For climbers, call of the mountains comes first

Posted: Friday, July 16, 2004

TACOMA, Wash. Since May 15, the apathetic rock and ice spine of Mount Rainier called Liberty Ridge has left three women without husbands and eight children without fathers.

The death of four men on this famous route serves as a grim reminder that the impact of this sport reaches far beyond the slopes of Rainier.

Even those who didn't know the climbers were affected. When the news reached Maria Coffey at her home in British Columbia, it stirred up memories that rush back every time she hears about a climbing fatality.

''It breaks my heart,'' she said, ''because I know what happens at home.''

Coffey is not a climber, but she was punched in the gut by the sport in 1982, when her boyfriend vanished on Mount Everest. In her 2003 book, ''Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow,'' she explored the impact of climbing on family and friends.

She says every climber she interviewed used the same word to describe the sport selfish.

Erin Simonson, the wife of local climbing guide Eric Simonson, uses the same word.

''I say that from a clinical standpoint; it's not meant as a condemnation,'' Erin Simonson said. ''The sport is an incredibly self-centered activity, but I vehemently defend people's right to be selfish.''

Erin and Eric met climbing Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro. One of their first topics of conversation was how his climbing would change if he became a father.

Eric Simonson specializes in climbing Everest and other dangerous peaks in the Himalayas, but he chose not to climb so high after his daughter was born in 2000.

He currently is leading a climb on Kilimanjaro, but he talked to The News Tribune in March.

''Now that I have a daughter, I've decided I'm not going to climb super high anymore,'' he said. ''I've been gone a lot, on more than 100 expeditions. I always felt the experience I gained on these expeditions was more valuable than what I missed.

''For me, that changed in 2001, when my daughter, who was just learning to walk when I left, was three months older (when I came home). I realized I would never get that time back.''

Not all climbers make that choice. Coffey knows this all too well.

She thought for sure her boyfriend of 2 1/2 years, Joe Tasker, would tone down his climbing after a near-deadly climb of K2 on the Pakistan-China border. He was twice caught in avalanches.

''He was barely alive, and he came home wasted,'' Coffey said. ''He said he had looked into the abyss.''

While many would have hung up their ice axes, Tasker seemed to embrace climbing more, Coffey said.

''He placed his passion for the mountain ahead of me and everybody who loved him,'' she said.

Coffey coped with Tasker's journeys by living in a state of denial even after some of his climbing friends died.

''But subconsciously the fear was there in my dreams,'' Coffey said. ''Or when I was teaching and the headmaster called me to his office I'd have flashes. I just put this wall up and said he'd be OK.''

Erin Simonson says she wasn't nervous when Eric made more dangerous climbs, but she knows many spouses don't feel that way.

As a partner in her husband's International Mountain Guides business, she often finds herself counseling spouses of climbers who go on long and dangerous expeditions.

For the most part, she says, spouses of professional climbers have reached a level of comfort with the sport.

''They knew it was a package deal when they got married,'' Erin Simonson said. ''You can't ask somebody you love to hang up their crampons to belay your emotional fears.''

Coffey, who runs an outdoor adventure business with her husband, still understands how a climber could leave a spouse to climb.

''But I could never get my head around leaving your children behind,'' she said. ''When I was talking to people for the book, that was the hardest question for them to answer.''

She says climbers compartmentalize emotions and go into ''expedition mode'' once they leave home.

''I talk to women who say they are pulled in two directions,'' Coffey said. ''When they are at home they long to be on the mountain. When they are on the mountain they long to be home. They have strong urges, and a lot of them struggle with it.''

Alex Van Steen of Eatonville says he stopped doing certain climbs when he got married, but he still guides climbers on Liberty Ridge for Rainier Mountaineering Inc.

''I'm extremely conservative, and sometimes that's frowned on by hard-core climbers,'' said Van Steen, who has climbed Rainier nearly 200 times.

George Dunn, co-director of International Mountain Guides, says he won't return to Everest now that he has two teenage sons, but he'll continue to push himself.

''In order to enjoy life, you need to live life,'' said Dunn, who has climbed Rainier more than 450 times.

Tom Milne, a climbing guide from West Seattle, says his approach to climbing has changed since his wife became pregnant.

The man who has guided climbers to the top of Vinson Massif, Antartica's tallest peak, says he looks at risk differently now. He's more conservative choosing climbs and takes shorter trips.

That's not to call his climbs mundane.

''You feel more alive participating in an activity where with one wrong step you might not be alive,'' Milne said.

As a guide, Milne regularly sees parents and spouses taking chances when they climb.

During a climb in Antarctica, he had a climber who didn't prepare properly. The climber, who had paid more than $30,000 for the trip, didn't want to turn back and as a result put his team in jeopardy.

When the man became so tired during a storm he couldn't put on his oxygen mask, another climber had to take off a glove to help.

The climber's hand was exposed for only 10 seconds, but his hand turned black from frostbite. Milne feared it might have to be amputated, though it didn't turn out to be that bad.

Guiding on Mount Elbrus in Russia, Milne had to turn back two climbers whose blood pressure was climbing faster than they were. They were furious.

''People push themselves when they should stop or turn around,'' he said. ''They've paid money, they have a plane to catch or they have to go home and explain to their friends and family that they didn't make it to the top.''

Mike Gauthier has gained national attention for his rescues as Rainier's chief climbing ranger. He's seen his share of tragedy, including the four deaths this year.

''I've been to numerous memorials for climbers in the last year,'' Gauthier said. ''Not at one did they pooh-pooh climbing. They celebrated it as part of their life and their identity."

Gauthier, 35, has climbed some the hardest routes on Rainier and other peaks. He's also a rock climber, but says he'll tone down climbing when he gets married.

''But I will still climb,'' Gauthier said. ''I want adventure, and I accept a certain lack of control. Whether it be sailing, diving or climbing, I want that adventure, I want to taste the sweat in my mouth and feel the pain.''

Elite climbers want to dispel the idea that mountain climbers are daredevils.

''They are not daredevils; they are thoughtful men,'' Gauthier said.

Gauthier said the four who died on Liberty Ridge this year did so because of accidents. Peter Cooley of Maine and Jon Cahill of Orting slipped. Ansel Vizcaya and Luke Casady of Montana were caught in an avalanche.

While only about 200 climbers attempt Liberty Ridge each year, Gauthier says the route isn't as dangerous as Disappointment Cleaver and the Emmons Glacier, the most popular routes for the more than 10,000 climbers who try for the summit each year.

Liberty Ridge is more technically challenging, but Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons Glacier are prone to avalanches.

In 1981, 11 climbers were killed by an avalanche on Disappointment Cleaver in the worst mountaineering accident in United States history.

Gauthier's point is that anybody can die anywhere on the mountain. The men who died this year didn't die because they were unprepared or acted foolishly.

''We wouldn't have turned any of them back,'' Gauthier said.

''We are not risk takers,'' Dunn said of climbers. ''We all want to die of old age in bed.''

When they don't, the way the public seems to respond bothers Coffey and Erin Simonson.

''What rankles me is when a prominent mountaineer dies climbing and he is canonized as a hero,'' Erin Simonson said. ''Some day the child on the side of the road watching the emperor's parade is going to say, 'Wait a minute, where are his clothes?'''

When Tasker died, many people tried to comfort Coffey by saying, ''He died doing something he loves.''

''When I hear that, it makes my toes curl,'' Coffey said. ''I understand there's something heroic about going off to fight the dragon, and you can't help but respond to that.

''But the real heroes are the people at home.''

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