The Mountains Don’t Care

Every spring and summer in Seattle someone gets lost in the vast forests of the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades are a short distance from both Seattle and Tacoma within an hour’s drive for hikers. One of the major peaks was Mount St Helens. “Was “ is the operative tense, because Mount St. Helens was an active volcano, and blew its top in 1980 and totally filled the 15 mile long Spirit Lake with boulders and lava and ash. The ash in the air is said to have blackened skies for 300 miles around for weeks. As though a major dam had burst, the vast waters of Spirit Lake sloshed – to use the best verb available for miles of moving water – out to flood surrounding towns with mud, with whole uprooted trees bounding along on the flash flood current. Not a safe place to be. These eruptions are rather special events that happen once in many centuries.

However, if you are a hiker lost in the mountains on any given day, that is your special event, and it is no less dangerous – to you –than Earth’s upheaval. There are hundreds of reasons why people get lost, but only a few possible reactions. Some people — on becoming disoriented — lose other reasoning as well. They go in wrong directions trying to find their way, and worst of all, become so separated from other hikers (and usually it is hikers trying to take a short cut) that they have to stay out overnight with only a daypack or less. Now some of these people are well enough equipped to survive a few days, and often find their way down a river to be found by searchers. Even in a daypack, they will have a few pieces of food and a few item of extra clothing. A small can of tuna fish can keep your body in protein for days. Dry socks – especially wool ones — can serve as mittens as well as cheering up wet feet immensely. Even without a map, a compass can give your meanderings some purpose when the sun is gone for days.

On the other hand, mountain people have a saying: “The Mountains Don’t Care.” Often hikers will be wet from trying to cross a stream or from quick rain showers or from trudging through deep snow. Food is heavy and a lot of hikers carry little or none. The lost person tires easily, often with despair playing a large part. Eventually these elements of cold and hunger and frantic indecision work against the lost person’s chance of survival. Quite a few of them die of exposure, not just freezing to death, but of the slow sapping of energy – and willpower – that comes with unrelenting cold and little provision.

In our day there were few helicopters to pull people out, but other than that it was the same problem; either someone had to find them and get them out, or they would have to find their own way out. They usually had a couple of days at most, which is why the call usually came in the middle of the night, to suburban homes with people sleeping for work or school the next day. The call directed them to a rally point in the city within the hour. It usually said how much gear to bring, including sleeping bags which may have been for the victim’s warmth, or may have been for the searchers staying several nights….depending.

When we arrived in the middle of the night, the scene was eerily similar every time. Usually these lost people had been reported to the county sheriff’s department, and highway patrol cars, and perhaps even an emergency rescue vehicle were gathered at the road and trailhead where the lost hiker had last been seen. Often there were spouses, or parents, or fellow hikers standing around with breaths steaming out. Sometimes they were sitting in cars, police talking on walkie talkies, and everyone with a hot cup of coffee.

And who was it that arrived? Who had been called out in the middle of the night to plunge into the mountains, and find the lost hiker in ten square miles or more of the densest forest in America? If they were lucky, it was Ome Daiber, who had lived in the mountains most of his life and hiked 20 miles with a 60 pound pack as if it was down to the store. Ome Daiber was a legend among Seattle mountaineers, and many of these mountaineers were legends themselves, men (at the time) who had first ascents of the highest Himalayan peaks. Jim Whittaker was the first American to climb Mt. Everest. On K-2, one of the most dangerous peaks in the world, Peter Scheoning saved ten injured people he was roped to when their sled broke free, by diving over the precipice on the other side of the ice ridge falling 30 feet straight down and being slammed against the side…but the rope between them held. These were people who thought Ome Daiber was a legend. And because he was, they would be packed up in the middle of night and joining the Mountain Rescue Team, though in the dark and in the urgency, no one knew who they were, even the sheriff who’d called when the situation looked impossible for his patrolmen.

If you were lucky, you would get one of these mountaineers, and they would climb in where no sane climber would go and get you out alive. Or, on the other hand, you could get me. I was in the Explorer Search and Rescue group formed by some ex-mountaineers who felt young teenaged legs could tromp the woods further and sturdier than most adults, and we could go without sleep longer. It was sort of cool to be called out of our high school class to go on rescues. Usually that only happened to kids who had stolen cars, and frankly our fellow students didn’t know exactly how to treat us. The other students thought us strange indeed.

After all we weren’t football heroes or anything. We were just going out to beat through the woods after some hiker. Most of our days we were running a “grid” which meant 20 of us being about 20 yards apart (and sometimes closer if the growth was denser). The leaders flagged the ends of the grid line as we walked holding that line and seeing all between. Sometimes that “line” would go down the sides steep muddy gullies and sometimes over massive tangles of fallen trees, and sometimes straight up near cliffs. Then the leaders would pivot and the “line” would move back the other direction to cover another 400 yards. No helicopter could accomplish this close a search, and few dogs could pay attention to the “grid” line and ignore all the wonderful, diverse smells of forest animals. Occasionally we would find someone and had to bring them out on a stretcher, which was very hard work in the trailless mountains and we needed about 6-8 people per stretcher just to switch off. The parents and spouses back at the trailhead with the sheriff were usually quite grateful to see the people back that we brought out, before we got them into ambulances to go back to local hospitals, mostly for surveillance if they were lucky and hadn’t been out too long, and sometimes for sprained ankles or the occasional broken bone. There were, of course, the parents who wanted to sue because we carried their daughter six  miles out of the cold mountains in the middle of the night with a broken leg. They were shocked and tormented that we had left their daughter’s cashmere wool scarf somewhere on that dark rainy trail at zero dark thirty. The lawyer they wanted to prosecute the suit laughed at them, as I heard it. Anyway, I was young and could not possibly understand.

