Ashes to ashes, this is not just dust…

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

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

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

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Patty prepping the ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of Lake Cushman from Mt Ellinor

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

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Mt goat on Mt. Ellinor

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

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Now there is another old goat on Mt Ellinor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three months of bottomless bourbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patty empties Rick into the stream

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

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Rick with my old Mammut climbing rope on Mt Rainier

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

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Tom and Rick watching Jim tie the wrong knots

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

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

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

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Goodbye for now…

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

 

 

 

The Climber Community

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

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

In Memoriam

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

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

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

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

Brittany 3 hrs

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

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

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

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

 

Memory Collector Box

I have wanted to take photographs since I first understood that all the cool paper photos filling albums and crates came from these little magic boxes.  My first camera was a Kodak Brownie Reflex my mother finally surrendered and allowed me to use after much begging and pleading.

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Type of camera I started with

In those days everyone did not carry a camera phone in their pocket.  Taking photos was a special event and conducted only when special events happened, such as Easter photos of the kids all dandied up or relatives from out of town visiting.  A roll of film with 12 shots might last an entire year or even longer back then. Film and processing was expensive after all and not to be wasted by children snapping away at trivial subjects!

I explained in great detail how I needed it to document my all-important adventures.  It had long been kept in a safe, dark place in the black walnut china cabinet, out of the eyesight of probing children…which of course only made it all the more desirable.

I would sneak it out and run my hands over all the knobs and buttons, endlessly looking through the viewfinder and clicking the shutter release to practice my new art form. I figured out how to open the film compartment and longed for the day I could load a fresh roll of film and begin snapping away in earnest.

My first photographic trip was an annual “high adventure” trip my scout troop did every year down in Cumberland Gap National Park. Just the name Cumberland Gap was enough to get a young boy thinking about Daniel Boone chasing bears and being chased by Indians through the deep woods and carving your blaze on trees so others could follow your path.

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Entrance to the park
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Permission slip to go on trip. $22.00 was a small fortune for a Boy Scout trip.

The Mischa Mokwa Adventure Trail is 21 miles of challenging hiking up steep grades that always took place over the three day Memorial Day weekend.  It was almost mythological in our troop, with stories handed down from the older boys that had experienced it. Entire families went down and stayed at basecamp while the “men” went off into the mountain wilderness to prove their mettle.

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Patch for surviving the trail

Boastful stories were told of places along the trail like Hensley Settlement, an old frontier post with log cabins and spring houses, Sand Cave, an enormous cave amphitheater filled with, well, sand, and finally, White Rocks, a high cliff overlook with stunning views of 3 states.

 

Not incidental to this tale, Rick Baker was one of the subjects of this adventure and initial photo-journalistic attempt. Little did I know then that this fledgling experience would have a major impact on my life and that Rick would, over time, become the major focus of my camera.

So off I went on this wild adventure, camera around my neck with 2 entire rolls of film all for myself. I snapped pics of the troop climbing to the ridge trail, drinking water from the spring house, group shots in limestone caves, running wildly down the sand slope at Sand Cave, cooking dinner at high camp, sitting at the edge of the White Rock cliffs flinging crackers off into the abyss…man, I captured every nuance and detail that could possibly be captured. I was a now a true photojournalist!

Getting back home I waited impatiently to get my processed photos back from Woody’s Market and finally they were in.  I couldn’t wait to see my artistically glorious images captured in full color for all of eternity!  I opened the envelope with the big 127 negatives and finally the prints themselves and…was never so disappointed in my life (at least to that point).

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127 format had some big negatives!

They were grainy, out of focus, dark or simply blank. They were not framed the way I had envisioned looking through the viewfinder. There were light leaks from the old camera that blemished many with orange blotches from fingers in the shot. I was crushed.  They looked so great in my mind’s eye…what had the processor done to my beautiful, carefully composed images!

I dutifully put them in a makeshift photo album made from a school notebook anyway and tossed in in my box of keepsakes.  My dream was a bust.

It took a few years to recover from the huge let down…I all but abandoned the notion of taking pictures but eventually concluded that it wasn’t so much me as it was the old camera and lack of technical knowledge that was the issue. After I joined the Army and was sent to the exotic and extremely photogenic Pacific Northwest I was resolved to turn myself into a real photographer once and for all.  I saved my money and bought a real camera…a Canon AE-1 35mm SLR.

