Chapter 9


Some time after two in the morning, Mother Nature decided to let us know she was still in charge and the clouds drifted in. We awoke on Tuesday to a heavy grey mist that promised to turn to rain. Visibility varied between a hundred feet and fifty feet depending on how the fog-like low cloud drifted turning our world into grey mist against a white slope of snow. At times the tents even twenty feet away faded into the grey blank landscape.

Sheila stuck her head out of her tent and sensed moisture. “Chuckles, what is the weather like?” 

Chuck answered ,”Foggy and wet.” 

“What should we wear?" She asked.

“Your cloud suit.”

I placed a flat rock to serve as a platform for the stove at the bottom of a hole stomped in the snow. The walls of the hole kept the wind from blowing out the flame. A large box of Bisquick was converted to pancakes and water was melted for coffee. Everybody put on their heavy parkas and rain slickers as they crawled out of their tents to stand in the mist and eat. After breakfast each climber tied a twenty-five foot length of one-inch wide webbing around his waist and thighs to form a swami seat. The swami takes the pressure off the climber's waist and ribs and makes it possible to sit comfortably without the strangling pressure of rope under the ribs if there is a fall. They strapped the metal-framed, spiked crampons onto their boots. Fingers grew numb from the cold, wet metal of the crampons and the buckles of the straps. It felt good to get gloves on after sitting in the snow wrestling with the crampons.

At 10:30 Lou Whittaker, Phil Erschler and Andy Politz from the Rainier Guide Service emerged from the mist like an aura of force. The Guides were going to provide their one-day training program gratis.  After the devastating avalanche the previous week enrollments for climbing dropped.  Pelion was a way of signaling that the mountain was safe and the guiding business door was still open.  

The guides knew the need for experience with the basics. Phil Erschler had climbed Rainier 250 times over the past eleven years with the Guide Service -- more than any other person. Lou, Jim’s twin brother, led us back to the moraine ridge. He was going to start with the basics: how to breathe and how to walk, the same as in Colorado and during the day before. It would still be three days before most of the team really understood the importance of breathing deeply and the rest step.

Lou started to instruct the group on how to hold the ice ax for the self-arrest.  He held it above his head in both hands and in a voice loud enough for an auditorium said, "Now here is how we hold the ice ax." Jim, standing to the side was quick to recall the events of the day before and commented, "Lou, they can't see you." A few minutes later, with another sight-oriented instruction like--"Now watch Andy as he..." Jim again reminded Lou that he was talking to blind people.  Lou checked with Jim to verify that the Pelion team knew the self-arrest, the rest step going up, and the plunge step going down the slope.  

Lou and his staff roped the Pelion team into groups of three.  Then he led them out onto the glacier, over the crevasses and to an outcropping of hard blue-ice.  One of the guides anchored one end of a rope at the top of a steep slope and dropped the other end to the bottom. Each climber walked around to the bottom and then, hanging onto the line, worked his or her way to the top. They all learned to walk with crampons strapped to their feet. They learned to walk a little like a penguin, with feet spread apart to avoid accidentally stepping on a boot or catching a spike on a pant leg. They learned how to stomp down hard with a flat-footed jarring thrust to dig all ten points into the ice which was almost as hard as concrete.  They had to practice bending their ankles in order to walk upright on a steep slope and still keep all the points of the crampons on the ice. They practiced carefully so they would not step on their own feet with the long spikes. As they practiced, the mist turned to rain.

Judy wasn't able to climb the steeper section. She lost her balance and didn't have the strength to hold herself with the rope. She fell twice and Lou grabbed her each time and then lowered her to the bottom.

Two teams of reporters got lost in the fog trying to find Pelion and wandered for several hours before spotting the climbers. From a distance Pelion looked like a group of Technicolor penguins. Team members wore red, green and blue down parkas and red rain suits. When they weren't involved in a specific task they stood with their arms straight down to their sides so water wouldn't get into their sleeves. When they did move they did so with the flat footed waddling motion.

The most interesting exercise of the afternoon was a Tyrolean traverse in which the climbers slid fifty feet across a rope stretched over a chasm. Lou and Phil Erschler attached both ends of the rope to bollards, which are pillars of snow or ice carved out of the hard glacier ice. To the inexperienced it looked about as secure as hanging from a Popsicle but was in fact rock solid. Everybody in turn was snapped onto the traverse line with a carabineer hooked to their swami belts and then tied onto a belay. While hanging onto the traverse line they got down on hands and knees, then pushed their feet over the lip and slid off the edge of the ice cliff and sat in their swami. When they let go of the line, they slid fifty feet across to the opposite side.

     Sliding Across Crevass on Zip Line Photo: Ridgeway-Film

To finish off the day of filming, the camera crew asked Rich Rose to climb the thirty-foot vertical face on the edge of the crevasse which the group had been traversing.  Rich was as enthusiastic as anybody could be on such a drizzly day. He wanted to do everything.

Rich had been recommended by the Epilepsy Foundation of America. He was a resident of Washington State and had recently won a major court case against a company which had discriminated against him because of his epilepsy. Now he wanted to climb the mountain as a statement about the capabilities of people with epilepsy.

