December 15, 2009
I Once Was (Not) Lost But Was Found.
It must be incredibly sweet to be lost, to know you are lost, beyond hope of saving yourself, and to be found and rescued, saved as if from death. It’s not quite so sweet not to be lost, in fact quite healthily content, but presumed to be lost, and then to be found. Let me explain, and beg your indulgence as I relate some memories triggered by the current tragedy unfolding on Oregon’s Mt. Hood. These news items always have a back story. Let me tell you one.
Between December 26, 1968, and January 2, 1969, I was on the remote northwest side of Oregon’s Mt. Hood (11,249 feet). My climbing partner, Dave Whitlock, and I were attempting a climb of Cathedral Ridge. We had over a week’s supply of food with us, in addition to all our necessary climbing and winter camping equipment.
The snow that began to fall on the first day of our trip was an ominous sign of what was to come. What should have been a two-day snowshoe trip to the start of the true climb, at McNeil Point, took most of three days, with dropping temperatures (at least -8 F on our thermometer one morning) and prodigious, unrelenting snowfall each day. But we knew that if we reached the exposed knob on a ridge at the timberline, McNeil Point, we would have the refuge of a ten-by-ten-foot stone shelter with a corrugated metal roof and a cozy little fireplace. So if conditions did not permit us to continue the climb, we could hang out at McNeil Point for a few days.
Which is what we did. We had to dig down through the snow in order to uncover enough of the doorway to enter the shelter. But for two days, as the wind and snow ripped over McNeil Point and rattled and clawed at the roof, we were safely and happily ensconced in the shelter. Sucking on Christmas candy, warming ourselves by our little fire, sipping hot chocolate and dozing in our down bags, we passed the final hours of 1968. And on the morning of the third day, with temperatures moderating and the snow having stopped, we headed back down the way we had ascended. After a night camped in the deep forest at lower elevation, we regained the old logging road we had followed several days before, and headed down the final miles toward civilization.
But what was that? Rounding a corner a large green snow cat was coming up the road, with packs and climbing gear strapped to the roof and a passel of climbers within. “These guys are really on an expedition,” I commented to Dave. The diesel snow cat sputtered to a halt. The cab door opened, and a climber descended and approached us. “Which one of you is Reid?” he asked. It was my David Livingstone moment! We were lost and now had been found!
But were we lost? Well, according to the rest of the world, we were. Oh. Were. We. What we thought was just the mountain throwing one of its terrific tantrums was in fact the worst snowstorm to hit the greater Portland area in thirty-plus years. We had been in the news—not just locally but nationally (a friend in Chicago reported). “Two nineteen-year-old climbers missing for days on the remote northwest side of Mt. Hood.” This was not supposed to turn out well. But we were ridiculously well. And insulted by our “rescue.” So while we allowed the rescue team to carry our packs out on the snow cat, we insisted on hiking out on our own legs. A few hours later, down at the Forest Service station (where we had signed out and left our itinerary several days before), we had a little press conference. Imagine our annoyance the next day when the newspaper article carried the heading, “Mountain Rescue Vehicle Removes Two Climbers from Mt. Hood.” The article concluded:
Clever reporter. He thought he’d quote George Mallory and get the last word.
The next December, in 1969, we did return and made the climb up Cathedral Ridge under favorable conditions. A high pressure system gave us that rare winter gift of a week of sunny weather. And we took it all, at our leisure, completing the climb in stages timed to put us on the summit on January 1, 1970. It was by moonlight that we made our memorable way along the final windblown crest to the summit. On our right the slope fell away steeply to the south, and on our left it plummeted a couple thousand feet down the Eliot Headwall.
After tagging the summit under a starry sky, we began the long descent down the easier south side, first down the forty-five-degree chute, then across the familiar hogsback and finally the long slog down to Timberline Lodge. Of course, if things had gone awry earlier in the climb, we would have been in big trouble. We had no means of communication and were on a remote and difficult route. And the good weather came to an end the following morning as a storm moved in, the first of a tag team of storms that enveloped and pummeled the mountain—the nemesis of winter mountain rescue efforts in the Northwest.
Three years ago, when three climbers were lost on a climb of the North Face of Mt. Hood, a rescuer being interviewed by the media made mention of two young climbers who had been “lost” on the mountain in the winter of 1968-69. “They did everything right,” was the comment. I will grant that we were prudent within our bounds. But while caution will better your chances on a mountain, you can do everything right and have it count for nothing. From my perspective today, I call it divine providence.
Today I read stories of climbing mishaps and rescues with mixed feelings. I have long understood and shared the impulse and love for climbing, and I returned to it in midlife. But now as a parent I understand better the broken hearts of family and loved ones who suffer loss. “He died doing what he loved to do,” is the tired refrain. I put no stock in that. In the moments leading up to their death, they did not love what they were doing.
Coda: In the spring of 1970 I had a weird experience. Before going up on the mountain one weekend, I was taking pictures of some old tombstones in a graveyard in Sandy, Oregon. I was using a 35 mm camera, and I somehow failed to advance the film after my final shot. The next day we were on Mt. Hood, exploring the Reid Glacier (yes, really, and it’s where Luke Gullberg’s body was found a few days ago), and I took a picture of Dave in his climbing gear. Later, when I had developed the film, I found a double exposure of a tombstone superimposed on Dave. As I recall, when I showed it to him, he was not amused.
Sadly, a few years ago Dave (whom I had not seen for thirty-five years) was found dead on the south slope of Mt. Hood. I do not know much about the circumstances, but a friend of his family sought me out (this in itself amazes me) and reported to me that Dave had gone up on the mountain by himself—a sedentary, out-of-shape man in his mid-50s—perhaps trying to relive a piece of his youth. He was not in a dangerous area of the mountain. We had descended through this area by moonlight on January 1, 1970. He may have had a heart attack and then succumbed to hypothermia. Whatever the case, it is a picture difficult to reconcile with my mental image of the robustly strong and healthy young man I had climbed with long ago.
I am sure that whoever found Dave’s body had no inkling of the bracketing structure of Dave’s story with the mountain. The mountain had simply claimed one more life. By contrast, I only know the bracketing events. When we parted ways in the early 70s, he was by all appearances spiritually lost, and quite pugnaciously so. I hope he discovered he was truly lost and then truly found.