Crazy Night in a Crevasse

This story was originally written as part of a climbing resume several years after the event to get credit for the Mountaineers, Mountaineering Orientated First Aid class (MOFA).  A MOFA postmortem is included at the end.

Rick and I decided to give Mt. Baker a go on the last weekend in September, 1990.  I had just purchased a brand new expedition tent, and wanted to test it out before the winter season hit.  The weather forecast was for clear skies and no precipitation.

We started up early Saturday and made it up to the “Hogsback” just before noon. This is an area just below Heliotrope Ridge where most climbers set up base camp for the Coleman/Deming routes. Our intention was to set up basecamp, lay around, eat and get to bed early.  We wanted to start off early Sunday morning, summit, and descend all the way down the mountain the same day.

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Rick on the hike in to base camp

I noticed as soon as we got to the base of the glacier that it was severely crevassed, and that the ice was bare right down to the hard blue glacier ice.  I knew the glacier would be opened up this late in the season but it looked menacing.  Route finding up the ridge looked pretty challenging, and very intense.

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Rick scanning the hard glacier ice and open crevasses

We went out and tested how our crampons would bite on the hard ice and found that we really had to kick them in to get a good purchase.  Our ice axes barely scratched the surface.  Good thing we had ice screws.

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Rick testing the ice

Self-arrest on ice that hard and steep is all but impossible.  I spent most of the afternoon scouting the whole ridge with binoculars looking for a line that could be put together.  I wanted to be sure I could navigate it in the dark so I spent a lot of time studying the glacier.

Rick chillin’ in front of the spanky new tent we didn’t get to sleep in. Note the Army surplus wool pants and wool shirt prior to synthetics taking over.

Another tent was set up nearby, and I figured that the owners were up climbing and should be back shortly if they had set out early.  I wanted to see how they descended through the crevasse field so I was constantly watching for them to break over the ridge about 1500 feet up.  I was beginning to worry a bit that they weren’t in sight yet, it doesn’t take all day to summit Baker, and the ice conditions were nasty.

A Canadian party of three climbers made it up to the basecamp area and set up their camp.  We chatted a little and discussed the fact that we hadn’t seen the climbers from the mystery tent all day and were joking about hating to do a rescue up the nasty looking slope in the dark.  The glacier looked funky enough that the Canadians weren’t sure if they were going to climb or not.

About 5:30 I was watching as three climbers popped into view over the high ridge.  They were just little dots in the distance.  I was watching them closely with the bino’s as they maneuvered through the shattered ice.  I told Rick that I thought they were moving pretty fast over ice that hard.

The entire rope team was moving at the same time and hopping from block to block, no belays of any kind with a lot of slack rope between climbers.  They looked like they were beat.  I laughed and said that it looks like they smell the barn and wanted to get through the nasty stuff before the sun set.

As I was watching everything suddenly seemed to go into slow motion.  The climber in the middle had slipped and was sliding down the mountain. I stopped breathing and every muscle in my body tensed as I watched him tumbling totally out of control.  I was willing him to self-arrest, but as he slid faster the rope came taut and jerked the third climber off his feet, followed by the leader and they all went sliding down the glacier.

My stomach felt like someone had taken a full swing at it with a baseball bat.  I couldn’t believe it was happening right before my eyes.  I was waiting for them to self-arrest even though I knew there was no way in hell that they could on that ice.  They slid for about 150 feet before they all disappeared from sight.  They had all fallen into a crevasse.

Rick yelled “shit, I can’t believe they fell, what are we going to do”?  I knew he wasn’t wild about going up the crevasse field to start with, let alone starting up just before dark.

I looked over at the Canadians and they were looking up at the slope also.  I told Rick that we would wait a few minutes and see if the climbers would reappear.  The Canadians came over and asked if we had seen the fall, they only knew that they had disappeared from sight.  I told them what happened and we started making plans.

We decided to wait ten minutes for someone to appear, if they didn’t show we would start up after them. It was pretty tense because it was fall and the sun was rapidly descending.

About then a climber popped up and started pacing back and forth along the edge of the crevasse like a wild animal.  I watched through the bino’s for him to signal or something.  He seemed very preoccupied and disappeared again.

Soon two climbers were visible and we started hoping that they were all OK.  The two climbers disappeared for awhile and we couldn’t tell what was happening up there.

I started dumping out my pack and collecting head lamps, clothing, foam pads, water, stove & pot, sleeping bags, first aid kit and food.  I put my harness on and got the rope and climbing gear ready to go.

It soon became obvious that something was seriously wrong.  The other two climbers hadn’t been seen for a few minutes and the third had not been seen at all.  Then the two appeared again and started waving their arms at us.  They both paced back and forth, stopping once in a while to talk and wave their arms again.

Then one of them started down the slope alone.  We waved back at him and tried to make him stay put.  He kept coming, staggering around crevasses and across ice bridges. He finally had to stop when he came to a huge crevasse about half way to us.

He dropped down on the ice and put his head in his hands.  He quickly jumped back up and started yelling but we couldn’t hear what he was saying. He then collapsed back on the ice.

We finalized our plans with the Canadians while all this was going on.  Rick and I were ready to go, so we would start up first and try to get to the upper group and help them.

Since this was before cell phones, one of the Canadians would get ready to run back down to the trailhead, several miles, drive out to a pay phone and call the sheriff for a rescue.

The other two Canadians would follow us up and help the fellow stranded in the middle of the slope back down to our camp.  The Canadians had some signal flares that we would fire to start the runner down the trail if we decided that a rescue team had to be called in to help the missing climber.

Rick and I started up, picking our way through the broken ice fall as fast as we could.  I was very concerned about making it all the way to the accident site before sunset.

I wasn’t even sure about being able to climb the slope at all, and now we were climbing with night coming on, up a route I would not have chosen if the climber hadn’t been stranded in the middle of the glacier.

I’m a strong hiker and I was charged with adrenaline, wanting to get up the slope as fast as possible.  I was soon tugging at Rick, he couldn’t move any faster and was very apprehensive about going on.

He reminded me several times that it would serve no purpose to add another body or two to the rescue effort. I knew he was right, but I still felt like I was in control and within our technical ability… so far.

