It was a cool, crisp morning as the
team walked the quarter of a mile from the lodge down to the VisitorsCenter. The valleys were clear and the
distant skies were blue. Moisture-laden winds hitting the peak were forced
upward into the colder altitudes, causing condensation and the formation of a
cloud cover which obscured Rainier's summit. It was and a large crowd was gathering
outside the VisitorsCenter, lending a feeling of parade and pageantry.
The climbers lined up in a semi-circle in front of a brazier filled with hot
coals.Their packs were either on the
ground or on benches behind them.
I felt a sense of relief. I had been
frantically busy since six. Ice axes and other equipment that had been
originally lost in shipment to Aspen had to be borrowed from the Guide
Service, which did not open until . Arrangements had been made with the
Guide Service to conduct a glacier-training program the next day. I had to find
Harold Krentz to give him the flags for the ceremony. Arrangements had to be
made with ten to fifteen people to serve as porters to help carry equipment to
high camp. I had run back and forth among the breakfast tables in the
restaurant, the Guide Shack, the assembly area, and the lobby. At that point I
felt as if climbing the mountain was going to be the easy part.
Jerry Tayes of the National Park Service
introduced the team to the bystanders. Ralph Munro, Secretary of the Washington State Department of State
presented the team with a State flag to carry to the summit. Mr. Munro
introduced Harold Krentz, representing the White House, who presented the team
with the American and the U.N. flags.
Harold, blind since birth, expressed
his feelings about the challenge of Pelion by singing a number of verses from
songs he had written for the Broadway play, "Butterflies Are Free" which
was based on his life. (Later that evening he gave a small concert for the
people at Paradise Lodge.)
When Harold finished singing, Joe Washington,
a Lummi Indian Medicine Man was introduced. I had met Joe a couple of years
before while trying to develop an outdoor challenge program for teenagers on
the Lummi Indian Nation. When planning Pelion I had asked Joe if he could help
us by providing a Safe Journey Ceremony.
Joe was a big person physically and
spiritually. A fisherman by trade, his
skin was weathered by the many years on the salt water of Puget Sound and the San JuanStraits of northwestern Washington. Now in his seventies most of his
efforts were in trying to maintain both tribal and spiritual customs.When Indian spiritual leaders from other
Nations gathered, Joe was often asked to be their leader and open ceremonies.
Pressed up by a beaded head band
holding three eagle feathers, Joe Washington’s white hair looked like a
halo.He wore a red shirt and a long
buckskin vest with beaded shields on his chest and strings of beads around his
neck. His rawhide belt held pouches of herbs and “medicines”.
He greeted each of us and pressed a
circle of red "Sacred Earth" paint onto our cheekbones with his thumbs.He said it was important to leave the paint
there and not wash it off because it offered protection. As he explained to the
crowd the meaning of the paint, that the ceremony was “A call to the spirits”, he
placed grasses and other medicine into the brazier of coals. Fingers of smoke
rose and dissipated in the thin air while he handed me a medicine staff holding
four eagle feathers. The feathers were mounted using beads so that the feathers
could catch the wind and dance. The slightest breath of air, even that caused
by the draft of a moving hand would stir the feathers.He explained to me the ceremony I was to
perform when I placed the medicine staff on the summit.
Joe Washington blessing Doug Photo: Roy Fitzgerald
Joe picked up a hand drum with thin
brown animal skin stretched over a circular wooden frame, burnished from years
of ceremonial use. His hands brushed the drum generating a low rumble while he
chanted to the mountain and earth.Then
he put down the drum and only the wind could be heard.
Joe Washington Chanting Photo: Diane Roberts
Joe then sprinkled water on a rattle
of gourds and flower seed-pods and began to sing as he moved to each person. Magic
was in his song, or for those who don't believe, there were moments of
interesting circumstances. As Joe sang, the clouds over the summit dissipated. When
he stopped singing to sprinkle more water on the rattle, the clouds again
covered the mountain. When he renewed his chant the clouds parted again,
revealing a brilliant, snow-covered summit with a blue sky as background. Each time
Joe stopped singing the clouds tried to return.