Because you could never tell the situation the mountains would put upon a searcher, we took the Mountaineer’s Climbing Course offered in Seattle in 1958. This has since become one of the premier mountain climbing courses in the world, but it was a down home affair then. Except that it was run by some of the more demanding climbers in the world, some of those just described. They did not want anyone on their rope who could not stop them if they fell. I remember to this day being yanked out of my feet by two instructors on my rope, and sailing on my back down a steep snow hill, expected to twist around and make an arrest with my ice axe and my knees and my boot tips. And they jerked me out again, running like horses down the steep snow, doing everything gravity could possibly do to dislodge me again. And they did jerk me backward, two, three times until I hand dug my ice axe head deep into the snow and arched my body and…stopped them. One of these men was Roy Snyder, a Himalayan veteran, and Jim Whittaker who helped found Recreation Equipment Cooperative (now the expansive REI) and who would, in 1963, climb Everest.

I met Jim Whittaker first when he was repeatedly sticking a knife in the wooden timber floor of Recreational Equipment Cooperative. It was a little store above a pawnshop on 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. He was on duty as the only salesperson. There were very few customers in those days because, as a cooperative, most climbers had placed orders for Whittaker and other Mountainteers representatives to travel to Switzerland and buy the latest alpine climbing equipment such as ice axes, pitons to drive into ice or cracks in rock faces, carabiners to clip and manage ropes and make them into hanging chairs if necessary. There were also lightweight Primus stoves to heat coffee and stew and sometimes melt ice for the only water we could find. I got my ice axe from REC, and my first (and to this day only) pair of hiking/climbing boots. They have lasted this long, and I am the same size. I met Whittaker again 50 years later, at the concourse in Chicago where passengers wait for the late flight to Seattle. We were the only two. I mentioned to him that I had taken his early climbing course and he remembered those days (, but not me, of course).

Much of our equipment was not from Switzerland, of course. A whole lot of it was Army surplus from World War II and Korea. Warm wool pants and shirts, metal canteens, rubberized ponchos that could become makeshift tents. Eating kits and small cooking pans. Sealskin covers for wooden skis used by ski troops, that held in the snow and let your heel come up to walk as in snowshoes. Then you took off the sealskins and, even with no metal edges, could ski down a mountain you just walked up. We did that on a climb of Mount Saint Helens which, was the most heavily crevassed mountain in the US when we climbed it, before it blew its top in 1980. It almost killed us then in 1959. The hard snow froze and our wooden-edged skis wouldn’t hold on the steep slopes and we were cutting steps with ski poles and George Hendrey broke loose and was picking up speed headed toward a deep crevasse and with the pressure of his hands on the prickly ice slowed himself down and stopped just before the crevasse. A trail of blood from his hands streamed 30 yards behind him on the ice.

Another time Mt. Rainier almost killed us when we were carrying the parts for and building a rescue shelter at 11,000 feet on Steamboat Prow.  A 70 mile an hour blizzard came up and all we had for shelter were building materials  and our down sleeping bags. The snow blew through cracks in our makeshift shelter for a full day and buried us shivering. My mother was quite worried at this one. But the blizzard let up and we trudged down home. We had had a few cans of tuna fish and had only shivered away about 8 pounds. But all in all it was fun, and we are proud to this day to have carried up all the materials across Emmons Glacier to make a rescue shelter for climbers of Mt. Rainier. What more could you ask as a teenager than to be alive and glad to be in these glorious mountains?

Who knows why it is we set aside something we love? For me it was several things. At first it was college. Then the military, then moving to Texas. But in honesty, my departure from the mountains came earlier. When I was in college I noticed that some red white and blue nylon backpacks started appearing in stores. No longer did people have to rummage the war surplus stores for clothing. There were plastic canteens and dehydrated meals. All of this meant hiking and to a lesser degree, climbing was beginning to be popular. I am reminded of Yogi Berra saying of a popular night spot: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too popular.” I am odd that way. When the mountains started to be commercialized, something important was lost. I never climbed again, even when I moved back to Seattle in 1983.

But two of my kids got into the Explorer Mountain Rescue. My son Galen started it from his scouting work, and my daughter Deirdre at age 14 wanted to follow along. The Explorer Scouts were exploring letting in girls, and she jumped to it. She’s a mother and a PhD now, but we were never so proud as when she qualified to go on search and rescue. It was the same tough crowd, a generation later, that had dragged me backward down the steep snow slopes, requiring that I be able to stop them pulling their hardest on my rope if I were to be allowed to join them in their mountains. It is a demanding tradition, and my daughter went through an 11 mile compass course in the snowy mountains, sleeping overnight by herself and falling through on a creek crossing in the middle of the night, and emerging the next day, proudly finishing the course like everyone older. The girls in her high school could not understand all this, and once again, a generation later, thought that she was very strange as well. Maybe that is inherited.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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