Chapter 3
JUNE 23: TRAINING, DAY 2 MAROON BELLS

The morning started before sunrise.  I opened boxes, set out piles of food, tents and other items to be divided between the teams.  After breakfast everybody started stuffing clothing, equipment and food into their ever-growing backpacks and groaned with the increasing weight.  By noon we were ready to start a three day outing to get in condition to carry heavy loads for long periods of time. 

We drove to the beginning of the Snowmass-Maroon Bell Trail.  It looked as if we would run into the sheer face of the pyramid-shaped Maroon Bells peaks if we drove any further.  Two-thousand foot ridges rose steeply above the three miles of valley floor we would hike.  The tops of the ridges, barren of trees, were lined with spires, cliffs and huge blocks of rock.  Gulleys coming down from the top were filled with giant boulders and debris which were carried along in the snow avalanches that cascaded down the steep slopes during the winter.  Dirt-streaked snow still lingered in the shaded sections of the gullies, and at the higher elevations broad fan-shaped snow fields expanded out from the base of the cliffs.  We parked and unloaded "Big Blue" and the car.  Before starting up the trail we sat on the edge of the parking lot in the shade of a small aspen grove and ate a quick lunch of Triscuits, cheese and sausage.  A large flower-filled alpine meadow stretched down to a small lake and across to a dense forest.  Birds, flies, and butterflies could be seen at a distance reflecting the sun.  With yells and groans and uncertain expectations everybody hefted their forty-plus-pound packs and started single file across the meadow to the woods of the Snowmass-Maroon Bell Trail.


     Looking into the Maroon Bells Photo: Diane Roberts
  The trail was a three foot wide dirt path which wound through waist high grass and flowers.  By the time we crossed the relatively flat meadow the pack straps were already starting to push heavily onto the shoulder muscles.  At the end of the meadow the trail turned right and started up at a noticeable angle. It turned from a dirt trail to an obstacle course through the jumbled pile of large boulders of the talus slopes which lined the base of cliffs.  The trail narrowed and was covered with crushed rock the size of golf balls and tennis balls and boulders. Large rocks sometimes blocked a part of the trail or forced a small detour.

The blind found different ways to move over the rocky trail.  Some walked behind a sighted person, touching or hanging onto the pack or a strap.  Fred felt comfortable just walking behind a sighted person listening to the sound of feet on rocks.  Over the past year I had taken Fred on several climbing and caving trips and found that he could sense trees or follow a trail through the bushes and flowers by listening to the echoes bouncing off leaves.  While he walked he generated sound waves by slapping his pants legs, or drumming his fingers on his hard hat.  In the city he had taps on the heel of his shoes to generate the sounds for echoes.

Others hung onto the pack of the person in front almost to the extent of being pulled up.  Travel was slow and unsteady but the team kept moving.  An assortment of expressions could be heard as different people stumbled on the larger rocks or when a rock tipped over pitching a person off balance.  A stream fifteen feet wide cascaded across the trail.  An uneven sequence of rocks rose just above the water and some were washed over by the jumping water. The stream was noisy and disorienting. Each blind person had to balance on a rock on one foot and search with the other foot for the next rock with a sighted person indicating how much to the left or right or straight ahead the foot had to be moved.   I found tapping on the target rock with my ice ax provided sufficient orientation for several of the blind who had lost their sight before the age of five. 


     Stepping Across a StreamPhoto: Ridgeway-Film

Nobody wanted to miss a rock and fill their boots with water or slip off and fall in.  The water was deep enough and swift enough to wash away any loose items that fell in. The crossing was made with teetering and small slips but without any undesired events.  A demonstration of courage and tenacity was emerging.

Every twenty minutes or so somebody would want to stop and adjust a strap or rebalance their pack or lean their pack on a rock and get the pressure off their shoulders and feet for a few minutes.  I had to play the role of a drill sergeant to keep them going.  If the team had to stop every time one member did, we would never get up the trail.  We tried to go for forty-five minutes to an hour then take a break where everybody stopped.

During the short breaks everyone would take a quick sip of water or juice and put on sun cream and insect repellent.  It was warm.  Sweat evaporated rapidly in the low humidity of the higher altitude.  During one of these breaks Doug sounded like he was muttering to himself about a problem and I went over to find out if he was okay.  He indicated that he was fine and explained that friends of his at National Public Radio had loaned him some lightweight recording equipment.  He had taped a microphone to his climbing helmet and was recording his feelings and observations along with the sounds of packs squeaking and his boots scraping rocks.  Throughout the trip Doug could be heard talking to himself as he recorded.

Hikers coming down the trail were confronted with a line of thirteen people.  Some seemed confused and others stood aside in awe.  Some didn’t seem to comprehend, some turned away in embarrassment, and some just stood there and stared until the team disappeared from sight.

The groups of two to three climbers slowly spread out. The trail grew steeper and switched direction every fifty to seventy five yards, back and forth up the rocky slope. Moving in an easterly direction I could see Fitz and Judy higher on the slope going in the opposite direction and Kirk and Justin even higher moving in the same direction as Doug was going.


     Switchbacks

After two-and-a half hours of nearly nonstop hiking we paused for a long rest.  Everybody had a chance to sip some juice, get away from the weight of their pack, lie back and listen to the birds and insects.

I reviewed, with the team members who were there, where we wanted to get to today.  The team was spreading out and it would be unreasonable at this stage to hold everybody back waiting for a few slower members.  On the return trip and on Rainier the group would travel as one.    I described to Chuck the meadow we would camp in.  “You will find it after you cross a small stream flowing straight down the valley.  It is a large meadow on the south side of the stream. It is the only stream you will cross.”                        