Lou Whittaker belayed as Rich inched his way up the wall of ice and snow on his crampon toe-points and ice ax. At times he would go limp from the struggle, then find extra energy and fight on. It took twenty minutes before he climbed to the top and was over the edge. The camera crew asked him to look heroic and say, "I did it." Rich tried to look serious and quoted his line. He didn't sound convincing. The film crew had him try three more times. Finally Ridgeway said half-heartedly, "OK, that's good, let's go," and the camera crew stopped. Rich relaxed, a smile spread across his face which could be seen from across the chasm and he exclaimed, "Hey! I did it, I really did it." With the camera off he provided an Oscar-level performance.

     Rich Did It Photo: Ridgeway-Film

The rope teams headed for camp to repack and return to the lodge for dinner, a good night’s sleep and a chance to dry out. After the day of standing in the rain most of the leather boots were wet and cold.

Judy had lost her sight to diabetes nine years before. Not only was she blind but extremely ill in a medical sense. Usually she could control her blood sugar through discipline in diet and the use of insulin. There had been a number of questions about her insulin metabolism before training started. During the activities in Colorado Judy's blood sugar level was unstable and had varied up and down.  Her condition was a constant concern and her sugar levels were monitored several times each day.  While others on the trip seemed to get stronger with each day, Judy got weaker. She seemed to be building up, and then would collapse like a rag doll. She responded like a person with low blood sugar when hers was abnormally high. Judy and Fitz explored the significance of the variations in her sugar level and other physicians were called and consulted. There didn't seem to be any clear explanations. After the climb I was to find out that she had had hypothalamic ablation surgery in an attempt to save her sight years before and that her body could not develop the level of cortisone necessary to support the level of metabolism required in such a strenuous activity.

Some members of the party were afraid Judy would jeopardize their chances on Rainier and some frictions were developing. While my position as expedition leader was that every attempt would be made to get the whole team to the summit, and that until the summit climb started, nobody would be dropped, it was now time to make the decision.  It had become apparent to me in Colorado that Judy would not be able to make the summit, at least not under normal climbing conditions. My hope was that she would learn enough about the demands of the climb to realize the personal risk she would be taking as well as the risk to the rest of the team. A cold, wet day in the mountains has a way of getting people to think more clearly and to become receptive to difficult decisions.

When the team arrived at the Lodge I stopped Jerry Tayes, the Park Ranger working as a liaison with Pelion, to bring him up to date on the condition of the party as we had agreed when Pelion first arrived on the mountain. I explained my concern about Judy; that I would have to ask her to drop out. Jerry thought he might be able to help. He said that he was mildly diabetic and came from the town next to where Judy lived. The nearness of the town was used as the basis for introducing Judy to Jerry. The three of us talked about Jerry's diabetes and how demanding the mountain was. Judy sensed the direction of the conversation and tears started welling in her eyes. She asked me if I thought she should drop out. Even though I knew the question was coming it was still a shock. There was only one answer, "Yes."

It was a hard decision for Judy. She had been an initial stimulus and mainstay for Pelion. She had worked for a year and a half helping to bring Pelion to reality with the same tough determination that she put into earning her two graduate degrees and into her professional life. She was not one to give up easily. It was Judy who had made the initial contacts with Western Airlines which provided all the transportation for the team and General Mills, and had written letters to dozens of people seeking their support for the project. None of us would have been on the mountain without the effort she had put into the project.

I held her while she cried. We talked about her decision and the fact that she wasn't giving up on herself, the team, or diabetics in general. To do otherwise would be foolhardy. Judy and I walked over to Jim and Lou who were still standing in the lobby. She told them what she had decided.  When they put their arms around her and hugged her, she “disappeared”. Both Jim and Lou are 6'5" and she is only 5'3". They shared the burden of her decision and helped her know it was the right one -- and a courageous one. They knew as much as anyone in mountaineering the importance and difficulty of what she was doing.

Jim and I agreed to get Judy to Camp Muir, and possibly to high camp. She could relay messages on the Handi-Talkies and get coffee water going when the team returned.

Dinner in the lodge that night was a welcome contrast to sitting on the glacier over a single large pot perched on a rock in a hole in the snow. A number of tables were joined as the whole team sat together at one time. The waitress inadvertently revealed it was her birthday and was struck with embarrassment as seventeen customers spontaneously sang "Happy Birthday". During dinner Kirk's gregariousness and popularity became obvious. Kirk is young, energetic, handsome, and didn’t seem to need eye sight to sense the presence of pretty girls. As the waitress recovered, Kirk asked her if she had gone to high school in Snohomish. She had. They had gone to the same school and he had recognized her voice from the noisy hallway chatter of two years before.

As I paid the dinner bill for the team, I thought how nice it was to have the large check we had received from Philadelphia Life Insurance.  Their contribution provided the glue which held many of the project’s loose ends together.

Later in the evening I called a group meeting. We crowded into my room. Some of the team ritualistically spreading a wax-like snow seal on their boots for waterproofing.  Judy let the team know of her decision. For some there was a sense of relief and for others a sense of disappointment. 

During the meeting Doug observed that following each beef stroganoff meal the team had gotten wet. First, there was the sprinkler in the park in Aspen; next there was a thunderstorm on Independence Pass; and finally there was the rain on the Nisqually Glacier.

After the meeting I checked the food piles to see what we would be eating for the next four days. I took the beef stroganoff meal intended to be eaten the night before the summit attempt out of the packs and put it in the storeroom.

Why take a chance?