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Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow
The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure
By Maria Coffey
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Maria Coffey
All rights reserved.
Moments of Perfection
Jim Wickwire lies in his bivouac sack on the edge of a crevasse, listening intently. A low rumbling as a boulder peels off the mountain. A distant, drawn-out creaking as the glacier creeps imperceptibly down the valley. Otherwise, nothing. Numbed by shock and exhaustion, he drifts into a brief sleep. Upon awakening, he has a few moments of forgetfulness, a fleeting respite from reality.
He's on the north side of Denali, the highest peak in North America. This part of the mountain is rarely visited by climbers, there are no guided groups, no regular fly-ins, no one for many miles around. His line-of-sight radio is useless here, he can't call for help.
Twilight deepens to night. Stars appear. He imagines his wife, Mary Lou, and their five children asleep in Seattle, these same constellations above them.
Then, from the depths below him, the singing begins again. It's high and reedy, fainter than before, eerily echoing off the icy walls. A schoolboy's song, drawn from a slowly unraveling memory. A voice from a tomb.
The stars above Jim blur and waver through his tears. Twenty-five feet beneath him, a young man is trapped within the icy maw of the crevasse, freezing slowly, deliriously, to death.
Nine hours earlier Jim Wickwire had been snowshoeing in high spirits down the Peters Glacier. His climbing partner, Chris Kerrebrock, was ahead, searching for a safe path through a field of crevasses. On the ropes between them was a heavily laden sled, which Chris was pulling and Jim was braking when it picked up too much speed. They were on their way to Denali's Wickersham Wall, hoping to put a new route up this treacherous, avalanche-prone face. It was their first trip together. They planned to join an expedition to the north side of Everest the following year, and this was a "shakedown" climb, a chance for them to get to know each other. At forty, Jim was a veteran of Himalayan expeditions; Chris, fifteen years younger, was just beginning his career in the world's biggest mountain ranges.
When they had stopped for a rest, Jim offered to take over the lead, but Chris demurred. It was a decision that would cost him his life. An hour later the snow crust gave way beneath him and he pitched into a crevasse, pulling the sled and Jim in after him. Their fall was abruptly halted when the walls of the crevasse bulged inward, narrowing to eighteen inches. Chris's backpack wedged into the narrow slot, trapping his upper body beneath it. He was jammed facedown, staring into the void.
Two decades later Jim sprawled across the living-room floor of his house in Seattle, demonstrating Chris's position in the crevasse. "Only his legs were dangling free," he said. "One arm came back up alongside his pack with just the top part of one hand showing. From the angle of the arm, I suspect it was broken. I grabbed his hand; he had no feeling in it whatsoever. He was yelling at me to get him out."
The fall had broken Jim's shoulder, disabling his left arm. For six hours he tried to rescue his friend. Urged on by Chris's constant panicky pleading, he managed to inch his way back up the crevasse, and from the surface tried to pull him out with the rope. When that proved impossible, he went back down the crevasse and yanked at the backpack from every angle. It didn't budge. He tried to cut open the pack to empty it, but it was compressed so tightly between the glacier walls that it had taken on the consistency of stone. Jim worked to exhaustion, without success. Meanwhile, Chris was fighting the demons of intense cold and profound fear. "He kept saying to me, 'You've got to figure it out, Wick. You've got to figure out a way' He went through the stages Kübler-Ross writes about, when people are approaching death — denial, anger, negotiation, depression, acceptance. He went through them all in a matter of hours."
By the time he reached the acceptance stage, Chris was making requests. He told Jim to climb Everest for him and to put his trumpet mouthpiece on the summit. He gave him messages to convey to his loved ones. And then he asked his friend to help him die speedily — something Jim didn't have the means to do. "I asked him if he wanted to pray. He said he'd never been much for that. I said, 'Chris, do you want to stay here, or be taken out?' and he said, 'Let my father decide.'"
Jim stayed down the crevasse, comforting Chris, until 9:30 P.M. "By then I was a basket case and he was becoming incoherent, but he was insisting I go up. The worst thing was the leave-taking, and going up the last time and just flopping into the bivouac sack, knowing he's still alive down there, knowing he's dying. Feeling this complete desolation at not having saved him. And then hearing him singing in the middle of the night ..."
By 2:00 A.M. the crevasse was silent. Chris's struggle was over, but Jim's fight for life had only just begun. He was injured on a remote glacier, with almost no food or water and only a bivouac sack for shelter. His one hope was the pilot who had dropped them off a week earlier, promising that if the weather was good, he would fly by to check on their progress. Thoughts of his wife and children overwhelmed Jim, filling him with regret for what he was risking. This was his tenth expedition in nine years; he vowed to himself that if he survived, he would withdraw from the Everest expedition and quit serious climbing.
