JUNE 26: TRAINING, DAY 5 INDEPENDENCE PASS
The ridges above the 12,095 foot pass
blocked the morning sun and there was a chill in the camping area. Doug crawled
out of his sleeping bag and put on his boots, stretched looking nowhere in
particular, and called out, "Phil."
When I answered he walked to me and
said quietly, "When we're through with this trip remind me to say
something about last night." He was finding the physical effort demanding
and was having doubts about his ability to make the climb; as he learned more about
climbing techniques and requirements he started to understand the nature of the
risk he was taking. The Rainier tragedy was bothering him. He had
decided he would not climb the mountain but would continue practicing and not
say anything until the last minute.
The sleeping bags were draped on the
wild blueberry and mountain laurel bushes to let the dew dry off while a
breakfast of French toast, pancakes, coffee and hot chocolate was consumed. The
film crew had spent the night in Aspen and arrived in time for pancakes.
They brought a newspaper with an article by Tim Egan, a PI (Post Intelligencer)
and NY Times reporter from Seattle, who had spent the first day at Buckskin Pass and had already returned to Seattle. The team enjoyed its first taste of
The Pass is well above timberline and
there were no trees or bushes. A carpet of grasses, moss, and a myriad of
yellow, white, blue and red alpine flowers made traveling easy. At one point
the film crew had run ahead over a knoll and was expecting the Pelion team to
come over the knoll in single file. I used the moment to have a little fun and
to encourage a harder level of exertion. Pulling the team together I suggested
they spread out and we all charge broadside at the same time. Everybody liked the idea and we crawled to
the edge of the knoll. At an agreed upon signal everybody jumped up and charged
onto the camera crew, running unguided like a bunch of wild Indians whooping
and hollering. They ran as hard as they could across the open, flower-covered
meadow with nothing to bump into but a camera crew.
with packs on near 13,000 feet had everyone's hearts and lungs pumping hard. They
stopped to catch their breath. Some sat down and said they couldn’t move
anymore; others flopped on the ground with their arms spread out.
resting we regrouped and roped up in teams of five to practice team travel and
to hike to the top of the ridge. I told them I wanted them to travel for two
hours without stopping.
were developing more rapidly than they had all week, and in the distance the
bottoms of the clouds were turning black. The teams moved uphill in a long
single file. Nearly everybody was moving with a much steadier pace than two
days before. They stomped a foot down with each resting step and exhaled
forcefully with each breath.
still appeared unfocused in his walking and seemed to amble along without the
rhythm of the rest step and without the resting, momentary relaxing pause of
the forward leg. Judy appeared weak and hung on the rope, letting the person in
We met two
elderly ladies who were coming down the hill. As they passed, one of the ladies
asked, "What are you doing here with those black clouds up there?" I
had been watching the clouds and assured them we would turn around if conditions
got worse. One resident from Aspen who was
along for the day said there was seldom lightning in the Spring, but in the
Fall the storms could be quite severe. Thirty minutes later the first team had
reached a flat spot on the ridge and was starting down the backside, the second
team was traveling across the flat and a third team was still climbing up. Rick
Ridgeway and I saw the same jagged yellow line arc from a black cloud to the
ground two ridges to the west. Lightning!
So much for local lore on the weather. We were witnessing the one thing
we could not control with training, equipment and experience—the weather. Would
the weather be a factor on Rainier?
on a mountain is a decisive display of raw energy. Lightning striking a peak
can travel down the slopes like water down a river bed. Climbers caught in
thunderstorms sometimes died in petrified position like they were turned to
stone. Others get knocked down the side of the mountain burned and paralyzed. One
acquaintance a number of years before lived after being caught in a storm. His
partner was killed. The climber who survived managed to drag himself burned,
and half paralyzed, for nine miles in three days before a search party found
In a non-fatal
incident a number of years before, on a glacier in Alaska I stepped
out of the tent several of us were in and found the horizon a blank grey. Visibility was about fifty feet. The buttons on my rain coat started buzzing
and water droplets danced on their metal surface. We were in the middle of an electrical cloud
and remained there for the day. We moved
all metal climbing equipments away from the tent. Amusing but disconcerting was
the experience of unzipping my fly and having electrical discharges jump across
the zipper. The electrical charge
eventually dissipated in three deafening bolts onto an iron and nickel rock
outcrop, called a Nunatak, a hundred yards away and a hundred feet higher.
experiences vividly in mind I called a retreat of the Pelion team and headed them on a run back down the ridge
toward the cars. The blind were told where the obstacles were and where the
edge of the ridge was in a constant staccato of instructions. They ran from a
crouched position. They extended a leg, planted the foot firmly, and then moved
forward keeping the leg bent. This prevented them from twisting an ankle and
kept their center of gravity as low as possible. The pace left little room for
error in instructions and no room for complaints about the need for a rest. We
traveled at a near running pace for thirty-five minutes, stretching the time
they had been marching without stopping to more than two hours. It was evident
that the blind members could move in a strong coordinated team effort under
reached the cars, the first drops of rain fell. The ropes were coiled and the
cars repacked. Ridgeway had turned his sleeping pad into a huge sign, "RAINIER
OR BUST,” and taped it to Big Blue for the trip back to Aspen. We were
through with this phase of training and with the exception of Judy everybody
looked like they were ready for Rainier.
frailty from her "brittle" diabetes could not be ignored. While she seemed
to barely hold her own going up, she was now visibly straining. On the descent
I had to support her nearly all the way down. When we reached the cars Fitz
drew a blood sample to make a blood sugar measurement. Expecting to find it low,
he was surprised to find it elevated.
members had already expressed concern about Judy's lack of strength and were
afraid she would hurt their chances for the summit. I had made allusion to the
fact that I would not jeopardize a person's health or the safety of the team. I
felt the time to make decisions about the summit team would be just before the
summit climb. My hope was that events could be shaped enough to allow the hard
decisions to evolve naturally.
to the St. Moritz and
everybody set about repacking and getting ready for the trip to Denver the next
morning. I received a call from Dianne. She had talked to Jim. Rainier was in
beautiful shape, and the Ingraham looked safe. The search for the eleven
climbers caught in the ice fall five days earlier had been called off. They were buried too deep to be found.
of the five days of training were evident.
Everybody felt confident. They
felt they had accomplished something and were eager to get on with the climb. Strengths and weaknesses had been
identified. Pelion had been forged into
a team. And we had the go-ahead to climb Rainier.