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Real camera, get outta my way!

Man, now you’re talking! Dials, buttons, self-timer, little numbers all over the place, this was a serious camera!  I could look through the viewfinder and see exactly what the camera would capture.  I could change from a regular lens to a wide angle, telephoto and everything in-between! I could stop a birds wings flapping in mid-flight with a super-fast 1/1000thof a second shutter speed…this is the tool I needed all along!

I read the manual front to back dozens of times, bought books, played with each control until I knew how everything on that camera functioned.  I shot roll after roll experimenting with backlit subjects, depth of field, long exposures, timed exposures, flash, fast shutter speeds, slow shutter speeds, print film, slide film, black and white, color, you name it.

As I developed my skills and artistic eye I started carrying my camera with me everywhere I could, even out on maneuvers and eventually arrived at the decision that I wanted to make capturing images my career.  After I got out of the Army I used my VA money to attend a 2 year course in photography and film making at a technical school and eventually moved on to a four year degree in visual art at a state college.

During all this time Rick was my long-suffering photographic target as he was usually a co-conspirator of my explorations to the mountains, beaches and anywhere else we could quench our lust for adventure.

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Getting chilly after doing the Sawtooth ridge traverse in the Olympics

There is no doubt that I have photographed Rick more than any other person or thing. In digging through forty-five years of photos for his remembrance I gathered over 1500 pictures of him to edit through. It became our social contract that a camera would just always be there and he used to joke that he was a terrible model and I was only doing it to snap pics of him looking goofy.

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Flapjack Lakes Trail 1991.  I never could get a hold of that tongue and release him from being tongue-tied.

To call him my muse would be misleading, as he was often simply the only one to point the camera at, but he did act as inspiration as he surrendered to being directed, manipulated and cajoled into assisting me to get the images I wanted.

Over time, he learned I didn’t always want him to be posing or just doing cheesy snapshots, although these were always amusing.  He knew not to always look at the camera to get more candid shots, to continue hiking or climbing past me instead of stopping when he got to me, to just act like I wasn’t there.

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Cruising the wild and raw Pacific Ocean Coast in Olympic National Park

I couldn’t help laughing when he would begin coaching new recruits to our adventures as I would overhear him instructing others “he doesn’t want you to look at the lens” or, “just act like he isn’t there” and “just keep walking or he’ll make us do it again”.

He also cheerfully played along when I wanted multiple takes of the same thing to change exposures or otherwise fiddle around with my photographic necessities.  I am sure there were times when having a camera relentlessly pointed at him was fatiguing and an imposition on his privacy, such as the many pics of him eating, drinking, sleeping, peeing, pooping and subsequently flipping me off, but he was always a great sport and being an extrovert I think he secretly liked all the attention.

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Rick keeping abreast of women’s faces melting off with the Weekly World News.

As I prepare the memorial video for Rick, my mind constantly wanders off as I sift through all those years of photos.  Over the years I have often thought of how these photos would become my memories as I grow older and begin to forget more and more details. I treasure each photo, some more than others, but all collectively telling stories of adventures with friends, family and transitory acquaintances.

As I dig through the boxes and boxes of slide pages and prints I come across one adventure or event after another.  Some were very exciting and some were simply filled with moments of beauty, curiosity, or some other kind of implied importance since a frame or two was snapped. They are certainly not all masterpieces but they are all treasured more than gold to me.

 

 

 

 

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Two of the many bins of photos I had to dig through

Though there are thousands of images I can still recall each specific moment they were taken as I deliberately thought about composition, exposure, depth of field, motion, shutter speed and all the other things my training and experience had made me aware of over the years.  But many of the memories locked in these frames are now only triggered when I view the photos… my actual memory having forgotten or stored away the experience to the far off memory attic until being reminded by their visual presence.

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My kind of math: 20 slides per page times a buttload of pages equals a shit-ton of photos.

Often, it is the moments not shown in the photos that are triggered…those moments that were not snapped because someone’s safety was at stake, rain was pouring down, a snowstorm was raging, it was too hot or too cold or I was simply too lazy to stop, pull the heavy hunk of glass and metal out of its protective cocoon, change lenses and grab a pic. How I envy todays adventurers with their tiny GoPros and mobile phones to effortlessly record every small detail so easily.

