The Big Road Trip and surviving the first year in Washington

I was fresh out of the Army in the winter of 1981, and staying for a while at my parents’ home in Ohio.  I still had a case of wanderlust after traveling the world and resolved to leave Ohio and head back out to Washington State. I had served out there from 1977-1979 at Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, and had often regaled my buddy Rick with many stories of climbing and skiing the beautiful mountains, hiking in the massive old growth forests, fishing the clear clean rivers, the power of the Pacific Ocean, beauty of Puget Sound and the open desert country on the east of the mountains.  

It was where I had decided I wanted to live and play, and Rick was all in.  By April of 1982, Rick and I had both received our paltry tax refunds to serve as grubstakes and we were keen to hit the road to Washington.  I loaded my ’65 Plymouth Valiant and Rick and his girlfriend Bonnie loaded his fairly new (compared to mine) Datsun Kingcab pickup. 

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My $600 special…of course, mine was 17 years old.
Rick and his rig

They were packed full of all of our worldly possessions and high hopes of an adventurous life out west. Waving goodbye to our tearful mothers and families, we excitedly headed off.  

The three of us spent over a month on the road, doing the classic cross-country road trip.  My poor overloaded car (I had removed the back seat in order to haul more crap, including very heavy books) started overheating immediately upon getting on the highway in Ohio.  We limped along through Indiana, stopping at almost every other rest stop to refill my radiator.  It was not an auspicious start to a cross-country journey of several thousand miles.

We eventually made it across Illinois to Rick’s grandmother’s house in Alton, along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.  Having a place to relax a bit, I tried get to the bottom of my overheating Valiant situation. 

His grandma was a character…she would have us get the burn barrel going out in the field and continue bringing items out one by one. I swear she was pulling Kleenex out just to watch them burn. She had several dogs, a chihuahua she allowed in the house, and a small herd of mongrels that ran around in the yard.  They would commence to barking for one reason or another and she would light a firecracker and toss it out the door to hush them up.

She fed us with homemade cooking and let us spend a few nights with her.  I quite enjoyed our conversations…she did like to talk.  I see where Rick got it from.

But the Plymouth was still a problem. I dug in my trunk for my trusty old Motor’s Auto Manual, going through every possible solution they listed troubleshooting overheating engines.  I literally tried everything in the book. New thermostat, radiator flush, replaced the hoses and on and on.  I eventually took it to a local Alton mechanic that recommended replacing the radiator. I bought a used one at a junk yard and got back to work installing it.  

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My test drive route after each attempted “fix” was to drive from Rick’s grandma’s house, past the famous Piasa Bird pictograph (why it’s famous I have no idea, but Rick went on and on about it), and finally down along the Mississippi River along Great River Road and continuing up to the “Our Lady of the Rivers Shrine”. 

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This shrine became the “Holy Mother of Overheating Cars” to me, as no matter what I did the car would start heating-up about the time I got there, forcing a turn around.  I can’t tell you how many times I drove that route over the several days we were there. 

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Exhausting all the trouble shooting steps in the Motor’s manual, our plan became to simply drive only at night, during cooler temps.  Waving goodbye to Rick’s grandma as she threw another firecracker to quiet the barking dogs by scaring the shit out of them, we hit the road again. 

It was quite the experience trying to stay awake driving all night.  Rick had Bonnie to help him, but I resorted to screaming songs at the top of my lungs and sticking my head out the window.  There seemed to be an overabundance of country stations in the Midwest.

Cell phones were nonexistent back then, so walkie-talkies would have been nice, but we developed a workable signal code with headlight flashes and turn signals when someone needed gas, to stretch or a potty break.  

On our way in earnest once again, we stopped at any and all places of interest along the way.  These included all National Parks and monuments as well as tourist traps like the Corn Palace and Wall Drug.  

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We worked our way quickly through the flatlands of Nebraska and Iowa, spent more time in the Badlands of the Dakotas and mountains of Wyoming, winding up at Yellowstone Park, which was still covered by late winter conditions with ample snow on many of the roads.  There are a number of individual tales along the way that I will break out in the future.

Leaving the Grand Tetons, we were weary of living on the road… tired of eating pork and beans with generic white boxes of mac and cheese and doing laundry at out of the way dive laundromats. 

We decided to power our way through to Washington and drove north on the side roads up to I-90 in Montana.  We wound up in a late season blizzard as we crossed the continental divide.  It was a total white-out blizzard and we ended up following closely behind the bumpers of the only other folks crazy enough to still be on the road…long haul truckers. 

We tucked in behind a convoy, barely able to keep their tail lights in view in the driving snow.  Somehow, we were able to keep moving until we hit the WA state line and drove straight thru the dry desert side of the state to the rain forests of Mt Rainier…the promised land!

We spent a few days poking around there and as it started growing crowded leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, we headed off to Tacoma.  Unfortunately, my Valiant decided it had gone far enough by making it to Rainier…heading up one of the passes, it finally gave up the ghost.  I found out later that the oil pump had failed, and the engine was seized. Best $600 I ever spent.

Not to be denied, I broke out my least favored climbing rope and tied it to the bumper of Rick’s Datsun. Any climbers will note that this was a poor choice, since a climbing rope is meant to stretch excessively to help reduce the force of a fall, but it was all we had.  

Stretching and snapping the rope many, many times, we somehow made it to Tacoma with Rick pulling me around the mountain curves like a water skier in tow.  He had a shell on the back of his truck that I couldn’t see past, so I would creep out into the oncoming lane to see what was ahead and dash back over for on-coming traffic.  Some exciting moments, broken up by the constant repairing of the tow line.

We pulled into A+ Auto Repair…it was the first one in the phone book on Pacific Highway.  Being Memorial Day weekend, I just left it there to talk to the owner on Tuesday. 

We then went down the road a few blocks to find the Calico Cat Motel.  It was a seedy looking dive, but in our price range.  It had a locked-off kitchen suite so we picked the lock so we could cook our Mac and cheese in style. It was eventually closed down in 2016 after a murder happened there and all the rooms test positive for meth. Yeah, that kind of joint.

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The flea-bag motel…

While at the Calico Cat, Rick and I decided to ride our bikes down to Pt Defiance, a local park right on Puget Sound. I had some survival vest water bags which we filled with the cheapest Lambrusco we could find. We made it out to the pier and continued sipping our wine on the hot day and then headed back. On the way up the long hill, heat took its toll on Rick and he hurled Lambrusco over the rail onto the traffic on I-5. But that didn’t stop us from stopping at an air conditioned bar at the top of the hill and having a nice cold pitcher of beer to cool down before going back to the motel.

An Army buddy of mine, Ed, who had been a crew chief on a Huey, had lived in a trailer park in Olympia before I left.  We decided to drive down to Olympia and take a look to see if he was still there…he had married a local woman, Teresa, and even though it was three years later I thought there was a chance they might still be there, as he had gotten out of the Army around the same time that I left Ft Lewis for Korea. I had not seen, or even heard from him, since I left Ft Lewis and Washington in July of 1979.  

As we pulled into the shabby looking trailer court, Rick and Bonnie expressed some misgivings, but we continued on in.  The court was called “North End Manor”, a deceptive name if there ever was one.

As it was told to me, the place had been the site of a long-gone road house along the old main highway, now overshadowed by nearby I-5.  This trailer court was bulldozed at least 25 years ago and is now where a Costco gas station is.  I refuse to buy gas there as it is probably cursed with bad juju. 

What did remain at the “Manor” were the single room cabins closer to the road that had served as flop-houses behind the main road house.  These were for the working ladies catering to lonely loggers and truckers.  These were now rather dilapidated and the trailer park, equally or even more dilapidated, had sprung up behind them.  In Ohio, the place would have been prime tornado food.  

I spied the old trailer where I had partied with Ed and company many times when I was in the Army, so I knocked on the door and sure enough, his wife Teresa answered.  I was looking pretty scruffy after being out of the service over 6 months…and had let my beard and hair grow out as many do upon exiting the service.  I really didn’t expect her to remember me without an explanation.

She looked at my face and screamed “Profitt!  I remember those eyes in that hairy-ass face!  She was as extroverted as her hubby Ed was introverted.  We explained we had just gotten into town from our long journey from Ohio and were looking for a cheap place to live as neither Rick or I had a job yet.  We were existing on our tax returns and what little savings we had.

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It was a hairy-ass face.  Les in the den of iniquity trailer with what remained of the tow rope.

