Getting High 2/13/2008 8:58:59 AM All my life I have enjoyed the beauty of the mountains. When I was younger, I sought solace and reflective 'breathing space' high up on the Sierra summits of my native California from the brutal madness of common experience. Later, as a world traveler, I discovered the classic charm of the European Alps and the incomparable majesty of the Himalayas. Mountaineering is today a somewhat archaic term that embraces all who appreciate being high up in the mountains, although the modern tendency among climbers is to specialise in rock, ice, or high altitude ascents. The substantial character and enduring dignity of the mountains has long captured the imagination of people all over the globe, but especially in the Far East (as evidenced in many poems found in classical Chinese or Japanese history). Most usually, one either loves the mountains or completely disregards them and it is difficult to explain to someone not naturally drawn by them exactly what it is about them that attracts people like me to their heights. Contrary to Sir Edmund Hillary's somewhat iconoclastic declamation after finally summiting Everest ("Well, we knocked the bastard off..."), the point for me has never been about 'conquering' nature, but about appreciation of these natural wonders of geographic splendor. To be among them is to more fully appreciate holw important it is to regard ourselves are custodians of their timeless beauty and ageless appeal.
Caution: Climbing Mountains May be Hazardous to your Health!
The climbing rescue drama enacted last year on Oregon’s Mount Hood’s 11,240 foot summit gave me much pause for thought, as a mountaineer of many years’ standing. Although I don’t have as many opportunities to climb now as I had in former decades, I still consider myself a climber in terms of the spirit and soul of the sport. Once you have climbed mountains, it remains a very important part of your spiritual identity; in fact, when I was in my 20s climbing served as a very much needed karma cleansing process. Correspondingly, for those who have never stood on the summit of a magnificent mountain and viewed the indescribable beauty of nature spread out below, it is very, very difficult to explain the experience, and what exactly inspires the urge to climb.
For me, climbing as a sport began many years ago in Berkeley (California), after I returned from my Air Force service. The year was 1969 and as I settled back into the East SF Bay scene, I began to participate in the various activities of clubs and student associations on the UC Berkeley campus. One of these was the ‘Cal Hiking Club’, a rag-tag group of irregular outdoor tyros who enjoyed a full range of mountain adventuring. Totally unlike the long established, well ordered, highly organized, and precisely structured climbing groups of other areas (like Oregon’s Mazamas, which was actually founded by a group of climbers on the summit of Mt. Hood), the ‘Cal Hiking Club’ was more like Monty Python’s University of Woolloomooloo’s ‘reading of the faculty rules’ (Rule #1: Everyone is named ‘Bruce’; Rule #2: No Poofters; Rule #3: There is no Rule #2; Rule #4: Everyone is named ‘Bruce’; etc.). Essentially, there were no rules about any aspect of the club’ activities and this suited everyone just fine in the politically correct, egalitarian atmosphere of “The People’s Republic of Berkeley”. If anything, even the most half-hearted Cal Hiking Club excursion had all the organizational logistics precision and coordinated flare of the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975 (…can you say ‘mass chaos and panic?’). The practical result of this philosophy was a sort of fatalistic anarchic approach to everything, but most especially to important stuff, such as safety, provisioning, equipment, and leadership.
Cal Hiking Club, despite its humble name, was far more than a mere ‘hiking’ club, since members occasionally waltzed off and disappeared for several weeks, only to later drop a few casual details about having bagged a seriously formidable summit like that of Denali (known to most as Mt. McKinley), or a first direct ascent of the ‘The Wall Variant’ in Yosemite; these serious feats were accomplished with as much frequency as ‘fun’ climbs of the campus’ 307 foot campanile (‘Sather Tower’, a landmark built near UC’s Sather Plaza that is modeled after Venice’s Campanile de San Marco), or the Undergrad Library.Every sort of intermediary activity in between those two extremes that could be imagined were also regularly undertaken by this motley assortment of colorful and highly eclectic souls. In short, the Cal Hiking Club was a sort of mountaineering synergism of the most outré elements of Cirque de Soleil and the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In its ranks were climbers, mountaineers, ski-mountaineers, hikers, backpackers, forest runners, boulderers (yes, even back then), classic alpinists, downhill skiers, cross country skiers, ski-jorrers, husky-mushers, Finnish biathlonists. Mountain walkers, peak baggers, former mountain troops, a WWII ‘Gebirgsjaeger’ or two, and probably a large number of devotees of some very strange and arcane mountain recreational activities whose descriptive names very likely haven’t even been thought up yet (glacier glissading in inflated surplus liferaft dingies comes to mind, as does playing trombones on the top of 14,000 foot peaks) . Since there were no formal rules relating to any of the club’s activities, situational circumstances could frequently arise that were often daunting and perplexing, to say the least. Fortunately, the annual fatality rate was negligible and the few leg amputations and cervical fractures that were incurred were soon forgotten, by the time Spring Break came about.