In an activity where going light and fast was paramount, people did things like cut the handle off a toothbrush or take a poncho instead of a tent to save a few ounces. My struggle was always how many lenses do I really need and how much film to take along balanced with my allocated share of personal and team climbing gear and aching back from carrying too much.

One example of this internal struggle is deciding to leave my camera behind to save weight when I saw a climbing team slide into a crevasse far above us on Mt. Baker, a great story on it’s own.  It was nearly sundown and I made the instant decision to only take bare essentials for the rescue up an evil looking, heavily crevassed icefall to get to them as fast as possible.

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Mt Baker 1990 on the trip we had to rescue a climbing team of the Tacoma Mountaineers

We quickly jammed our packs with a sleeping bag, water, stove, first aid kit, ice ax, crampons, rope, sleeping pads for insulation, splitting the load with Rick.  As it turned out, we got to them with just enough light left to see they were in a terrible situation with blood, broken ones and one of them wedged into a constriction 40 feet down in the crevasse.

We performed difficult and stress-filled lifesaving operations to stabilize the victims and then spent the rest of the night down in a creaking, snapping and dripping crevasse trying not to fall into the dark abyss on either side of us.

We moved the worst off victim (hypothermic, concussion, serious neck injury, broken leg) to a small ice shelf, slightly longer than his body, with barely enough room for Rick and I to stand at either end.

We got him into the sleeping bag, melted some snow with the stove and stuffed a few heated water bottles around him to deal with his hypothermia.  We then spent the rest of the night standing next to him as there was no place to sit on the small shelf.

We had nothing but time on our hands waiting for the main rescue team to arrive (that we hoped a Canadian team was bringing back after running back to the trail head and sounding the alarm) and tending the injured climber.

I started kicking myself in the ass for not bringing the camera up from base camp.  The shots I could have taken!  We chipped a couple of small alcoves in the walls of the glacier ice and put some candles from the first aid kit in them. They cast a crazy magical glow over the whole scene that made it look like a narrow crystal palace and I imagined taking long exposures to capture it all.

I envisioned images of Rick comically struggling to stay awake, close-ups of the crystal candle alcoves, pics looking straight up at the incredibly clear band of the star field visible through the narrow canyon of the crevasse, pics looking straight down from our tiny shelf of ice into the seemingly bottomless abyss of the crevasse, painting the ancient ice walls with the light of our headlamps to further illuminate the surreal crevasse, images of the paramedic rappelling down to us in the morning, shots of the big Navy Sea Stallion helicopter hovering directly above us as they hoisted the victim in the Stokes litter out of the crevasse in the early morning light, pics of my brand new, never slept-in mountain tent being blown 100 feet into the air at base camp as the huge helicopter landed there to pick up one of the other victims carried back down by the Canadian team. None of these images were taken, but they remain very vivid in my memory.

Captain Robert Everdeen  DSN:  318-824-2334 email:  everdeenrj@hoa.centcom.mil
Big Navy rescue chopper.

The power of the images I do have, to remind me of the ones I never managed to capture, is something I hope will never go away.  These memories in-between the photographs are every bit as important to me, and are as subject to fading with age as the physical photos without careful curation and people to share them with.

A sleeping bag, water, stove, first aid kit, ice ax, crampons, rope, sleeping pads for insulation, splitting the load with Rick.  As it turned out, we got to them with just enough light left to see they were in a terrible situation with blood, broken ones and one of them wedged into a constriction 40 feet down in the crevasse.

We performed difficult and stress-filled lifesaving operations to stabilize the victims and then spent the rest of the night down in a creaking, snapping and dripping crevasse trying not to fall into the dark abyss on either side of us.

We moved the worst off victim (hypothermic, concussion, serious neck injury, broken leg) to a small ice shelf, slightly longer than his body, with barely enough room for Rick and I to stand at either end.

We got him into the sleeping bag, melted some snow with the stove and stuffed a few heated water bottles around him to deal with his hypothermia.  We then spent the rest of the night standing next to him as there was no place to sit on the small shelf.

We had nothing but time on our hands waiting for the main rescue team to arrive (that we hoped a Canadian team was bringing back after running back to the trail head and sounding the alarm) and tending the injured climber.

