July 1, 2009
Remembering July 4, 1969
Forty years ago—July 4, 1969—I was in a Bergschrund (German for “big, hairy crevasse near head of glacier”) on the Eliot Glacier at the base of the North Face of Mt. Hood, Oregon. I had not intended on spending my morning there, by the way. It was not a glaciology field trip.
I was climbing the challenging North Face with my climbing buddy, Dave Whitlock. But I’d taken a leader fall on the first pitch above the glacier, and through circumstances I still don’t quite understand, I ended up about twenty feet into the ‘schrund. It was a soft landing, since the schrund was substantially filled in with snow that had sloughed off the face. I was fine.
For the next few hours Dave worked on extricating me, using a system we were prepared to use but had not practiced. (Perhaps I should point out that this was a serious alpine climb, with ice axes, crampons, rope, ice screws, snow pickets and helmets). As the day warmed, the mountain gods practiced their cynical bowling game. Rocks for balls, climbers for pins. Fortunately, Dave was protected from the falling rock by a shelf just above him, though he did witness a three-foot widow-maker bounce and whoosh over his head. And I, in the bowels of the glacier, was safely out of the way. By noon I was out. (Dave had the sinewy strength of one who had grown up in the Cascades Mountains and occasionally worked as a logger. While the extrication took exertion on my part, it took much more on his end. We did not have a pulley system, which I’ve since learned to use.)
As we reorganized our gear and contemplated our options, we were overtaken by a moment of crystalline clarity: Suddenly, a serac (French for “big, hairy, killer ice tower”), not 100 feet to our right, toppled over and splintered magnificently onto the glacier. Okay, so we don’t go right, where there are more seracs. We don’t go up, into the rock fall. We angle up to the left, onto the safer Cooper Spur route. And then head down. And that we did.
If we’d been smart … Oh, but did I mention that we were invincible twenty-year olds with a darned good record of cheating death? Why, only seven months earlier we had… . Never mind, I’ll save that for another blog.
As I was saying, if we’d been smart we would have made a truly “alpine start” and been underway by 1:00 a.m. instead of 5:00. We might have climbed the face while rocks and other movable objects were mainly frozen in place (better yet, climb it in spring or winter). But then perhaps some other tragedy would have struck. And might I add that even on July 4 there were no other climbers anywhere near the North Face? We were on our own. And youngsters, this was way back before cell phones. (I marvel at how quickly climbers in trouble call for help these days. “911? I’m like so totally in a crevasse at the base of the North Face. Could you, like, please send Mountain Rescue to get me out? Thanks.”)
I’ve always considered it a special providence that I fell into that crevasse. After all, we were thoroughly occupied until it became obvious even to our youthfully ambitious minds that we shouldn’t proceed with the climb. And I now look back on that experience as excellent preparation for my future work as an IVP editor. After all, had things taken a more calamitous turn, I might not have been around to become an editor! And then there are the people I work with, particularly the young ones, who are constantly taking unnecessary risks. They talk on their cell phones while driving, make potentially incriminating admissions on blogs or Facebook, come up with book titles that are inscrutable to any sensible person and champion books that will never sell. I lived to warn them of the consequences.
Oh, and I also learned that while being down in the pit might seem bad at the time, it might also be the best thing for you in the long run. And when you think about some of the other things associated with youth in the Summer of ’69, two young men testing their mettle on the North Face seems like a wholesome endeavor!
And get this: Two months later, in early September 1969, I emerged from a three-week solo backpack through the North Cascades of Washington State, wondering what all this talk was of a big rock festival back East. And what was the one book I packed along on that trip? Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There (InterVarsity Press, 1968). This week we’re considering the prospect of a 40th anniversary edition of that book. Today I dug out my first edition. It’s a bit soiled from its trip many years ago. I think I’ll read it this summer and see how it wears four decades on.