When Joe Washington finally stopped,
there was a brilliant, clear blue sky and one small cloud shaped like a feather
sparkled the colors of the rainbow.
Eagle Feather Cloud Photo: Diane Roberts
Chills ran up some of the team's
spines, and Alec passed out face down on the ground in front of the brazier. Fitz
went over to help revive him. Joe gave each of the climbers some Indian
medicine to put onto the fire. The blind were guided to the brazier so they
would not be burned while making their offerings.Gayle Eversole, who had driven Joe from his
home on the Lummi reservation to Rainier, handed me a medicine pouch.Joe placed some of the medicines and sweet grass charred in another part
of the ceremony into the pouch to make a medicine bundle.I was instructed that when we reached the
summit, I was to offer some of the contents of the bundle to the four
directions, to the heavens, and to the earth.
Joe sang as everybody put their packs
put on. With eagle feathers in hand, with Jim Whittaker at my side, I led the
climbers out of the Visitors’ Center concourse to a trail heading up the
mountain. Photographers and TV cameramen ran ahead and walked backwards taking pictures,
or walked alongside taking pictures trampling delicate alpine flowers. A
quarter of a mile up the trail Jim stopped the group so they could fill their
water bottles, adjust boots and take off some of the warmer clothing in which they
had started the day.
While the group relaxed Jim and I ran
down to the Lodge for some food and miscellaneous items which had been left in
order to get the ceremony started on schedule. With the additional supplies, we
returned to meet the team which had grown in size to twenty. We were the eleven
disabled, myself, Fitz, Dianne Roberts, Jim, the four on the film crew and Dave
Nickolson, one of my high school climbing partners who was going to help with
glacier practice the next day.
Breathing deeply and using the rest
step, the train of pack-laden climbers slowly climbed up the trail. We started
uphill one step at a time which is the way you climb a mountain. The trail was steep,
the packs were heavy and legs were a little stiff. On each step I could feel
gravity trying to pull me backwards. Right foot... breathe. Left foot...breathe.
Non-stop. Right foot...breathe. Left foot...breathe.I commented to Doug, "It is impossible
to start slow enough." "Take it easy until your body warms up then
you can stretch out your step and increase your pace. Warm up first."
Each blind person hung onto the pack
of the sighted person in front. We traveled an hour before stopping to rest;
and then continued up another forty minutes to a point where we could climb
down onto the Nisqually glacier, three hundred feet below. The Nisqually is
still a large glacier but has only a fraction of its former mass. It used to
fill the whole valley three-quarters of a mile across and three hundred feet
higher. As the glacier melted over the
years its depth decreased and there was not enough glacial mass to push into
the valley. Now the lower end of the glacier is covered with dirt and boulders
and its crevasses are shallow and their edges rounded by the sun and rain. This
was the first time the team was on steep snow with packs, and we were going
downhill which is more difficult than going up. A slip could send a person to
the bottom. I remembered that this was the first slope I had ever been on with skis.
That was a long time ago. We had intended to ski on the glacier and had to get
down the slope. It was the steepest thing I could imagine. The fellow in front
of me slipped and disappeared over the rounded slope so steep it was not possible
to see where the slope connected with the bottom. A minute later he reappeared
sliding across the flat at the bottom, head first on his back. I could still
remember the numbing sensation from the adrenalin I had, not wanting to fall.