I started kicking myself in the ass for not bringing the camera up from base camp.  The shots I could have taken!  We chipped a couple of small alcoves in the walls of the glacier ice and put some candles from the first aid kit in them. They cast a crazy magical glow over the whole scene that made it look like a narrow crystal palace and I imagined taking long exposures to capture it all.

I envisioned images of Rick comically struggling to stay awake, close-ups of the crystal candle alcoves, pics looking straight up at the incredibly clear band of the star field visible through the narrow canyon of the crevasse, pics looking straight down from our tiny shelf of ice into the seemingly bottomless abyss of the crevasse, painting the ancient ice walls with the light of our headlamps to further illuminate the surreal crevasse, images of the paramedic rappelling down to us in the morning, shots of the big Navy Sea Stallion helicopter hovering directly above us as they hoisted the victim in the Stokes litter out of the crevasse in the early morning light, pics of my brand new, never slept-in mountain tent being blown 100 feet into the air at base camp as the huge helicopter landed there to pick up one of the other victims carried back down by the Canadian team. None of these images were taken, but they remain very vivid in my memory.

The power of the images I do have, to remind me of the ones I never managed to capture, is something I hope will never go away.  These memories in-between the photographs are every bit as important to me, and are as subject to fading with age as the physical photos without careful curation and people to share them with.

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Dilly-Dilly, the Pit of Misery and Despair. Scanning and Photoshop station.

I am deeply heartbroken that the one constant, the focus of so many of these images and wonderful experiences that began so many years ago, with such a comically dismal start, is no longer here to sit with me, have a glass of whiskey, giggle and laugh and tell new lies about each and every one of them. I will miss you my friend, but I will have to find some comfort in raising a glass and re-living a photo or two of our time together.

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Rick Baker on Mt Baker, 1990

Ricky Dean Baker 1958-2018

Rick, Ricky, Ricardo, Ricky Dean, just plain old Baker or, more recently…”El Tejano” the crazy gringo of El Corrido, Mexico. The self-professed “Sucker”from Alton, Illinois who for no apparently good reason, was a diehard fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He’d appreciate and understand knowing that even in death, I give him no slack on the Squeelers.

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El Tehano in Mexico

Rick, cliché or not, was the kind of guy that knew few strangers.  If you were within earshot he was bound to start up some kind of conversation, particularly if you were of the female persuasion. The boy had a self-deprecating sense of humor and goofy giggle that was at once endearing and disarming.

He really couldn’t stand a silent pause for long without filling it with some kind of random conversation. He really didn’t even require you to speak as long as you would nod or chuckle in the right places. Although we had the kind of friendship that was replete with inside jokes, long running gags and could make each other laugh while no one else understands, I’m pretty much the complete opposite so perhaps that’s why we got along so well.

While I was in the Army, being sent all over the place and he was busy with X-ray tech school in Ohio, we only saw each other briefly for a few years, but we never missed a beat when we got back together when I got leave.  We would party like the devil himself was chasing us and somehow avoided being thrown in the pokey.

After I got out of the Army I said I found the perfect place to live and was going to leave Ohio for this promised land…out to Washington State where there are mighty, high, snowcapped mountains for climbing, miles of wilderness and rainforest for hiking, the mighty Pacific Ocean and glorious Puget Sound.

I don’t think he even blinked and said I’m coming too. He packed his little Datsun King Cab pickup and I jammed my ’65 Valiant and we caravanned for over a month across the country, hitting every sight along the way.  We arrived in Tacoma on Memorial Day Weekend 1982 and the adventures began anew.

Having spent so much time with him, hiking miles into some rainy, enchanted valley in the Olympics, backpacking on some stormy, isolated ocean beach, or perched precariously high on a windblown mountain, I knew Rick better than my own family.  I won’t dwell on the adversities, but we both knew where the bodies were buried in each other’s lives… we went through plenty of highs, and a few lows, together over the years.  But we surrounded ourselves with our own wonderful “orphan family” out here on the West Coast.

