For those who don’t prepare, the mountain is unforgiving

THE OLYMPIANFebruary 19, 2012 

Today’s front-page feature story about life and death on Mount Rainier examines the mountain’s five fatalities since December and asks what responsibilities park rangers should assume to keep people safe.

It is a natural question for the National Park Service to consider because more than 10,000 people attempt to climb the Lower 48’s largest and most dangerous glaciated volcano every year, some woefully ill-equipped and ill-prepared.

Those not drawn to climbing mountains may never understand what drives someone to intentionally traverse that narrow ridge between life and death. Is it simply the satisfaction of physical achievement? Or is it the gambler’s thrill of betting it all that you can triumph over the power of nature?

Whatever compels someone to attempt such a serious endeavor as climbing Mount Rainier, the trouble almost always arises from underestimating the mountain. Or, put another way, in over-estimating one’s own invincibility.

Like many Washingtonians who have enjoyed recreational hiking in the Cascades, I eventually looked over at Mount Rainier one day and vowed to stand on its summit. Fortunately, before I could head out recklessly with a false sense of the required level of competency, I found the Olympia Mountaineers.

The Mountaineers is a volunteer organization dedicated to teaching people how to explore and enjoy the outdoors safely, and with an appreciation for low-impact recreation.

Until enrolling in several Mountaineers climbing courses, I had no idea how little I knew about being safe in the mountains. Through the Olympia Mountaineers club environment, more experienced climbers teach and mentor new climbers in everything from carrying essential gear to stopping a fall, and from assessing avalanche danger to pulling someone out of a crevasse.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Olympia Mountaineers such as my first mentor, Marilynn Miller, and later from others such as Rich Irwin and Patrick Chauffeur, is to make good decisions. Gathering weather information and preparing for the worst is essential, but knowing when to turn back because the mountain is about to spank you hard is undoubtedly the most important tool in your pack.

And yet you see people all the time on the Muir snowfield who have no business being there. I have seen people at 8,000 feet in blue jeans and young men going for the summit with ropes bought at a hardware store.

No matter how much knowledge or training a climber might have, any decision to climb on Mount Rainier in the winter involves high risk. Even those who take care to examine weather predictions will find they are often wrong, because Mount Rainier changes its mind frequently and suddenly.

It’s not a coincidence, in my opinion, that the five climbers lost on the mountain so far this winter came from out of the area. Having invested time and money to climb Rainier at a certain time creates pressure to press on despite deteriorating conditions, maybe unaware of the sheer fury this mountain can muster.

Those of us who live here have the luxury of knowing we can go back next weekend, or next month, so there’s nothing to be gained from pressing on through a whiteout or even starting a climb when the weather looks unstable.

A veteran Olympia Mountaineer, Mike Riley, told me that he has turned climbing parties around when their numbers were diminished by sickness. It’s just not safe for parties of two, especially not on the upper mountain above Camp Muir (about 10,000 feet elevation), and certainly not in the winter.

Both Riley and Irwin tell stories about being caught in whiteout conditions descending from Camp Muir and gathering up lost climbers on the way who did not have the compass and maps that Mountaineers are trained to always carry.

It is comforting to know that the Park Service is doing more to warn climbers about high winds and dangerous snow conditions, but it won’t deter the over-confident, the blissfully ignorant and the over-zealous from occasionally making bad decisions.

And those people regretfully discover that this mountain is unforgiving and uncaring about punishing you.

George LeMasurier, publisher of The Olympian, may be reached at 360-357-0206 or glemasurier@theolympian.com.

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