We made it to the lip of the crevasse directly across from the climber in the middle (Steve).  He had gotten up as we got nearer and was again pacing back and forth in a nervous manner.

I yelled for him to sit down and wait for us to get to him.  He appeared confused and disoriented.  I could see blood on his face and he was holding his wrist.  I eventually got him to sit down and stay put.

The crevasse was about 30 feet across and about 80 feet deep, with steep overhanging sides.  The uphill lip of the crevasse was about 15 feet higher than the lower lip.  The only way across or around was a knife-edge bridge that ended about three feet short of the other side.  It started out about 3 feet wide and narrowed to a few inches.  It was at a diagonal angle to the slope and about 30 feet long.

Rick came up and took one look at the bridge and said that I shouldn’t even try it.  I tended to agree with him, but the guy on the other side was looking pretty crazed and I didn’t know what shape he was in.

It was getting darker and darker and I didn’t see any other possibility to get across. Rick got into a good stance and belayed me on a tight rope.  It was a very spooky walk across the sliver of ice.

I got close to where the bridge ended and tried to talk to the injured climber.  It was obvious that he was in a panic.  He wasn’t talking coherently, blood was crusted from his nose and his face had cuts all over it.  I tried to calm him down and I finally deciphered that the climber we hadn’t seen yet was in bad shape, wedged in the bottom of a crevasse with broken bones.

Steve turned out to be a very inexperienced climber and was feeling guilty about pulling the other two off. We took a few minutes to calm him down a bit and convince him that he needed to get down to basecamp and we needed to get up the glacier to help his friends.

I threw a loop of rope across to him and had him plant his axe pick as deep as he could, tie a knot, and clip it to the ice axe head.  He was very confused and I had to go over it several times.  He wasn’t sure how to tie the knot so I ended up pulling the rope back and tying the figure eight myself, and tossing it back.

His wrist was injured and he couldn’t seem to get a good swing with the other hand, so I had him chip a good stance into the ice with his axe to brace his feet and then plant the pick and lay on the axe in a self arrest position.  This gave me enough confidence to get a pick in across the gap and step/hop up onto the upper lip using the rope for balance.

By this time the two Canadians had arrived.  We fired the flare and the climber at base camp started off for the rescue call.  He had a long way to go and wouldn’t make it all the way out before dark.  Our signal flare meant that an evacuation with a litter was necessary, on a very nasty slope, with one climber in serious but unknown shape from a crevasse fall.

He was to tell the main rescue party that we had enough gear to keep the victim warm and enough first aid training to help anything but very severe injuries.  Rick and I both had quite a bit of first aid training and Rick works at a hospital.  We had no real idea what we would find at the bottom of the crevasse.

The two Canadians started setting up a Tyrolean traverse to help Steve across the huge crevasse.  We determined that he had a broken wrist, broken nose, facial cuts, bumps and bruises and at least a minor concussion.

Rick and I continued up, now thinking that the injured climber might die from hypothermia before we even got there.  Just as we got to the victim’s crevasse the sun disappeared behind the mountains.  At least now we could just concentrate on the victim.

The rope leader (Reese) was unhurt except for minor bumps and bruises.  It turned out he had been pulled into a different crevasse than the other two.  He had set up a Z-pulley system while waiting for us to climb the slope.

The victim (Vince) had fallen about 25-30 feet into the narrow end of the crevasse.  He was loosely wedged into the crevasse where it pinched together at the right side.  A large ice block was wedged about 20 feet left of where he lay, forming a false bottom or shelf.  The block was about 8 feet long and maybe 3-1/2 feet wide from wall to wall.  The left side of the shelf dropped off again another 50 or 60 feet to the bottom, as did the right side of the shelf.

I looked over the edge and yelled down to the victim that he was indeed a lucky man, two of the greatest mountain climbing gods in the whole world had come to his rescue and that he would be out of that hole in no time (trying to ease his fears with a little humor and confidence).

No response from him.  We used their rope to drop into the crevasse to the victim.  I jumped up and down on the perch block to see if it could hold our weight, it seemed solid, so Rick came down.

I had to stem a crampon into either wall of the crevasse to climb out to the victim.  He was still conscious, and in a lot of pain.  His leg was twisted grossly back against the wall of the crevasse.  He said his head and neck were really hurting and he couldn’t move his head.

They had used a few pieces of clothing and a small blue foam pad to try and block some of the cold, but his clothing was soaking wet from being pressed against the ice wall.   They didn’t have any sleeping bags or heavier clothing.

He was shivering uncontrollably and moaning continuously in pain.  I thought “great, we have to move this guy over to that block.  One false move and we snap his neck and kill him instantly. If we don’t move him he dies of hypothermia and shock in no time.”  He has already been laying on ice with water dripping on him for close to 2 hours with a broken leg and busted head.

We talk to Vince constantly, trying to gage his condition and reassure him that he’s going to be fine, just in a lot of pain while we move him.  We lift and slide a sleeping pad under him and use it to support his weight as we move him to the block.  There is very little room to maneuver in the narrow crevasse, and I have to stem my crampons on either wall of the crevasse and hold the broken leg with both hands as we move him.  Rick has to immobilize the neck as much as possible while he stems as well.  We used the small foam pad as a splint to support his neck as much as possible.

I told Vince that “this will really hurt but we have to move you”, and explain that he will be much more comfortable once we get him to the block.  This took a while since we were in such awkward positions.  He was in severe pain and screaming like hot nails were being pounded into him.  I could feel the bones in his lower leg grinding and grating in my hands.  I thought that every small move was going to snap this guy’s neck.  I didn’t get a full breath the whole time we were moving him.

Finally we get him to the block. We slide a Thermarest pad plus the foam pad under him and slip a sleeping bag under him as well.  Hoping not to compound the fracture, I didn’t want to move the broken leg too much so we left it in position.  We cut his laces and took his boot off to allow us to monitor the temperature and blood flow of his foot.

My thermometer showed that he was already several degrees below normal.  We checked the knot on his head and his eyes and thought he probably had a concussion as well.  His face was also cut in a few places but nothing major.  We loosened his harness and clothing and checked for signs of internal bleeding and other injuries.  We were very afraid of moving his neck/spine, so we left any clothing that would have to be pulled or yanked to get it off.