How well I recall one particular trip I ‘volunteered’ to lead, involving a week long late Autumn camping trek through the Mokelumne Wilderness area, near Carson pass (in the Sierra Nevadas). Since Cal Hiking Club leadership had a tradition of being as substantial as a melting snow bridge over a crevasse in most cases, we leaders were quite emphatically encouraged NOT to set hard and fast guidelines or stringent requisites on any aspect of the trips. As a result of this lassaiz-faire policy, one fellow who showed up at the trailhead (this was at the CarsonPass summit, in late October) was wearing a T-shirt and thin wind-breaker with his cotton Levis, and was shod in tennis shoes. In his hands he literally carried a 6 pound rectangular ‘Coleman’ sleeping bag of the sort commonly used on car-camping trips, along with a canvas string-bag full of stuff like crunchy granola, raisins, etc. That was it. No matter how hard I tried to suppress my astonishment, I just couldn’t quite remain nonchalant about this Berkeley undergrad space-cadet, since I had (justifiably) serious concerns for his safety under my ostensible wilderness tutelage. We were, after all, heading out on a 5 day wilderness trip with this altruistic ‘nature boy’ and he was my responsibility, whether he gave a brief thought for his own safety or not. I recall at the time reflecting that all those stories about John Muir’s periodic treks (such as: camping out on Mt. Shasta’s 14,162 foot summit in the open, etc.) out into the wilderness equipped only with his tattered overcoat and pockets full of bread crumbs had sown more seeds of potential existential disaster in succeeding generations than ‘old Jack’ Muir could have ever imagined!
Despite my admonishments and reservations, I couldn’t really keep this chucklehead from coming along, so come along he did. We hadn’t gone more than about 1 mile down the steep trail that leads to the MokelumneRiverCanyon when it began to snow. As a result, our beautiful, mild, sunny day had suddenly turned gray and cold, commonly the case in these high alpine areas of the Sierras. Sure enough, our wilderness minimalist started to get blue with the consequent sudden drop in temp. Before long he was showing classics signs of hypothermia, having trouble carrying on a coherent conversation, and periodically straying aimlessly off the trail into the brush. The 6 pound Coleman bag had somehow vanished in the sleety mush that the snow was turning into and there he was in his cotton T-shirt and jeans, looking forlornly wet and pitiful: the sort of sadly stupid look a cow with a full udder and no one around to milk it gives you.
At that point I called a huddle and we finally agreed on the urgent need for him to return to the trailhead before he collapsed. Since I was lucky to have with me an exceptionally sturdy fellow mountaineer (who had been climbing in some of the high Peruvian Andes not too long ago) who volunteered to take this trusting soul back up the steep switchback trail to the Carson Pass ski area, he was soon on his way and the rest of us gave silent thanks to whatever deities may be up there that we wouldn’t end up as evening news items on HIS account.
The rest of that trip was unmarred by further bizarre moments like that, fortunately, and it proved to be a lovely excursion through some of the most remote Sierra wild scenery in the whole range. Along the way we passed a number of long-abandoned ‘Gold Rush’ encampments and ghost towns, including one named ‘Summit City’ that was at the height of the California Gold Rush an almost exact approximation of ‘No Name City’ in the stage hit/movie “Paint Your Wagon”. In the cold, incredibly overgrown forest thickets of that canyon, it was all too easy to imagine what sort of deprivations and hardships the inhabitants of that place must have willingly endured for the exciting promise of that ever-elusive lucky strike. At several places along the trail, one could see the topped trees about 20 feet above us that had once been level with the surface of deep snows that fell in 1850s winters (they had been cut for firewood). Once we stumbled unknowingly into a long lost and forgotten burial ground, just off the trail, where a few upthrust and rotten boards with illegibly carved inscriptions were all that marked the graves of some of SummitCity’s sourdough prospectors. At such moments the absolute stillness of that desolate place was overpowering and very nearly palpable.
Fortunately, when we exited our trek a few days later at the Silver Lakes trail end, there were still 9 of us (the same number we had started with), but such moment-to-moment uncertainly about anything was the norm for most Cal Hiking Club adventures—typically a mix of the unbelievably bizarre and the exquisitely beautiful that all somehow survived, despite the prevailing organizational anarchy that typified a CHC trip.
