Chapter 4

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 sleeping bag.

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 Buckskin Pass.  At the pass there were steep snow slopes where we could practice snow climbing techniques.

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 Buckskin Pass to the west.  We followed the trail heading toward Buckskin Pass. 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 pant legs.

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

Buckskin Pass 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.

Communicating 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 necessary.

Once they 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."

They 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 exhausting.

Charles “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 normal feet.

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.

In order 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.

This was 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 thinner air.

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."

Sheila, blind of course, responded quickly, "Hey, man; it is dark."

     Alex leading Fred and Sheila off Buckskin Pass Photo: Diane Roberts

Spirits 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.

The team 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 7:30. 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.

While dinner 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 day before. While looking for the tuna fish he had taken the eggs out of his pack, set them on the ground and forgotten them.  

Justin 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 his boots.

 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 the day

How do you describe a star to a blind person?