We got our other sleeping bag on top of him and started our stove to heat water.  This was quite an operation, because Vince was taking up almost all of the ice block perch.  There was less than a foot of space beside his head and about the same at the base of his feet.

There was no room for our packs or other gear, so Reese lowered what we needed from the top of the crevasse. We filled several water bottles with hot water and put them in the sleeping bags.  Soon there was steam rolling out of the sleeping bag when we checked his pulse and temp.

We told stupid jokes and silly stories continuously to keep the situation a little lighter, and keep him awake. His pupils were still dilated and we believed he had a concussion (he did in fact have a skull fracture).  We fed him hot chocolate by emptying a Visine container and using it as an eyedropper so he didn’t have to sit up.

It was a long night at the bottom of that crevasse.  Neither Rick or I could sit down, so we had to stand the entire time, yelling at Vince every so often so he wouldn’t pass out.  He was in such misery that he was moaning stuff like “just let me die, I can’t stand this anymore, this night will never end” and on and on.

Then we would tell some awful story or have a farting contest, and tell him there was no way we would let him die with all the misery we were putting up with (you had to be there).

The glacier moaned and groaned and creaked and snapped, dripping water all around us.  Every once in a while an explosive cracking sound would scare the crap out of us.  It felt like the crevasse would snap shut any time, smashing us to greasy spots in the ice.  The glacier seemed sinister and alive and determined to get the last laugh.

At the same time it was like being in a fairy world.  The candles we had placed in the bubble pockets in the ice flickered and illuminated the clear, bubbly ice like a vast crystal palace, with the stars twinkling overhead through the narrow black slit above us.  Our lack of sleep and fatigue from climbing had us punchy, and it was easy to imagine this giant hole swallowing us up and not spitting us out until years later.

Around 2:00 AM Reese yelled down from the edge of the crevasse that he saw lights down at base camp. The main rescue team had arrived and was gearing up to climb the glacier.  It took them all night to climb what Rick and I climbed in an hour.  We heard them clanking and yelling for hours as they slowly moved up, setting screws and belaying each other.

Finally, as the sun was coming up around 6:00 AM, they got to the crevasse.  It was pretty odd when they got there as they totally ignored us at first. No one on the rescue team asked how we were doing, what shape the victim was in or anything for at least 10 minutes. Rick and I looked at each other and shrugged like WTF?

They looked down at us like we were some kind of side show and shuffled back and forth on the rim.  They were busy up on top doing something and apparently none of them thought it important enough to talk to us.  I will always remember the feeling of anticipation as they approached the crevasse and then the disappointment I felt when they ignored us. Not even a hello.

Rick and I just looked at each other like “what the hell are they doing up there?”  I hope they have a better bedside manner when they reach a victim that hasn’t received assistance.  If nothing else, I will always remember to give immediate assurance that I am there to help and ease the victims anxiety.

The paramedic finally got to the crevasse and leaned over and tried to figure out what was going on.  He was the first one to say anything to us. There was little room in the crevasse so the team put some screws in up top and set up a rappel line.  The paramedic then rappelled down right over the top of me.  As he came over the overhanging lip an explosive crack rang out and I thought the whole edge was going to cave in.  He moved over a bit and came down a bit more carefully.  He got to the bottom and quickly quizzed us on what had occurred as he began checking the victim.

We explained what we had done and all other pertinent information.  He checked Vince’s vitals and put a stabilizing collar around his neck. The only thing left to do was put Vince in the Stokes litter they had brought up and assembled.

First we had to straighten and set the broken leg so it would fit in the Stokes litter.  The paramedic had me apply traction since I was at the foot end. I could feel the bones grating and grinding as I pulled back and slowly twisted the leg back around into its normal position.  Rick held the leg steady as the paramedic maneuvered a wrap-around splint into position. Vince, understandably, was screaming bloody murder the whole time.

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Stokes Litter

Meanwhile, the crew on top was rigging for a litter raise.  We lifted Vince into the litter, strapped him down and then climbed out of the crevasse for the first time in over twelve hours.  A big Navy rescue chopper from Whidbey Island flew in to do a cable lift right out of the crevasse, as the crevasse was in the middle of a very severe slope and couldn’t land.

The giant chopper nearly blew us off the mountain as it came in close to hover and maneuvered to pick up the litter.  It slowly cranked the litter up out of the crevasse and then flew down to basecamp with Vince dangling and spinning below.

As the helicopter descended and began hovering over basecamp, my brand new Eureka Expedition tent was blown up into the air, bouncing around and nearly sucked up into the rotor until the Canadians ran over and finally snagged it.  I just knew my beautiful, and expensive new tent was going to be shredded before we even had a chance to spend a night in it.

They eased Vince to the ground, moved him into the main cabin and picked up the other victim with the concussion and prepared to medivac them off the mountain.

As the chopper flew off, everything suddenly became very silent as the main rescue team had already begun descending with the tinkling of climbing gear and crunching of crampons on the hard ice.

We were left alone to pack our gear, looking back down the chaotic glacier to basecamp.  My feet were frozen blocks from standing on bare ice all night. My Thermarest pad was punctured full of crampon holes from Rick standing on it all night, but at least his feet weren’t frozen.  All our fuel, water and food was gone, and we were totally wiped.

We looked wistfully at the summit…the day had dawned beautiful, sunny and clear, a perfect summit day, but we were trashed after being up all night and the summit was not to be that day.

We picked our way carefully down a better route to basecamp and packed the rest of our gear…the new tent still un-slept in. As we made our way down the trail we started bumping into hikers coming up that wanted to know what was going on with all the rescue guys and excitement at the trailhead.

At first, still kind of jazzed up, we carefully told the tale to each group we bumped into, but finally, just wanting to get off the mountain, we just shrugged when asked and told people we didn’t know what was going on.

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Rick on the way out

Looking back, I think my biggest disappointment was deciding to leave my camera and film at base camp to save some weight.  With all the time we spent in the crevasse I would have had some killer photos with time exposures, the Navy chopper, cable rescue tent flying in the air and so on.

