhausting.

By the time the team traversed the northern side of Cathedral Rocks above the Ingraham and prepared to descend the steep snow slope to Cowlitz Glacier, the snow was softening and would slide out from under our feet, adding to the general difficulty. The team did not bother to pause at the top of the ridge but plunged, climbed and slipped down the steep slope. The descent was certainly faster and easier than the climb up. From the bottom of the chute they traversed to the right across the top of the Cowlitz in a long semi-circular path to Camp Muir. Even though it had only been a couple of days since passing over the Cowlitz on the climb up, the crevasses were noticeably larger and many of the small snow bridges had melted or been collapsed under the feet of other climbers.

At Camp Muir the ropes were taken off, coiled and tied to the packs. They would not be needed again. The extra food was given to the cook in the guides’ cookhouse, and the garbage was left in general refuse containers. Some miscellaneous items were recouped from the storage shed, and the team headed for Paradise Lodge.

Ski poles were used by the blind for stability. For the first mile below Muir the footing was awkward even for the sighted. Dozens of people had been to Muir the previous day and it was impossible to find an even sequence of steps in the still-frozen surface. With the growing excitement to get down we were trying to move faster than the conditions allowed. On every other step a foot would slip into a deep frozen foot hole and the weight of the pack would be thrown off balance. Though there was no danger of falling and sliding down a steep slope as there had been above, the going was very tiring. Doug found that walking independently and away from the beaten path was easier, almost as he imagined skiing would be.

As we descended to a lower altitude and time passed, the snow warmed and softened enough to let us make our own foot steps and the walking became easier. About a mile-and-a-half down Judy found she could move with an unusually easy pace by shuffling her feet over the surface like a cross-country skier. The pace picked up.

Jim, Dianne, Rich, Judy and I were in the rear. The question came up as to where people should regroup. While Pebble Creek, two miles above the lodge had been discussed, some uncertainty was expressed. Jim decided to catch up to talk to those in front. So he stretched his long legs in a huge stride and disappeared down the slope.

Dianne and Rich followed Jim at a more liesurly rate. Judy and I moved at a slower pace and dropped behind twenty minutes. There was no hurry.

Above Pebble Creek there is a series of steep inclines which are most easily descended in a sitting glissade. I checked each of the slopes for Judy to make sure there were no rocks at the base. She could then sit down and push off, drop twenty to thirty feet, and slide out across the flat bottom below.

Friends of the Whittakers and others had carried sodas and beer up to Pebble Creek as a welcoming party. Everybody enjoyed getting out from under their packs. Kirk said he liked the feeling of floating that he had after he took off his pack. Dee Molenaar had hiked up and said he would have to add a new chapter to his classic book, THE CHALLENGE OF RAINIER.

There was a growing sense of excitement. We were almost off the mountain. Jim suggested that I take the lead down from Pebble Creek. The trail alternates between rock and dirt paths and snow. For the first quarter mile there were a few hikers sitting along the trail offering congratulations. There was a final steep section, then a mile-and-a-half of trail to Paradise Lodge. At the top of the steep section we met the Motorola crew and Sheila's mother who had brought up a bottle of champagne. We stopped, drank the champagne, visited with a few friends and said hello to the television crews. From where we stood we could look down onto the Nisqually Glacier to where we had practiced in the crevasses, and look up the towering ice falls. 

Looking down the trail towards Paradise Lodge we saw hundreds of people lining both sides of the trail. Some had driven from Florida and waited two days. Many had hiked up before sunrise.  Jim suggested that we just keep moving as fast as we could.  Warren Thompson noted that there were people in wheel chairs, on crutches, holding canes, or arm-in-arm with family members and friends, representing every type of physical and mental disability.  Warren later wrote in a letter to me, Seeing the well wishers humbled me to the core, and it made my heart soar!  They had understood, and now I understood, something much greater than climbing a mountain had transpired and thousands, if not millions, of people had been lifted up. 

     Phil and well wishers in front followed by the Pelion Team

There was a hero's welcome all the way to the Visitors’ Center. The Pelion team arrived in front of the Center at 1:35 PM. Dusty, Judy's Seeing Eye dog, was excited at her return. Paul's mother hung a wreath of flowers around his neck.

A reporter asked Fitz if he would identify which climbers had which handicap. Fitz replied that he couldn’t remember, “They had become such complete people to me that I stopped identifying them as blind or deaf.”

The U.N. flag was held out to remind the crowd of the purpose of the climb. After a short statement for the press, all the packs were thrown into an Eddie Bauer van and the team went inside the Visitors’ Center to order hamburgers and milkshakes and to relax. Once the packs were stowed away in vans and we were seated, the Visitors Center quieted down and we just looked like a bunch of sunburned climbers who had just been to the top of Rainier.

The climb was successful by a basic standard in mountaineering: the team had returned safely.

In terms of courage, Chuck could measure each step in pain.

The blind could count each dark step over an unseen space.

The deaf could not hear the sound of wind and roar of avalanches.

Everyone sensed the joy of the summit.

Each of the disabled knew he or she had done something never done before

for themselves and for all disabled.

It had become apparent that they had set a standard for even the non-disabled. They had done what most of the non-disabled can only look at or think about. They had overcome their personal mountains of despair and enjoyed a full experience on one of nature's majestic peaks.