Chapter 5
JUNE 25: TRAINING, DAY 4 THE GROTTO

The moon rose about two o'clock into a clear sky. Even though it was only a partial moon, it was so bright it woke Fitz up. He watched a shooting star and went back to sleep. The morning sky was bright by 5:30. I put the coffee pot on the stove at 6:00 and started shaking tents. A long day was planned and I wanted to get packed and on the trail as soon as possible. The objectives for the day were to hike out to the cars, drive to Aspen, buy food, put in an afternoon of rock climbing, and then drive to Independence Pass.

The broken eggs were used to make French toast a la Justin. While we packed and ate, Fitz as team physician (or doc) made rounds tending to sore muscles, headaches from the altitude, infected throats, diarrhea and blisters. As a psychiatrist he diagnosed that some of the complications were nervous reactions.

The trail switched back and forth down the shoulder of a ridge for two miles and emerged above Crater Lake. Travel down the steep trail seemed easy and there was little stumbling and tripping. An efficient working relationship was developing between the sighted and the blind. Describing the obstacles was less of a conscious effort. My mind was filling a little with pride in the team.Could anybody really believe what was happening?

Crater Lake is a popular day trip for hikers, and the closer the team got to the end of the trail the more hikers we encountered. Some carried picnic baskets, some had noisy radios. There were a number of young couples strolling up the trail hand-in-hand; there were parents with children on their backs.

The reactions of the hikers were mixed as they met the Pelion team coming down on the trail the narrow rock and boulder strewn trail. At first some stared defiantly as they hiked closer, as if to say, "I'll take the middle of the trail...you step aside." As the distance shortened, their awareness of something unusual set in. When they realized that the second and third person, carrying huge packs, were blind, they stepped aside. Some looked shocked and just stared, some said hello, and others were more euphoric and shared a sense of joy in the accomplishment they witnessed. They all just stood and watched each blind climber hike down the trail until he or she disappeared, only to be surprised when they turned to continue up the hill and encountered the next group from Pelion.

What must they have thought when Fred went by? Fred traveled the greater part of the trails unaided. Usually he followed a few steps behind someone else and sensed the terrain by the sounds and echoes of boots on rocks. He has a method of walking which works well on trails. He stands erect and his center of gravity seems low. He moves forward from the hips so he isn't thrown off balance when his foot hits a rock or log. He only moves forward when his leading foot is secure.

Somebody called Fred's gait the "blind man shuffle." Judy said that when she went blind she was taught not to use the "shuffle" because it would identify her as blind. Judy's method of walking was different from Fred's. She walked more like most sighted people leading from the shoulders with her center of gravity of the body above the hips.This is an unstable posture when walking over rough and uncertain terrain.

A large number of people encountered on the trail seemed embarrassed or frightened. It looked as if they were afraid they might catch something. Others looked confused as if they were supposed to do something, or help, and didn't know how. Some seemed to find a knot of compassion and emotion inside and didn't know what to do with their feelings. Some cried.

From time to time Judy would ask Rich.

"How much further?"

"Do we have far to go?"

"When can we stop?"

The questions asked by everybody, often reflecting fatigue, were handled by different members in different ways.

"Just a little further."

"We'll be there when we're there."

"I think it's just around the corner."

"I see the lake, it can't be too far."

Rich kept telling Judy, "Four hundred yards." and a little later, "Four hundred yards."

The answer was always, "Four hundred yards."

The question of how the blind deal with a sense of distance in order to budget their remaining energy is an interesting and important one especially in climbing. A sighted climber can look up a slope and judge its steepness and slow down and go into low gear physically. A blind climber has to be in good condition and has to budget their energy output.Their guide has to be sensitive to their strength and be able to judge the effect of pace on energy requirements.

At trail's end the camera crew staged a couple of scenes with the first team down. A local television station and reporters filmed the climbers coming out of the woods and sauntering the last quarter mile through the meadow above Crater Lake, the imposing peaks of the Maroon Bells in the background. Some climbers arrived at the parking lot and collapsed to the ground in order to slide out from under their packs. Others stood there and smiled a sense of accomplishment as they took a drink of water and were helped out from under their packs.

The packs were lashed, two deep, on top of Big Blue. With yells of bravado and the aroma of sweat and sun cream, we headed for Aspen to pick up some extra supplies and make some adjustments in schedule. Chuck found that the strain of hiking, climbing and unusual use of his prosthesis caused severe blistering on his stump. He was going to stay at the St. Moritz to rest his leg and call Pennsylvania to see how his wife was doing. She was expecting twins any day.

