Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Mount Rainier—A Place of Some Tragedy But Offset By Many Triumphs

©Bert Gildart: Shortly after ascending from the Columbia River Gorge along Interstate 90 the highway then climbs a series of low-lying hills and that’s where Janie and I enjoyed our first glimpse of 14, 410’ Rainier. This sighting was particularly significant, for although I’ve seen it before, this time I hope to climb it.

Our next significant glimpse occurred several hours later, when we descended White Pass, along Route 12, and it was there, the mountain almost strikes you in the face. Because the day was so clear, we could see the typical cloud cap of lenticular clouds beginning to encircle the dome. As well, we could see the various glaciers radiating down the slopes.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier

Outside of Alaska, Rainier is the most glaciated of all mountains. Like the other major mountains of the area to include Adams, Hood, and Mount St. Helen’s, Rainier is of volcanic origin, and though its slopes are steep, its peak has been somewhat flattened by repeated explosions.

From our perspective, the mountain appeared foreboding, and I had to remind myself once again, that I had willingly agreed with two other fellows to join Paul Barger of International Mountain Guides and that we would ascend as far as our abilities would allow. Obviously we hope to make it to the top, and, yes, I will be disappointed if I can’t make it, but I’m realistic, too. Rainier has turned back many people younger and more experienced than I.

If we make it, we certainly won’t be accomplishing anything unique for thousands have preceded us, beginning in 1870. In fact, in recent years, somewhat in the neighborhood of 4,000 climbers successfully ascend Rainier each summer. Many more attempt but statistics reveal that only about 50 percent make it, and that the odds improve dramatically if you’re accompanied by a guide. Mostly, unexpected shifts in the weather turn back climbers, but Rainier has claimed its share of victims, beginning shortly after the first successful ascent.

The first fatality occurred in 1897 and resulted from a fall from a rock. Since that time there have been at least 94 other deaths, one of which occurred this summer, when a fellow lost his way on a day outing to Camp Muir, located at about the half way point.

According to Dee Molenaar in his classic book The Challenge of Rainier, most of the tragedies resulted from “human error.” Tragedies in order of priority have occurred “as a result of falls from rock cliffs, and on steep snow and ice terrain, followed by falls into crevasses, being lost in storms and perishing from exposure (hypothermia) snow avalanches, being struck by falling rock, uncontrolled glissades, high altitude pulmonary edema, and ice avalanches. Accidents also occur by scrambling on the lower peaks within the Park, and that’s the manner in which the one this summer occurred.

The worst fatal statistics resulted in June of 1981, when 11 people lost their lives. The disaster resulted essentially when a large serac toppled and fell, breaking into ice blocks that then precipitated a large avalanche of ice and snow. The group attempted to outrun the slide, but they were unsuccessful. The summer in the Northwest had been one of unusually high snow fall and the tragedy on Rainier occurred on the exact same day as did the death of five climbers on Mount Hood.

Despite tragedies, there are far more successes than failures. In fact, there are some rather notable success stories. Until two years ago, the oldest person to climb was a man Janie knew well, and that was 81-year-old Jack Borgenicht. Borgenicht lived in Long Valley, New Jersey, where Janie once lived, and was part of a research program on geriatrics from the college of William and Mary. This summer, however, an 84 year old man climbed Rainier and did so for the fourth consecutive summer.

Five-foot tall 77 year old Bronka Sundstrom of Ashford (where our Airstream Trailer is now parked) is the oldest woman to have climbed the mountain, and did so August 31, 2002. In September of 1981, Craig Van Hoy, a guide, made one of the fastest climbs, hiking roundtrip in slightly less than 7 hours. Interestingly, for me, is that Don Scharf of Rocky Mountain Outfitters in Kalispell, Montana, almost duplicated Hoy’s efforts, completing the climb in about 8 hours. Typically, climbers in good shape require two days, more if you really want to enjoy the experience.

The mountain has also attracted its share of the prominent. In August 1999, Vice President Al Gore and his 15 year old son, Albert, ascended Rainier. They were led by a Seattle attorney who was also president of the American Alpine Club. While climbing, the weather turned harsh discouraging other members of the party, including some of Gore’s Secret Service men, who returned to the base camp.

There have been some incredible survival stories such as occurred in July 1976 when man wearing smooth-soled down booties for camp wear, slipped and then began a slide that only accelerated. Without an ice ax he slid 2000 feet then fell over a 75-foot ice cliff. Guides rescued him and though the climber, a doctor, incurred internal injuries and a punctured lung, he survived to climb again.

One of the most unusual “climbers” was a black bear, observed in the 1990s by a party on one side of the mountain—and then later in the day by another group on the opposite side. Climbers have also enjoyed rare sightings of golden mantled ground squirrels, white-footed mice and, once, a porcupine.

And so the legends of the mountain continue to grow, but not from anything we’ll do. We simply hope to climb the mountain, enjoy sunrise and sunset, and then after three days, return with memories and photographs of vistas that only Rainier can provide.

3 Responses to “Mount Rainier—A Place of Some Tragedy But Offset By Many Triumphs”

  1. Tim Says:

    Can’t wait to hear how it went. Hope the spirits of Rainier were kind and gentle.

  2. Nancy Zatkoff Says:

    I hope and pray for a sucessful climb and can’t wait for the pics.

  3. Regroup--Following X-country Flight; Mount Rainier Reflections | Bert Gildart: Writer and Photographer Says:

    [...] *A Place of some Tragedy [...]