Climbing in Vain

Creative Nonfiction by Stuart Baker Hawk

Climbing in Vain

I was sitting in a poolside chair nursing some mixed concoction at Bally’s Las Vegas. Two days earlier, I stood atop Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route, the same route first climbed by John Muir in 1873.

I had several more peaks to grab on my list. Denali in Alaska at 20,237 feet was next up, the highest peak in all fifty states. To prepare for the climb, several months before I did a February summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. In the winter months, the 6,288-foot-high mountain is used for training by those climbers seeking to climb Mount Everest. Although a modest size mountain, Mt. Washington is notorious for its whiteouts, sub-minus wind chill factors, erratic weather and extremely high winds. A three-hour climb in the summer can easily become an eight- to ten-hour experience in the winter.

The highest wind speed ever recorded in the U.S. was on Mt. Washington’s summit—231 miles per hour. On the day I summited, the mountain had near whiteout conditions and single digit temps. That’s not factoring in windchill brought on by sustained 45 miles per hour winds and near hurricane-force gusts. With my climbing partner, Art, we were the only recorded summit on that day. When we reached the summit, my lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, was as hard as Mt. Washington’s grey granite. I thrust it down my insulated pants near my groin area to thaw enough to make it edible.

On the way down, we ran into a solo climber who was shedding his clothing. Paradoxical undressing is a phenomenon associated with lethal hypothermia where the person afflicted becomes disoriented and begins removing all clothing. Their state of mind is they are burning up, when actually they are freezing. Art and I helped get him dressed again and escorted him back down the mountain with us. Art had not been my first choice to do the Mt. Washington climb, but fellow Hoosier and mountaineer, Dave Carter.

In 1997, Dave summited Mt. Everest where he almost lost his life. At Hillary Step, the 30-foot vertical wall and last major obstacle to the summit, he stepped over the frozen body of fellow climber, Rob Hall. The New Zealand mountaineer was the head guide of the ill-fated 1996 Everest climb that turned into Jon Krakauer’s best-selling account, Into Thin Air. Hall had just completed his fifth summit of Everest, when a severe storm engulfed him and his exhausted client, Doug Hansen. Although Hall could have saved himself, he bivouacked with Hansen below the summit. Both perished that night—Hansen’s body was never found.

Dave Carter was also on the mountain that night but farther down out of harm’s way. A year later, he was back on it again. The day he summited, he said, was the hardest day he had ever had on a mountain. He said he would never attempt to tackle Everest again.

“Mountaineering is an addiction and I will need lots of people to prevent me from changing my mind.”

When I asked Dave to do the climb with me on Mt. Washington, he refused. I asked him, “Why?

“Because I will die.”

“It’s Mt. Washington, not the tallest mountain in the world.”

“Doesn’t matter. One can do you in just as easy as another.”

Dave had also made a vow to his new wife he would quit climbing. At the time of his death, Hall was also a newlywed. The image of Hall frozen on the mountain would be forever engrained in Carter’s brain and was a major contributor to him putting his climbing days behind him.

Lately, efforts have been underway to remove Everest of its grim human reminders of climbs gone awry. Hall’s family requested that his remains stay on the side of the mountain. Unlike the bodies of some climbers that have grotesquely served as trail markers over the years, Hall’s body is off the primary route and hasn’t been seen since Dave and his climbing team came across it at Hillary Step.

“I just put my feet over him and just kept on climbing like a machine.”

On the way down, they checked every pocket for any personal items to give to his wife. They then gently slid his body down the mountainside. When his outerwear snagged and tore, down feathers got into an air stream and danced above Carter’s head creating a surreal effect Carter took as an omen: one he couldn’t decide if it was good or bad. The summit, he said, was an unbelievable experience.

“It was emotional. I remember I was scared. When I was up there, I lost my voice. I had been coughing a lot and just wanted to get down.”

At Camp 4 at 26,000 feet on the way down, a Sherpa guide gave Carter a cup of hot tea. He vomited and couldn’t swallow because phlegm had frozen in his throat. Carter’s experience should be enough to dissuade any mountaineer, experienced or novice, to consider options. Age decided for me. Climbing is a fool’s folly. One that is unforgiving. I ended my climbing days without doing Denali or Everest.