In order to maintain balance while
going down a slope it is necessary to bend the knees and crouch before
extending a foot down. Even without a pack it can be difficult. With a pack on,
the thigh muscles are tensed and tire rapidly because this is a leg movement
that is seldom used.The closest similar
action is walking down stairs two at a time slowly, without jumping. Movement
was now cautious as the blind crouched and searched for footing or stomped
steps into the hard surface, moving diagonally down the hill to the lateral
A moraine is a pile of rocks and dirt
carried down the mountain on the sides of the glacier. Rainier was formed through volcanic activity and much of the rock is
a dark reddish brown, relatively soft basalt that weathers easily. The tops of
the ridges and cliffs, left by the carving action of the glacier as it scoured
its valley under the pull of gravity, are covered with a loose blanket of
debris of weathered red boulders and dirt.Winter’s snows and frost action push the debris over the edge. More is washed
down by rain or melted free from the frozen grip of ice by the sun. On stormy
days thousands of rivulets and gullies carry a red slurry of volcanic debris
onto the glacier's edge. On sunny days, boulders melt loose, fall, and break
into smaller boulders and clouds of basalt dust as they smash on the piles of
rock and talus on the side of the glacier lining the base of the cliffs. As the
glacier grinds and carves into the rotten walls and bed rock, its edges are
covered with the debris cascading down. When the glacier stagnates, dies, or
retreats after several years of low snow fall and warm weather and the ice
melts, the rocks remain, forming a ridge parallel to the glacier. The rocks which
were pushed along by the bulldozer action of the front of the glacier form the
terminal moraine after the glacier melts. The lateral moraine is formed by the
rocks dropped on the edge of the glacier. Lateral moraines can serve as a form
of fingerprint which distinguishes the glacier's flow. In Alaska , where many glaciers flow together
like tributaries into a river, the lateral moraines slide together on the side
where the glaciers meet, forming a ribbon of rock in the middle of the combined
glacier. As more glaciers merge more ribbons form. A large glacier viewed from
the air can take on the pattern of a woven Indian blanket.
It took forty minutes for the team to
descend to a hundred foot wide flat area between the valley wall and the
moraine. There, amidst yodeling, the infamous Whittaker moose call, and shouts
of "What do I do now?" platforms were dug from the snow and tents
were set up. The blind team members could not be distinguished from the sighted
in the tasks. Tents were removed from packs. The fiberglass tent pole sections
were connected to make a fifteen foot rod which was fed through the guides
which ran over the surface of the hemisphere shaped dome tents. Paul and Alex helped
Sheila and Justine get started in inserting the rods through guides. Three sets of
poles were used on each tent. The ends of the flexible rods attached to clips
on the outer edge of the tent floor stretching the top of the dome taut. The
rounded shape of the tent provides resistance to strong winds and provides head
room for sitting.
Camp on the Morain of the Nisqualie Glacier Photo: Roy Fitzgerald
Once camp was established Jim led the
group up onto the snow covered moraine ridge to practice the rest step and
self-arrest, the techniques we had practiced at Buckskin Pass in Colorado. When Jim started to explain the
concepts he held his ice ax in the air and said, "OK, gang, here is how we
hold our ice ax." Dianne said, "Jim, they can't see you."
The snow slope was longer than the
one at Buckskin Pass and there was no drop-off at the
bottom. Here the climbers could push themselves off the top and slide down the
steep slope until they stopped. After a couple of trips down sitting and going feet first, Jim had them lie on
their backs and slide down head first and then try to stop their descent. The
seriousness of the training evaporated into a contest to see who could slide
the furthest out onto the flat at the bottom of the ridge. I think Fitz won
with Sheila a close second. Besides just sliding like a bunch of kids with new
sleds, they practiced stopping themselves with the ice ax in the self-arrest
position, by digging their toes into the snow and pushing their chests down
onto their ice axes to drive the pick into the snow.
An important part of the play
activity was to get used to getting into the self-arrest from any awkward
position they might be in should they fall. The self-arrest has to be a
coordinated reflex action. A climber falling on steep snow or ice can slide a
long way if he does not react immediately. As with every other task of the past
week strengths and weaknesses were observed. Two hours of daylight remained when we regrouped and set out for
some glacier experience. We organized teams of three people to a rope then walked
up the moraine to find an easy path onto the glacier.
Some ravens had been hopping around
on the snow where we were hiking and had left large tracks. Fred and several of
the others were able to gently feel the deep prints before they melted under
their touch. After a short hike of several hundred yards Pelion walked onto
glacial snow and ice for the first time.
