Chapter 6

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 public recognition.

 


     Independence Pass

 

The plan for the day was to climb to the top of a 13,000 foot ridge to the south of Independence Pass. The sky was blue and clear as the party set off from the Pass. Some cumuli were building to the west and east heralding the beginning of another daily cycle of cloud building. During the day the sun warms the air and the ground and melts the snow. The warmer air absorbs moisture from the ground and rises. As the warm, moist air rises to the higher altitudes it cools and clouds form. Because of the snow pack and cold ground from the winter and the strength of the spring sun, the cloud building process can be rapid and generate violent thunderstorms. We hiked half a mile before getting out of sight of our cars and away from the sounds of the occasional vehicle going over the pass.

 


     Filming above Independence Pass Photo: Roy Fitzgerald

 

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.

The run 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.

After 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.

The cumuli 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.

Justin 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 front pull.

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?

Lightning 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 him.

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.

With these 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 pressure.

As we 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.

Judy's 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.

Several 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.

We returned 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.

The effects 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.