How I Became a Mountaineer

At a recent reunion with old climbing friends, Dan Lauren, a past-President of The Mountaineers, got to reminiscing about how he became a Mountaineer. Here's his story.
Dan Lauren Dan Lauren
Mountaineers past-President and Tacoma Mountaineer
April 08, 2017
How I Became a Mountaineer

This last weekend, my wife Nadine and I caught up with fellow mountaineers Rick and Marcia McEdward. It’s been about 15 years since we last saw them, and it was so great to chat about old times, kids, and careers! We also talked about our trip up Mt. Hood in 1998, a trip that changed both our lives in a dramatic fashion.

I’ve never written this story down in detail before, but coming up on the 19th anniversary of the trip it feels fitting. The story has given Rick (a pastor) material for many sermons and is what ultimately brought me to The Mountaineers. I’m sure in 19 years the memories have faded and stories  have changed a bit, but it seems as fresh to me as if happened yesterday. It remains one of the most emotional experiences of my life. This is what I remember:

1997 - an Idea is formed

It started in 1997 when Mike S. started talking with our church group about climbing Mt. Rainier. He had a group of folks over to his house for a potluck, discussion, and to watch a Whittaker video on climbing the mountain.

Nadine and I had been hiking and backpacking for a few years with our family and the Sladek family, starting to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, but had never seriously considered Mountaineering. Out of that discussion, a field trip was planned to hike up to Camp Muir and practice snow travel, snow camping, and ice ax arrest. A couple of months later, our group set out.

What a sight! It took us all day to get to about 8,500’ where we ran out of daylight and set up camp. We had equipment failure, folks out of shape, navigation issues, too many clothes, too few clothes... the works! The next day a storm was blowing in so we headed back down, practicing roped travel and ice ax arrest. That was enough to for a few folks who dropped out.

Later that summer, the same group planned a preparation trip up Mt. Hood, but it ended up being only Mike, Nadine, and me. We had good weather and made the summit without incident.

1998 - Taking it to the next level

In 1998, some of the original group wanted to climb again, along with a couple of new folks, so we thought it would be good to do Mt. Hood again. It's considered one of the beginner mountains, but is also pretty spectacular climb.

We took a practice trip up Mt. St. Helens to prepare. By this time we had some equipment, but didn’t necessarily know how to use it! I remember making a bunch of wands and taking them on the trip. When the clouds blew in I set wands, when the sun shone I forgot about the wands since we could see ok, then the clouds would blow in, etc. etc. It was so funny looking at our path on the way down, about 1,000’ of wands, then nothing, another set of wands, then nothing… at least we were learning!

About two weeks before our Mt. Hood climb, Mike S. called me to say that he and his wife Kathy had split up. He still wanted Kathy to summit, since it had been their goal together, but Mike felt it would be awkward for them both to go and he bowed out of the climb. Since I had summited the year before and knew the route, I was now in charge of the climb.

On The Mountain

So we set out, with a minimal skillset. Our team consisted of myself, my wife Nadine, Kathy S., her brother Cliff, Rick McEdward, Alan Altman, David Parkhurst, Bill Miller, and Wayne Sladek. We headed to Hood on a Saturday afternoon and started hiking up to base camp, at about the normal 8,400’ level. Immediately our team spread out. We had 5 folks in great shape and going normal pace, and 3 who were slower. I knew enough to stay back and sweep. Our group of 4 arrived at camp about 90 minutes after the first group.

We woke up and started climbing about 4am. The weather was socked in, foggy,  and we couldn’t see much at all, but thankfully there was no wind. Not 100’ out of camp, Cliff said he was too sick to continue and went back to the tent. About an hour or two later, Kathy was dizzy and disoriented and it was clear she couldn’t continue. Nadine volunteered to descend and take her back to camp. Nadine had a compass, but she didn’t know how to use it, so I asked “what is the bearing back to camp and how will you get there?" She fumbled around and then admitted yes, she didn’t know where to go.

The sun had come up but we were socked in by fog - it was a real whiteout. With visibility to less than 200 feet, everything blended in. Wayne, the only one on the team with any experience at all, said he would take her back, and they descended.

The remaining six members of the party continued on, and now Rick was struggling. We stopped every so often and took more things out of his pack and spread it to the other five team members. Everyone was supportive and encouraging saying “you can make it!” Since it was so foggy, the team stayed within sight of each other. Snow conditions were soft, so we didn’t rope up. I again knew enough to stay back and sweep, coaxing Rick up the path. I’m not sure how long it took (we were very slow), but eventually we came to the Hogsback. The Hogsback is a snow formation about 500’ below the summit that forms by snow and wind, it’s a snow ridge that heads to the final face, which itself is above the top crevasse or bergschrund. Climbers traverse above the bergschrund to the summit. Many accidents have occurred here when conditions are icy and people will fall and slide into the crevasse.

David had been leading the way up to this time, but there was a lot of confusion at the Hogsback. By this time the weather had deteriorated further: the wind starting to pick up, it got darker, and snow started to fall. A cluster of people surrounded us; some descending, some ascending, everyone in each others way. A few minor avalanches were kicked up by the travel. One person, who had just fallen 100 feet, cut his hand badly on his ice axe and was getting first aid. Nobody was roped up since the snow was so soft. We were punching through to our knees.