For four days he lay on the ice. On the fifth day hunger forced him to go back down the crevasse and retrieve some food from the sled. "The repugnance of that crevasse ..." he said. "It was like going into a grave." He found crackers, margarine, honey, and jam.
A week after the accident he realized that to survive, he had to move up the glacier and get over a pass to the West Buttress Route, where he might find help. He said a prayer at the side of the crevasse and left a picket with a note attached to it, explaining what had happened, "in case I didn't make it back." For several days he staggered uphill, dragging his backpack behind him in his bivouac sack. Sometimes he crawled on his hands and knees, probing ahead with his ice axe for crevasses. A storm moved in, bringing subzero temperatures and seventy-five-mile-per-hour winds. It lasted four days, pinning him inside the bivouac sack, burying it in snow.
Eventually the sky cleared. He heard a plane overhead; turning on his radio, he made contact with the pilot. It was thirteen days since Chris Kerrebrock had died. Within hours, Jim was in the safety of the park ranger station, phoning Mary Lou, and promising to give up serious climbing.
I arrived at Jim Wickwire's house on a sunny fall morning in 2001. It was the first time I'd met him or his wife, yet they welcomed me like an old friend and insisted that I stay for lunch. One corner of their spacious living room was given over to children's toys, and Jim proudly showed me photographs of their eldest daughter's twins. He and Mary Lou, doting grandparents, cared for the toddlers two days a week.
Jim Wickwire admitted that he was a lucky man for a mountaineer, having reached the age of sixty-one and still being around to enjoy his grandchildren. He didn't keep the promise he made on Denali. He continued to go on expeditions, and just a month before we met, he had been on Everest as the leader of a team supporting Ed Hommer's bid to become the first double amputee to climb the mountain. While still at Base Camp, Jim suffered a sudden and extremely violent headache. Fearing that it was the warning signal of a stroke or an aneurysm, he went home. Extensive tests revealed nothing sinister. He acknowledged that it might have been his last expedition but showed no signs of disappointment. "Age is a great leveler, Maria," he said. "It has allowed those fires of ambition to burn less furiously than they did in my earlier years."
I had come to him with questions about why some people choose to leave their families and the safety of their homes for a harsh, unforgiving environment where the risks are enormous. Jim Wickwire has made such a choice repeatedly during his long mountaineering career. For three consecutive years he went on expeditions instead of being at home for one of his son's birthdays. On the third occasion, two days after his son had turned nine, he watched two friends, Al Givler and Dusan Jagersky, fall to their death in Alaska's Fairweather Range. He resolved to cut back on his climbing. A year later he lay on K2, surviving a night in the open at 27,750 feet. Recuperating from the pneumonia, pleurisy, and pulmonary emboli that followed, he considered giving up mountaineering for good. Then came the chance to climb Mount Everest. Denali was the warm-up expedition. Lying on Peters Glacier, reeling from Chris Kerrebrock's death, he swore to himself (and later his wife) that he would withdraw from the Everest expedition, scheduled for the following year. He soon reneged on the promise, unable to resist the urge, as he put it, to "embrace life and climb again." On Everest, at 26,000 feet, he watched the accomplished young climber Marty Hoey slip from her harness and plummet to her death. That night he wrote in his diary: "It is high time to start repaying my wife, family, and society for the years I've spent pursuing this almost entirely self-serving activity. I must seek the 'newer world' I promised to find a year ago, alone on Denali." A few days after making this entry, he went back up the mountain for another try at the summit.
In an attempt to explain his longing for the mountains, Jim Wickwire wrote a book, Addicted to Danger. "I picked the title and then I tried to get the publishers to change it," he told me. "I didn't like the 'addiction' part, I didn't like admitting that directly. I thought my climbing friends would find it ridiculous. I don't back away from anything that I describe in the book as an addiction, just the title itself."
Some of his friends and peers, however, say much the same thing. "[Climbing] is an addiction," wrote Linda Givler, a climber herself, two years after her husband's death in Alaska. "We are far worse off than any drug addict could ever imagine. Our curse takes us to physical and mental highs and satisfies some urge to challenge ourselves. We feel healthy and happy and we don't see that it could ever be wrong to do what we do."
In the introduction to Tiger Dreams, Jon Krakauer writes about his attempts to cut back on his climbing: "Today I feel like an alcoholic who's managed to make the switch from week-long whiskey benders to a few beers on Saturday night."
Reinhold Messner uses a similar analogy. "Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more, to danger."