She immediately said she could get us set-up in the trailer court, no problem,  and started rattling off all of the available mobile homes in the park.  She took us by the hand and practically ran us to the office building.  She grabbed keys for the available trailers, many of which might have been more properly condemned, and by the end of the day we had moved into a small two-bedroom trailer.  You couldn’t really call it a mobile home, because if anyone had tried to make it mobile and move it someplace else it would have surely self-destructed. 

The one we chose could at best be called rustic, but livable.  Rick and Bonnie claimed the larger bedroom in the back, and I threw my stuff into the 2nd bedroom…this was more like a small walk-in closet.  With a single bed in there I had maybe a foot of space between the bed and a tiny closet.  The kitchen had an ancient gas stove that always gave off the odor of escaping gas from the pilot light, lovely vintage orange carpeting with mushrooms growing in a corner and a pocket door on the bathroom that gave everyone fits until you learned how to jiggle it around to open and close it.  Home!

Looking toward the kitchen of the trailer
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You can see our beer recycle pile in the corner, Rainer and generic Beer beer. We knew we could get a case of the cheap stuff when it was as tall as us.

We drove back to Tacoma and grabbed all my stuff from my car.  The garage owner had told me whatever the mechanical problem was, just don’t abandon the car here as he had dealt with that too many times.  When I called and found out the prognosis was that the car was DOA, I still had every intention of retrieving it…but it eventually was abandoned with the lack of money and distance to Tacoma. 

It is one of the few actual regrets I carry around, as I promised the guy and shook his hand that I wouldn’t leave it there, even though he probably made a few bucks junking it after the headache of going through the title issues.  OK, maybe I regret leaving my old Army Nomex flight suit and sturdy motor pool coveralls in the trunk the most.

Ensconced in our luxury mobile home, we immediately began looking for work.  If you are young or have a poor memory, this was not a good time to be looking for a job.  Lasting from July 1981 to November 1982, an economic downturn triggered by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, had sparked a large round of oil price increases.  

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Trailer park looked best at night.

Tight monetary policies by the Federal Reserve, in an effort to tame inflation, had the effect of squashing any economic growth.  In fact, prior to the big 2007-09 recession, the 1981-82 recession under Reagan was the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression.  But we were young and dumb, oblivious to politics and economic policies and determined to scratch out a life in our new home.

Rick dropped resumes off at all the hospitals and clinics from Olympia to Tacoma.   Without a car, I walked as far as I could to find anything close by.  Bonnie found work at a daycare. Not finding anything close, I started selling Fuller Brush products. 

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What I felt like every time I went out…

Going door to door with my brown vinyl-covered cardboard sample case, I handed out free combs to bored and lonely housewives and extolled the virtues of various cleaning products and magical housewares.  I still have a few of those blue combs I handed out to everyone that opened their door. 

Please buy something…anything!

Rick got a job within a few weeks at Memorial Clinic in Olympia, and with cheap rent we made it through the summer.  My Fuller Brush gig was really only making beer money, so when Ed said he was fed up with working as a laborer for an old well driller that lived in one of the old flop houses… Roy McGill.  

I jumped at the chance to make some real cash.  I went along with Ed when he told Roy he was quitting, but pointed to me as a healthy young buck to keep you in business.  Roy cursed Ed every which way, calling him a quitter, no account, lazy good for nothing and plenty of more choice words.  He calmed down a bit, looked me over and told me to be at his place at 6AM.  I tried to shake his hand and he shook his head and told me I would have to earn his handshake. Oh boy.

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Now, Roy was a cantankerous old roughneck and roustabout from the Oklahoma oil fields that had gotten too old and infirm to deal with the rough physical work on the oil rigs and so had created his own business in Olympia drilling water wells. 

Everything he owned was as old as he was and twice as beat up.  Off the job he was just a skinny, well behaved, soft-spoken Okie that liked to get his western duds on and go “belly-rubbin” with the ladies at the local country line-dance saloons. As I recall he had been married and divorced several times and now lived alone in his little shack.  

Drilling rig like Roy had…

He was extremely independent and I think he resented the fact that he actually needed a young hand to deal with the more physical tasks associated with drilling…and there were many.  Everything from the well pipe, and bags of bentonite to the drill bits was big and heavy.  

One benefit of working with Roy was that he liked to start the day by buying a hearty breakfast at one of the local greasy spoons on the way to the drill site. This was great, he joked and told stories like someone’s grandpa while we were eating, but as soon as you were on the clock, he became a demon from Irish folklore.

He looked like a drunken leprechaun with a hardhat but had quit drinking because his ulcers were eating him up.  He drank Milk of Magnesia like it was water and nibbled soda crackers all day long.

I knew absolutely nothing about drilling, and he was only too happy to tell me in extremely colorful language how stupid I was and that I “wouldn’t be a real driller until I lost some meat down the pipe”.  Roy, of course, was a “real driller” and was missing  a few fingers, with several more that had grafts of his “belly meat” on his thumbs and other fingers where he had lost bits and pieces. 

It was an almost daily occurrence to tell him he was bleeding all over everything, as he had lost all feeling in most of his fingers and constantly snagged and cut himself around the rig.  He would just cuss, wipe it on his overalls and wrap some tape around it.

If there had been at least one other person on the crew to commiserate with, it might have been very amusing, but being alone as the sole focus of all the constant berating, complaining and cussing for eight hours, I could see why Ed had quit.  

I was determined to get out of this job before I “lost any meat down the pipe” or got my head bashed in from an old man swinging big drill bits around.  

I had been ruminating over college, as I had put money away in the Army and the VA doubled it. I had purchased a fairly nice camera at the PX when I first got to Ft Lewis and over the years had thought about photography as a career.

I happened to walk past a booth at the Puyallup Fair late that summer and saw a brochure on a two-year course in Professional Photography that might be covered by my GI Bill.  I talked to a counselor there and he said that it was not too late to join the program even though it was a couple of weeks along.

I went to Roy and gave him the bad news…of course, I received the same verbal thrashing Roy had given Ed, but he soon had another guy from the trailer court going off to breakfast with him.  I would love to know what happened to that old guy.

The idea of doing only 2 years of study in a field I was deeply interested in appealed to me.  I went through all the steps to getting VA assistance started and signed up for the course.  I soon had monthly GI Bill money coming in for school so just needed a part time job.  

Ed happened to be taking an airframe course at the same school in Tacoma, so I had a ride back and forth to class every day.  Future, full speed ahead.

I showed up for my first class and was introduced to the rest of the class.  By now, the class had been going on long enough to form the various cliques and groups natural in any of these types of situations.  

There were first year students, who were studying the basics of black and white, such as composition, lighting and other technical tasks like film development and darkroom work. There were also the 2nd year students, that were going into color development and printing and advanced techniques. 

Our classroom that first year was in an old control tower building next to the airfield in the middle of the campus.  The school was constructing a fancy new building, but it wouldn’t be ready for a while, so the run-down old tower kind of matched my new trailer life.

There was already a pecking order… starting with the upper-class students of varying talent, descending down to the first-year students that had shown some natural ability with composition and technique. They all looked at me with a rather jaundiced eye as the newcomer, but there were a few that offered friendly encouragement and welcomes.  

Our text books were the Ansel Adams series, so we learned the Zone System from the master along with how to work all the crazy buttons and controls on 35mm, medium format and even 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras. I was in hog heaven. 

My first real camera, a Canon AE-1, had been a constant companion for several years in the Army and I had also done a bit of darkroom work as a hobby when I was in Korea, so I wasn’t totally lost.   But I had to catch up with the photo assignments that had already assigned, so I practically lived with my new Canon A-1.

I got to know a couple of guys that were commuting from Olympia as well, 1st year student Doug and 2nd year student Tim.  Doug had a sporty little Mazda rotary engine sports car we called the Mazdarati and Tim had a little blue Vega beater that he drove like a mad man.

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Doug and Les at Clover Park Tech Institute in 1982

We got to chatting and decided we would form a carpool to share gas money.  Over time, we became good friends driving to school every day and having lunch with each other.  

Doug and Les hamming it up in the studio…

Back on the home front, Bonnie had gotten back in touch with her religious roots with some folks where she worked and decided she either had to be married or move on. 