There were many, many other similar outings, including several particularly memorable winter ascents of Mt. Shasta (14,162 feet) and a winter climb in the Mineral King Area a bit further south in the Sierras, when it was still in contention for a sort of planned Walt Disney wilderness ski-resort development (fortunately that wildly bad plan was eventually successfully nipped in the bud, but only after a long and broadly ranging environmental war staged and led by the Sierra Club). The highlight of that last trip was being caught in our mountain tents at about 10,000 feet in one of the worst howling snow-storms to sweep through that wilderness area in decades (recollection of which was spurred by the recent Mt. Hood incident).
Since we had reached the continental divide only shortly before the full fury of the storm broke, the strong wind blasts forced us to hastily erect our tents on the ridge, right in the middle of the wind-tunnel-like plateau that lay between two adjacent summits. With the gusts threatening to sweep us and our tents down a precipice on either side at any moment, the night fell and we suspected that perhaps our exposed position was not as expedient as it had earlier seemed. Later that evening. As the nylon tent fabric ferociously cracking loudly like gunfire in the wind around us, everyone bundled down into the down mountaineering bags we all had brought with us and pots of ‘Glop’ were cooked in our Bluet GAZ butane burning stoves. Butane, of course, is terrible for use in very cold settings, since it must be warmed before it can be burned effectively (this was before they wisely combined butane and propane to address that problem). [“Glop”, by the way, is a traditional ‘quick fix’ mountaineering one-pot meal that usually consists of about 85% Ramen Noodles. The basic rule of thumb for eats was ‘anything that can be made in a pot with simple boiling water’. Most of us guys were experts at boiling water, of course.] Afterwards, hot Wylers Lemonade laced with brandy was broken out and several of our members pulled out doobies that would have made Cheech and Chong monster joints look like toothpicks.
I recall thinking about the incapacitating effects of grass as they might relate to an emergency, such as having our tents blown down the mountain, and looked at these brave souls lighting up with a mix of absolute disbelief and stupefaction that must have been clearly evident on my face. To my way of thinking, getting stoned in the midst of a raging winter storm, high up on a remote mountain, was about as well-advised as chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels before taking a NASA Space Shuttle flight test mission! This gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘High Altitude Mountaineering’. Yes, as the Chinese are fond of saying, those were indeed ‘interesting’ times. Needless to say, whether I wanted to share the stupefying effects of the weed or not, due to the close confines of the crowded tent (we were using two 5 man alpine tents, checked out from the Cal Hiking Club storeroom) every one of us in there started getting stoned and soon no one cared if the tents blew away or not!
Looking back on THAT experience, it still jacks up my thoughts a bit, mindful as I am of all the possible dangers and threats that high altitude storms can cause climbers who are bivouacked. One of the results of that particular aspect of the night in reference was that no one bothered to go out at regular intervals to check the tent guy-lines and sweep the new snow off the tent. By an hour or so after , the roof of the tent was actually resting on top of us, due to the weight of all that freshly fallen heavenly dandruff.
By day break, however, the storm had passed over and we were left with a stunningly beautiful deep cobalt blue sky that gradually turned brilliant azure as the sun came up over the nearby ridge. It was cold as hell up there, with a crispness that is typical of the dry cold found at altitude, but the cumulative effect of that experience is one that can never to be forgotten, for all its breathtaking physical reality. Moments like that are hard to translate into meaningful terms for non-climbing sea-level huggers, as most climbers quickly learn, hence many don’t even try, of course. It’s really one of those ‘ya gotta be there’ type things.
Later that evening, what with the clear sky left upon departure of the storm, it was even more bitterly cold than before. Despite this, we had decided to remain perched on that ridge and a few of us attempted some ski-mountaineering on some of the less dangerous (always alert for avalanches) snow slopes nearby. Fortunately, the snow was fairly firm (due to the cold) and despite the avalanche-favoring angle of about 45 degrees, we estimated the danger of that hazard to be only moderate (when skied carefully and with full respect for the ever-present possibilities). That evening, it got so cold that most decided NOT to exit the tent to answer nature’s call, as one normally would. Naturally, this didn’t pose a problem for the ‘pointers’ among us (there were 6 guys along), but the ‘setters’ in the other tent (three women were with us) had a bit more trouble effecting this sort of maneuver.