Rather than have a restful two days while we practiced rock climbing techniques and did higher altitude hiking, Chuck took on the task of getting extra gear shipped to Seattle and renting another car. We had picked up so much equipment we couldn't fit everybody into Big Blue and the car we had already rented.

Dianne Roberts decided it was best for her to leave for Seattle early. She had grown sensitive to the need for a day or two in Seattle. She would be able to check with Jim Whittaker about the weather conditions on Mt. Rainier, do some shopping, pull together some loose ends of equipment and improve on the brand of cheese and salami we had for lunch.

I had only met Dianne briefly before the evening in La Concina. During the past four days her keen sense of observation and insight into the moods and needs of people became more and more apparent. Her sense of observation had been sharpened by expedition climbing experiences with Jim on Everest and K2, the two highest mountains in the world. She provided a sympathetic and understanding ear to those growing weary from their heavy packs and long trails. I wondered from time to time how much chaos there might have been without her laughing smile which touched and helped everybody at one time or another.

Once, as Alec watched her hike down the trail, he signed a sigh and indicated how lovely he thought she was. I signaled back how big her husband was.

By noon we left Chuck and Dianne and headed out of town to spend the afternoon rock climbing. The director of the Aspen Climbing School volunteered his services. He led us to an area off the highway called ďThe Grotto" where we could practice rope techniques which would be useful in the event someone fell into a crevasse on Rainier. He hung ropes from the top of a four hundred-foot cliff. The movie crew wanted to film one of the Pelion team going up the rope using a mechanical device called a Jumar. A Jumar slides up the rope but not down. A three foot long piece of rope with a loop at one end is attached to the Jumar. The climber places one foot in the loop and stands on it. By sliding the Jumar up the climbing rope a foot and a half and then standing on the loop the climber has moved a foot and a half up the cliff. By using two Jumars it is possible to develop the equivalent of a portable ladder. Kirk was given instruction on how to use them. He placed a foot in each loop, raised his right foot and the right Jumar at the same time, and then stood up on his right foot. Then he raised his left foot and Jumar up to the right Jumar and stood on his left foot. By repeating the process he proceeded to climb up the rope secured to the top of the cliff for more than one hundred feet.

Kirk had lost his sight when he was six. His father was a high school sports coach and Kirk was raised to be active and independent. He enjoyed out-of-door activities and participated in the Ski-For-Light program administered by Bud Keith. Kirk had just finished his freshman year at Washington State College and was on summer leave. He moved around camp, ran down hills and climbed with the ease of a sighted person.

People driving to Independence Pass from Aspen could see Kirk suspended high above the highway on one rope and a camera man and camera hanging from another rope. They no doubt wondered about the daring of people who do such things. Could they comprehend a blind person's desire to climb? Or believe the person they saw was blind?

While Kirk was working with the film crew I set up two other ropes on some large boulders for the others to practice the use of Prussik (pronounced proo sick) loops to climb up a rope. The Prussik loop is a ten to twelve foot loop of quarter-inch rope which is tied around the climbing rope with the Prussik knot. The Prussik knot can be moved up a rope when there is no pressure on the knot, but grips the rope when weight is put on the loop and doesn't slide down. It would be useful in the same way as the Jumars in helping a person climb out of a crevasse. Prussik knots had been used for years before the mechanical devices like the Jumar were developed.It is the same knot that flag pole painters use to get to the top of a flag pole.

To use the Prussik knot the loops are passed inside the climbing rope around the climberís waist, the climber stands in the two of them, one for each foot. In an alternating fashion the climber stands on one loop and takes the weight off the other.He then slides the one without the weight on it as far up the climbing rope as possible and then shifts the weight to stand on the loop which has just been raised. The shifting of the weight secures the loop and frees the other Prussik knot so it can be raised. The two knots become a sliding ladder which can be used to climb up a cliff or out of a crevasse on a glacier.

Using Prussik knots is simple in principle but requires coordination. Each person took turns standing in the Prussik slings, hanging on the climbing rope, and spinning in a circle as they struggled with the knots. They had to climb up fifteen to twenty feet and then come down. In addition to the two loops that a person stands in, a third Prussik sling is used around the chest to hold the person upright. With three knots on the climbing rope each climber had to find the knot he was going to move, and then search with their hands as to where the knot would be moved. The knot on the loop that a person is standing on is jammed tight and cannot be moved which means that only the two knots that do not have pressure on them can be moved. Sometimes when tired a climber will have pressure on all three knots. They cannot move up or down the rope until they release pressure on a loop and un-jam the knot.

