Rick Ridgeway woke me up with his
huffing and puffing like a small train as he stomped heavy footed into camp
carrying two large heavy packs.Combined
they were as big as he was.Rick is a
world class climber who has managed to get on some of the most spectacular
climbs in the world because of his combined climbing and filming skills.He and the rest of the film crew had spent
the night in the small clearing half-an-hour below us and were trying to arrive
at our camp before everybody was up.
The air was clear and the temperature
thirty-four degrees. I let out a few yodels to stir the others and shook Paul
and Alec to get them started. Everyone moved slowly out of their warm sleeping
bags and tents into the meadow.Fitz lit
the stoves, started a pot of coffee, and prepared a batter of pancake mix and
fed people as they emerged from their tents.It seemed easier to stand and eat the pancakes than to sit on the damp
ground.Judy took her insulin. Several
people expressed pleasure with their first experience of sleeping in a tent and
After breakfast, the water bottles
were filled and stuffed into small day packs along with cheeses and sausage for
lunch, light clothing and sun cream.When everyone was ready we started up the Snowmass-Maroon Bell Trail
again to go to BuckskinPass.At the pass there were steep snow slopes where we could practice snow
The trail climbs a few hundred feet
higher before breaking above timberline in a broad alpine “V” shaped valley
where it divides at the junction of two streams.One stream comes down the valley from Willow Lake to the
north and the other from BuckskinPass to the west.We followed the trail heading toward BuckskinPass. It climbed back and forth across the
slope of the ridge separating the two streams and eventually crossed to the
left directly under the pass.
Hiking through this alpine meadow
stimulated every sense.Small flowers
grew everywhere and sparkled in the sun, filling the air with a fragrance which
mingled with the aroma of perspiration from the effort of travel and the warmth
of sun and sun cream.Water cascading
over boulders gurgled and cast a light spray which cooled the skin on bare arms
and faces and accentuated the sensory experience of alpine travel.Aluminum cups dipped in the stream were
instantly cold.A drink from an alpine
stream where the water has poured over rocks is an intensely refreshing
experience.Water from melting snow has
no minerals and no taste.Almost as
tasteless were the endless jokes and stories Bud Keith told as he hiked.
After two hours of hiking the team
had slowly spread out.Kirk and the younger
team members were half an hour ahead of the last team.I had them wait at a small snow slope that
blocked the trail before the steep climb up the last eight hundred feet to the
pass.My concern was someone higher on
the trail might dislodge rocks on the party below.It would be safest if we traveled as one
group.While waiting for Judy and Rich I
showed Fred, Sheila and Kirk how to glissade, which is like skiing without skis.We climbed up the snow for thirty to forty
feet and then glissaded down to the others. The slope wasn’t steep enough and
the snow was too soft to go more than a few feet at a time but they had their
first exposure to sliding down a slope on their feet.They also learned a little about kicking
their feet into the snow hard enough to make a good step to stand on.They found that the rest step works nicely on
snow.They also found that when snow is
a little soft each hard kick sprayed the snow up into their faces and up their
The others munched on a mixture of
nuts, raisins and M&Ms called Gorp and listened to Bud tell stories.Bud, it seemed, had a story or a joke for
every occasion.Few of them could be
told in mixed company. There was some concern early on that Bud’s stories might
not be appropriate for Sheila.It did
not take long to find out that Sheila did not need any protecting.
The slope became steeper and the
trail cut back and forth across the rock and dirt filled trough leading to the
pass.Doug commented that the
switchbacks disoriented him. I gave everyone constant reminders to breathe
deeply and to use the rest step.
Approaching Buckskin Pass Photo: Ridgeway-Film
BuckskinPass is a saddle at 12,462 feet.Ridges rise above the pass five to eight
hundred feet to the north and south and the trail dropped into the valleys on
the east and west.We had come up the
trail from the east which leads under the north face of Maroon Bells
peaks.The trail dropping off the west
side goes into a valley below the northeast flank of Snowmass peak.
Practice Slope At Buckskin Pass Photo: Roy Fitzgerald
A few feet north of our trail were a
large snow patch and the melted remnants of a cornice, an overhanging ledge of
snow.The top of the snow patch was
vertical for eight feet. The angle of snow tapered off and flattened onto a
shelf fifteen feet wide before dropping off vertically and merging with the
rock and grass-covered slope leading to the valley floor.The clear blue sky behind the Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells to the
east highlighted the broken skyline of craggy summits and ridges.Small shadows from puffy cumulus clouds
drifted across the forest below and climbed the barren rock cliffs.To the west the broad summit of Snowmass Mountain blocked the horizon.