One of the gals finally decided that the best way of taking care of business was to briefly open the tent’s “sphincter” entrance and stick her ass out long enough to carve a yellow track in the snow directly outside. This she did and finished up the action, to quickly draw her nether extremity back into the warmth of the enclosure. Imagine her disgust (and that of her tent mates) when upon rising in the AM, they found a nice little 1 to 2 inch layer of frozen yellow ice inside the large cooking pot they had prepared the previous night’s ‘glop’ in! One of them had opened up the tent ‘sphincter’ and placed the pot outside right after dinner, rather than cleaning it, a move that would normally allow an easy clean-up in the AM (by simply chipping out the leftover frozen debris). Little did the lady who had taken a quick whiz out that entrance suspect that she was voiding directly onto the remnants of the evening’s meal! Being women (despite being tough enough to climb mountains in winter with the best of us), there were several choruses of fastidious little “Yuk!” and “Akkk!” exclamations before they tackled the task of cleaning up the pot for the usual breakfast fare of quick-boil oats.
The Cal Hiking Club, despite all its eccentricities and notorious peculiarities did in fact provide many of us with some pretty substantial training in mountain craft, however. Between the kamikaze peak-baggers, the fanatical rock-climbers (who made Yosemite Valley’s fabled ‘Camp 4’ the stuff of legends, and the stolid winter mountaineering fans (Desolation Wilderness was one such favorite playground, with winter ascents of Pyramid Peak and such available), the amount of knowledge and learning shared amongst us enabled most of us to go on to do much harder things out in the world (in my case, a few alpine ascents in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, and rock climbing in the Middle East’s desert towers, located between Riyadh and Jeddah, although my Denali attempt fizzled out long before we had even left base).
When I first heard of the recent Mt.Hood situation, my reflexive initial reaction was ‘If these are experienced climbers, why hadn’t they bothered to check the long-range weather forecast that clearly had picked up what promised to be a very severe front, moving rapidly into the Pacific Northwest?’ My second reaction, upon learning that the climbers had planned a two-day ‘Alpine style’ climb (a quick ascent via the South Face, followed by an equally rapid descent via the North face) with that front moving in, was ‘just how wise were these guys, anyway?’
The answers to both these questions were partly answered when the search teams found the two snow caves the climbers had dug to hole-up in at the top of the North face, just below the summit. Lightly equipped and prepared only for a swift Alpine style ascent up and back, they appear to have not been fully prepared for the ferocity of that truly severe storm, when it hit them full force with snow blizzards and 100 mph winds. Any truly experienced climber would have first of all done a careful check of anticipated weather conditions before tackling any Oregon or Washington Cascades peak. Second on the logistics list would have been contingency supplies of extra food and additional severe cold weather gear, since winter climbing of any Cascades peak can get very nasty in a heartbeat. It is unclear as to whether they even had tents with them, since reports suggest that no gear was found other than a snow belay, ropes, ice axes, and ice anchors (although it is possible that the winds made it impossible to erect tents and forced them to seek the shelter of the snow caves, well after getting caught in the worst of it and just beyond the summit area). If they did indeed slip on the icy face and take a fall, after beginning a descent in what must have been absolutely appalling conditions, they probably fell with their packs on (and any tents they carried would have been in them). With over 8 feet of fresh snow having fallen by that time, since the storm first hit, both are probably buried beneath it further down the face and recovery of their remains may have to be postponed until the Spring thaw occurs (a common alternative in severe winter climbing accidents).
I well recall having participated in a search for some missing climbers on Mt.Shasta, back in the mid-70s. I had been on the mountain for a winter climb the day before, with three Cal Hiking Club buddies, and we had bivvied at the LakeHelen tarn (located at about the 9,800 foot level on the Avalanche Gulch Route) with absolutely clear, blue skies that day. Returning back down Sergeant’s Ridge, we spent the night at the Sierra Club’s Horse Creek cabin (before returning to the SF Bay Area. While we slept that night, a massive storm materialized out of nowhere and we awoke to find the mountain covered with three feet of fresh snow. Mindful of the fact that a huge volcanic massif like Mt.Hood or Mt.Shasta can create its own local weather patterns due to its bulk and independent of incoming fronts, this wasn’t too surprising. What did surprise us was the fact that we were rousted out of the sack by the local Forest Service rangers who asked us to join a search and rescue effort for several climbers who had also bivvied at the LakeHelen tarn on the mountain’s South Face.
