Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tarnishing The Mountain

In my sidebar self-introduction, I boast of being able to see the "ring of fire from my front yard (almost)." "Almost," because there is a rather large church preventing me from calling my lot a "view" property. But if I go out my front door and travel one block south and two blocks east, I can treat myself to a view of three snow-capped peaks from the luxurious expanse of the McDonald’s parking lot. Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood. That last bears the fond moniker of "THE Mountain," so dubbed by those of us who conduct our lives in the hem of its skirts.

Seen from our perspective in the western Columbia Valley, The Mountain is the perfect incarnation of every pre-schooler’s drawing: its wide base narrows gracefully to a pointy peak iced with white even in midsummer. And in winter it is breathtakingly robed almost completely in snow. There are mountains galore in the continental US that exceed Mt. Hood’s mere 11,249 feet. The Cascade Range itself boasts three higher peaks. Nevertheless, we Oregonians dote on our Mountain. We photograph it, ski on it, fly over it, quaff pricey drinks in luxury hotel lounges perched on its shoulders, and fork over serious money for properties, however distant from it, from which you can catch a glimpse of it. It is our mascot; the stately silent guardian that watches over everything we do. We can be sitting in a cubicle performing the most unglamorous of office jobs, but all we have to do is look up and scan the eastern horizon for that reminder of exactly why it is we live in Oregon.

This past week, our Mountain has found itself at the center of a cyclone. Three climbers, veteran outdoorsman all, were lost during a pre-Christmas trek to the summit. One body has finally been recovered. The other two will have to wait until Spring…or might never be located, if the likely scenario pieced together by rescue crews—that the pair were blown off the sheer face of the summit by 100-mph storm winds—was indeed their fate.

I have to admit, I have been angry with these men for the tumult they have caused. Sobbing family members suffering the intrusion of nosey cameras. Hundreds of thousands of dollars squandered on a rescue mission which, in the end, will yield approximately six hundred pounds of frozen human flesh. If that. A taint of fear and menace attached to our beautiful mountain in the middle of the season in which it is meant to really shine. All because three careless men thought cresting a "minor" peak in winter might be a worthwhile Sunday afternoon pastime.

But two things seemed to put the affair in perspective for me. The first was a quote from an interview with the dead climber’s wife.

"I married a man so full of passion and love of life," she told the Dallas Morning News. "How do you take that away from someone? How do you take away what makes them tick?"

I guess you don’t. She was well aware of the risky nature of what he chose to do for recreation. And she accepted that risk. So, though I was at first angry with Kelly James for putting his family through this nightmare, I believe I see now that he had their permission to put his life on the line for the thing for which he had a burning passion. Do I understand choosing to risk one’s life for something as superfluous as reaching the highest point on some mountain? No, I do not. But I acknowledge that there are people who feel they need to do that, and people in their lives who make a conscious choice to allow them to do so.

The second revelation I had was this: There are worse ways to die than to fall asleep in an ice cave—literally enveloped by the majesty, beauty and fury of The Mountain—and never wake up. Certainly it’s preferable to being blown to bits by a car bomb in Baghdad, or fighting a years-long losing battle against cancer or Alzheimer’s. I’ve wondered lately whether man isn’t a little bit crazy, being the only animal that knows it’s going to die. These guys who choose to walk up and spit in death’s eye—for recreation…maybe they’ve got it right. Maybe the sense of power they get from exerting even a smidgen of control over the fact of our lives over which we traditionally have the least control—where and when we will die—is the high that keeps them climbing dangerous mountains in winter. The thought that they may choose the possible platform from which they step off into the great beyond, must be heady stuff indeed. Headier yet if they walk past the platform, smile and bow. Knowing they will come back again and again, until the last time, when death will no longer be cheated.

But dancing with death should be a private thing, played out in the quiet depths of the soul of the man or woman so engaged. The jarring headlines and tabloid-like tear-jerking mock the solemn challenge. Our culture has crossed some kind of line that was better left uncrossed, when it comes to the exploitation of death and its surrounding whirlwind of emotions. We eat that stuff up like bratwurst at a tailgater. Perhaps that is the ugly thing about this whole affair. Perhaps that is what has hung that pall of macabre menace—that twinge of sadness and fear that we all feel now when we look to the east for what was once an awesome, comforting presence—over our beloved Mountain. I know that will fade with time. But right now, it just feels…wrong.


  1. My first thoughts anymore when something like this happens (two other US climbers are missing in China) is why they choose this as their passion and spend all the money on gear etc. yet do not take a GPS with them. They are affordable anymore to just about anyone. I agree about the media's coverage these days. It is like a feeding frenzy when tradegy is involved.

  2. Great entry here!

  3. Great entry. What many don't realize is that they knew where Kelly  James was for a week. But, they couldn't get to him. It had to be agonizing for everyone involved to be so close and yet so heartbreakingly far away.

    I"ve never had the yen to climb The Mountain but I think I'd rather get blown off the north slope in a storm than buy it on the freeway in a collision with somebody who's trying get to Starbuck's before they get to work and is runnning late.

  4. What Luxury you have to see all three mountains ~ The picture you have shown us looks beautiful ~ so sad about those climbers ~ Ally

  5. What a wonderful entry.  I love the way you describe it as The Mountain.  It reminds me of how here, despite, being a river girt state, the Mississippi is The River (including the high priced real estate to enjoy the view from the bluffs).  I also think that you're dead on target about the media.  Their treatment of this has been absolutely macabre.

  6. Wow, incredible entry, incredible writing.  Maybe you should contribute it to Newsweek's "My Turn" column -- have you ever considered that? I think they would publish it.

    My neighbor is into mountain climbing.  Two years ago he went with a group of ten to Alaska, and one in his party was killed by a falling boulder.  Boy was his wife mad at him for making her worry like that.  They do have kids, and I think you have to put some of your more life-threatening thrills on hold at least until the kids grow up. I don't think even that horrific accident is going to keep him away from mountain climbing though.

  7. I don't know what drives people to take such extreme risks.  But, I saw Kelly James' wife being interviewed....and she obviously does understand.  It's almost like she accepted the same risk when she married him, and is thankful for all the marriage was because he was who he was.

    I agree with you about the media attention.  It's over the top and plays on some macabe need the masses have to "look".  It is news that three men lost their lives on the mountain.  But the suffering of the families is not is a natural reaction.