Each of you have your own Ricky stories to tell, no matter how long you knew him, and I hope you keep telling them.  You may have seen me quote the author David Eagleman concerning death over Memorial Day:

“There are three deaths.  The first is when the body ceases to function.  The second is when the body is consigned to the grave.  The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time”

You may grow tired of me re-telling them, but Rick will not die the third death as long as I have the breath and memory left to tell them. Whether it is him trying to ride a horse full of beer bottles that ran away with him faster and faster due to the clanging and breaking of bottles, almost burning down the rainforest in a monsoon in the Olympics, sliding ass-over-tea-kettle hundreds of feet down and over a snowy cliff, blowing his face off with a barbecue, rescuing some broken and hypothermic climbers at the bottom of a crevasse on Mt Baker, holding each other’s lives in our hands from the end of a thin rope, or his ill-conceived practical jokes at work there is a lot of rich material.

I imagined we would be two old farts sitting around exchanging lies, sipping whiskey and smoking a bowl someday, with old El Tejano finally having some new stories to tell…tales that I haven’t been a part of or heard a hundred times in the almost 45 years I have known him, since meeting him so long ago in High School.

I don’t know how many of you have had such a close partner in crime for that long, but I hope yours lasts as well as ours did and longer.  I will so miss his traditional greeting of “shot and a beer?”.  His life was far too short, but I think old Ricky would still sing along with Jimmy B concerning his life and agree that “some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all of the way”.

 

…and so we met

Rick Baker was my partner in crime, whiskey and adventure for almost 45 years. We first met in the mid ‘70s when he moved to West Carrollton from Alton, Illinois. I had lived in West Carrollton since my father retired from the Army, came home from Vietnam and planted his flag there.

One typical evening about 1975, I showed up early for the weekly scout meeting to get chairs, flags and such set up for the meeting. The church basement where the meetings were held was still locked, and I spy Rick standing in the dark all alone, wearing his full uniform to include a red patch vest full of patches with trails and events I had never heard of. He had been dropped off and left to fend for himself.

We stared each other over, each sizing up the other the way teenage boys do. At the time I had risen through the ranks of the troop to be voted by the rest of the boys as Senior Patrol Leader, the one in charge of all the other scouts in the troop…this guy looked about my age and had his Life rank badge already…was this guy a challenger to my leadership role?

Giving him the stink eye, I wondered to myself who this outlandish looking, dorky nerd was. He was all dressed up like he was going to a Court of Honor, one of the few occasions that would get me to wear the full monkey suit like he had on. It wasn’t all that cool to be seen in a Boy Scout uniform in High School in the 70’s…so I figured this guy must be a real piece of work.

Boyscouts City Beautiful Newspaper
Local newspaper article with Rick & I in photo
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Les & Rick in typical levels of scout attire at scout event @ 1975

He was indeed a piece of work…anyone that has known Rick knows he was a real character and never knew a stranger.  So along with Steve Burns, the Scout Master’s son and my buddy since Cub Scouts, it wasn’t long before we were running the troop like Hawkeye, Trapper John and BJ on the TV show MASH.

We once convinced some of the assistant scoutmaster’s that it was a somehow a good idea to give us a pint of Mad Dog 20/20 if we collected enough fire wood for them to burn all night. They bought it, and we were toasty all night and we were soon swinging from the rafters in the little cabin.

Rick, Steve and I were the three amigos throughout High School. Rick’s mom was  divorced soon after the family arrived in Ohio and worked nights, so he had the crash pad where we hung out every day; listening to music, partying and doing all-nighters with the usual teenage shenanigans.

Misha Mokwa Album 1975 1
Some of Troop 331’s finest on the Misha Mokwa Trail,         Cumberland Gap Nat. Park 1975

We had many adventures hiking and camping and then school was done.  I joined the Army. Rick went to community college to become an X-Ray tech. Steve also joined the Army with an instant family to take care of, and so the three amigos went off in separate directions.

I’d come home for leave every once in a while and we’d take up where we left off, going to crazy house parties or just hanging out talking about how boring it was in Ohio. Finally, my four years were up and Rick’s schooling was complete. I had told him many tales of my travels and that I was going to move back to Washington, with its big beautiful snow covered mountains, ocean, rainforests, wild rivers and desert it had everything for high adventure.

Rick didn’t hesitate for a second and said he was in. So we packed our cars with all our worldly possessions and began our month long caravan to the promised land. We had numerous adventures along the way…not the least of which was my ’65 Valiant began overheating as soon as we got on the interstate heading West.

