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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