I was working on Mt. Rainier in 1981, when a huge icefall took two ropes and the 11 climbers on them to their deaths on the Ingraham glacier; 14 other climbers survived, because they were not in the direct path of the avalanche. It was the worst climbing accident in North America then and now.
For days, professional climbers and rescuers would come into the restaurant where I worked, looking ashen and sick after having worked to recover the bodies—none were found, though climbing gear was seen in a crevasse that closed by the end of the summer.
I’ve been up the Mountain a few times when I was young, nearly dying once when a storm pinned our party down on the upper Ingraham glacier.
Why do it? It is not simply that the mountain is there, but that there is something inside people that needs to be surmounted. The mountain may stand as a symbol of that thing. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who viewed the mountains they climbed solely as external challenges. We’re climbing over ourselves when we struggle up mountains.
Strange to say, I realize upon reflection, that I never climbed that mountain again after seeing those rescuers who could barely speak about what they’d seen. The icefall in 1981 left house-sized blocks of ice strewn over the mountainside. Sheer chance had decided who lived and who died.
Reading about the K2 deaths this week, I started thinking about the climbers I’ve met, the climbing I’ve done (Rainier was the most technical mountain I ever climbed) and the way that climbing has changed. It appears to me to be more a hobby than a struggle for many today. When reading about some climbing tragedies, it is clear that the people shouldn’t have been on the mountain. They were unprepared or just stupid. It’s way too soon to judge what happened on K2, but I certainly was struck the the first clause of the following sentence, which sums up the finality of seeing people trudge out of the snow after such a thing….
Chaos on the ‘Mountain That Invites Death’ – NYTimes.com:
On Tuesday the climber likely to be the last of the survivors, an Italian, Marco Confortola, staggered on frostbite-blackened feet to the base camp, for a time refusing help and oxygen, preferring to make his own way down.
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