I had pulled the back seat out and filled it with cargo so the poor old thing was being badly overworked and mistreated. We had to pull over at every rest stop to refill the radiator. We finally made it to Rick’s grandmother’s house in Illinois and stayed a few days while I tried everything in the Chilton’s manual to fix the overheating.

I would perform one “possible source of overheating”  after the other and take the Valiant down the Great River Road along the Mississippi River to see if it overheated before I made it to the “Our Lady of the Rivers” shrine and turned around.

Our-Lady-of-the-Rivers-Shrine-Near-Confluence-of-Mississippi.-Missourri-and-Illinois-Rivers

I learned a lot more about Rick after watching his grandmother in her natural element for a few days. She was a real character and forced us to eat constantly, but you had to say grace every time you took a bite. She had a nervous Chihuahua that just about shook himself apart and piddled every time someone came near him.

She still had a trash barrel out back in the field and was a rampant pyromaniac. She would have us get it started and would then make 500 trips to the barrel to keep it going, each trip with just a handful of something combustible. I swear she was bringing out single sheets of toilet paper for a while.

In any case we continued on our path Westward, driving at night as it was cooler until we got far enough West that it was still snowing in Yellowstone. We stopped at anything remotely interesting along the way…the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, various caverns, The Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, we hit them all living out of our cars eating baked beans and macaroni & cheese.

We barely made it over the Continental Divide, driving in a massive blizzard where we couldn’t even see the road. Smelling the barn, we quickly cruised through Montana and Eastern WA to arrive at Mt Rainier National Park. This big pile of lava was the source of my magnetic draw back to Washington.

My Valiant must have sensed her mission was complete, the oil pump went out and the motor seized as we were leaving the park. We used one of my new climbing ropes to tow it to Tacoma, snapping it several times before arriving on Memorial Day weekend 1982.

Unknown

We finally found a place open, the Calico Cat Motel on Pacific Avenue. It was eventually closed down in 2016 after a murder happened there and all the rooms test positive for meth. Back in ’82 it was very hot that weekend and with no auto garages open we filled a bota bag with Lambrusco, grabbed our bikes and headed for Pt Defiance Park to see if it was cooler down by the water. We hung out at the old boathouse, now long gone, and drank the entire bota of wine.

We headed back to the motel, half-lit on cheap wine. Climbing back up the hill in the 90 degree heat Rick paused to do the Lambrusco hurl on the overpass next to the still under construction Tacoma Dome. I continued to the top of the hill and found an air conditioned bar to re-group in and Rick soon limped in.

Feeling a little more refreshed half way into our pitcher of ice cold beer Rick looks at me and says, “I think I’m going to like it here”.  With that, dos Amigos were back in the saddle for decades of adventure.

A Journey Begins

I was prompted to start this blog after my life-long friend, Rick Baker, passed away.  I began writing down some of our stories to share with other friends at his memorial and perhaps as a way to deal with his absence.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are terrible platforms for sharing these types of stories as far as I’m concerned, so here I am.

His memorial was held just yesterday and I showed a photo montage of photos taken over the nearly 45 years we knew each other. There was much stress over all of this as I had thousands of paper photos and slides to dig through to find pictures of Rick, then scan and restore with Photoshop, upload to an edit program and then organize the shots somehow.

The pressure was completely self-induced as I had always been the “official photographer” during all of our adventures and I wanted to share with everyone the depth of a life not lived from the sidelines in the best light.

It took weeks to dig through all the boxes and totes in my house to find the photos of Rick.  The photographs weren’t very organized of course, there always seems to be something else with higher priority and you think you have all the time in the world to get to it.  Death quickly brings everything back in focus and forces you to deal with it.

It was both heart warming and heart breaking to look at each picture and think back to the moment when the image was snapped.  I would alternately scan the pictures, write a story as I was thinking about Rick in that particular situation and weep over the fact we would never be able to look at them together and tell more lies about our war stories.

 

I will add other tales I do not want to forget over time, but for now I’ll start with some stories I experienced with Rick.

PS: The photo at the top is a bit ironic as Rick had purchased the camera from a friend at a “great deal”…I’m sure because the camera was hot.  He took a roll or two but never really caught the photographer bug.

 

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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