Alex preparing to belay Shiela Photo: Roy Fitzgerald
The steep snow slope was an ideal
setting to review belaying and kicking steps and climbing a snow slope as steep
as a ladder.Here they would also learn
how to use an ice ax to make a self-arrest, the technique of stopping oneself
when falling down a steep snow slope. Throughout the day, each person had a
chance to belay another person who would practice climbing and falling. When
belaying, a person sat on an unused rope, which served as an insulator from the
snow; they were also anchored to an ice ax shoved into the snow so they could
not be pulled off the top of the slope. They would spread their legs, dig their
heels into the snow and wrap the climbing rope around their body just as they
did on the ski slopes outside of Aspen.
They wore gloves to prevent rope burn
when the smooth rope slid through their grasp as their climber jumped off the edge.
As they wrapped the rope further around their body the falling climber was stopped.
The climbers were to step backward off the edge of the steep section and then
climb back to the top. In turn, each person was tied onto the climbing rope and
instructed on how to hold the ice ax to use it for a self-arrest in case they
fell on a steep snow slope.
In the self -arrest, the ice ax is
held diagonally across the body from one shoulder to the opposite hip. The ax
has a pointy pick and a spoon shaped adze. The pick of the ax is pointed
forward and the adze back over the shoulder. The arm holding the head serves as
a shock- absorber to keep the ice ax from being wrenched out of the climber's
hands if the pick gets stuck in a crack, hard snow or ice.
When sliding down a slope, the climber
maneuvers to get onto the stomach with the feet downhill and then spreads the
legs, digs the toes into the slope and makes an arch by raising their rear end
up. The chest is pushed down on the ice ax and forces the pick into the slope.
This results in three points of contact with the slope--the toe of each boot
and the pick of the ice ax. I instructed each person, signing and gesturing to
the deaf, waiting for acknowledgment of comprehension by either gesture, words
spelled out in sign language or lips read.
with different team members varied. At times I pulled out a tablet and wrote
out my message or asked Paul or Alec to write out their messages. Deaf since
early childhood, both of them had speech impediments which further limited our
ability to communicate. Communicating or demonstrating with the blind was more
tactile.It was necessary to lead the
blind through the motions, pushing or pulling arms, fingers or feet as
were ready I asked each person to back up until he or she stepped off the vertical
edge of snow. The valley behind the climbers gave the illusion of awesome
height. I would describe the setting to the blind but had the feeling the
descriptions were abstract. What they would experience, however, would be real.
As they stepped over the edge, sometimes
with hesitancy, and always with an exclamation, they went into the self -arrest
position. They stopped their initial fall fifteen to twenty feet down the
slope. Then they were instructed to walk another twenty to thirty feet down to
the bottom of the slope. I would then glissade down to them. Each was then
instructed how to use the ice ax to climb back up the hill. As they started up
I climbed up alongside them and reminded them to breathe. "Breathe deep;
breathe so the people on top can hear you."
climbed straight up the slope and over the vertical section. This slope was
steeper than anything anticipated on Rainier. There
were no technical difficulties but each person found that the exertion at an
altitude of 12,300 feet had a noticeable effect on his or her breathing. It was
“Chuck” O'Brien had been an avid outdoor and adventure enthusiast as a teenager.
He had joined the army and was a Special Forces instructor and ranger in Vietnam. He lost
his left leg just below the knee when he stepped on a land mine. He now wore a
leg prosthesis which was held to a short leg stump below the knee. The
prosthesis had a slightly hinged ankle which made it possible for Chuck to walk
with a gait that was nearly indistinguishable from that of a person with two
Once I had
Chuck accompany me on a management orientation rock climbing trip with a group
from Philadelphia.The people in the party did not know that Chuck
was missing a leg. It was interesting to
see their reactions at the end of the day when
they climbed into the van complaining about how difficult some of the pitches
had been. Chuck climbed into the van
last, sat on the floor and took off his
prosthesis and sighed and commented how good it felt to take it off.None of them had seen an artificial leg
before.They had not noticed all through
the day that he walked or climbed differently than anyone else, only that he
climbed better than most in the group.I
knew then that Chuck would not have problems on a climb of Rainier.However, walking on a street or rock climbing
is different than climbing a near vertical snow slope.
for Charles to climb the steep slope he first anchored the ice ax firmly in
front of him. Then he had to reach down and grab the prosthesis near the ankle,
maneuver his prosthesis with his hand to get his left foot high enough for a
step then slam it into the slope with enough force to knock out a small ledge. Sometimes
he had to swing the foot into the slope a couple of times in order to make a
ledge big enough for his left boot. Hanging onto the ice ax he could then balance
and stand on the toe of his false left foot, then raise and kick his right foot
into the snow higher on the slope. Then he would pull the ice ax out of the
snow, anchor it as high above him as possible and lift his left leg a little, reach
down, grab his left knee, raise it higher, grab his ankle and then thrust his
left foot into the slope, and test it with his hand. He would then raise his
body up on his false leg and start the cycle over. Through perseverance he
worked his way up to and over the vertical section of snow.