My second disappointment was that Vince, Steve and Reese never even said thanks or even acknowledged what we had done for them. I’d like to think if someone went to the efforts we did that I would at least buy them a beer and give a heartfelt thanks.  Maybe they were embarrassed as they were real “Mountaineers” (this was before I took the course myself several years later), or perhaps they were just shell shocked the whole time.

We did get our names mentioned in the Bellingham Herald that quoted the “Rescue Team” saying “they did the guy a world of good by keeping him warm before the rescue party got there”.  I know in another hour or less he would have been dead from shock and hypothermia and they would have been doing a body recovery.

 

Comments for MOFA Postmortem

Summary: I believe all three victims had gone through the Tacoma Mountaineers Basic course.  I know that Reese and Vince did the course and had some level of climbing experience. Reese was leading the team and seemed to have the most experience, although Vince mentioned he had climbed some big mountains.  Steve had the least experience, I believe Baker was his first major climb.

They all had minimal packs, presumably because the weather was very good that day.  They had basic technical gear for climbing Baker, rope, axes, crampons, good boots, screws, etc., but they didn’t take a sleeping bag or full rain gear for the summit attempt.  No stove & pot for melting additional water.  First aid equipment was not even close to adequate.  They did have one bivy sack that did nothing to insulate Vince from the ice.  They couldn’t even get it around him in the position he was in.  Vince was wearing cotton thermal underwear with a cotton T shirt. Reese had a vinyl poncho that he used for his night on the rim of the crevasse.  None of them were prepared for an unplanned bivy on a mountain like Baker.

All of their water was gone when we got to them, so they were all probably dehydrated and very tired from their long day. Fatigue mixed with the desire to get back to base camp or just bad judgment forced them to move through the icefall without using belays or using good rope management.  The inexperience of Steve was enough in itself to set up a belay of some kind over the tricky hard ice.

Once the accident occurred, panic seemed to set in and they weren’t quite sure what to do.  They were in sight of camp the whole time but wasted quite a bit of time before signaling that they needed help.  It was a major mistake to send or allow Steve to down-climb the heavily crevassed icefall alone and in his condition.  He had already shown that he had trouble on the icefall.

MOFA 7 steps from the rescue party perspective:

Step 1) The situation was taken charge of twice; once at base camp by planning the course of action with the Canadians, and again at the crevasse site with the victims.  There was no doubt that I was the one directing the actions of the rescue, and everyone responded with the best of their ability.

Step 2) Approaching the victims safely was a judgment call.  I think it could be argued either way that the rescue party endangered itself while climbing the icefall.  I felt I was in control and within my climbing abilities.  Delaying climbing the icefall until morning or waiting for Mountain Rescue would have meant that Vince would have died from hypothermia. The false bottom in the crevasse could have dropped out, but it appeared to be stable for the moment.

Step 3) Emergency rescue was performed as well as could be expected.  The victims were moved to safer environments so that additional first aid and comfort could be given.  Steve was evacuated to base camp and Vince was relocated to the level area of the crevasse as soon as possible.

Step 4) Both victims were protected from further environmental hazards as much as possible.  Steve in the relative comfort of base camp, and Vince with the foam pads and sleeping bags, along with hot water bottles.  Both were constantly conscious and were warmer than the rescue party.  Both victims were given reassurance and told exactly what was going on at all times.

Step 5) I assume the Canadians treated Steve at base camp.  Our immediate need when I last saw him was to get him off the icefall.  Once we had Vince on the shelf ledge we took precautions to keep his spine from being moved and didn’t allow him to move around. Although we loosened his harness and clothing to allow better circulation, we didn’t notice until morning that he may have been laying on his ice screw all night.  We checked him for other injuries and tended his scrapes. The one thing I would do differently now is to go ahead and set the leg as soon as he was to the shelf.  Although he only complained of pain when his leg was moved, he may have been a little more comfortable with his leg straight. I was afraid at that time of further injury and possibly compounding the fracture and having to deal with bleeding.

Step 6) Our planning was done fairly well.  Everyone pitched in options and the best course of action was chosen.  Everyone knew what was expected and carried it out great.  In the crevasse we ensured that Vince was kept awake to guard against his concussion, he was checked regularly for a good pulse and that his injured foot was still warm enough.  Water was heated at regular intervals so that we knew we could make it through the night with our fuel supply.  We knew our only option was to keep Vince alive and comfortable until an evacuation team could get him off the mountain.  We sent back the information that we knew.  There was no way to know the extent of injuries and to wait until we climbed up and then sent someone back would have meant several hours delay and endangered us by night climbing down the icefall.

Step 7) The rescue party was uninjured, the victims lived, the plan worked great.  If bad weather had dumped on us, I feel we still would have been OK, just more miserable.

Ground Hog’s Day all over again

I wrote this story on Facebook a year ago and it showed up on my “Memories” this morning. It was just a quick little blip that popped into my head back then and I jotted it down for Facebook.  I smiled over the memory then read through the old comments.

The post didn’t get much notice as posts go, 7 Likes and 6 Comments, but two of the comments were from my life-long buddy Rick. “Man, that looks like fun!” and “Those wool pants can take a beating!”.  Very short and simple, but just the kind of thing that sets off a hundred memories.

He was referring to the photo at the top that shows Beckey on an easy flake doing a layback move. We had been on climbs like that many times.  Each one flashed through my head and they were all fun indeed, even the nasty, chossy, dirt pile Beckey death routes no one had been on in years.

He knew that wool pants can take a beating because we had both worn them for many years before all the new-fangled synthetic stuff came out.  I had given him a pair of my dad’s old wool Army pants back in high school and we both wore them until we got too old and fat, replaced by nice comfy fleece.

But the thing that stung was that it is coming up June 17th, the day he died a year ago. I’ve been reading his comments from the last ten years coming back from the past in those Facebook memories for the past year thinking “he was still with us a year ago”. I don’t know why a year is meaningful, but it is.

Maybe because it still seems like it was just yesterday.  Maybe it’s simply a calendar year has an implied meaning.  Or maybe because the memory is the first time it has popped up…we have had plenty of fun re-commenting on these old FB memories from 2, 5, 8 years ago, but his voice is now gone from them.

