Friday, December 18, 2009

Because it's there

This is a somber post, but the topic has been on my mind all week.  Three people were lost last weekend climbing on Mount Hood; one perished and two are missing and presumed dead.  They went out for a 13-hour round-trip to the summit and didn't make it back.  It's a tragic story, one that has been repeated over 140 times before. 

Sometimes stories of loss insinuate themselves into my psyche and my mind keeps returning to them, worrying at it like a tongue in the groove left after a tooth is lost.  My heart is breaking for the loved ones left to ponder the fate of these three vibrant young people, well equipped and experienced climbers all, lost in their prime.  I find it disturbing that this mountain, of which I have so many fond memories, exerts a lure that can be deadly.

Mount Hood presides over Portland's skyline, a peaceful sentinel.  It's a striking mountain, rearing up over 11,000 feet - its volcanic height impressive among the low rolling peaks of Oregon's Cascade range.  The mountain has a special place in my heart - an icon of the little corner of the world I've claimed as home.  On a clear day in winter, I can just catch a glimpse of it, if I stand on the rotting sequoia stump on the very corner of our property when the leaves are off the trees down the road.  We mark the seasons by the mountain's cloak of snow.

I beat myself up for six days on Mt. Hood learning to snowboard at the age of 25.  Without an athletic bone in my body and no sense of balance, it didn't come easy, but I was determined to find a reason to be glad when the winter rains started. "It's snow on the mountain" became my refrain when the gray, soaking season set in.  I can lose myself in snowboarding.  It was the first, and still one of the only, activities in which I can completely disengage from the constant consideration of the minutiae of life.  I only think about the next turn, the next line, the feel of my edges biting into the snow - or on a really good day - the board floating over powder.

In the summer, D and I have driven 10 miles up a bumpy gravel road to escape the city heat and camp in the relative solitude of Tilly Jane campground at 6,500 feet.  On a hike one day, we went up to the old stone Cooper Spur shelter at 8,500 feet.  Then I rested my bum knee there, enjoying views of the valleys unfolding below, whilst following D's progress through the binoculars as he powered up another 1,000 feet of elevation or more.  It was only a day hike, strenuous but not technical.  Still, D - always prepared - had us kitted out for an (uncomfortable) night out if something went wrong.  The mountain deserves respect at any time of year, summiting or not.

One winter, when D visited me for Christmas before we were married, I coaxed my rear-wheel drive sports car on a dodgy drive up the icy Timberline road to stay at the lodge for a night.  Arriving in the parking lot, we were treated to the most stunning sunset I have ever seen.  The colors were intense and the sun was below the horizon formed by the nearby mountaintops, shining a beam of light straight up into the vibrant clouds.  I can't pinpoint the date of any other of the many beautiful sunsets I've seen, except for this one - December 29, 2000.  Standing there, clutching the hand of this man I had so recently fallen for but who lived so far away, a kaleidoscope of possibilities for the future were spread before us like the colors of that sky blanketing the mountain range; we felt on top of the world.

But I have enjoyed Mt. Hood from a relative cocoon of safety.  Statistically, Hood is not a deadly mountain.  Thousands of people climb it each year.  I think about the enthusiasm of its three most recent victims... getting up early, registering their climb at Timberline Lodge, heading out with the anticipation of reaching the summit for spectacular vistas since the weather had been crystal clear for over a week.  Then the mountain turned on them - an unfortunate climbing accident while a storm closed in, making search and rescue a dangerous and improbable prospect.  I wonder if they ever considered the potentially deadly consequences of their decision to climb that day.  I wonder if that was part of the lure.  I don't understand the attraction, but my husband does.  We are very different people, he and I.

Life is precious, but for those who crave a challenge, who wish to push themselves against the awesome backdrop of nature, I suppose life is meant to be grabbed by the nuts and experienced, risks and all.  For them, the mountain is meant to be climbed simply because it is there.  I hope that these three felt some peace in their final moments.  I hope there is some value in that old cliche - they died doing what they loved - if only to help those left behind come to terms with their loss.


  1. 11,000 ft! That's almost 3 times higher than anything here in VT. I simply must get out of the woods a little more.

  2. That happens to me too... Stories get stuck with me and won't leave. Especially working in the news. I've had to kind of harden my heart a little or else I don't think I could do this day in and day out. Beautifully written and thank you so much for donating and entering!

  3. A well written post.
    Thank you for so much for your vote:)