Prussik knots are not high technology but there are some considerations.We used quarter inch manila rope because it would not stretch. If the prussik loop is made of thin cord which stretches, it will seize and can only be released by cutting it off.

When descending with Prussik knots the process is reversed. The lowest knot is moved down and the weight then taken off the higher knot so it can be moved down.If on the way down the top knot is moved too far, it would jam on the lower knot, or if the bottom loop was moved too far down and the weight of the body lowered, the top knot would be out of reach.

Fred, Judy, Sheila, Doug, Bud and Justin couldn't see the knots they had tied, and manipulating them was like a complicated and exhausting puzzle. Adjustment to altitude was not complete, and the exertion of fighting the knots, raising and hanging on by one hand and balancing while spinning in the air was very tiring. Sometimes they would get stuck and hang there ten to fifteen minutes while they figured out how to un-jam a knot.


     Judy hanging in prussik loops

Apart from setting up the exercise and demonstrating how to tie and use the knots, and an occasional comment of encouragement, I let each person suffer through the problem. They, after all, had to climb every step on Rainier on their own and each had to be capable of getting out of a crevasse if necessary.Watching them gave me some idea how they might respond if they got stuck and stressed on the climb.

The afternoon passed. The ropes were taken down and coiled and we started back over the pinecone-covered granite slabs toward the cars to drive toward Independence Pass. To get to the cars we had to drop down a steep grade to reach the road which put us on the blind side of an extremely sharp curve. Cars and motorcycles zipped around the turn without much warning.I wanted to get to the bottom of the grade before Alec or Paul did, anticipating and trying to avoid their taking the blind across the highway. I wasn't sure they could sense a car coming around a turn or in which direction a blind person would move if they were in the middle of the highway when a car came. I was delayed helping somebody over a steep section and Alec got to the bottom. He immediately started to lead two of the blind across the road. I shouted down for them to wait until I got down to where they were.They shook off Alecís hand and refused to go with him.By the time I reached them Alec was fuming.He accused me of treating him like a second class citizen.He had come on the trip to demonstrate what the deaf could do and I was treating him like the rest of society did, not trusting him.I could sense his anger, and I also felt bad about the situation.I tried to explain that my first concern was safety and I still didnít know him well enough or his capabilities or the capabilities of the deaf in general.Until I did I would not put others into what I considered a risky situation.

Paul and Alec carried out their anger to a childish and more dangerous level but nevertheless expressive.They would lie down or sit in the middle of the highway and jump up pretending a car was coming and then dance around like it was a big joke.

Some of the problems of being deaf and working with the deaf were becoming apparent. Some other things were said and I sensed a frustration in communication which must be dealt with every day by the deaf. In a few short moments the plight of the deaf became apparent. While the blind are cut off from nature - from seeing the mountains, the trees, the rivers - the deaf are cut off from people. They are cut off from the whispering, background noises and discussions which go into making decisions and many of the processes of leadership and authority acceptance.A potential erosion was occurring in my ability to move the team rapidly if needed. I was getting tired, felt powerless, angered and a little sad because I knew other moments would occur because of the need to be able to make decisions and change plans rapidly as a mountain requires. Mountains are not static; they move, creak, hiss, rumble and give off many signals that we hear, sometimes with an inner ear. After twenty five years of climbing and guiding I knew that acknowledging and accepting the decision of the leader could mean the difference between life and death. The recent tragedy on Rainier only heightened my sense of concern.

Alec and Paul would probably feel like a yo-yo jerked in one direction and then another by some of the decisions that would be made as circumstances changed on the mountain. Every effort would have to be made to make sure that Chuck, Fitz, and Rich could interpret during group meetings. For the time being, I explained the situation to Fitz and asked him to intercede if necessary.I wasn't sure I would be able to communicate with Alec or Paul, who were starting to act out their frustrations, and I didn't want to drop them from the team.I did tell them both that if they wanted I would pay for their return flight home if they were not going to cooperate. Wounds were made that would not heal.

We headed for Independence Pass. Two miles west of the Pass there is a curve with a wide shoulder and space to park. A mountain stream cascades down from a valley to the north and passes under the highway through a culvert. The cars were parked alongside the stream.While still alongside the road, Fitz started a dinner of beef stroganoff, Judy made salad, and I scouted the trails on both sides of the river for flat ground where we could sleep and five minutes from the cars found a suitable area large enough for all the tents.

After dinner it was decided not to set up the tents. The cumulus clouds which had built up during the afternoon, although threatening, looked as if they would dissipate. For several it was the first time they had slept in the open with stars for a ceiling, and the only sound was from the river twenty feet away. Everybody was tired and full. Kirk later said he was asleep before he hit the ground.