On Everest in May 1997, while waiting for the winds to drop, the filmmaker David Breashears lightheartedly founded Everest Anonymous, a self-help group for climbers unable to resist the lure of this mountain. The dozen or so charter members, realizing they had spent far too long on the slopes of Everest for their own good, agreed that when they felt its pull again they would call one another up for support in fighting the temptation. In 1999 a system of fines was created for backsliders. When Pete Athans cracked, the group waived his fine but warned that if he went back again, it would be reinstated, and doubled. In the spring of 2002 he summited Everest for the eighth time. Payment of his fines, now up to $2,000, is still pending.
What exactly is it that mountaineers find so addictive about climbing? "There are many sides to it," said Jim Wickwire. "One side is physical." He cited the research done into the role of dopamine, a chemical that, along with adrenaline and endorphins, floods the nervous system during times of stress or high excitement, acting as an analgesic and leaving behind a feeling of well-being. Studies in the 1980s suggested that this feeling was addictive, and the phrase "runners' high" was coined for those people who became slaves to the pleasurable sensation they experienced following vigorous exercise. Extreme sports are one way to keep the dopamine flowing.
Calling something "addictive," however, suggests that it is pathological, and climbing quite clearly is not a sickness. For people at one end of the spectrum it is a recreation, a way of getting exercise and enjoying the outdoors. For those at the other end of the spectrum it is a deep need, something they can't live without — a desire so strong, it is like a calling. In 1961 an eighteen-year-old in Poland went rock climbing for the first time. "I was totally possessed," wrote Wanda Rutkiewicz, who became one of the world's top mountaineers. "The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew it would somehow mark the rest of my life."
Sometimes the signs are there much earlier. "He was always going upwards, from the time he was eighteen months old," said the mother of British mountaineer Pete Boardman. She recalled his starting with chairs and tables, progressing to the garden fence, the laburnum tree, and then, when that started to bend under his weight, the taller sycamore. Hills, cliffs, mountains — on and on it went, until he stood on the top of Mount Everest. And even then, the need wasn't satisfied.
For Jim Wickwire, the obsession with climbing began through books, most particularly Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, the account of the first ascent of an 8,000-meter mountain in 1950. Along with Louis Lachenal, Herzog was trapped by a storm on the way down from the summit and was forced to spend the night in a crevasse. Both men suffered terrible frostbite, and the resulting amputations meant they never climbed again. "There are other Annapurnas in the life of men" are Herzog's famous closing words in the book. Jim Wickwire admitted that on many occasions during his long climbing career he has recalled those words, and he has tried to heed them by turning away from climbing, but with little success.
In February 2003 I talked to Jim Wickwire again. Within six weeks he was returning to Everest, hoping to climb it from its northern side. What, I asked him, had rekindled those "fires of ambition" he thought had all but burned out? Strangely, it was the death of a good friend. The previous September, Jim had been climbing on Mount Rainier. He was leading a team that included Ed Hommer, who was training for his second attempt on Everest. A rock "the size of a football" flew down the slopes toward them. Jim heard it coming and called out a warning. As Ed spun around to move out of the rock's trajectory, it hit him on the crown of his head, killing him instantly. A month and a half later, Jim was firming up his own plans for Everest.
"In ways I can't fully articulate," said Jim, "once I got through the depression and the sadness and the early stages of grief over Ed's death, it made me come to life again. It was the utter randomness of it, the fact it happened on Rainier, on that particular route, that's normally so safe. It made me realize that I don't want to just slip into old age. If I've still got the ability to climb Everest, if I can do it safely and not take unnecessary risks, why not go do it? And so it's a gift from Ed Hommer. That's the way I look at it."
He insisted that he had nothing to prove, that he didn't have to get to the summit of Everest, that trying for it was what mattered. He insisted he would be careful, for the sake of his wife, his five grown children, and most important of all, his twin granddaughters.
"Those girls, they're five and a half now. I want to be around to see them grow up. To find out how they turn out at twenty or thirty. They are my greatest constraint against doing something stupid up there."
In the West, we live in relatively safe times, cocooned from most of the perils our ancestors faced. Some people miss the element of risk and uncertainty: they seek it out — and if necessary, create it. Dr. Ruth Seifert, a psychiatrist, has pointed out that the Italian and British mountaineers of the nineteenth century were wealthy, titled people who had everything they needed for a comfortable life. "So what were they doing, climbing dangerous mountains? They couldn't just sit and enjoy what they had at home; they were moved to go out and explore. There's some instinctive thing in mankind, that such comfort is just not enough for the soul."
Excerpted from Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow by Maria Coffey. Copyright © 2003 Maria Coffey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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