In a few days none of the comments will be “new” memories.  Each would have been seen at least once before as a memory and repeated year after year like a scene in the “Ground Hog’s Day” movie.  I suppose all very appropriate for the boy born on February 2nd.

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Rick in his hand me down wool pants at Flapjack Lakes, Olympic National Park 1989

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In the early 90’s we stopped in to check out some routes in Squamish BC that were right next to a residential area overlooking the main highway. They were just beginning some home construction there and we figured we should bag the climbs before they closed it off from climbers.

We took the short walk over to the cliffs and were scoping the routes and noticed a group on a nice, classic looking crack. Most of them were young but there was an old dude on lead, dressed in long wool pants and a flannel shirt while everyone else was in shorts and t shirts.

The old dude would work his way up the crack with pretty good run-out and then do an odd layback that I can only describe as a “butt smear” so he could get a nut or stopper in. He was actually smearing the full length of the wool pants for added friction while he worked the stopper in. He could almost no hands it!

He turned to look down at us and I immediately saw it was Fred from his photos on his climbing guides. He must have been about 72 at the time. Here was our alpine messiah, whose words we poured over in his Cascade Alpine Guides to find some glimmer of how to find a route on some crazy “Beckey variation” doing a single pitch 5.6 fifty feet from a construction zone. Very surreal.

We immediately added the “Beckey Butt Smear” into our quiver of climbing moves…if it was good enough for the Master it was good enough for us. Photo (not mine) of the Legend on another climb, looks like up Icicle Creek in Leavenworth.

Ground Hog Boy Didn’t Want to Repeat This Day

Feb 2nd is of course Ground Hogs Day, and more meaningful to a small band of friends and family, Rick Baker’s Birthday.  Back in 1988, Rick’s 30th birthday was looming, which seemed like a big milestone at the time, so Terri and I thought it would be great fun to buy one of those “Over the Hill” party packages, complete with the black “Over The Hill” balloons and black buzzard beaks.

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It was to be a surprise party, so we called up his girlfriend at the time, Marta, and arranged the birthday party with her and when the day arrived we went over to get their trailer set-up for partying early.

We thought it would be funny to surprise him as soon as he got home from work, so we hid in the spare bedroom to jump out and do the “surprise” thing.  Marta said he always went straight back to change clothes and came immediately back and poured himself a drink. I wanted to document his look of surprise on film, so I had my camera and flash ready to go.

We pre-staged decorations just out of sight so we could get them up quickly. We got everything set-up and hid away in the spare bedroom.  We were there for a while waiting when Marta came in excitedly and told us he had just pulled into the driveway.  He came in the door jabbering about work to Marta…he always seemed to be talking about something.

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Marta giving us the skinny on Rick’s location

We let him walk past us in the bedroom, down the narrow trailer hallway to his bedroom in the back.  We planned on jumping out as he came back up the hall, sporting our black cardboard beaks on and snapping the shot.

He continued jabbering non-stop from the back.  That boy could talk about anything, anytime. We assumed he was changing from his work scrubs and we had some time to get ready to jump out.  We pulled our beaks into place, opened the door and listened for him to come back out.

He was back there for what I swear was only a second or two and we heard his steps coming back down the hall.  This was it!  Terri and I jumped out of the doorway with a big “SURPRISE” and I snapped the flash-photo at the same time. Still jabbering as he came up the hall, he stopped in mid-sentence as he processed what was going on.

The real surprise was that somehow in less than a minute, Rick had yanked every stitch off and was buck-ass naked!  I don’t know who was more surprised, Rick or us!  I thought the boy must be a magician to strip his clothes off that fast.

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“If I run fast enough they won’t see a thing…my thing” You’re welcome for the fig leaf.

I only got one pic off as he was quicker than the flash recycle as he ran back to the bedroom to get some clothes on, quiet as a church mouse now and Marta laughing uncontrollably behind us.

Terri and I turned to each other with big eyes and burst out laughing instantly.  Rick took a lot longer to get dressed than he did getting naked, but he eventually came out asking “what the hell is going on around here, can’t a man walk into his own house with some sense of privacy, blah blah blah”.  We were all still laughing and getting the party decorations put up.

The stage set, we had a great time making dinner and telling old stories as we created another classic one.  I gave the party prints to them and Marta loved to tell the story and show off the buck naked pic by holding her thumb strategically over Rick’s junk…

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Buzzard Beaks Galore
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Making a wish
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30 years old, oh my God!
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Party time

It’s a story that has been told many times over the years but I happily came across the negatives while digging for photos of Rick 30 years later and was amused to find the negative of Rick in all his glory.  So of course I had to scan it and add it to the stories I don’t want to forget.  Happy B-Day buddy.

 

Catch Up To That Tornado!

The recent tornado destruction in Port Orchard got me thinking about the time a tornado ran over over me and my friends back in the 70’s.  Tornadoes are pretty rare in Washington State, unlike forest fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and the odd volcano blowing up.  Seems like a good bargain most of the time.

This is what reminded me from the local newspaper:

Emily Silverman told KOMO News she was caught in the tornado. She was in the car with her husband and 2-year-old son near Walmart.

“And it’s raining and it’s pouring down really bad and before you know it everything was flying everywhere,” she told KOMO. “Our car back windows blew out, our side windows blew out. Things hit us — there were a few people who had some head injuries from being hit by things. A car got pushed into a back… there was an accident. It was crazy. There were things flying everywhere. I thought I was a goner.”

My story starts when I was home on leave from the Army, maybe around 1979, just before I shipped out to Korea.  I was hanging out with my buddy Rick and his girlfriend Bonnie before going to my next duty station.

We were driving around in Bonnie’s old Pontiac Bonneville. I don’t remember exactly what we were up to, probably no good.  It was summer time, with typically muggy thunder storm weather in southern Ohio.

We happened to be out in Fairborn, by Wright Patterson, the local Air Force base, when I saw in the distance what looked like a funnel cloud forming up over some farm fields.