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Bonnie and Rick 1982

I distinctly remember her telling us we were reprobates and needed to change our ways or we were going to Hell.  We weren’t sure what a reprobate was, so we had to look it up in the dictionary, but after seeing what it meant…

Reprobate:

noun: a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person: a drunken reprobate.  A person rejected by God and beyond hope of salvation.

adjective: morally depraved; unprincipled; bad.

…Rick and I decided we pretty much had to agree with her.  Her ultimatum on marriage fell on deaf ears and she soon moved out to more holy ground.  

The trailer park itself was a true den of iniquity.  While Ed and Teresa were fairly “normal”, there were some real characters in this place.  We got along well with everyone in the park, but it was pretty wild there. Among them were several young married GI families that barely made enough money to stay afloat.  

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Party time at the trailer. Cheap booze in large quantities.

One of the GI’s, while his wife worked at a nearby burger stand to bring in some extra cash, would go door to door selling off her macramé hangers, houseplants and anything else not nailed down in order to buy a six pack or parts to his beat-up hot rod.  They had a toddler, which he was allegedly responsible for when his wife was working. 

A favorite method of his baby sitting style was to put him in one of those round, walker things that looked like a bumper car and leave him to his own devices while he tinkered on his hot rod.  I saw that poor kid tumble out the door and down the stairs of their trailer on several occasions and wondered if he would have any brain cells left by the time he started school…not that there appeared to be much genetic material to work with from his parents.

This guy had an Army buddy named Dewey that looked like he was straight out of central casting for one of those horror movies where the kin folk lived way back in the holler and maybe had too many sister-mothers.  He chugged a whole bottle of Jack Daniels one night on a bet and promptly fell flat on his face and broke his nose.  Pretty much standard behavior for infantry. 

An older Indian couple were just as entertaining.  The guy would come around half-lit offering to “pawn” his shotgun for $5 so he could buy more beer.  He also would come around selling us those good old blocks of government free cheese…I think they were like 5 lbs boxes and he would get a bunch of them them and sell them around the court.  We ate a lot of government cheese. 

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Remember this stuff? Gov cheese

I also bought a small woven basket his wife made, which I still have, for the usual $5 “pawn” fee.

I still have the pawn ticket…

His wife once passed out in their station wagon in the middle of the park on some kind of binge.  I don’t know what she was on but it was a very hot day and Rick and I worried that she might get heatstroke, so we tried to move her into their trailer…she was a very large woman and was totally out of it. 

We couldn’t manage to move her out of the car, so we told their kids to get some blankets and sheets to put over the windows to give her some shade and wetted down some towels to keep her cool.  Her hubby was pretty fried and was little help. She survived to party another day.

Another wild character was a crazy redhead that lived 2 trailers down.  She seemed to have a new boyfriend every week and would get hammered, walk to the center of the park in the middle of the night and throw a hissy fit… screaming at the top of her lungs how unfair life was and what an asshole her current beau was. 

One time the sound of breaking windows and screaming was so bad Rick and I ran over to see if someone was being killed only to have her turn her wrath on us.  She apologized the next day when she was sober, but she was always a mess.

Some of my favorite stories are about the family that ran the trailer park.  This older couple had 2 sons, Steve and Danny, that lived there as well, one-on-one, either wasn’t too bad and we got along well with all of them.  When they were drinking and together, they would often get into crazy fights with each other.  Now, our trailer door was almost always wide open, and denizens of the court would stop by at all times of the day or night to shoot the shit or party. 

To be clear to everyone in the court…I put a baseball bat by the front door and declared to all that entered that our space was to be considered neutral like Switzerland…don’t start no shit and there won’t be no shit.  You make trouble and the bat will start cracking heads.  It worked pretty well.

Around Christmas time, one of the brothers, who always seemed to be doing 5 days here, 30 days there in the county lock-up for various transgressions, came around drunk with a Santa hat on giving everyone nicely wrapped presents.  It was a bit unusual to get anything from him, but hey, it was Christmas time, so we thanked him and dutifully waited to unwrap them for Christmas.  

When we opened them, the gifts made absolutely no sense at all.  There were things like dolls and toys and socks for tiny little feet…come to find out, He had jumped the fence at the back of the trailer park and had broken into a house that bordered the park…and stolen the family’s entire pile of Christmas gifts, just like the Grinch in Whoville. 

He had no idea what was even in the wrapped packages when he passed them out. Of course, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to determine who the perpetrator was since he had handed out these odd-ball gifts to half the trailer park, and he was soon back in lock-up.

Another time some kids went to this same guy with their cat that had been hit by a car…he decided the cat was not going to make it and the best path was to put the poor kitty out of his misery.  He got a ball peen hammer and knocked it on the head and then took the kids down to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, down the road a few miles, to bury it and give it a funeral.  

All was well until the cat showed up a few days later, looking like Bill the Cat on a bad day, all covered with blood and dirt and missing an eye. The poor thing had dug itself out of the grave, crawled all the way up the Nisqually hill…a 2-3 mile trip…back to the trailer court and home.  A responsible adult took the sad looking kitty to the vet… the poor cat recovered as best he could, but always limped after that and was blind in one eye.

At some point, we discovered that Rick’s cousin Roxanne was living nearby with her husband who was stationed at Ft. Lewis.  They became regular visitors to our humble party abode, along with some of their friends and I have many fond memories of good times that year.

As photography school progressed, I would often have to do a photography assignment and bring a bunch of equipment home to do what Rick began calling “Studio Trailer”.  

We moved everything out of the living room and set up strobes, backgrounds, light stands, and tripods to shoot all kinds of stuff.  One assignment was to do a classic Rembrandt lighting portrait, so I put Rick in a 3-piece suit that I had custom made in Korea. 

I was taller and larger than he was, so I used clothes pins and tape to make it fit, but it still received the lowest score I ever got…everyone said he looked like a holier-than-thou televangelist as he was looking up to heaven.  Rick vowed to never again be one of my subjects…of course, hanging out with me that vow was quickly broken whether he wanted to participate or not.

Roxanne had her turn as well…I needed to do a high-key portrait, so she wore her white duds from work…this one received good marks and Rick was sure it was because he wasn’t in it. 

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Roxy

We threw a Halloween party and for special effects I cut out black construction paper bats and hung them on thread from the ceiling, threw some colored cloth over the lamps and voilà, party city.  

The night proceeded in grand style, maybe a few firecracker incidents but nothing life threatening, until there were just a few of us left.  We had been pulling on a bottle of 151 and killed it off.  Rick and I decided to walk down to the corner store for more beer to finish the night in proper style.  When we got back, my buddy Doug had passed out on the couch and could not be revived.  

I got into my first aid kit and snapped a couple ammonia inhalants.  I waved them under his nose to zero effect, so I crammed them in his nostrils.  I know, but this all made sense at the time.  This didn’t work either, so he became an art project, with us taking markers and decorating his face, sticking a cigar in his mouth and darts in his ears and other juvenile distractions of young men.  

When we were done with our art project, we opened up our hide-a-bed couch to put him to bed.  This thing must have been used for the inquisition.  It was missing many springs, had a mattress about an inch thick and had crossbars right under the important parts of your back.  I had tried to sleep on it once and had moved to the more comfortable floor after waking up with a major pain in the back.

Rick and I grabbed Doug, who by now resembled the dead guy in Weekend at Bernie’s, by the arms and feet and started swinging him back and forth to toss him on the couch-bed. Being rather inebriated ourselves, this ended in disaster with a loud ooof out of Doug as he landed half on, half off the bed, with a cross-bar in his back.  The rest of the springs blew off the bed and he went straight through to the floor.  Mission successful.

Rick staggered off to bed and I ended up passing out on a love seat in the living room where Doug was.  A few hours later I hear an awful racket and pry one eye open to see a buck-naked Rick shoving a staggering Doug back up the hallway.  Doug was trying to get into the bathroom to pee but that damn pocket door was jammed closed and was not cooperating. 

Rick thought Doug was going to blow chow if he couldn’t get to the toilet, so he was pushing him back towards the front door so he wouldn’t barf in the house.  Through my one bleary eye, what I saw was two drunks dancing a tango, one buck naked and the other barely able to stand…both of them trying with all their might to go the opposite direction and mumbling gibberish.  A good time was had by all.

Soon, Rick had a new girl friend from St Pete’s hospital, Marta. By December of ‘82, Rick moved to a new trailer and I moved into a townhouse across town with Doug.  Doug’s mom worked in a bank as the real estate manager on homes the bank had repossessed.  Doug was working for her doing miscellaneous repair work, landscaping and other handyman jobs as needed.  

