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
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
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.”
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