I had my new Canon SLR camera with me and I immediately began trying to convince Bonnie, who was driving, that we needed to get closer to the funnel so I could get some good pictures.

My argument consisted of “as long as we drive 90 degrees to the direction it is moving we will be fine”. I knew this to be true because I read it somewhere. There was no internet back then, so people generally still believed the printed word.

Rick and Bonnie were not convinced it was a good idea, but I kept it up, explaining this may be their only chance to see a tornado up close and personal… you only live once… go for the gusto… I think that was a beer commercial back then for Schlitz beer.  (I should probably confess a hurricane party has been on my bucket list since I was around 16 and still is)

I was either very convincing or just wore them down as Bonnie eventually pointed the car in the direction of the tornado.  It wasn’t raining all that hard where we had started, but as we got closer and closer the rain came at us harder and harder until it was coming at us horizontally.

We were getting buffeted around by the wind pretty good but I was still convinced her big boat of a car would be fine. The tornado still looked like a baby compared to the massive EF-5 that had wiped out the town of Xenia in 1974 and the hood alone on that Bonneville was the length of a football field and it was as wide as an oil tanker, so I was still pretty confident.

As the intensity picked up they both started in again about how this was “another one of my crazy ass ideas and why do we ever listen to you” complaints. By this time the windshield wipers were on high-speed, beating the window to death but still couldn’t keep up with the rain enough to see very well.

It was like being inside a car wash that had gone off the track.  I could still get a glimpse of the tornado once in a while to direct Bonnie which way to go, which was pretty much exactly opposite of the way she wanted to go.

As the sky got darker and darker we found ourselves on one of those straight, lonely roads that cut through Wright Pat that have the 10 foot security fences on both sides of the road.  With steep, deep ditches on either side, it was essentially a fence canyon with no place to get off or even turn around, and no where to go but forward.

The car was whipping back and forth, rain coming at us in buckets with shortage of irony in the fact that the closer we got, the less we could actually see of the tornado, much less get “good” pictures.

Suddenly, up ahead in a field on the other side of the fence I see the funnel cloud touch down along a hedge row and explode all the trees and bushes.  Vegetation was whirling everywhere and you could see it moving across the field, with crops swirling around like one of those invisible monsters on the old Johnny Quest cartoon as it bounced across the field.

The funnel then hit a big billboard sign and exploded it to pieces.  A full sheet of plywood was spinning right at us like a Frisbee and Rick and I were like PUNCH IT!, we’re gonna get creamed!

Bonnie put the pedal to the floor to try to speed past it but the car was being shaken back and forth all over the road, again with nowhere to duck into or get out of the way.

The plywood came at us like it was in slow motion, slowly spinning as it came at us with the Johnny Quest monster right behind it.

As we crossed the tornadoes path it got extremely loud and with a big blast the side windows blew out of the rubber seals around the door frame with a big pressure blast.  Our ears all popped at the same time and then the plywood Frisbee smashed into the front of the car, luckily taking most of the initial impact and as it continued on back and sheared both windshield wipers off in one big slice.

By now Bonnie is screaming “what have you gotten me into, I’m going to kill you if I live long enough” or something to that effect…along with plenty of more colorful language that I richly deserved.

She slammed on the brakes as she could no longer see anything out of the windshield and as we watched the tornado bounce across the road into the another field we all looked at each other kind of surprised we were all still in one piece.

I can’t remember what kind of tongue lashing I got after that, if I ended up paying for new wipers or any details really…I believe Rick switched to driving at that point since in order to see anything the driver had to stick their head out of the window and get a continual face full of rain.  We somehow limped back home with a great story to tell.

 

Giddy-up, El Tehano

Seeing photos of Rick on a horse down in Mexico is extremely inconsistent with all his previous equestrian adventures. Horses and Mr. Baker never did get along too well historically, and here are a couple of reasons why.

The first encounters I remember were all out at the Woodland Trails Scout Reservation in Camden Ohio.  This was a 1200 acre spread about an hour west of Dayton.  It is where summer camps for the whole scout council were held and it had all the usual activities like archery, rifle range, swimming, canoeing at the lake and a horse ranch.

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Entrance to Woodland Trails

The horse ranch was situated well out on the southwest edge of the reservation and we always had at least one chuck wagon event where most of the troop would all go ride horses on a trail out to an old chuck wagon where a cowboy style dinner of chuck wagon stew, biscuits and cobbler would be served up.

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Old Chuckwagon

There were also opportunities for additional rides during the day if you and a few friends signed up for them.

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Sign to old horse barn

When you arrived at the horse barn each boy got to choose their own mount…some with more trepidation than others. Most of the younger boys were afraid of the biggest horses so, being the Senior Patrol Leader, there was an expectation that I would take the biggest or meanest horses.  Now, I wasn’t a super enthusiastic horse dude or anything, but it was kind of fun to act like a cowboy for a few hours and it was different than the other camp activities.

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The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be…

These horses all knew the game very well, having been on dozens and dozens of these rides every summer. I’m sure they were chosen for the camp because they were calm, cool, collected and able to follow the horse in front of them without much help from whomever was in the saddle.  There wasn’t an actual mean horse in the mix, maybe a nipper or two… but there were a few large hombres.

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Woodland Trails horse barn

The ride that stands out was one where I had a horse named “Big John”. He was, of course, the biggest beast in the barn and all the boys had a good time encouraging me to pick him or I would be a big wuss, so it was my destiny to have Big J.

We all mounted-up and began wandering down the trail behind our wrangler with the usual fits and starts of a bunch of city kids that don’t know how to control a horse, but again, most of the horses knew what they were supposed to do so no big deal right?

Along the way all the boys started giving me a load of shit…namely because Big John had gotten excited about something and had an erection as long as my arm.  I thought he was named because he was just a large horse, but the size of his horse-wood may have been the deciding factor.

Rick was right in front of me and as we approached a small tree that had fallen across the horse trail he started laughing and yelling that I better grab ole Big John’s dong and lift it up before it whacked the log. This small tree was not a major obstacle on the trail and the other horses just stepped over it with no problem.

