Chapter 8

JUNE 29 Mt. Rainier, Day 1 CEREMONIES

It was a cool, crisp morning as the team walked the quarter of a mile from the lodge down to the Visitors Center. 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 ten o'clock and a large crowd was gathering outside the Visitors Center, 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 9:00 AM. 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 Juan Straits 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 moraine.

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 places

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 camp Jim 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 flowing.

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.