JUSTIN FITZ JUDY SHEILA kirk doug chuck alex phil paul rich fred bud

Chapter 2

The objectives for the first day were to start pulling the equipment together and to introduce the team to the absolute basics in mountaineering.  They were to learn the knots needed to tie into a rope, a mountaineer’s way to walk uphill called the rest step, belaying or how to protect each other from a fall, and how to travel as a team with the same pace and rhythm.  At an altitude of 7,890 feet and coming from sea level they would have a strenuous work out.

Fitz and Justin drove to the airport while the rest of us had breakfast and picked up fifteen large boxes of equipment contributed by Eddie Bauer: packs, parkas, sleeping bags, crampons, stoves, ropes, tents, dehydrated meals and an assortment of other items of climbing gear.  When they returned the equipment was unboxed and scattered around the swimming pool and courtyard of the St. Moritz Lodge.  It was like a giant Christmas party. Equipment was given to each person to sort out and repack into individual units.

 General confusion reigned for three to four hours while the many items were sorted out and described to the blind members.  Crampons, a frame of metal spikes used to walk on ice, were assembled and fitted to the boots, packs were adjusted and some ill-fitting items were exchanged between individuals.

          Pelion Team Photo: Dianne Roberts
           Click on picture to identify members

  By three-thirty the equipment was organized enough to allow us to venture out to start training in basic techniques. A photographer from the local newspaper stopped by took pictures for the weekly paper.   It was a short drive to a nearby ski slope already cleared of the winter snow by the rains and sun of spring.  We organized ourselves into several teams with sighted person in front of each, put on light packs, and started uphill slowly. There were no trails, just the dirt and rocky slope covered with clumps of tall grass and bright red Indian-paintbrush and other alpine flowers.  A few weeks earlier people had been skiing down the same slopes.   The slope steepened and several of the blind people lost their balance and stumbled down slope for a step or two.  When this happened, Fitz, Chuck, Richard or I would show them the rest step in which balance is maintained by putting all of one’s weight on the downhill foot and relaxing the uphill foot. 

     Chuck showing Indian Painbrush to Judy Photo: Ridgeway-Film

The blind could not see the demonstration so they would feel the leg of a sighted person making the step. “Take a breath, relax.  Shift your weight up over the uphill foot. Push up. Move the downhill foot up and forward and kick it into the slope. Lock the knee of your down hill leg and settle all your weight onto the downhill leg. This puts joints over joints and minimizes pressure on the muscles.  Relax the uphill leg. Let it go limp.”  These instructions would be repeated over and over for the next two to three days until the motion became automatic.  Kicking the uphill foot into the dirt, and later into snow, establishes a secure platform on which to stand.  This reduces the chances of the foot sliding when weight is transferred to it.

After twenty minutes of hiking up the irregular slope we reached a wide trail cutting across the hill which provided a convenient place to sit and talk.  The sun was high in the clear blue Colorado sky and the late afternoon was getting hot.  We dropped our packs in a small grove of quaking aspen to take a short rest and breathe in the thin air.  This was the first time since arriving in Colorado that we were all in one place without major distractions and I could answer questions about the accident and our schedule and what we had to accomplish over the next few days.

Would we climb Rainier?  We still did not know exactly how the climbers had been killed; or the condition of the route; or if the National Park Service would permit Pelion to continue.  I took the position that the team would continue to train for the climb.  A decision to change the program would not have to be made for five days when we flew from Denver to Seattle.  I hoped that by then the weather would have cleared and Jim would have had a chance to scout the route.  In case it was not safe, we might consider another route on Rainier.  It might even be necessary to change mountains!  Mt. Olympus, on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle towards the coast was not as high, but it was a scenic and enjoyable climb. For us Pelion represented an upward step for the disabled.  The symbolism of Project Pelion on Mt. Olympus would be poetic.

Rick Ridgeway had a copy of the morning newspaper which carried the Rainier story on the front page.  The tragedy highlighted the seriousness of our undertaking and the need for thorough preparation.  For the first time some of the members started to understand the magnitude of what we were going to try to do.  As I was describing the dangers, I remembered being in Jim and Dianne’s house a few weeks before and Jim mentioning that a woman had recently been killed rock climbing.  Her name was that of a close friend that I hadn’t seen for several years.  Rick Ridgeway was filming my talk to the group.  I started to realize that as I was thinking about the woman and talking to the group, I was crying.  It was a strange feeling.