As the recession was in full swing, there were plenty of repossessed /defaulted homes, so Doug asked if I was interested in partnering up and so we began working on homes together in the Olympia/Tacoma area.  We did it all and saw it all.  It was truly eye opening to see how people treated their homes once they had given up hope.  I should say mistreated, as we saw some unimaginable stuff that we had to cleanup and fix. 

One of the worst was a place we nicknamed “The Turkey House”, as the first time we saw it we looked over a fence in the back yard to see a sheep and a turkey wandering around freely.  We saw signs that people were still in there, so we let the Sheriff do his thing which took a couple of weeks. 

When we came back, the critters were all dead in the backyard, as the sheep had scarfed all the grass down to dirt within the circle of his leash and no where to be seen, and the turkey was a big pile of maggots, bones and feathers.  The guy had apparently had a glass repair/window business, so he had taken out his frustration by breaking all the window glass he had stored in his side yard.  It was a massive pile of glass that took many pick-up truck loads to the dump…but that wasn’t the worst of it.  

Entering the house, we were immediately assaulted by hordes of fleas and a nasty smell.  We backed out quick, slapping the fleas off,  and went to a store to buy six-packs of flea bombs and duct tape.  We took the tape and wound it around our pant cuffs to hopefully keep the fleas out.  We took a flea bomb and coated our pants legs with the spray and went back in the house like we were doing a door to door military assault.  

We went room to room, popping the flea bombs like grenades and got to the great room and our jaws dropped.  Now, this had been a pretty nice old house at some point.  Oak floors, sunken great room with a big white marble fireplace, nice fixtures and so on.   

What we saw was a massive pile of garbage and trash piled almost to the ceiling, and these were the big old high ceilings.  It smelled awful and included rotting food, dog crap and God knows what.  There was a black ooze coming out of the bottom of the pile, staining and warping the 100-year-old oak floor.

They had obviously tried burning trash in the fireplace for a while as it was covered with soot and ash.  They had cracked the marble at the top with the high heat from the trash burning but had obviously just given up at some point and let the pile grow. 

It looked like what Arlo Guthrie described in Alice’s Restaurant when the Hippies that lived in the old church had so much room they just threw their garbage in a big pile in the old church.  I wish I had photographs with circles and arrows showing the horror. 

They had obviously been pissed off, as they had randomly broken fixtures, mirrors and porcelain along with the plaster walls.  I’m just glad the water, gas and electric had been turned off or who knows what we would have had to deal with.  That place took us a good month or two to clean, working into the night after school. 

By this time I had caught up in class and had become one of the top students in the 1st year photography class, along with a beautiful young woman named Terri, but that’s another story…

Who had the best hair?

It’s a Pirate’s Life for me…

I have had more than a few people ask why I seem to have a preoccupation with Pirates. The simple fact is, like many an actual pirate, I was shanghaied from a very young age into the life. The port of call I grew up in, West Carrollton, had the pirate as their mascot. So it was that I were a pirate from the first grade all through the receipt of my parchment.

Me alma mater’s mascot…

12 years before the mast as a pirate, at such an impressionable young age, leaves a lasting black spot upon your soul. Alas, it would be many a king tide until I commandeered a vessel of me own, the noble Rogue.

The waxy seal of fate on my salty preoccupation though, may have been the first chance I had to earn my own chest of gold while still in school. Me closest swabs, Bald Rick and Nod-off Steve, had signed on to crew at Long John Silver’s, a shady pirate establishment known for vast platters of seafood, peg legs and planks.

Treasures aplenty, at a price even a powder monkey could afford…
Eat hearty, me hearties…

They put in a good word to the captain of the Shoppe, although they may have told a crusty tale or two…and soon I was deep frying with the best of them. The crew uniform of the day was right out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which would not be filmed for another 6 years.

Harrrgghhh…

The look started with a stylish white polyester smock, big and baggy with a corrugated finish to better hold onto crusty batter and grease, and fitted with a horizontal striped dickey to give it a proper salty appearance. These were tossed at you still smelling of fish, grease, malt vinegar and the last unfortunate crewman that had walked the plank.

Waitress version. Wenches were not permitted in the galley at Long John’s back in the day….

Black pants of your own supply were de rigueur of course, so that every speck of batter and dirt was highlighted admirably. This lovely haute couture was topped off with classic pirate haberdashery…the finest cardboard pirate hat money could buy. I am truly sorry to not have an image of us in our finery, but alas, iPhones were still decades away.

Only the finest cardboard for this crew…
Our wenches handed over the booty with a smile…

The vittles were grand…the Big Catch platter was more than an able bodied seaman could (or should) stomach in one sitting. It started with codfish fillets, with onion rings or fries, and crispy hushpuppies — all deep-fried, of course, with a garnish of coleslaw and topping out at 1,320 calories. Slather that with Long John’s own malt vinegar and you had yerself a proper salty meal…I’m not kidding, there was over 3,700 milligrams of sodium in it.

Add shrimp and a plank for a Captain’s platter!

The competition for first mate was fierce…we had crew battles to see who could drop the most cod into the vats of whale oil the fastest, without damaging the batter. A right proper gun drill it were.

To do this right, you needed to have a thick coating of batter on your hands, so you could dip your fingers into the 350 degree oil and let each fillet slide in without splashing the batter off. Only the bravest and most daring swabs could pull off this feat without scorching the hide off their digits.

But we did it all for the pretty wenches and little swabs…it did our black hearts a world of good to see them shoveling all that deep fried deliciousness down their gullets and wait for them to ring the bell.

Eat it all or ye’ll be swabbing the deck!

There were always long lines well out the door on Fridays and especially during Lent. We endeavored to give each passenger a meal fit for a King…or at least a King’s crew. We lived to hear the peal of the ships bell when each party disembarked, but cursed their black hearts when they did not ease our torment.

Ring the bell or we’ll cut your hearts out next time ya scurvy bilge rats…

The quartermasters were the overseers of every watch…each one carefully trained at his majesty’s elite “Cod College” down in Lexington. There they learned their trade in cutting the cod just so, weighing each slab and slice, keeping the crew from mutiny and ensuring all the gold was carefully scribed in the ships log as to make the King of the Pirates rich beyond compare.

The special booty was kept track of very closely, lest the captain break out the cat o’ nine tails and commence flogging. These treasures included shrimp and the wee pecan pies. These delicacies seemed to vanish into thin air faster than a mug of grog on a Friday night.

You see, it was not unknown for a crewman to suddenly hear a siren’s call for an order of shrimp to be put down in the fryer, only to find a patron lacking to cover such an expense when piping hot and ready. We gladly ate them to keep them from going to waste and saved the Quartermaster the embarrassment of logging the transgression.

The call of the Siren was powerful…

But all was not sweating and slaving away in the galley. When the last bell had rung and we locked the hatches down, we filled our Super-size grog cups up with the finest ale we had on tap, and merrily drank it through a straw lest the quartermaster find we were imbibing on watch.

This often caused more merriment, whence we would pull the cutlasses and pistols off the wall and begin sword fighting across the tops of the dining tables…much to the dining wenches dismay, as they had already scrubbed the planks down. But we were pirates with our pirate ways, and not to be denied the pleasures of the wicked after a long watch.

Avast and heave to ye scurvy dogs!

It was a glorious time and seemed to last forever, but our service with Long John’s was only a matter of a couple years, as Nod-off Steve and I were conscripted to serve in the Kings forces after schooling, and Bald Rick was off to fry the souls of the infirm with X-Rays.

But it wasn’t long before I once again heard the call of the pirate from Captain James Buffett…Bald Rick and I listened to his shanty’s and tropical sounds of the Caribbean and were lulled back to the brotherhood of piracy, our theme song became a Pirate Looks at Forty.

Captain Jimmy sings…Mother mother ocean, I have heard you call…wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall...

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late…

But not too late to go to sea! A score of years after schooling I tasted saltwater and felt the snap of sail in a fresh breeze and knew in my blood I was still a pirate…and have flown the Jolly Roger ever since, pillaging, plundering, and swashbuckling along the way…captaining ever more powerful vessels until I had enough gold to gain my flagship Rogue…I’ve salt in my veins, and it didn’t all come from those Captain’s Platters.