I don’t know what prompts otherwise normal thinking individuals to engage in risky pastimes. For example, jumping off bridges with parachutes, kayaking Class V rapids or climbing mountains. Undoubtedly there’s the adrenalin rush, but something has to hinge on more than that. Is it the cognizant illusion of imminent death? Perhaps it’s performing a difficult physical task many aren’t able or feel compelled to do.

Every climber has their private motivation. For me, it was, I believe, to boost my self-esteem coupled perhaps with bragging rights. It also makes for good storytelling which prompts one of two responses. Listeners either look at you like you are a fool or want to hear more.

After a series of Colorado climbs in the Sangre de Cristo’s, one climb I had been wanting to do was Mount Shasta in northern California. At 14,179 feet, Shasta isn’t what you would call foreboding compared to the likes of Denali or Rainier, but it had some risk attached to it.

Being I didn’t know any climbers, my plan called for me to join up with potential climbers at the Sierra Club Foundation property at Horse Camp at Shasta’s base. Most people I saw there had just finished climbing, or were just hanging out telling climbing stories and drinking IPA beer. I decided to press forward to Lake Helen and put up there overnight for the steepest part of the climb the next morning.

At 10,400 feet, Lake Helen is rocky, with strong winds and cold temps. I pitched my one-person tent next to a guy from South Carolina. We agreed to go up together. When we awoke at 3 a.m., we suited up and got on our way. It was very foggy with maybe ten-foot visibility. After about an hour, I had a crampon go bad on me. A crampon is a spiked piece of climbing gear that fastens to the sole of your boot for traction on icy rock. It required me to make an adjustment that under normal circumstances was a several-minute task. The heel clamp was faulty and would require me to do some repairs on the fly. After ten minutes, my South Carolina climbing partner got impatient and said he was going to continue on alone. A half hour later, I completed the repair and attempted to join up with South Carolina climbing dude. To gain some idea of his whereabouts, I yelled for him but my voice got absorbed in the soupy fog and darkness of predawn.

Above an area called “the Heart” are several treacherous chutes of icy gullies and chimneys that deposit Shasta’s climbers in a section of the mountain called Misery Hill. The climb through the Red Banks is considered the most dangerous part of the climb. It’s at this point when many decide to turn back.

When I reached Red Banks, I paused because it was still dark and quite foggy. I decided to chill out and wait for any fellow climbers that might be following behind me and we could tackle Red Banks together. Around 9 a.m. I saw two climbers who I later learned were from Seattle. They were quick to tell me they were both veterans of Mt. Rainier. It took us about twenty minutes to make it to the top of the chute. At 12,820 feet, we had a commanding view of the north side of the mountain and its glaciers.

It was at this point that one of the Seattle guys began to experience altitude sickness. We climbed a little farther until we came to a wind break just below Mt. Shasta’s fumaroles, vent-like openings that serve as flues for sulfur gas and provide notice to climbers that Shasta is still an active volcano. It was at this point where the altitude-stricken Seattle guy said that he couldn’t go any farther.

“I’m done.”

“Are you sure?” asked his partner.

“I’m sure.”

“Well, I’m going on,” he told his climbing partner and friend. I was incredulous.

“You mean to tell me you’re going to abandon your friend?”

“He’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Will you be okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. You go on ahead.”

But he wasn’t fine. He was grey.

“You need to stay with your friend. It’s not right. Buddies don’t leave buddies behind.” He ignored me and pressed on for the summit.

I now had my own decision to make. Join him and we summit together, or remain behind to watch over his friend in case his condition worsened. I opted to stay. Not only because it was the right thing to do, but to avoid the temptation of pushing his so-called friend off the mountaintop.

“How are you doing?”

“My hands are cold. I think I might have frost nip.”

“Take your mittens off and place your hands above the heated rock. Don’t bury your fingers in it. That might cause more damage than you may already have.”

He removed his mittens. His fingertips looked pale and puffy.

“That feels better. Thanks.”