Chuck kicking a step Photo: Diane Roberts
As a joke,
he had put sun cream on his wooden leg to guard it against the intense sun and
its reflection off the snow.
the team's third day at the higher altitude. When they weren't belaying or
climbing, they hiked around with the film crew, rested, nibbled at lunch,
swapped stories and napped. Inside they were changing. Their bodies were
generating more red blood cells to more effectively capture the oxygen from the
Each time I
instructed one of them and followed them down and up the slope I felt a growing
sense of strength in the team. Each person was willing to try. Each person
grasped the concepts. Even if apprehensive, each stepped off the steep slope. As
each person climbed back to the top and said, "Belay off," I could feel
an increase in desire to get to the next person to see how he would do. Each
person getting to the top was a confirmation that we could do it.We could climb Rainier. But we
still didn’t know if we would receive permission to try.
Late in the
afternoon the procession was getting ready to start down the pass toward camp. I
said, "We have to get down before it gets dark."
blind of course, responded quickly, "Hey, man; it is dark."
Alex leading Fred and Sheila off Buckskin Pass Photo: Diane Roberts
were high. Judy and I started down last. After a few minutes of descending on
the trail, I noticed the film crew frantically gesturing upward. Four mountain
goat were grazing along the shoulder of the slope separating the northern
valley and the pass. They were fifty feet above us. We stopped and stood
motionless as they slowly moved out of sight from right to left unperturbed by
our presence. I described to Judy how they grazed, nibbling and munching off
the tops of bushes and grass. Occasionally one would stop, stare down at us,
switch its tail and go on nibbling. It would have been enjoyable to spend more
time watching but we had to get to camp.
continued down the trail, a blind person touching the pack of a person in
front. Each sighted person developed a different method of calling out rocks
and obstacles. Some terms had become codes. "Barrier," for example,
meant that a small diagonal curb had been made of rocks to direct water off the
trail. It was usually a matter of stepping over the barrier. When there were
too many rocks to describe a simple step or two, it would be necessary to slow
down to give the follower time to pick a way through. I found myself consumed
with an awareness of every loose rock and obstacle and tried to shape an image
of the trail with words. I banged my ice ax against rocks to create a sound to
mark their location and moved my pack to indicate where the blind person
following should step.
Much of the
guiding was done by movement of the pack. If it went up and down, that usually
meant a big step. If the motion of the pack went straight ahead, but was
rotated sideways, the signal was to walk around in the direction of the pack
rotation. In effect, a plumb line dropped from the center of the back of the
pack would scribe out a line on the trail. Whenever the going was easy the pace
increased; and when there was uncertainty, the pace would be slowed. Most of
the blind climbers following directly behind the guide could detect the
obstacles by sounds. We reached the meadow a little after . The white gas stoves were lit and
water pots put on for coffee and dinner.
I looked up from the cooking pot of dehydrated
chicken and rice to see Kirk running alone down the hill from a grove of small
pine trees where he had gone to relieve himself. Some of the climbers just lay
back and relaxed. Chuck's knee stump was already starting to blister and he needed
to bathe it. Fred helped by going over to the stream for fresh water and then
to the stoves to heat the water for Chuck guided by the sounds of the stream,
the meadow and the stoves. From time to time Chuck could be heard to say "Over
here Fred.” Anybody walking by the camp would not be able to tell by the level
of activity that anyone was blind.
was cooking somebody suggested that tuna would be good in the salad. Doug said
he had tuna fish-- twelve small cans in his pack-- and mouths started to water.
Then Doug pulled out the missing cans of pudding. A few minutes later Justin
stepped on the box of eggs that he had carried up from the cars the daybefore. While
looking for the tuna fish he had taken the eggs out of his pack, set them on
the ground and forgotten them.
McDevitt had been blind since birth. Though originally apprehensive about
coming on the trip, he wanted to experience more of the world and to do something
challenging. He was raised in a family which traveled, he was fairly
cosmopolitan, well read and somewhat like an absent minded professor, setting
things down and forgetting them. Justin was constantly on the move and bumping
into or stepping on something. I couldn't get him to sit still and was constantly
on guard that he would not step on the stove or knock a meal over. Trying to get
him to stay in one place was impossible. I was already starting to wonder what
he would walk on when we were on a glacier and he was wearing crampon spikes on
The evening was cool and the clouds which had
formed during the day looked as if they would dissipate. Fitz, Kirk and Sheila
also decided to sleep in the open.
Sheila and Kirk Photo: Roy Fitzgerald
A few shooting stars and a satellite ended