Judy, following Fitz, was lagging behind.  I decided to walk with her to help reinforce the rest step and her breathing.  It was apparent that she was physically weaker than other members of the team.  Fitz started up the trail with Doug.

Judy and I rested for ten minutes before we started.  She hung on to a strap on my pack.

“Step…breath..relax.” “Step…breath..relax.” “Step…breath..relax.”

“Step…breath..relax.” “Step…breath..relax.” “Step…breath..relax.”

 

From time to time I broke the monotony of my instruction with a description of the passing scenery.

“We are entering a small pine grove where trees have been knocked down by an avalanche.  Can you smell the pitch? For some reason it always reminds me of fresh blackberry pie.”

“Step…breath..relax.” “Step…breath..relax.” “Step…breath..relax.”

“Do you feel that breeze flowing down the gulley on our right?  It is still filled with snow higher up.”

“Step…breath..relax.”  With every word “step” I planted my foot hard enough so Judy could hear it hit the ground and feel my pack hesitate as I relaxed and took a breath.  I exaggerated my breathing so she could hear each inhale and exhale.   Actually, the emphasis was not entirely for her benefit as I was still adjusting to the altitude and my hundred-plus-pound pack.

After an hour she was moving smoothly and rhythmically and found a pace which was synchronized with her breathing.  Doug and Fitz came into view higher up on the switchbacks of the trail.  Twenty minutes later Judy and I slowly caught up and passed them.  I felt encouraged by Judy’s ability to move.  She had looked weak the day before and I was hoping that technique would offset her apparent lack of strength.

We caught up with the rest of the party in a small sloping clearing on the downhill side of the trail.  They had stopped and were setting up tents and starting to relax. Paul and Alec already had a stove purring.  Purring is the best term I know to describe the sound made by a Svea or Primus white gas stove.  When one is cold and hungry it is the greatest sound possible.  The film crew was busy documenting blind and deaf working together to put up a tent. 

Judy and I stopped and I started to take off my pack and thought “NO”. This was not our plan. We were three-quarters of a mile short of the meadow.  I let everyone know that this was not the spot, that they would have to repack and continue.   I let Judy know I would come back and get her.

There was a general grumbling and it was apparent they were tired and unhappy with my decision. I left and continued up the trail and they followed after repacking.  Judy stayed with Fitz and Doug.

I made good time getting up to the meadow and dropped my pack where the center of camp should be and headed back down the trail.  I met Kirk, Sheila and Chuck and let them know it was at least twenty minutes up and they should use my pack as a reference point.  I passed the other members and found Judy, Fitz and Doug ready to move uphill.  The film crew said they were going to stay because the light would be low and they would not be able to do any more filming.  It dawned on me that the making of the early camp might have been suggested by the film crew because of the loss of light.  I talked to Rick and suggested that I did not want filming to dictate what we did, where we did it and how we did it.  

I took Judy’s pack and we headed up the trail.  Just before sunset everybody was in the meadow. It was the size of a football field and flat.  There was easy, safe access to the stream for water and a view of the Maroon Bells was unobstructed.  We were at 11,000 feet and the air was crisp.  This was to be home for the next two nights. 

Dianne left her pack and went back down the trail to go to Aspen to try to contact Jim for information about climbing conditions on Rainier.


     Tents in the meadow

As we set up tents the tops of the peaks turned brilliant orange then crimson as the sun set and the pale shadow grey against a darkening sky.  Kirk made a fresh salad, chopping and slicing the lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese and lunch meat into a large plastic bag.  This was also known as garbage bag salad, a useful technique for making salad for group hiking in windy sand dunes.   I prepared dehydrated vegetable stew and Fitz started coffee.  This was the first time the whole team had eaten together outside.  Some had misplaced their spoons or cups or plates.  There were no tables or chairs. Everybody tried to sit as close to the stove and coffee pot as possible.  I paced around the cooking area trying to keep the others from stepping onto a cooking pot or from kicking over the stove.  Justin turned out to be a menace because he kept moving around.  Patterns of personality were starting to emerge. 

The salad was great, the stew was great, the coffee was great, but pudding for desert was missing.  Meals and food packages had been scattered throughout several packs.  A search was made but the pudding could not be found.

Everyone crawled into their tents for the night.  Kirk, Justin, and Rich were in the same tent and could be overheard talking about the accident.  Justin’s concern was noticeable. “People died; it’s kind of spooky. We are going to be there and we don’t know how they died.”

“Some people are going to wonder what right we have to go up there after others died.” Kirk started to dwell on reactions which might influence the climb.

“Hey guys,” Rich broke in, “We have to trust our leadership.  They are not going to let us get into trouble.  What we have to do is go out there and blow everybody’s minds.”

I decided to sleep out under the stars. It would be nice to be alone for a few minutes to try to sort out the experience of the past two days.  Some of the concerns of all expedition leaders were starting to show up.  Personality issues, fears and balance in responsibility.  I wanted to turn more responsibility over to others but the uniqueness of the team and time pressures frustrated me.  We had a full-fledged mountaineering expedition and none of the people were mountaineers or even familiar with the ethics or leadership concepts of mountaineering.

Over the past seven months I had pulled the team together.  My main criterion for accepting them as team members was their willingness to make a commitment to the project, their personalities and then outdoor experiences –or- lack of it.  Though I had talked to them on the telephone and corresponded with Alec and Paul, I hadn’t met most of them until we arrived in Denver and still didn’t know them very well. 

About the time I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into, a shooting star streaked across the sky and  disappeared behind the mountain fortress above us, and Sheila’s voice carried across the meadow, “Goodnight, Uncle Phil.”