“I can’t believe your buddy left you like that.” He didn’t respond. “How’s the sickness?”

“Getting better. The headache is lessening.”

“That’s good. When he gets back, you and I will do it.”

No response. About thirty minutes later, his friend returned from the summit.

“Your buddy is feeling better now. It’s our turn now. Wait for our return.”

“I’m not feeling too well myself,” he responded.

“Drink some water. It’ll help.”

“Are you ready to get at it?” He didn’t budge.

“I’ve had enough.”

“You have to be kidding me? Who are you guys? Mt. Rainier, my ass. This is your first climb, isn’t it?”

I watched them walk away until they dropped out of sight on the back side of Red Banks and waited for another climber to come my way. Fifteen minutes passed and nobody. Thirty minutes—still nobody. I was so close. I kept repeating to myself.

“Rule number one—never climb alone. Rule number one—never climb alone.”

I looked at the position of the sun in the sky. I realized it wasn’t going to be. Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory. It was time to turn back. Saying I was perturbed is an understatement.

When I reached the point where the Seattle boys had disappeared off the back side of Red Banks, I made another decision. I could drop my backpack about fifteen feet and scale down freehand, or I could go through one of the Red Banks chutes. I chose the former. As I came around from behind the Red Banks, I saw the Seattle guys. One of them was down. I couldn’t make out which one it was. As I got closer, I realized it was the sick guy.

“What happened?”

“His feet went out from underneath him on some scree.”

“I busted my leg. I think its broken.” I felt around on his leg gently. I felt a bulge and unevenness on his tibia—fractured.

“You stay here with your buddy and I’m going to go down to Lake Helen and get help.”

“I can go.”

“No. Stay here. I’ll go!”

Glissading is a method of descending a steep snow-covered slope via a controlled slide. It can be done in a prone or sitting position using an ice axe to slow or control your descent. The more horizontal you are and the less you use the axe for resistance, the faster you slide down the mountain. I removed my crampons and stashed them in my backpack and began the 2,400-foot descent to Lake Helen. Because of the waterproof GORE-TEX coated fabric of my pants, I felt like a human luge on a downhill toboggan run. I adjusted my speed by sitting more upright with my axe trailing like a rudder. It took me fifteen minutes to reach Lake Helen, compared to the two-hour trek over the same distance on the way up.

When I got to Lake Helen, the lone tent still erected was mine. My cell phone was useless because of poor reception. I was in a fix. Just when I began running through options in my head, I saw a climber come over the rock outcropping on the perimeter of Lake Helen. Following him were four other climbers. I approached them and asked if any of them had a satellite phone. They looked at each other quizzically. One of them spoke.

“Polish. No English.”

I made a motion with my hand like talking on a phone. They got that. One of the climbers gave me a phone. It was a satellite phone which would assure clear reception. I was able to call 911, which then put me in touch with the Mount Shasta Ranger Station. I explained to the leader of the mountain rescue group and told him what was going on. Immediately, he dispatched a climbing ranger. I thanked the Polish climbers. In the distance I could see the Seattle guys. They were two dots on a white snowscape on brown rock.

As I bent over to remove the first tent peg, it occurred to me, “Why not stay over one more night and climb up with the Polish guys the next morning?” But I too had enough—it simply was not meant to be. I finished taking my tent down and stashed it and my sleeping bag in my backpack for the trip down the mountain. I was about halfway to Horse Camp when I came upon a ranger. I gave him background on the situation at hand.

“We have a California Highway Patrol helicopter on the way to get him off.”

“Good luck and thanks.” I turned and began to walk away.

“You aren’t going back up with me to join your buddies?”

“They are no buddies of mine.” He looked at me confused. We both knew the climber’s credo. If he had experienced what I had, he would’ve done the same thing.

When I reached Horse Camp, there would be no sticking around telling climbing stories and drinking beer after chilling in a Mt. Shasta mountain stream. I kept moving. I had another two miles to my car parked at the trailhead.

About the Author

Stuart Baker Hawk

Stuart Baker Hawk is a Washington state resident via all parts all over. His day job is in risk management and has an MFA in creative writing from Mississippi University for Women.