We crossed a number of small crevasses near the
edge of the glacier. Glaciers are rivers of ice tumbling, crashing and flowing to
the valley below in frozen slow motion. They can advance five to six inches to several feet a year,
break into towers of ice and crack,
forming crevasses which later fuse together in a plastic flow as they move
around ridges or over rocks and cliffs of the mountain underneath.Crevasses can be hundreds of feet deep in
Crevasses can be a fraction of an inch
wide and fifty to two hundred feet deep. They can open during the day and close
at night. They can also be as wide as they are deep. Some are wide at the top with
sides that taper downward to form a V shape over a hundred feet deep. If the
bottom of the glacier is being forced up over a ridge the crevasse can be wide
at the bottom with only a thin crack or no sign at all on the top.The surface of the glacier can be a thin roof
over a crevasse. An unsuspecting climber can step through the fragile veil of
ice and fall into a widening chasm with no hope except his rope and an alert
partner. The walls of crevasses in less turbulent areas sometimes show the annual
layers of winter snow, each of which is covered by the dirt and dust of summer.
The top of the glacier we stepped
onto was still covered with winter's snow which was solidifying in a cycle called
nevation: melting during the day and
refreezing at night which changes the snow into a crust of larger
crystals.Footsteps on this surface
sound different as the snow changes and a person familiar with the environment
can almost subconsciously detect crevasses underneath.
In the morning the snow would be solid
and then soften in the afternoon sun. As we walked toward the center of the
glacier, a blind climber occasionally stepped into a small crevasse and fell in
up to his or her waist. Even sighted climbers occasionally stepped on a crusty
shell of snow and broke through to the crevasse below. It was apparent that
ropes and teamwork were necessary for safety.
From time to time the quiet mountain
air reverberated with the sounds of avalanches higher up or ice-bound rocks
melting loose from the cliffs on the other side of the glacier rattled, clattered
and boomed as they fell onto the boulder pile lining the side of the glacier. Most
of the glacier was covered with fresh snow from the storms of the past week. Islands
of dark clear ice rose up in places. This was centuries old ice that had been
reshaped many times in its journey from higher on the mountain to the quiet
flow it experienced now. Jim led the rope teams to one of the outcroppings for
a brief exploration of its structure before returning to camp. We planned to
practice more technical glacier techniques in the morning. Fred said, "I
thought glaciers were a smooth piece of ice, like a tilted, frozen pond. This
is lumpy, rolling, rough, and alive." These raised outcropping islands
were covered with rocks and dirt and the ice was so hard it was difficult to
chop a footstep in them with an ice ax. Rivulets of water ran down the nearly
impenetrable surface, filling some of the smaller crevasses.
Back in campJim crawled into his tent and lit the
stoves for coffee water and dinner. I mixed up a pot of dehydrated beef
stroganoff for twenty-one hungry people. Most of the team spread their sleeping
bags out inside their tents and rested until dinner was ready. Fred hiked to a
rock outcropping to fill canteens from a small rivulet of water formed by the
melting snow on the upper slopes. During the night the water would stop
As we ate, the sun dropped behind the
Tatoosh range to the west. The slopes around camp turned grey and an invisible
river of cold air flowed down the mountain and glacier and through our camp. High
above us the mountain glowed orange then pink under the last rays of sunlight.
The sun set and the mountain towered over us as a giant white ghost against a
darkening sky. One or two avalanches crunched into the darkness before the
dropping temperatures locked the ice into a suspended state for the night.
Several reporters hovered off to one
side while we ate. It was difficult to tell if they were waiting for food or a
story. When dinner was finished one of the reporters asked if we had any extra
hot water. They didn't have a stove. Reporters from all over the country were trying
to follow Pelion. Some, it seemed, had never been off the sands of Florida beaches and now wanted to stomp
around on glaciers at high altitude. Many of them had absolutely no idea of the
risk they were putting themselves in.
A number of the team members
commented as they crawled into their tents and sleeping bags that this was the
first time they had ever slept on snow. The tent floor was water proof. We used
thin closed cell foam rubber mats for insulation and a cushion from the cold,
hard snow. Once the tent opening was zipped tight the stream of cold air
outside rustled the sides of the tent gently and the inside became a warm
cocoon of down sleeping bags. From time to time someone called from one tent to
someone in another. Bud reached into his warehouse of jokes.
Perhaps it was the release of the
tension of the day but Bud had me paralyzed with uncontrollable laughter. A
voice from Jim's tent suggested that everybody go to sleep.
Every day thus far had been filled
with first-time experiences, but this day had been exceptional.