Monthly Archives: December 2009

Climbing Mount Ritter

The ‘life in the balance’ piece reminded me of another time when I almost killed myself.

When I was sixteen I climbed Mount Ritter in the Sierra Nevada Range in California with a friend. Man were we stupid!. Here is a link to a photo of Mt. Ritter. It had taken a week to hike across the range. We decided to climb the mountain on a ‘day off.’ We were accompanied by a roughly fifty year old guy who also didn’t know what he was dong.

I wasn’t a geologist at sixteen but I thought that the mountain was mostly made of volcanic rock. Not really very good climbing rock from my perspective.

From our camp on a lake at the base of the mountain the climb was easy. On the east side we had to climb along a glacial arret and across a glacier cirque. We rested on a little ledge overlooking the glaciers below.

Nestled between two facing cliffs was a little flat area. On that flat area was a giant boulder about three feet high and six feet long. Like many glacial boulders it was rounded. It had been left there thousands of years earlier by a retreating glacier. It sat there on the edge of the cliff through the recorded history of man.

Just as we were about to continue our climb, I jumped up on the boulder to look over the edge of the cliff to the glacier far below. Glacial ice is not white. It is blue and gray. I remember taking my time to look. Then we were on our way.

Just as I jumped off the boulder and got ten feet away I heard the rock start to move – a grinding, crushing, unstoppable sound. I turned to see the rock I had just been standing on slowly rotate a quarter of a circle toward the cliff and cascade over the edge! I had been three seconds from death.

I watched the boulder crash down the mountain and then roll and slide down the glacier. I could still see it moving half a mile away. I took about five seconds to contemplate the possibilities and then went on my way.

It is the overlooked risk that kills. Did you know that most climbing related deaths in the northwest occur by downing while going to and from a climb?

I spent most of my scientific life questioning assumptions. Looking back, it’s not surprising that I did.

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Life in the balance

It’s the unexpected that kills you in the field. Jim and I were hiking up a mountain stream when we came to an impassable water fall. We decided to climb up one side. About twenty feet up the cliff I stuck my rock pick in the cliff face to get a better hold. The pick dislodged a boulder about two feet in diameter above my head. I struggled to hold the boulder in place. I envisioned myself falling off the cliff with the boulder following me. If the fall didn’t kill me the boulder would bash my head in. Or bash in my head. Whatever.

You don’t follow directly behind your partner when you’re climbing. If a rock is kicked lose it can change your life. That’s why climbers wear helmets.

Jim had picked a different path up the cliff and it turned out to be a better path. When he saw that I was in trouble he managed to scurry across the rock face and wedge his foot against the boulder. He had a much better position of leverage that I did. Jim showed me where the footholds were and I was able to move out from under the boulder. Jim’s simple selfless act saved my life.

I suppose the lessons learned here are obvious: pick your battles, don’t work alone, etc. You don’t have to always go straight ahead to make progress. The safest way is often the fastest way. I would learn that over and over.

You can’t be prepared for the unexpected. In a split second life turns from ordinary to life in the balance. Sometimes you get lucky.

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The six foot tall black bear

On the western side of Prince of Wales Island there is a long fjord where a glacier once lived. The fjord is very deep suggesting that sea level was significantly lower 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. We had many great adventures on and around this fjord.

We camped for a few weeks in a ten foot square cabin once used for fish counting. The cabin had bunk beds and a table built along one wall. It was located at the mouth of a small stream that drained a large lake. The stream had a ten foot tall waterfall right at its entrance into the fjord.

The lake was something of a puzzle. It appeared to be man-made. The outlet for the lake ran across a barrier of sediment. Either someone put it there or it was glacial in origin. Oddly, there were tree stumps beneath the water that were obviously cut. So some kind of human activity happened there. We just could not figure out what it was.

The hike from the cabin to the lake was about a mile. It was an easy hike along a well used bear trail. I say bear trail because there are no people there and few large animals other than bears.

On my first trek to the lake I tied a piece of orange flagging, a kind of plastic ribbon used by construction crews, around a tree to mark the trail I took. Like Hansel and Gretel I didn’t want to get lost. I tied it about five feet off the ground. On my way back to the cabin I found the flagging on the ground and three deep claw marks where the flagging used to be.

The next day on my way to the lake I decided to tie a piece of flagging six feet off the ground just to see what would happen. When I returned in the evening I again found the flagging on the ground and claw marks where the flagging used to be.

The following day I decided to tie the flagging as far up on the tree as I could reach. That’s about nine feet high. When I returned I found the flagging on the ground.

I never saw the bear. I never wanted to see it.

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Guns in the field

In ’76 a young geologist was working on a prospect on Prince of Wales Island. He was doing a magnetometer survey near his camp. Of course he wasn’t carrying anything magnetic as you might imagine. That included guns. He was defenseless.

His partner heard screaming from the camp and ran to help. A one hundred seventy pound black bear had attacked and killed the young man. He had tried to climb a tree but the bear pulled him down. His partner shot the bear.

Prince of Wales is noted for some of the largest black bears. They can reach 600 pounds. So for this young man to be killed by such a measly little bear was a reality check.

In ’77 another geologist working for the USGS was chased down by a grizzly. I’ve forgotten on what island it happened. The USGS did not allow its geologists to carry guns. Brilliant.

The bear attacked her from behind and held her down and began to eat her shoulders. She was able to get into her backpack and retrieve her radio. She called her helicopter pilot for help.

By the time the helicopter arrived her arms were gone. She survived. If she were armed with even a hand gun it could have saved her arms. If she had time enough to retrieve a radio she also could have retrieved a gun and put it in the mouth of the bear. The government was at fault for denying her the right to carry a gun.

Bears and people don’t mix.