Rogue sitting pretty on her moorings…
If the Kraken or Kings men ever catch up to me, I’ll go to Davy Jones locker with a mug of grog in one hand and a cutlass in the other…

Holy Holey Socks

Holey simply means full of holes. Holy has several definitions: 1. sacred, or associated with a deity; 2. worthy of worship; 3. saintly; 4. deserving reverence.

I suppose #4 applies the best to these particular socks, although they are certainly holey and may also be considered sacred and perhaps even worthy of worship.  I just keep them in my sock drawer.

I wear them again today on Christmas even though the elastic may be a bit saggy and the Redwing Boot logo has long faded away. The cotton is in remarkably good condition for being almost 40 years old and still in use.

To most, they look like a pair of ratty old socks, but they were a gift from my buddy Ricky Baker‘s mother 37 years ago and I could never toss them now.

Rick and I had moved out to Washington State together a few months before, and being the motherly type, Marie dutifully sent her son a care package for Christmas with some cookies, beef jerky snacks and of course practical things like underwear that she couldn’t trust Rick to buy on his own.

What touched me, and still does, is that she included 2 pairs of socks for me as well, so that I would have at least one gift under the tree. I’m sure her motherly instinct played a part there as well…as a man-boy I couldn’t be trusted to buy myself practical things when there was beer available.

I was impressed. These were not just some run of the mill, Kmart, 5 pairs for a dollar special…these were expensive Red Wing boot socks that you had to go to a Red Wing shoe store to purchase.

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She sent a pair of white ones and these gray ones.  I must confess, I wore the white tube socks much more often and they were worn to shreds years ago.  Now, my mother was still sending care packages as well…and we supped like kings for a few days on all the baked goods and snacks…but it meant a great deal to receive those high quality socks from her.

Olympic Hot Springs w Ernie 6
Marie, “Ernie” at Olympic Hot Springs

By the way…Red Wing still sells socks and they start at $16.99.  Worth every penny.

 

 

 

 

Tahoma Glacier Ghost Story

This is an improbable story from a summit climb of Mt. Rainier in 1992.  I will start off with the fact that I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, but something wildly peculiar happened high on that mountain that I have no logical explanation for.  With this account, I will focus on this mysterious side story and leave the tale of the epic climb for another time, as it is my favorite route of all the paths I have stumbled up Mt. Rainier on.  First, I will set the stage with what occurred on our climb in 1992, then I will follow it up with a news account of what actually happened along our climbing route back in 1946.

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We started our hike in to high camp on Westside road in Mt Rainier National Park by parking at the road closure gate. This road is notorious for being eternally closed off due to the mountain streams causing washouts along the way and making it impassible for all but someone on foot.  This makes it one of the longest and most remote ways to get to the top of Rainier, so we had set aside a full five days to make sure we had plenty of time.

I had used this exact starting point when I was in the Army in 1978 to begin my solo hike around Mt Rainier on the Wonderland Trail.  I had a buddy at Ft. Lewis drop me off at the gated road closure, circled the entire mountain and hitch hiked back after almost two weeks alone on the mountain.  It was on that long, lonely trek that I had decided solo adventuring was not really my thing.  While I had enjoyed high adventure along the way, it was tempered by the fact that no one had experienced it with me to share these stories with.

One of the memories I had from that past solo trip was the feeling of being watched or shadowed by something every time a twig snapped or a few pebbles rolled down a slope.  When alone, your mind, at least my mind, after a few run-ins with small critters, deer, and even a bear, very easily wanders to improbable scenarios like it’s a cougar stalking me, or after a few more isolated days, even Sasquatch or Bigfoot playing games.

This trip however, I had my partner in crime of many adventures, Rick, and some friends of his from work that we had been training for a few months to get ready for this remote accent.  We took off quickly with our heavy climbing packs loaded with gear and supplies to last the week we expected to be on the mountain.  We worked our way along the road in the foggy, misty morning, working on the occasional blisters and settling our individual loads.

Blister break along West Side Road

The path I had walked almost 20 years before was still familiar, but altogether different at the same time.  With four men full of testosterone there is much more noise… grunting, laughing and storytelling, so there was much less navel-gazing even as I passed places that I remembered where rocks had rolled down a road cut or bushes moved with an imagined adversary skulking in the shadows.

Our route on the Tahoma Glacier running up the center of Mt Rainier.

We worked our way along the west flank of the mountain, breathing in the rich dampness of the old growth forest.  Everything was green and earthy, with the undergrowth and streams encroaching into the road bed, even removing it in places. We paused at the Marine Memorial and glanced up towards the Sunset Amphitheater where the plane had crashed into the mountain.  Our route went just to the left of this massive cliff after traversing underneath the headwall where the crash debris would have fallen.

Marine Memorial along West Side Road. Our route runs just to the right of the rock spur in the center of the photo. The Marine plane ran into the big headwall to the right.

We moved ever upwards, noticing the plant life getting more stunted and sparse as we neared the timberline.

As we wandered up along the glacier moraine and onto the foot of the wildly fractured Tahoma Glacier, we watched a family of mountain goats climbing up and over the hump of St. Andrews Rock as we made our way up. I wondered what would possess them to take such a steep overland route.  I later discovered that many climbers also take this route when the glacier is so fractured with crevasses it is almost impossible to travel on.  We climbed up to around 9500’ to stake out our high camp, almost even with Andrews Rock to the north.

Trekking along the glacial moraine

I picked a spot that looked to be free of any crevasses and not in a potential avalanche path, as we had seen several big ones coming off the massive headwalls all day long.  Or site was fairly flat as glaciers go, and we settled in pitching our tents and getting camp set up. Rick and I were in one tent, and Jonathan and his friend were in another. We had been at it for some time through the heat of the day, into early evening, so I decided we would spend the next day resting, melting snow for water and recovering from the strenuous climb up to be better prepared for a summit bid.  We were pretty trashed and would only have a few hours to recover if we were to head out on a summit climb very early in the morning.

Our high camp on the Tahoma Glacier

As on many routes, an early start was mandatory to ensure the steepest part of the route, known as the “Sickle”, was frozen solid so we could crampon up the 40 degree sloop without being beaten to death with falling ice and rock.  As the name implies, the narrow blade of the Sickle curved around to the left, funneling everything released from the side of the mountain right down the middle like a bowling alley, with us as the pins.

sickle
The Sickle is the narrow bob sled chute curving left around the cliff.

So we spent a pleasant day high up on the mountain, kicking back in perfect weather, eating, napping and melting snow to replenish our water supply. Off in the distance, we watched the goats climbing up and back down the hump of St Andrews Rock again, undertaking some endless Sisyphean task only they understood.  Well rested, we turned in early in order to be off at the crack of dawn.

As a rule, I am a very light sleeper to begin with.  Put me on a mountain on a sheet of ice, with others depending on me to make sound decisions and get them back down safely and sleep is just an idea that sounds like a fantasy.  My mind goes over the intended route endlessly, creating mental checkpoints for “what ifs” for turnaround milestones, creating checklists for who is carrying required safety gear and performing other various risk management tasks the others are blissfully unware of as they snore away.

I eventually passed out for a few hours rest, until a sudden loud snap and was heard and felt.  I jerked up suddenly and pressed my face to the netting on the tent door.  We had left the flap open with just the netting zipped for ventilation. It was a very bright, moonlit night, especially out in the middle of the glacier.  I sat there motionless, wondering if I had dreamed the snap or if it actually happened.  All my senses were on alert from the odd incident and I was keyed up again, listening to Rick snoring away.  I laid back down, but couldn’t doze back off, my mind running through possible scenarios for what the noise might have been.

Maybe 10 minutes went by as I lay there…and then I heard what sounded like footsteps crunching in the snow.  The steps got louder and it was apparent that it was not a single person, such as Jonathan in the other tent going to relieve himself.  It sounded like multiple people, or more likely as I though further, the goats had come over to investigate the camp.   Goats are drawn to the salt in human urine and it is very common to find them wandering up to camps and licking the snow or ground like a salt lick.

I though, boy, those goats must have made a beeline from that ridge so far away to get here this soon.  I attached my flash to my camera to see if I could get a shot of the goats around camp.  I slowly pressed my face against the open door netting to look off to the side of the tent where the sound was coming from. Nothing there.  I looked out the back window of the tent and again, nothing in sight.  The steps now sounded like the goats were marching around in a circle around the tent…multiple footsteps stamping around crunching in the snow.