David, still in the lead, yelled to me asking for directions.  I headed to the front to find the way. We found the step path leading to the summit, but everyone was in line. Teams had merged and folks were just climbing up.

At about 200’ gain, we gathered on a nice ledge. I checked on the team but only counted five, including myself. We didn’t have Rick. I looked down and he was still at the bottom of the steep steps! He was just too beat to make the final climb.

I hollered down asking him to stay put and that we'd be back soon. I didn’t think it would take us more than 20 minutes to finish the climb to the summit and descend (I think it took like another 40 minutes). He hollered back. It was hard to hear, but I assumed he would stay put.

The Summit

By now the wind was blowing so hard that ice was forming on our glasses - I remember scraping them off a couple of times. We kept going until we couldn’t go any higher and could see the backside sweep down to nothing. I broke out some Sparkling Cider and celebrated our summit with Nadine, Alan, David, and Bill! Five minute later we started back down.

We got down to the bottom of the steep steps, and I started hollering for Rick. No response. I wondered if he got cold and tried to find warmth in one of the big crevasse cracks. I headed quickly in their direction to look in. The cracks are dangerous and full of heavy sulfur fumes, which can overcome a person in minutes. I looked into three or four cracks, all the while still hollering for Rick. The effort made me winded.

I heard and saw nothing. We asked people: nothing. We ran into a ranger who was going to sweep the route on his snowboard. He didn’t seem too worried. He said Rick probably headed down, and suggested we descend to our camp and find him there. So we headed down.

One thing I was good at was map and compass and navigation - I could take a bearing and follow it. I took the bearing and checked it every 5 minutes. Along the way our path seemed like we should go left or right, but we followed the needle. We came down in the whiteout and got right to our camp. What I saw there shook me to the core.

Where's Rick?

Rick was not at camp. All his stuff was still in the tent. Wayne had evacuated Cliff and Kathy and their stuff was gone, but not Rick’s. That meant he was still on the mountain somewhere. I was devastated. What to do?

I immediately started thinking of Marcia and their two small children. How could I face Marcia without bringing Rick back home safely?

We had to move.

I had the strong guys, David and Bill, pack up Rick’s stuff and hoof it on down to the Lodge where they would talk to the Rangers to start a search. Alan used his cell phone to call 911 from the mountain, but they weren't sure what to do and gave us the phone number of the Sherriff’s office. We didn’t have a pencil to write anything down, so I took an ice axe and wrote the number in the snow!

Alan called the Sherriff and asked for a search to be started. They indicated that searches would start in the morning, but they'd start preparing now and asked us to stay in contact. We packed up and started down. I had a very heavy heart. I couldn’t believe the situation was unfolding like this.

From Rick’s perspective (this is what I remember from debriefing with him), he was just getting plain worn out on the ascent. In all the confusion at the steps, he just couldn’t make that last steep climb. He was disappointed that our team had left him. He couldn’t believe he was looking up 200’ to see the rest of us.

In our hollering back and forth, his intent was to descend, it was too cold to just hang out in the wind for 40 minutes, so he descended with two other climbers. They got back to their tent and while they were packing up, Rick said he would traverse to our camp. They asked him if he had a compass, which he showed them. But Rick didn’t know how to use it, or what the bearing to camp would be, or even which direction (left or right) our camp was from their camp. He left them and traversed around for awhile, finally realizing he would not find camp.

Finding our way home

Descending from the summit of Mt. Hood is a challenging proposition. Head too far to climber’s left and you're in ice falls and steep cliffs. The natural fall line will take you climber’s right far past the elevation of Timberline Lodge. Many parties have done this by mistake, with several folks having lost their lives over the years. The most famous accident was in 1986 when 9 college students died on that slope (out of a party of 13). It's serious business.

To descend correctly you have to traverse on your way down while fighting the fall line  to stay far enough left, but not too far. Fortunately, Rick wandered into the top of the Palmer Chairlift, and followed the chairlift down to the lodge. Rick was safe.

But I didn't know that.

It was a quiet descent for Alan, Nadine and I. My mind was racing. What would I say to Marcia? How would we start a search. I knew Rick didn’t have any equipment with him - we had emptied his pack on the way up! How long could he survive before succumbing to the cold?

We were about 300’ above the parking lot, which we could now see fairly clearly, and I thought I saw Rick walking around. The descent quickened. I reached the parking lot, and sure enough, it was Rick!!! I hiked over to him and grabbed him, gave him a big bearhug and just broke down and cried. Deep sobs with real tears, for a couple of minutes. I can feel it to this day. What a relief! I was elated and mad at the same time. How come he didn’t stay put? He was safe and alive!

In the subsequent weeks, we talked it over. It was clear we didn’t have the skills 1) to keep us out of this kind of situation, and 2) to deal with an emergency when it occurred. Wayne knew about this climbing club called The Mountaineers down in Tacoma. We checked them out, went to a couple of introductory meetings, and Wayne, Alan, and I signed up for the Basic class that fall! That course opened up a new world to me, and gave me the skills to get out safely into places I could only dream about before.

That is how I became a Mountaineer.

Main image: Dan, Alan and Wayne, who took the basic climbing class together in 1999, on a reunion climb of Mt. Baker 16 years later.

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