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Danger on the trail…

But, as predicted by Rick, as Big John stepped over the log he did in fact whack his wood on the wood and that was enough to set him off flying down the trail.  I pretty much just tried to hold on with everything I had as I had never actually been on a running horse before.  As Big John came up beside Rick’s horse, it was startled and took off running as well.

So now both of us are flying down the trail, trying to hang on to the spooked horses for all we were worth.   We were bouncing all over the place, getting beat in the face with branches as the horses went off-trail around the other horses in the line.  We were holding onto the saddle horns, mane or anything else we could grab as we quickly forgot all about the reins.

Even with my own troubles, glancing over at Rick with the sight of him swinging from side to side and up and down with the look of panic in his eyes got me laughing so hard I nearly fell off.  You would have thought he was on a champion bucking bronc at the rodeo.

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We probably only went a couple hundred yards down the trail before the wrangler caught up to us and got them calmed down, but it felt like we had just done the Omak Suicide run and Rick swore horses off for life.

The next time I remember Rick getting on a horse was during the early 80’s out at Ocean Shores in Washington.  His girlfriend at the time, Marta, enjoyed riding and talked him into renting some horses to ride along the ocean beach.  Sounds mellow and romantic right?  Not if you have Ricky Dean’s mad horse skills!

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Horseback ride on the beach

Now, Rick being Rick (and not being a Boy Scout anymore), he had stashed a few beers and his trusty bottle of whiskey in a rucksack to quench his thirst during the ride.

The ride started out slow and easy enough, but the pace picked up a bit when Rick’s horse tried to keep up with Marta’s.  This got the bottles clinking together, causing the horse to run even faster, which made the bottles clank even louder, and soon it was galloping at full speed with the bottles crashing and bashing together until the beer bottles were a foamy mess.

 

I am very impressed that Rick stayed on the horse…they went like that for quite a ways down the beach and there was no wrangler this time. Alas, the bottles in the ruck sack did not fare too well and the pack was full of broken glass and the tepid beer had foamed to the point of oozing out the seams of the pack.

And so that was the last time he got on a horse for decades…eternally pissed that a horse had wasted his perfectly good alcohol.  Then necessity transformed him into El Tehano of the Mexican jungle, riding off into the sunset, with steely gaze and chapped ass.

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El Tehano rides again…

Ashes to ashes, this is not just dust…

We returned what was left of Rick’s earthly remains back to the Earth this weekend.  We stood in a loose circle on a washed out forest road, sharing more stories of Rick. We took a few photos with him in a Target bag, kind of appropriate, as he often seemed to be the target of mountain wrath.

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Ashes crew at site
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Jim, Rick (in bag), Tom and Les

Patty then pulled the box with Rick out to prepare for spreading his ashes, adding some ashes from his mother Marie Ernestine, better known as Ernie to most.

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Patty prepping the ashes

It was a sack full of what everyone commonly calls ashes, but it is really more like a sack full of the more substantial bits and pieces that his human form was attached to all his life, with a little bit of dust mixed in.  It was surprisingly heavy, very unlike the light, fluffy ashes you get used to from a campfire.

I appreciated the heft of it.  It gave substance to what was left of the body that once carried the spirit of this man around for 60 years.  They say an adult male is about 60% water. Rick may have had a bit more bourbon mixed into that percentage, but even bones are 31% water so I just assumed the ashes would be light, or at least not heavy, with all that water and other easily combustible bits gone.

So it was surprising, yet comforting, to feel the weight of my old buddy as I held him one last time to say a few words.  I had often held his weight as he dangled on the end of a climbing rope and it seemed familiar.

Patty asked if anyone wanted to speak, so I opened my mouth to say something meaningful, really to just say anything at this point of inferred importance in someone’s life… but nothing came out.  I was overcome with yet another burst of grief, like I have experienced over the months since he died.

I had, of course, thought about what I might say…why I picked this particular point in the Olympics, how full of life Rick was, all the adventures, how much I will miss him, but I could only stand there silent for a few minutes, trying to will myself to get a few words out…

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Patty had asked me to pick a place Rick would like for his physical remains a while back.  While we had traveled all over the state, the Olympic Peninsula had been our back yard for decades of adventure.  We had hiked the entire ocean beach in Olympic National Park, camped alongside nearly every river, hiked days into the deepest, hardest to reach interior sections and even reached the highest point, Mt. Olympus. But there was one spot that we went back to regularly…Mt Ellinor.

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View of Lake Cushman from Mt Ellinor

On the southern edge of the Olympics, Mt. Ellinor is an excellent climbers trail with great summit views and is only an hour from Olympia, so it became our traditional “season opener” in the early spring for getting back into mountain climbing shape. We would run up it all seasons of the year, but as soon as the snow was melted enough to get a car close to the trailhead we would be off and running.

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Mt goat on Mt. Ellinor

I have no idea how many times we did that hike, but many, many, many times. We would use it for gauging how accessible other early trails might be with snow and just for the shear joy of getting up high in the mountains.  We would even dash out there with Rick’s dogs for a quick afternoon blast up to the top, look for goats, ring the summit bell and dash back down for supper.

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Now there is another old goat on Mt Ellinor

In our early days we would often have the mountain all to ourselves, but it has become more and more heavily used and these days you can barely find parking at the trailheads. In choosing a spot, I kept this in mind for both privacy and practicality, as not everyone would be up for a summit climb. The roads are narrow, potholed, and washboarded with small pullouts.

Just past the turnoff for the trailhead for Mt. Ellinor is the trailhead for Mt. Washington, another, much more serious alpine effort. While Ellinor is a steep hike with some scrambley bits, Mt. Washington is the big-brother, a real climb needing true route-finding skills through sections where someone can get really hurt when snow covers the peak. We have done Washington a number of times as well and it is one of our favorites.

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Continuing on Forest Service road 2419, just beyond The Mt Washington trailhead, which is really just a boulder next to the road with no signs, the road bed has been washed out and impassible for many years. A short hike past this washout is a nice tall waterfall with a scenic view of the valleys below, as the stream tumbles noisily down the steep slopes into Big Creek.

I thought this place would be perfect; more private than the trailhead parking, easy to access, not too long a drive from Olympia, short hike, scenic view, waterfall, splashing stream, and at the base of two of our favorite climbs. Perfect.