I unzipped the netting and stuck my head out to get a better look around. Our camp is hundreds of yards from the nearest place where anything could be hiding.  The moon was shining bright, reflecting off the snow, creating an amazing bright field with nothing showing but our two tents.  I wake Rick up and tell him to listen…he is woozy with sleep and is mumbling back “what the hell Profitt, go back to sleep”… I keep shaking him and he finally comes around and listens… “what the hell is that” he says.  “I don’t know, I don’t see anything out there” I replied.

The marching continues for a while longer, I’m not sure exactly how long as we sat there just staring at each other in the tent or pressing our faces to the netting to see outside.  He decides he has to pee bad enough to venture out no matter what is out there, as he always did, and starts fumbling for his frozen boots. As he is rustling around getting dressed the marching faded away.  This had to be over a period of 15-20 minutes.

He went out, did his business and came back in and said “there’s nothing out there”.  I said “I told you that already”.  “Then what the hell was that?”  “I have no fucking idea, but it was something.”  I then told him about the loud snap I had heard and felt just before the steps.  Our train of thought eventually decided it had simply been the glacier fracturing or popping as glaciers do all the time.  We fell back in our sleeping bags and he was soon passed back out.

For me, sleep was done for the night.  No way was I going to fall back asleep with what had just happened and so I started going over the facts.  Bright, moonlit night.  Complete calm, not a hint of breeze.  Tents are out in the middle of the glacier, no way for anything to hide for hundreds of yards as close as the steps sounded. The stepping sound was there.  I heard it.  Rick heard it.  I was wide awake, not even slightly drowsy.

I laid there for a bit longer and then roused everyone to get ready for the summit attempt.  As everyone else prepared their gear I looked around for tracks with my head lamp.  We had pretty well pounded the immediate area flat with our tracks as we had been there   for a full day, but I didn’t see any goat tracks or human tracks that we didn’t make.  I started relating the story to the others which got everyone coming up with wild theories.

We eventually headed out of camp and into the Sickle, staggering up the mountain the crisp morning air.  We all got to the summit and slogged our way back down the Sickle in horrifying conditions, but eventually safely back to camp.

Taking a break at the top of the Sickle

There in the heat of the day a few inches of snow had melted off and there was now an obvious open crack, several inches wide in places and many yards long, right under the center of our tent.  OK, well, that explains the loud snap and vibration.

You can see the fracture in the glacier running right under the tent.

Conversation then turned to the notion that it was the ghosts of the 32 marines that had perished in the plane crash on the headwall just above us.  I explained that their bodies had never been removed from the wreckage as it had been deemed too dangerous for a rescue team and they had been buried in the glacier for nearly 50 years.  With a bit more whiskey, this became the tale of choice:  The glacier had snapped open right under our tent, releasing the spirits of some of the fallen Marines who then marched, in step, around our tent, for what reason only they understood.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I do not believe in ghosts…but something freaky happened up there that I have no real explanation for. A squad of ghost Marines finding it endlessly amusing to go fuck with an old Army dude high on a mountain is as good an explanation as any.

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Historylink.com Article:

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A Curtis Commando C-46 transport plane crashes into Mount Rainier, killing 32 U.S. Marines, on December 10, 1946.

By Daryl C. McClary          Posted 7/29/2006             HistoryLink.org Essay 7820

On December 10, 1946, six Curtis Commando R5C transport planes carrying more than 200 U.S. Marines leave San Diego en route to Seattle. The aircraft, flying entirely by instruments at an altitude of 9,000 feet, encounter heavy weather over southwestern Washington. Four turn back, landing at the Portland Airport; one manages to land safely in Seattle, but the sixth plane, carrying 32 Marines, vanishes. Search-and-rescue aircraft, hampered by continuing bad weather, are unable to fly for a week and ground searches prove fruitless. After two weeks, the search for the missing aircraft is suspended. The Navy determines that the plane was blown off course by high winds and flew into the side of Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). In July 1947, a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park spots wreckage on South Tahoma Glacier. Search parties examine the debris and confirm that it came from the missing plane. Four weeks later, the bodies are found high on the face of the glacier, but hazardous conditions force authorities to abandon plans to remove them for burial. The 32 U.S. Marines remain entombed forever on Mount Rainier. In 1946, it was the worst accident, in numbers killed aboard an aircraft, in United States aviation history and remains Mount Rainier’s greatest tragedy.

Marine Plane
Curtis Commando C-46/R5C transport plane

The Tragedy

The Curtis Commando (C-46/R5C) was the largest and heaviest twin-engine transport aircraft used by the U.S. military during World War II (1941-1945). Originally developed as a 36-seat commercial airliner, it was used to haul cargo and personnel and for towing gliders. Although the plane had a service ceiling of 24,500 feet, it was restricted to flying at lower altitudes when hauling passengers because the cabin was unpressurized.

At 10:36 a.m. on Tuesday, December 10, 1946, six Curtis Commando R5C transport planes carrying more than 200 U.S. Marines departed El Toro Marine Air Station near San Diego on a six-and-a-half hour, nonstop flight to Naval Air Station Sand Point in Seattle. The flight encountered extremely bad weather over southwestern Washington and four of the planes turned back, landing at the Portland Airport. The two remaining aircraft, flying entirely by instruments (IFR), pressed onward toward Seattle.

At 4:13 p.m., Major Robert V. Reilly, pilot of aircraft No. 39528, radioed the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now the Federal Aviation Administration) radio range station at Toledo, Washington, that he was flying IFR at 9,000 feet and, with ice forming on the leading edges of the wings, requested permission to fly above the cloud cover. The plane was estimated to be approximately 30 miles south of Toledo, the midpoint between Seattle and Portland. When Major Reilly failed to contact Toledo, establishing his new altitude, air traffic controllers became concerned. Although buffeted by the storm, the fifth Curtis R5C flew through the weather without major difficulty, landing at Sand Point shortly after 5 p.m.

Under normal circumstances, the powerful Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) radio range station at Everett should have been able to receive transmissions from Major Reilly’s aircraft by 4:30 p.m., but heard none. Frantic efforts by the CAA, as well as the Army and Navy, to contact the plane were fruitless. The CAA’s ground transmission network queried other airfields around Western Washington, but there was no trace of the missing transport. All of the Curtis R5C’s had sufficient fuel to fly for 10 hours, giving officials hope that Major Reilly had landed his plane safely at some remote location.

The Search

At dawn on Wednesday, December 11, 1946, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard search planes were poised to start an intensive search of the area where the aircraft was presumed to have disappeared. But poor visibility and bad weather throughout southwestern Washington kept the search planes grounded. Air rescue units remained on alert, waiting for a break in the weather. Another concern was the missing aircraft’s color, black, making the wreckage extremely difficult to spot from the air. Most search activity was limited to investigating leads provided by local citizens who reported hearing airplane engines around the time the Curtis R5C disappeared.

Although it was well off Major Reilly’s designated flight plan, the search for the aircraft was concentrated around Randle, Longmire, and Paradise in the southern foothills and slopes of Mount Rainier. John Preston, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, and other park rangers reported hearing a plane fly over the area about 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, just minutes after Major Reilly’s last transmission to Toledo. Many of the rangers thought the aircraft might have crashed into the Nisqually Glacier on the south slope of the mountain.

On Friday, December 13, 1946, Assistant Chief Ranger William Jackson Butler (1909-2000) and Paradise District Ranger Gordon Patterson climbed to Panorama Ridge, elevation 6,800 feet, in a desperate effort to scout Nisqually Glacier for signs of the missing aircraft. But visibility there was almost zero and they were driven back by a blizzard. The rangers reported hearing the roar of avalanches on the glacier, which could have easily buried any wreckage forever.

Stormy weather in Western Washington continued for the next five days. High winds and heavy rain caused flooding at lower elevations, severely hindering search efforts and disrupting communications. More than five feet of snow fell on Mount Rainier, making it almost impossible to locate any trace of the plane on the mountain.

On Monday, December 16, 1946, the weather cleared for the first time in a week and conditions were ideal for an aerial search. Twenty-five Army, Navy, and Coast Guard aircraft were launched to search the slopes of Mount Rainier and as far south as Toledo in Lewis County for any sign of the missing Curtis R5C transport. But all the search planes returned without sighting any trace of wreckage. An intensive search around and west of Nisqually Glacier by air and ground units failed to uncover a single clue to the plane’s whereabouts. Still, authorities suspected that the aircraft had crashed on Mount Rainier or somewhere in the vicinity.

