Chapter 7

JUNE 27, 28 to Mt. RAINIER

Before leaving Aspen for Denver the Pelion team had breakfast at 10:00 with the Mayor of Aspen and members of the Chamber of Commerce at the Jerome Hotel. This was the first formal recognition of Pelion and a suggestion of its impact and its stimulating effect on others.

The drive back to Denver was different than the drive to Aspen. There were lively discussions, comparisons of what we had been doing for the past few days and what we would find on Rainier. The banter passed between the two vehicles using the Handi-Talkies on loan from Motorola. Bud Keith was dropped off in Alta to meet Olaf Pedersen, founder of the Ski For Life skiing programs for the blind. They would later rendezvous with us in Denver.

Friends of Judy in Denver, the Eklunds, barbecued steak for dinner and let us camp in their back yard for the night; Nan Eklund had breakfast going before most people were awake. I had the feeling everybody enjoyed a couple of well cooked meals without having to work them off by carrying a heavy pack all day. The immediate agenda was to get to the airport, fly to Los Angeles and then to Seattle.

The ticketing and bag check in at the airport was a major production. We had thirteen members of the climbing team and a four person camera crew. Each person had personal gear, a climbing pack and a bag full of general climbing equipment. Fred organized an eight man relay line and all the bags were moved from the curb from person to person to behind the ticketing counter in a matter of a few minutes. When we left several attendants were staring at a pile of over 120 packs and boxes anticipating having to move them to the plane. I tipped them $2.00 a bag and they seemed pleased.   Western Airlines was contributing the air transportation for the team to Colorado, from Colorado to Seattle and then home. The flight to Seattle was by way of Los Angeles. During the short stopover, Rick Ridgeway met Diane Baker an actress-turned-producer and owner of Artemis Productions, which was making the documentary, and dropped off the movie film taken over the past several days. She had already reviewed the film taken from the first day on the Snowmass-Maroon Bell Trail and thought it looked good.

The flight from Los Angeles to Seattle passed quickly. The sighted members of the party described the scenery and points of interest to the blind. Mt. Shasta and Mt. Whitney stood out on the clear day. Rick Ridgeway, who was a powerful and accomplished rock climber, pointed out Half Dome and other major climbs in Yosemite. Rick was a talented film maker, writer, lecturer and a strong, experienced mountaineer. He was one of the first Americans to stand on the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. He said he got his start in film making working with Clint Eastwood on the film, "The Eiger Sanction." His job had been to kick rocks off of a cliff for sound effects.

Since then he had traveled and made films in the Antarctic, the Himalayas, South America, and the United States and climbed the highest peak on each continent and written several books on his adventures.

The plane passed over Crater Lake in southern Oregon and Mt. Hood, east of Portland, where a number of people had been killed in an avalanche the week before. Further north we could see puffs of steam coming from the crater of Mt. St. Helens which had erupted a year before. I had flown over St. Helens the day before it erupted and was climbing north of Mt. Rainier when St. Helens blew 50 million tons of rock and ash into the air. Now the crater opened to the northeast onto hundreds of square miles of forest which had been obliterated and lay in a mat of brown and grey. The fan-shaped pattern of waste stretched toward Mt. Rainier.  The symmetrical dome of the Mt. Adams volcano was to the east.  The Olympic Mountains on the west and the Cascades to the east were dwarfed by the massiveness of Rainier. Dave Nickelson, a friend who would be helping us on Rainier, and a team of four skiers had been near 9,000 feet on Rainier when St Helens, forty miles away erupted.  What they witnessed was incomprehensible. Within moments they saw the ash cloud spreading toward them. At 9,000 feet there is nothing to block the view between the peaks. They saw the ridges of the lesser mountains between the two volcanic giants disappearing as the black cloud expanded. Recovering from their moment of shock, they turned their skis downward and hurried to get to their cars five miles down the slopes before the cloud got them.

They were professional skiers and spared few tricks to make the descent. The first mile and half dropped away rapidly as they descended at speeds in excess of fifty miles an hour. The air started filling with a fine nearly invisible grey powder. They raced on, nearly choking in the advancing cloud of ash. The surface of the snow turned a light grey and their skis started grabbing at the pumice film that was accumulating. Within moments the descent halted as the smooth surface of snow turned into a crusty sheet of sandpaper. They released their bindings, covered their mouths with handkerchiefs to filter out the ash as they tried to breathe and ran, then walked as fast as they could down the last mile to their cars and escaped.

When we landed at SEA-TAC airport the other passengers left and Jim Whittaker and Dianne Roberts came aboard and welcomed us to Seattle. Jim told us that the press was outside in the lobby and that we would spend time with them while we waited for luggage.

The reception area was jammed with reporters, photographers, TV cameras, floodlights, spectators, family members and friends. Richard Rose's wife and son, Paul Stefurak's wife, Sheila's mother and other supporters were in the crowd. Richard's mother-in-law had knitted wool hats for each team member and brought fresh strawberries and cherries.

I met my brother to pick up two flags to carry to the summit: an American flag which had flown over the capitol and a United Nations flag recognizing the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). He also had a box of 500 granola bars, a hundred packages of breakfast squares and a dozen boxes of Bisquick from General Mills.

Several vehicles and a small bus were used to carry the large pile of equipment and people to Mt. Rainier National Park. While the assortment of 120 packs, suitcases and boxes was being loaded, everybody ate fresh strawberries and cherries.

Sea-Tac airport is ninety miles from the west side entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. The closer we traveled to the mountain the bigger it appeared, until it loomed over the landscape and completely dominated the skyline. We reached the park entrance around seven o'clock. The small caravan stopped at the Longmire Hiker's Center ten miles in from the entrance to stretch, breathe fresh mountain air and to explore the mountain.