 Training continued with belaying practice.  Each person was shown how to wrap the rope around his or her waist to get the friction necessary to slow and stop a fall for the person they are protecting.  A climbing rope will tear the skin off of a person’s hands if they tried to stop a fall by holding the rope.  The belayer who is higher on the slope sits and braces his or her feet that are spread to form a tripod and faces the climber.  The rope is supposed to come between the feet and around the waist. The belayer uses the hand on the rope going to the climber to sense the movement of the climber just as a fisherman would “feel” a line to sense a fish nibbling on bait. The other hand is the “brake” hand and is used to wrap the rope around the waist. The more contact the rope makes going around the body the greater the friction and stopping power.  As a climber ascends the hill toward the belayer and the belayer pulls in the rope with the “feeling” hand and pulls it around the waist with the “brake” hand.  The trick in belaying is the coordination needed to pull the rope in and never let go of the rope held by the “brake” hand.

Each person was guided through the belaying technique.  Then, working in pairs, they tied themselves onto a rope to practice climbing and falling.  The ropes used were 160-foot Perlon ropes which have a breaking strength of over 5,000 pounds, more than enough to stop a fall as long as the belayer is secure and will not be pulled loose.  The belayer sat on the ground in such a way as to brace his or her feet and get in a secure position.  The person who would be the practicing climber walked thirty to forty feet down the hill and then prepared to climb up the slope as if climbing a cliff.  The belayer got into the belaying stance with the rope around the waist and the simulated climb began.

A sequence of verbal signals was used to test the belayer and to indicate when the climber was ready.  Verbal signals were not useful with Alec Naiman and Paul Stefurak, the deaf members, so a pattern of tugs on the rope was devised.

First the belayer calls out “Belay on.”

Next, the climber calls out “Test One”, and pulls on the rope hard enough to straighten it to determine if it is free of obstructions.  It is possible to pull on the rope only to have the rope dislodge a loose rock.

 Once it is determined that the rope is clear, the climber calls out “Test Two”, and pulls hard enough to determine if the belayer is secure and will not be pulled off the cliff or down the slope. 

Finally, the climber calls out “Test Three”, to determine if the belayer can, in fact, hold the climber in the event of a fall.  For this part of the test a couple of people would pull on the rope in a form of tug-of-war against the belayer. It is important that the climber knows that the belayer can hold the rope.  It is equally important for the belayer to know that he or she can hold the rope.  Many people experience a strong sense of responsibility when belaying knowing that the other person’s life might well depend upon being able to hold the rope.

Once the climber tested the belay he or she would yell out “Climbing” to indicate they were starting the ascent.  As the climber started up the slope trying to remember the rest step the belayer practiced the coordinated hand movements necessary to take in the slack in the rope without pulling the climber off balance and not letting go of the rope in the brake hand.  The sleight of hand trick that takes most people a few minutes to master is how to place the loose end of the rope from the “brake” hand into the “feeling” hand which holds the loose end while the “brake” hand slides down the rope to the hip area.  Once the “brake” hand has been moved it can pull more rope from around the waist; at the same time the loose end is released by the “feeling” hand which reaches down the rope toward the climber and pulls in more slack. If the technique is not done correctly the belayer ends up with a pile of loose rope that will immediately play out if there is a fall.  The belayer has to hold the rope around the waist taut at all times.

After a couple of hours of practice, the pattern of setting up a belay stance and testing before climbing became an automatic activity.  Each person practiced several rounds of belaying and stopping mock falls.  From time to time each climber was instructed to yell, “Falling!” and try to run down the slope and catch the belayer off guard.  Doug Wakefield and some of the other blind climbers tried jumping off the slope, lost their balance and fell over but found they could not move down the slope.  With each arrested fall a sense of support, strength and confidence developed.  Climbers tried to catch their belayer off guard and always found they were secure.

The slope faced west and the afternoon sun was dropping low when we finished the belay practice.  To complete the afternoon training schedule, we formed teams of three climbers on a rope. We planned a climb up the ski slope to practice roped team travel. 

The steepness of the slope, the altitude, the rough terrain, different lengths of step and levels of strength, and lateness of the day combined to demonstrate the problems of walking as a unit.  In the first few hundred feet some people were pulled up the slope, some down and some completely off balance.  Slowly the concept of breathing deeply with each step, the rhythm of the rest step and a coordinated, synchronized pattern of walking evolved as the group climbed three hundred to four hundred vertical feet up the ski slope.