Two weeks of searching produced nothing and at that point chances of the Marines’ survival were nil, so in late December efforts to find the aircraft were suspended. Park rangers thought that recent heavy snows on Mount Rainier would have covered any signs of wreckage.

Reconstructing the Event

Still, the lost Marines would not be forgotten. The search for the missing plane resumed the next summer, after some of the snow had melted. Meanwhile, the Navy conducted a thorough investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the aircraft’s disappearance. Families of the missing men offered a $5,000 reward to anyone finding the plane.

After analyzing the evidence, Navy officials concluded the missing plane, traveling at approximately 180 m.p.h., crashed into the side of Mount Rainier. Major Reilly was flying an IFR course, corrected for a southeast wind. However south of Portland, the wind changed direction, blowing from the west at 70 m.p.h. This wind shift, unknown to the pilot, pushed the plane approximately 25 degrees to the east, directly on a path into Mount Rainier. Their analysis was bolstered by reports from persons on the ground along the supposed line of flight where the Curtis R5C disappeared, who reported hearing a plane flying overhead. They believed the wreckage, if it could be located, would be scattered on one of the glaciers on the south or southwest side of the mountain.

Bill Butler’s Eagle Eye

On Monday, July 21, 1947, Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler, 38, was hiking up Success Cleaver on his day off, monitoring snow levels and climbing conditions, when he spotted some aircraft wreckage, including a bucket seat, high on South Tahoma Glacier. The following day, Butler flew over the area in a Navy reconnaissance plane to assist photographing the area where he saw the debris. The wreckage couldn’t be seen from the air, but Butler was able to pinpoint the location without difficulty.

It was at about the 9,500-foot level on a huge snow-field rife with deep crevasses and sheer ice precipices, below an almost perpendicular 3,000-foot rock wall. The terrain was so treacherous that none of the park rangers or mountain climbing guides recalled anyone ever traversing the glacier’s face. As gravity drags the glacial ice down the mountainside, at an approximate rate of 10 inches per day, fissures open and close, causing avalanches and rock slides and collapsing snow bridges over crevasses.

Searching for Wreckage and Remains

On Wednesday, July 23, 1947, the Navy established a radio relay station and base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, altitude 5,800 feet, on the slopes of Pyramid Peak. That afternoon, Butler, accompanied by seven expert mountaineers, hiked five miles from the Longmire Ranger Station to the base camp, where they spent the night. They planned to embark at 4 a.m. the following morning, but bad weather delayed the mission.

Finally, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 24, 1947, the search party started the arduous three-and-a-half mile climb toward South Tahoma Glacier. They split into three groups, each taking a different route, making the search of the glacier safer and more efficient. Because it was believed that vibrations from aircraft motors could trigger avalanches and rock slides, endangering the climbers, all planes were warned to stay clear of Mount Rainier.

That afternoon, the first fragments of an aircraft were found at the 9,500-foot level, strewn over a quarter-mile-wide area and partially embedded in the ice. Initial efforts to free pieces of the wreckage with ice axes proved unsuccessful. Although no bodies were located, searchers found a Marine Corps health record, a piece of a uniform, a seat belt, a temperature control panel and fragments of an aircraft’s fuselage. At about 5:30 p.m., the mountaineers returned to the base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground with their discoveries. There Navy officials positively identified the health record as belonging to a marine aboard the missing Curtis R5C transport.

On Friday, July 25, 1947, the mountaineers returned to South Tahoma Glacier to search for signs of the 32 missing men, but the weather had deteriorated, greatly increasing the hazards on the glacier. Throughout the day, the climbers, battling rain and snow, were bombarded by falling rocks and encountered two large crevasses that had opened overnight. They recovered additional evidence identifying the wreckage, including a knapsack containing Marine Corps health and service records, and saw considerably more that could not be extricated from the ice. But no bodies were found although searchers dug several feet down into the ice at various locations to inspect debris.

On Saturday, July 26, 1947, Navy officials announced that, due to the extremely difficult and dangerous conditions on the glacier, the search for the missing men had been suspended. Photo reconnaissance aircraft would continue monitoring the crash site so that if and when conditions on the glacier improved, further attempts could be made to find and recover the bodies.

On Monday, August 18, 1947, Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler was on a scouting trip around the South Tahoma Glacier with two park rangers when he spotted a large piece of wreckage at the 10,500-foot level. The rangers investigated and found the crushed nose section of the Curtis R5C, which had been buried under several feet of snow since winter. The sun had melted the snow down to the glacial ice, revealing the nose section with the bodies of 11 men tangled inside. The rangers returned to park headquarters at Longmire and notified officials at Naval Air Station Sand Point of their discovery.

The Navy responded immediately, establishing a base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. Over the next few days, Navy and National Park Service officials discussed the feasibility of the removing bodies from the glacier for burial. The general census was it would take at least 20 experienced mountain climbers, at great personal risk, about two weeks to bring 32 bodies from the crash site to the base camp. Butler explained that conditions on the glacier were so bad, it took four hours to get to the site of the original wreckage. Snow bridges, which were there previously, had collapsed and new crevasses had opened up all through the ice. Although it was only another half mile up the glacier, it took another four hours to reach the wreckage of the nose section. Before making any decisions, Navy officials advised they would seek expert advice from the Army’s famous Mountain Division about recovery efforts.

Meanwhile, the Navy Department and National Park Service had been planning a memorial service for the lost Marines on Sunday, August 24, 1947 at Longmire. Parents and relatives were due to arrive in Seattle as early as Tuesday. Although circumstances had changed dramatically, the decision was made to proceed with the service.

On Friday, August 22, 1947, 17 climbers, led by Butler, returned to the glacier to survey the new site and search for more bodies. In addition to the 11 men found in the crushed nose section, 14 more bodies, most encased in ice, and a considerable amount of the broken plane, were discovered wedged in a crevasse. A heavy volume of rocks and boulders falling from the glacier’s headwall forced the search party to withdraw, but they brought out wallets, rings, watches, and personal papers of many of the men who died. The Naval Public Information Office in Seattle announced that all 32 Marine bodies had been located; 25 had been seen and there was no doubt the other seven were there also.

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, August 24, 1947, a memorial service for the 32 Marines was held near Longmire. The ceremony took place on a knoll at the 4,000-foot summit of Round Pass, overlooking Mount Rainier and South Tahoma Glacier. Approximately 200 persons attended the solemn service, including the families of 14 of the men. Marine Corps Commanding General Leroy Hunt presented each family that had lost a Marine with a folded American flag as a memorial. The ceremony concluded with a bugler playing taps and the traditional 21-gun salute. Before leaving, the families decided to hold a memorial on Round Pass in August every year to honor the dead Marines.

On Monday, August 25, 1947, 13 climbers, led again by Butler, returned to South Tahoma Glacier to assess the feasibility of removing the bodies for burial without undue hazard. Included in the survey party were nine experts in mountain and winter warfare from the Army’s Mountain Division. The following day, officials from the Army, Navy, and National Park Service met at Fort Lewis to discuss the recovery problems. After careful consideration, all the experts agreed to abandon the mission because it would endanger the lives of the recovery parties. Clinching the decision was a letter written after the memorial service by parents of six of the Marines aboard the ill-fated plane, stating that sufficient effort had been made to recover their son’s remains:

“It is our wish that the vicinity be properly posted to defeat any efforts of curious and uninterested parties who enter near this hallowed area and that all further activity be abandoned, leaving our sons in the care of our Creator” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Parents who had left Mount Rainier before the letter was written also expressed the desire that no more lives be risked in recovery efforts.

Honoring the Fallen

On Wednesday, August 27, 1947, Captain A. O. Rule, Commandant of Naval Air Station Sand Point, announced the official decision to cease all recovery efforts on South Tahoma Glacier. A dispatch from the Navy Department, Washington, D.C., concurred with the decision and approved mass burial at the site. In effect, the 32 Marines would stay where they died, among the wreckage of the Curtis R5C.

Officials at Mount Rainier National Park affirmed that there were no predatory animals or insects on the glacier at 10,500 feet and the wreckage and bodies would be covered by several feet of snow which would start falling at that altitude in early September. “By next spring, this snow will be compressed into several feet of glacier ice and there should be no visible evidence of this tragedy left” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

On September 15, 1947, the Department of Washington Marine Corps League asked Secretary of the Interior Julius Albert Krug (1907-1970) to rename South Tahoma Glacier the United States Marines Memorial Glacier, stressing that “No finer memorial to our Marine dead could be found or erected” (New York Times). Instead, the National Park Service affixed a bronze plaque, bearing the names of the Marines, on a large granite boulder at Round Pass, overlooking South Tahoma Glacier.