After choosing the site I believed to be a perfect fit, self doubt starting creeping in. Was it majestic enough for a final resting place?  Should it be a mountain summit or crashing ocean waves on the coast instead? Will there be a locked gate preventing us from driving up there on the Forest Service road? Would the weather cooperate?  Would everyone think I was an idiot for picking this spot?

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These are the thoughts that were running through my head as I stood there taking deep breaths and trying to calm myself enough to be able to speak. I can’t remember exactly what came out of my mouth, but I began to talk at least, trying to express some of these notions, mixed with the dark humor we practiced on many of our climbs.

I had brought a shot glass that I have been keeping topped off on my whiskey shelf, for Rick, since the day he died. As it evaporated, I thought of it as Rick lazily sipping his share of bourbon, and as the level eased down I would top it off with whatever I was drinking so it never emptied. He was very thirsty when the weather was hot, as usual.

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Three months of bottomless bourbon

I pulled the Cling-wrapped glass out of my pocket, removed the wrap and handed Jim the bottle of Evan Williams I had brought. Now, Evan Williams is one of the bourbons we cut our teeth on in the 70’s, along with Ezra Brooks, and that we continued to enjoy even after we started enjoying the top shelf whiskeys. They were relatively cheap, good octane, and tasted better than the other bottom-shelf whiskey like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. Yes, we considered Jack to be bottom shelf.

Jim filled the shot glass, me making sure he topped it off as I know Rick would not want to be shorted on his shot.  I spoke a few more words, irreverent I’m sure, and poured the shot into the bag of ashes.  I won’t swear that I heard Rick give his whiskey-shot follow-up call, but I felt it.

We then passed Rick around to each person that wanted, or was able, to say a few more words or share a story.  I’ll let them share their owns thoughts and stories, but Jim added some higher-end bourbon from the traditional Nalgene trail bottle and Tom shared his Deschutes Pale Ale and other goodies as they spoke a few more irreverent words, as only climbers that have shared danger can, quenching Ricky’s thirst a bit more.

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Jim gives Rick a shot
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Tom gives Rick a sip of Pale Ale while Patty watches

Patty and Zach spoke much more reverently, others declined, there were more tears and more smiles shared and so when Patty asked “what now” I declared it was “time to dump his ass out!”.

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Patty’s sister Vickie listens as Patty shares her story
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Zack, Joe and Terri listen to stories being told

Patty carried Rick over to the base of the waterfall and poured him into the stream, declaring that mixing him with the water returned his physical form back to the living cycle of the Earth. I took a good pull of the Evan Williams and passed it around for everyone to have a sip.  I took the rest of the bottle and poured it over his ashes.

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Patty empties Rick into the stream

I had given Jim and Tom, Rick’s other long-time rope partners, a piece of the first “real” rope I had purchased back when I was in the Army in 1980.  Rick and I had done many climbs with that rope, including his first summit of Mt. Rainier.

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Rick with my old Mammut climbing rope on Mt Rainier

I had tied a re-woven figure eight in each one. This is the knot every climber ties to their harness to connect them to another climber. Jim decided to tie his piece of rope to a small tree over the stream, and proceeded to show us he had forgotten how to tie his mountaineering knots and create a solid anchor. Tom followed suit, tossing Jim his rope as we joked about his knot tying prowess. I’m too sentimental about that kind of stuff. Someone will be deciding why I have a hunk of old rope and what to do with it after I’m gone.

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Tom and Rick watching Jim tie the wrong knots

We told a few more stories, sipped a bit more brew and bourbon, took a group shot and then headed back down to Olympia while Tom headed up to do Ellinor.

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Les, Joe, Jim, Tom, Terri, Patty, Zach, Vickie

I don’t know about everyone else, but with all the emotions and love shared, in a spot where I can easily imagine him standing there taking a sip of bourbon, it was perfect at least for me. I believe Rick would think so too, it was so much more “him” than a formal funeral.

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Goodbye for now…

I will be back up to share a sip or two with him from time to time, and he’s not hard to find, now that you know where he rests.

 

 

 

The Climber Community

The day Rick died, his brother Matt posted that he had passed away that day on a hometown memorial page. It is one of the things that got me thinking about documenting some of the stories as it was swarmed by well-wishers for a couple of days and then rapidly moved down the news feed for that page.

No judgement, that’s just how things are in Facebook group land…the group is only as fresh as the latest post and time quickly moves on.

In Memoriam

Still, 66 brief posts of the “Sorry for your loss”, “Prayers” and the odd message of someone actually mentioning a memory about Rick made the response rather anemic feeling for me.  I get it…the site only has a few thousand members and only a few would have really known Rick for the time he was in high school or lived there.

Curious and kind of hoping for more notoriety for the passing of my buddy, a few days later I went to one of my Hiker/Climber groups and made a quick post amongst “or people”.

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What happened blew me away a bit, as my computer starting blowing up with over 300 people responding in less than an hour.  Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.  Eventually, the responses grew to almost 900 people until the inevitable moment where the post reaches the critical spot where it is too much trouble to scroll down that far and view older posts.

Now, there was some competition, since, at the same time I made my post, the one below was posted and began ticking the likes, loves and wows. I take some comfort that it took 3 hours for the poster to hit her 300, even with the cute mountain goat and bikini competition. The old goat still had a move or two in him.

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What impressed me the most, was it was a response to someone none of them had even met.  While there were a few “sorry for your loss” type posts, the majority were celebrating the life of one of their own… an adventurer and seeker of something more up in the mountains and wilderness.  They grasped that it was a life well lived and not one viewed from the sidelines.

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At the same time it was somehow comforting to see that the subject matter of the other post, Colchuck Lake, was a place Rick and I had been to many times and never tired of the wild looking mountains begging to be climbed and the serene lakeside offering relative peace and comfort from the intensity of being up on the rugged crags.

Seeing younger folks experiencing it for the first time, just as excited as we once were, gives a continuity to the community of hikers and climbers that can only be experienced by being “one of us”.

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Colchuck Lake in 1995 with our target for the weekend, 8,840′ Dragontail Peak, looming behind it.