The film crew were seasoned climbers and could anticipate where a team was moving; they would run ahead, set up their camera and film the climbers as they approached.  Rick and I had an understanding that the film crew was documenting our effort and not staging a filming expedition.

It had been a long day and Judy was visibly straining to keep up with Rich Rose and Bud Keith.  The teams slowly spread apart.  Kirk Adams with his youthful energy reserve moved up the slope like he was walking in a park.

At a designated rendezvous point on the slope, we gathered together and sat to relax a while before heading down.  The low angle of the sun highlighted the red Indian Paint Brush and white crowns of dandelions that were already going to seed. Then, tired from five hours of belaying and hiking above 8,000 feet, and dirty from sitting on the dusty slopes and thirsty from the exertion in the dry air we headed down the slope toward the cars and the St Moritz Lodge for a sauna, swim and dinner.  It was past ten o’clock when we returned to town.  There was a general sense of accomplishment even though some weaknesses and problems were evident. 

Fred Noesner, Sheila Holzworth, Doug Wakefield, Bud Keith, Richard Rose and I went to the Aspen city park to cook dinner.  We wanted to try out the white gas stoves and to sample a dehydrated dinner of beef stroganoff.  The others defected to the convenience of a restaurant.

Dinner in the park started quietly.  We found a picnic table and bench and spread out the unopened boxes of stoves, cook kits, and food.  Fred, Sheila, Doug and Bud studied the equipment as Rich and I unpacked it.  Rich had done some hiking and camping and was familiar with the equipment.  He set to filling stoves with fuel and to filling the smaller gas bottles from the one gallon fuel cans and Sheila and Bud sat on the bench and started to make a salad.  Suddenly a water sprinkler in the lawn went on, spraying the table and Bud and Sheila.  The rest of us escaped the first direct blast of water.  Bud grabbed the pot he was putting salad into and headed in the direction of the water sprinkler.  He tried to put the pot over the sprinkler head and got wetter in the process.  If he could have seen it he would have walked around behind the sprinkler.   A few moments later more sprinklers went on.  Doug went to search for a way to stop the sprinklers.  I headed him toward a small building in the middle of the park which might have a shutoff.  He moved toward the building at a fast pace without a cane and stumbled over a couple lying in the grass oblivious to the noise we were making. The couple told him that the sprinkler was on a timer and there was nothing we could do about it.  They retreated to the safety of their car.

Rich and I moved the table out of the range of the sprinkler and the meal was continued to near completion before five or six more sprinklers went on completely covering the area and forcing a rapid evacuation. Everyone grabbed some equipment and started to run to “Big Blue” in different directions.  Rich and I yelled out which way to go.  A couple of the sprinklers were the type that shot a pulsing stream of water which first slowly moved across an arc of ninety degrees, then rapidly returned to the original position.  The water jet from the sprinkler washed across our table. 

Fred thought he would go to the sprinkler and move the head so the water went in a different direction. When he started it turned out he was moving in the same direction at the advance of the jet of water along its arc so as he moved left the water jet moved left.  Fred figured out the water jet was following him and decided to change his direction to the right.  As a matter of coincidence, when Fred changed his direction the sprinkler completed its arc, changed direction and tracked Fred.  Fred stopped and yelled, “What the hell! Who is out there?” figuring one of us was tampering with the sprinkler and spraying him.  Bud started muttering about moving faster because we were getting wet and he was getting cold.  I started laughing so hard I fell down in near convulsions, started to have an asthma attack and got soaked.   My attention turned rapidly from being wet to getting to my pack in the truck where I had my medicated atomizer so I could breath. 

Fred asked if being asthmatic influenced my climbing.  I told him that as a child asthma limited my sports activities so I spent more time with studies.  My interests were books and a chemistry set and model building. In scouts our scout leader took four of us up Mt. Olympus on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I found that above timberline I could breathe and exert myself like I never could at home, and once I found a way into the mountains I found the Seattle Mountaineers, and my life after that was climbing and studying.  I climbed and/or skied most weekends for several years, taught climbing, and was active in mountain rescue activities.

We regrouped, agreed on a story of how good our meal was, and made our way back to the lodge where the others were talking about the great meal they had at the restaurant.  They wondered why we were so wet.