 In the Hiker's Center there was a large relief' model of the mountain. The film crew set up lights and cameras. As it will happen, out of the 120 bags we had, only one was misplaced...the one with the keys to the camera box. While Bob Carmichael, the cameraman, located a bolt cutter to remove the lock, the rest of us took off in different directions. Some of the team listened to a lecture on beavers.  Judy, Bud, Rich and I took a walk along the Longmire woodland nature trail. Judy and Bud had never experienced a large skunk cabbage, or a forest with a wall-to-wall, two-inch-thick carpet of moss; or hemlock trees five feet in diameter; or trillium and a variety of delicate ferns; or the armor of needles on Devil's Club which grow in the twilight of the forest. Each of these was found by gentle touching, sometimes on hands and knees. The final step from the Paradise woodland trail onto the asphalt led back to the reality of the Rainier model.

The model of the mountain was eight feet square and stands nearly two feet high with a summit crater about three inches in diameter. It highlights the major ridges, glacier, cliffs, and surrounding peaks. While we had braille maps with raised outlines of peaks and trails the large model was several of the blind this was their first encounter with the shape of a mountain. Fred thought a volcanic mountain would be a smooth cone and was surprised by the rugged, irregular contours and the twisted cascading shape of the glaciers.

     Model of Mt. Rainier Photo: Ridgeway-Film

Mt. Rainier National Park was established in 1899. It has an area of 378 square miles and has the largest glacier system in the continental United States with 25 glaciers and 35 square miles of ice. Rainier is the highest of five volcanic peaks in the state of Washington. Because of its 14,410-foot height it disturbs the flow of moist air coming from the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a great deal of snow and a variety of cloud formations. High winds moving over the mountain form a cloud which hovers over the summit like a cap. Sometimes high winds cause a line of saucer-shaped lenticular clouds to trail out behind the mountain for a hundred miles.

The blind explored the model with their fingers and were shown the route they would climb. For forty-five minutes they ran their fingers over the mountain, the glaciers, rivers and foothills. At times there were ten hands on the summit. 

"Where is the route?"

"What is this steep section?"

 "Is this a glacier?"

"Where am I now?"

 "How far is it from here," (pointing with one finger)

 "To here?" (indicating with the other hand.)

They would get lost and disoriented and wanted to know where they were. Sheila put a finger on the depression of the crater asking, "What's this?"

Jim answered, "The summit, you're on top."

She responded, "Gee, and I'm not even tired."

Now they were starting to understand why I had chosen Rainier. It offered long expanses of unobstructed travel, had a minimum of rock fall and was the biggest thing in the country that could be done safely. I could already imagine the warmth of sun and coolness of the glacier, and smell the mingled aromas of sweat and sun cream after hours of continuous uphill climbing.

Outside, the sun was setting on the mountain summit nearly 11,000 feet above. The caravan continued on to Paradise Lodge, another thirteen miles up the road. Half way to Paradise we crossed a bridge over the roaring milky-white and brown Nisqually River. When I first climbed Rainier thirty years before, the leading edge of the Nisqually Glacier came within a half mile of the bridge. As the glacier has melted over the years it has shrunk and retreated up the mountain out of sight behind a bend in the dirt cliffs, leaving a boulder-strewn river bed. The cliffs lining the river are composed of boulders of every size from golf balls to some larger than cars, held together with compacted silica flour ground from the basalt bedrock as the glacier advanced. The river turns white as it erodes away the grey matrix holding the rocks. The rocks released from the binding material roll loose and crash into the river, leaving pock marks in the wall which in turn crumble into a dusty cloud. As we drove over the bridge a hundred feet above, the thumping of large rocks rolling in the stream bed could be heard through the roar of the water.

The road climbs at a steep angle along the forested side of the lesser mountain range. A low rock wall serves as the barrier between the road and a thousand foot abyss. A mile up the road from the bridge a huge brown-colored bear climbed over the retaining wall on the right, lumbered in front of the bus, climbed up the steep bank on the left and disappeared into the woods. The powerful animal seemed like an omen of strength and nature’s way of blessing our trip.

Paradise Lodge, built in 1917, is a giant log cabin. The lobby is dominated by pillars and rafters made with two and three-foot diameter logs. Large fire places at both ends are used as gathering places in the evening and a place to dry out on rainy days. Once at the lodge everyone settled into their rooms quickly.

Fitz and I visited a radio relay trailer in the parking lot on which the Motorola Corporation had installed a radio repeater tower to make sure that communications could be maintained with us during the climb. The trailer would also be the central communications and information center for the press and spectators.

It was cold and the bright stars outlined the Tatoosh range to the west and the mountain to the east. As Fitz and I hiked back to the lodge, I described the hassle I had had with the Federal Communications Commission in getting a license and authority to operate the repeater tower. It had taken over two months of paper work and phone calls. In effect we would be operating a radio station and I had to fill out an application for a license which included a description of the broadcast facility, the purpose of the station, the power of the station and the exact location of the tower in terms of latitude, longitude and altitude.

Fitz went to bed and I spent the better part of the night sorting out food and equipment. The second floor corridor in the lodge staff area became an assembly station. Each of the three meals a day for twenty to twenty-six people for the next six to seven days was set out in piles the length of the hall.

For each day there was a pile of Kool Aid packets; lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes for a salad; two large sausages, two or three blocks of cheese and Triscuits for lunch; dehydrated dinners; Bisquick, eggs, coffee and. hot chocolate mixes for breakfast. Pots, pans, stoves, white gas, lanterns, ropes and miscellaneous items were put in other piles. The food for each meal was packed in large bags and labeled-­ "Mon.Brk.", "Mon.Lnch.", "Mon.Din."...When there seemed to be some semblance of order I went to bed. The remaining details of organization could be handled in the morning before the major ceremonies.