On August 18, 1948, the first annual gathering of the families of the Marines interred on South Tahoma Glacier was held at Round Pass. During the ceremony, Butler was presented with the Distinguished Public Service Certificate and lapel pin, the Navy’s highest civilian award, for his determined efforts to find the lost Marines. The award was the first of its kind presented in Washington state.  In his presentation address, Colonel D. A. Stafford, USMC, told the audience that Butler had declined the $5,000 reward offered by the parents for locating the missing plane, explaining that he had only been discharging his duties as a park ranger.

Butler was honored again by the National Parks Service during a meeting at Grand Canyon, Arizona. On October 3, 1948, he was awarded the Department of the Interior’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and given a promotion that netted him a salary increase of $126 per year. A year later, he was the subject of a full-length article in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Mountain Rescue Man.”

The Department of Washington, Marine Corps League, in conjunction with the families of the men buried on South Tahoma Glacier, had been conducting an annual memorial ceremony at Round Pass each year on the last Saturday in August. However, in the mid 1990s, the road to Round Pass washed out, making the area inaccessible to everyone except hikers willing to walk four-and-a-half miles from the Longmire Ranger Station. Consideration was given to moving the granite memorial from Round Pass to the new Tahoma National Cemetery near Kent, dedicated on September 26, 1997. But extracting a 10,000-pound boulder from a wilderness area wasn’t feasible and it would require an act of Congress to allow its removal from a national park. Also, the family members and local Marine veterans believed the monument should stay in its original location.

In 1998, the newly established Mount Rainier Detachment of the Marine Corps League received authorization to duplicate the monument. They located a similar boulder and had it moved to Veterans Memorial Park in Enumclaw, approximately 45 miles southeast of Seattle, in the foothills of Mount Rainier. After creating a flat space on the rock, the league affixed a replica of the bronze plaque on boulder at Round Pass. The new monument was dedicated on Saturday, August 21, 1999, at the 51st annual memorial ceremony held to honor the 32 Marines entombed forever on Mount Rainier.

In 1946, the loss of the Curtis Commando R5C was the worst accident, in numbers killed aboard a plane, in United States aviation history. Although there have been more than 325 fatalities in Mount Rainier National Park since it was established by Congress in 1899, the plane crash on December 10, 1946, remains the greatest tragedy in the mountain’s history.

Roster of Marines on board the Curtis Commando R5C, No. 39528

Crew:

  • Major Robert V. Reilly, Memphis, Texas, Pilot
  • Lt. Colonel Alben C. Robertson, Santa Ana Heights, California, Copilot
  • Master Sergeant Wallace J. Slonina, Rochester, New York, Crew Chief

Passengers:

  • Master Sergeant Charles F. Criswell, San Diego, California
  • Private Duane R. Abbott, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Private Robert A. Anderson, Raymondville, Texas
  • Private Joe E. Bainter, Canton, Missouri
  • Private Leslie R. Simmons, Jr., Kalama, Washington
  • Private Harry K. Skinner, Confluence, Pennsylvania
  • Private Lawrence E. Smith, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Private Buddy E. Snelling, Columbus, Ohio
  • Private Bobby J. Stafford, Texarkana, Texas
  • Private William D. St. Clair, Los Angeles, California
  • Private Walter J. Stewart, Austin, Texas
  • Private John C. Stone, Los Angeles, California
  • Private Albert H. Stubblefield, Bakersfield, California
  • Private William R. Sullivan, Ardmore, Oklahoma
  • Private Chester E. Taube, Fresno, California
  • Private Harry L. Thompson, Jr., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Private Duane S. Thornton, Biola, California
  • Private Keith K. Tisch, Marne, Michigan
  • Private Eldon D. Todd, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • Private Richard P. Trego, Denver, Colorado
  • Private Charles W. Truby, Anthony, Kansas
  • Private Harry R. Turner, Monroe, Oregon
  • Private Ernesto R. Valdovin, Tucson, Arizona
  • Private Gene L. Vremsak, Calexico, California
  • Private William E. Wadden, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Private Donald J. Walker, Hoquiam, Washington
  • Private Gilbert E. Watkins, Tuscon, Arizona
  • Private Duane E. White, Ottawa, Kansas
  • Private Louis A. Whitten, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Sources:

“Ask Glacier Name for Marines,” The New York Times, September 15, 1947, p. 21; Robert N. Ward, “Marine Transport Feared Down in Mountain Region,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 11, 1946, p. 1; “Hunt Abandoned at Mount Purcell,” Ibid., December 12, 1946, p. 1; Jack Jarvis, “Bad Weather Halts Search of Ice Fields,” Ibid., December 13, 1946, p. 1; Gene Schroeder, “Storm Blocks Plane Search by Rangers,” Ibid., December 14, 1946, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Plane rescue Team ‘Sweats Out’ Delay,” Ibid., December 15, 1946, p. 1; “Long Missing Plane Believed Found on Rainier,” Ibid., July 23, 1947, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Arduous Trek Starts to Site of Craft Wreckage,” Ibid., July 24, 1947, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Searching Party Risks death to Reach Tragic Scene,” Ibid., July 25, 1947, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Search On Foot Halted for Plane Victims in Rainier Ice,” Ibid., July 27, 1947, p. 9; E. P. Chalcraft, “Rainier May Hold Forever Bodies of Air Crash Victims,” Ibid., July 26, 1947, p. 1; “Report Eleven Bodies Found On Rainier,” Ibid., August 20, 1947, p. 1; Lucille Cohen, “Risk Lives to Get 11 Dead Off Rainier,” Ibid., August 21, 1947, p. 1; “All 32 Marine Bodies Located,” Ibid., August 24, 1947, p. 9; Robert N. Ward, “Taps Echoes Over Rainier for Marines,” Ibid., August 25, 1947, p. 1; Lloyd Stackhouse, “Marine Plane Dead to Rest On Mt. Rainier,” Ibid., August 28, 1947, p. 1; “Fit Resting Place for Plane Victims,” Ibid., August 29, 1947, p. 8; “Navy Honors Finder of Plane Wreckage on Mount Rainier,” Ibid., August 19, 1848, p. 1; “Park Ranger Given Award,” Ibid., October 4, 1948, p. 4; Candy Hatcher, “God’s Monument to 32 Marines,” Ibid., March 30, 2000, p. A-1; “Search for Craft Moves to Randle,” The Seattle Times, December 11, 1946, p. 1; “Floods Slow search for Lost Marine Corps Plane,” Ibid., December 12, 1946, p. 2; “State Men on Missing Marine Corps Plane,” Ibid., December 13, 1946, p. 13; “Plane Searchers Wait on Weather,” Ibid., December 14, 1946, p. 2; “Weather Balks Search Parties’ Hunt for Plane,” Ibid., December 15, 1946, p. 3; “18 Planes Hunt Lost Transport,” Ibid., December 16, 1946, p. 13; “Rangers Start Plane Search Tomorrow,” Ibid., July 23, 1947, p. 5; Robert L. Twiss, “Bad Weather delays Search for Lost Plane,” Ibid., July 24, 1947, p. 1; Robert L. Twiss, “Some Wreckage found in First Assault of Ice-Choked Terrain,” Ibid., July 25, 1947, p. 19; “Army May Seek Rainier Bodies,” Ibid., August 20, 1947, p. 14;”Body Removal Plans Uncertain,” Ibid., August 21, 1947, p. 9; “Final Climb to Crash Slated,” Ibid., August 24, 1947, p. 10; “Climbers Study Removing Bodies,” Ibid., August 25, 1947, p. 5; “Parley Set on Body Removal,” Ibid., August 27, 1947, p. 2; “Crash Victims Will Remain on Glacier,” Ibid., August 28, 1947, p. 21; “Navy Rewards Ranger Who Found Lost Plane,” Ibid., August 19, 1948, p. 12; “Ranger Receives Service Medal,” Ibid., October 4, 1948, p. 7; “Butler, Veteran Rainier Ranger, Gets into Print,” Ibid., November 9, 1949, p. 12.

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.

Mt Baker 1990 3
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.

Mt Baker 1990 6a
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.

Mt Baker 1990 2
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.