The storm that had covered the peak with all that white stuff had come and gone overnight, leaving crystal clear blue skies and calm conditions again, but there at Lake Helen we found five 2-man tents completely buried under the snow. The climbers were somewhat inexperienced, so it would seem, and during the night their tents started to collapse under the accumulated snowfall (since no one had bothered to go out and periodically remove the build-up). Very early in the AM (about 0300 hours), the situation was so bad up there that they decided to evacuate their tents and come down the mountain. Unfortunately, several had left their mountain boots, ice axes, and crampons outside the tent’s entrance (major DUH!) and couldn’t find them under all that snow! Thus, clad only in stockinged feet (with all the extra socks on they could find, crammed into flimsy nylon climbing overboots) they attempted to descend the Avalanche Gulch Route towards the Bunny Flats area.Lucky for them they eventually did reach safety, but had left their tents and all their expensive gear behind, but several of them suffered severe frostbite due to the lack of boots! Just another day on the mountain, ho-hum! We returned to their camp site later, after the weather had cleared and brought much of their gear down, turning it in to the USPS rangers, thinking to reunite these tenderfeet with their costly equipment. For their part (we later learned), they had already gotten in their cars and returned to the Southern California area they hailed from (LA, I should have known!). Apparently after that scare, they were so turned off by their climbing ‘adventure’ that they didn’t want their gear returned!
All of these things recurrently flow through my mind whenever I hear of yet another climbing accident like the Mt.Hood fiasco. While I am not unsympathetic (it’s almost impossible to second-guess events when you face a pleasant trip suddenly gone nightmarish at altitude, no matter how experienced one is), I am also mindful of the fact that ANY serious winter mountaineering is potentially dangerous. If you insist on doing something like that, the absolute minimum requirements are 1) an excellent state of physical fitness; 2) full awareness of the risks likely to be encountered and what to do about them, should they happen; 3) more than basic competence in use of ice axe, climbing hardware, ropes, and navigational aides (exluding cellphones and GPS systems); and 4) completion of either a certified climbing course, or several years of progressively challenging mountaineering experience.
With all the unhealthy emphasis placed on currently voguish ‘extreme sports’ by media, and especially subsequent to the conversion of challenging Mt. Everest ascents into a near-Disney World experience by a number of private mountain guide outfits (Mountain Madness comes to mind), who will take ANYONE up that dangerous mountain for enough money (typically about $10,000 to $25,000 per shot), far too many of the public today think nothing of ski-boarding out of bounds at ski resorts (most often in avalanche-prone, ungroomed areas) or tackling a serious mountain without much forethought. Even somewhat experienced people are sometimes caught with their pants down, so to speak, given the casual attitudes that are commonplace among many who undertake these things.
The bottom line, concerning the Mt. Hood event or any ‘serious’ mountaineering undertaking, is that there are many ‘old mountaineers’ and many ‘bold mountaineers’, but damn few ‘old, bold mountaineers’ (to borrow a metaphor from the aviation world). Sooner or later even the best disappear forever in the mists of some extreme mountain range with disturbing frequency. Of course, the real tragedy is not the loss of the climbers themselves, but the horrible melodrama that the media subjects us all to on the evening news, in which countless dumb shits get themselves interviewed (sobbing statements by ‘surviving relatives’ and erstwhile ‘climbing authority’ commentaries are both wretchedly maudlin and nauseatingly irrelevant in terms of having anything to do with the salient aspects of the climbing accident itself, in my experience).
Ah well! The objective of true mountaineering, like the objective of all space flights to the moon, is to safely accomplish the goal and then successfully RETURN intact and alive. Anything else is simply unacceptable. Certainly shit can and occasionally does happen, although any reasonably prudent individual should always try to minimize that possibility by applying a few brain cells to the task at hand before attempting it. That’s what the phrase ‘calculated risk’ is all about...
I’ll leave you with this example of applied creative mountaineering skills. A number of years ago a certain arctic climber was forced by the severe cold to dig a survival cave to seek shelter in, on the side of an Artic range mountain he was in the region checking out for new ascents. After getting in it, he sealed the cave’s entrance up, leaving an air hole that he periodically kept clear. Snow fell in considerable quantities that night and when he awoke in the morning, he found he was frozen in and couldn’t break through the entrance snow barrier he had erected (which had frozen solid). Having absent-mindedly left most of his ice tools in his pack outside, he resorted to the only thing he could think of. Taking a healthy shit, he quickly formed the still warm stuff into a pointed pick-like object and left it to freeze solid for a few hours. Later in the day, using this shit-pick as a chisel, he was able to pierce the entrance block and emerged into the Arctic sun feeling very, very lucky indeed! Admittedly, the story may well be apocryphal, but you get the ‘point’, I’m sure…