Needless to say I carried a gun, sometimes two. I preferred a lever-action Marlin 444s rifle and a Smith and Wesson Model 29 44 magnum when in the field. The 444 shot a bullet almost half an inch in diameter and was dependable in all conditions.

I couldn’t hit a barn with the 44 magnum. Once I took a coffee can out to an air strip and tried to hit it at twenty paces. The trigger was so stiff that the gun would move in my hand as I squeezed off a round. It kicked so hard I suppose I was afraid of the recoil too. I emptied the gun without hitting the can once. I stopped practicing with the 44 but I carried it everywhere in a should holster. I had the trigger adjusted.

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A Bald Eagle’s warning

In late June Jim and I were mapping the shoreline from our 17 foot Grumman canoe, trying to get a feel for a new area we decided to study. It was on the eastern side of Prince of Wales, SE Alaska, near Cholmondeley Sound. Called Chomley by the locals. There sure weren’t very many locals.

Giant Sitka Spruce had been clear-cut from some areas. Some of the clear cuts were well reclaimed and some were not. In many areas there was a lot of dead wood left behind. Some of that wood found its way into the sound.

This particular day was memorable because it wasn’t raining. There were high clouds but visibility was good. Otters seemed to be everywhere. Mostly river otters but I think I recall seeing some sea otters that day too. They are amazing social little creatures.

Harbor seals were stretching out on rocks protruding from the water. Many were lying on their stomachs looking like they were practicing yoga with their tails and noses both sticking high in the air.

In one little cove we came across a mother bear with three little cubs. Three. I remember counting them as they stuck their little heads above a log to look at us. Mom wasn’t very frightened by us but sent her cubs off after they got a good look. They went straight up a tree and peeked their heads back at us.

All of this may sound fantastic to you, but for us it was all in a day’s work. These kinds of things happened all the time. What was impressive this day were two bald eagles.

It was not unusual for us to run into eagles. They were everywhere. I have seen fourteen bald eagles sitting in one tree. I have seen more eagles in the sky than I could count. I have walked up behind an unsuspecting eagle perched on the top of a mountain ridge.

On this day when we canoed into a little cove we saw an eagle’s nest in a tree. The two eagles obviously did not want us near the nest.

No outdoor adventure movie scene is complete without the obligatory eagle screech sound effect. But that is not the only sound they make. At this time the eagle in the nest was making a cracking sound. “Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack.” And while we were naively sitting in the canoe watching this commotion, the other eagle had picked up an eight foot long dead top of a spruce tree and was flying overhead.

Jim pointed straight up at the eagle about thirty feet above us. He was hovering for just a moment, flapping his giant wings as if trying to position himself. Then that darn eagle dropped the dead spruce stag right at us. It didn’t have one spruce needle on it and it looked nasty with sharp broken branches pointing every which way. It landed less than ten feet from us in the water.

Back in the ’70s bald eagles were a protected species. Nevertheless I instinctively grabbed my field rifle. We got the heck out of there fast. The birds settled down and I didn’t have to use the rifle.

There are those who will say that this eagle story never happened. But it did. It may be the only recorded incident of a bald eagle attack on humans.

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The lightning bolt scar

The panhandle of Idaho is both wooded and open depending on where you are. More cows than people as is usually the case in the west. Many mountains and valleys and beautiful little ranches.

Chris and I were tasked with a detailed geochemical survey on some BLM land in the middle of nowhere. We drove 50 miles each morning from a run down motel in Council, Idaho, which itself is in the middle of nowhere.

It was Thanksgiving week of 1977. We were working a silver prospect. We sampled stream sediments in the area and made some detailed soil samples in spots of real interest.

I was twenty-five. Chris a little younger. Both of us had come down from a summer of work in SE Alaska. There we had worked in different two-man camps on Prince of Wales Island from June until the snow flew in October. Canoeing as much as 15 miles one way each day to study the regional geology. Needless to say we thought were tough. And we were. Nothing could stop us from doing what we needed to do.

It began to snow a couple days before Thanksgiving. It was apparent to us that the snow was going to pile up so high that we would not be able to complete our mission. Our solution was to drive all the roads we needed to use twice a day with our four-wheel drive to keep the roads passable. That included Thanksgiving day.

On Thanksgiving Council, Idaho shut down. No restaurants, no stores, nothing. The day before we bought a chicken and some canned food. So when we drove out to the prospect to clear the roads we stopped to make our own dinner. It was snowing hard and there was a strong wind blowing. We built a big wall of snow to protect us from the wind and we started a fire. We cooked the chicken on a big stick and heated some cans of corn and sweet potatoes. That oddly enough was one of my favorite Thanksgiving meals. Food always tastes better when you have to earn it.

I felt sorry for Chris on Thanksgiving day because he was away from home. He had the most beautiful and caring girlfriend in Washington state and I knew he missed her.

When the snow stopped falling the next day we continued our fieldwork. I took off on a traverse across some steep terrain in two feet of snow. When I came to a twenty-five foot cliff I did what in retrospect was not the sharpest decision of my life. I jumped! Standing on two feet of snow I figured that the sloped bottom of the snow-covered cliff would allow me to slide to a safe landing. I judged that correctly. What I failed to recognize was that snow may be two feet thick vertically, but on the steep face of a cliff its only about an inch thick horizontally.

When I jumped, my hands were in the air helping to keep me balanced. My left hand below my thumb caught a rock that ripped open a two-inch gash. I remember my backpack hitting me in the back when I landed at the bottom. It was quite a bit later that I found blood on my clothing and figured out what happened. It was so cold I couldn’t feel the pain.

When I see the lightning bolt scar on my hand I remember my friend Chris and the Thanksgiving storm of 1977 in Council, Idaho and I smile.

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