Sobered Up

When I tell people that I’ve climbed up something (or will attempt to climb up something) the typical response is “oh, how high is it?” as if that is the metric to gauge its danger or difficulty.  The reality of course is that any mountain, at pretty much any altitude, can kill even if you aren’t thinking that.  This past month brought home to me a sobering reinforcement of that reality.  A climber on Mt. Adams fell and eventually died on the slopes before a rescue could be successfully completed.  This was eerie/disturbing to hear because Adams was the first (real?) mountain which I succeeded in summiting.   It came after several unsuccessful attempts in other places (chronicled earlier in my blog).  Along with two, more experienced, climbers/friends we picked out Adams for several reasons.  It was one we could easily climb as a “do it yourselfer”.  It was accessible.  And most importantly (naively) it was described in a guidebook of climbs in Washington’s Cascades as “easy”.  In point of fact, the route we selected – up the Crescent Glacier, to a feature called the Lunch Counter, from there to the “False Summit” and then to the true summit, was labeled in the book with a dog – meaning “dog route”, meaning or suggesting that it was a walk in the park.  Mountaineers are famous (infamous?) for how a climb is described.  They might say “it was a bit of problem in this one section” or “it took a little extra effort” or “this one bit had a little exposure”.  What they meant was that it was frikkin’ scary/dicey but they wanted to show how cool they were by downplaying the difficulty.

But, back to Adams.  My friends are very conservative and careful and we did this in two days, stopping overnight at the Lunch Counter before tagging the summit and returning to the trailhead the next day.  It was a great experience even though when you get to the summit you sit on the roof of an old look out shelter that was used for monitoring the region for forest fires and you realize, based on the description in the guide book, that mules used to slog their way to where you are sitting.

But, hubris and perhaps more importantly, over confidence, can be a killer, even on Adams.  And this past month a climber apparently fell on the slope leading to the False Summit, suffering a head injury.  But, not to worry right?  He had a cell phone and called for help.  He couldn’t describe exactly where he was but this is the 21st Century and the first responders had an active cell phone with which to work.  But then Mother Nature decided not to cooperate.  Significant/bad storms came in, a rescue helicopter was damaged, the rescuers had to back off for a while and then, tragically, the body, not a living climber, was discovered.  Sobering lesson.

A few years after our successful climb of Adams, I signed my younger daughter and I up for a climb of Mt. Hood with a guiding company.  It was Father’s Day weekend and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than sharing the adventure with her.  A month or two before we went, there was a report in the papers of a solo climber falling on the Hogsback, a feature on the “easy” route up Hood.  He fell to his death.  I didn’t cancel and we had a great time.

You can rationalize decisions but you still have to remember that going to high places means risk, regardless of whether a guide book labels a mountain or a route with dogs.  Lose the hubris, fear (or at least respect) the dog.

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