Huddled inside plastic tubes, three novice climbers spent a miserable September night on a rainy wooded slope in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. Each of them remembered his nice, warm bed where he’d expected to be by that time. Thoughts of hypothermia flashed by. Sleep came and went with thoughts of worried families back home.
I was one novice climber who thought I’d never have to bivouac in the mountains. That was only for ace mountaineers on the big climbs, but here I was actually forced to spend the night on a relatively easy mountain. All each of us had for protection against the elements was a survival kit containing a plastic tube, sugar cubes, a whistle, a candle, and matches. Without those kits the night would have been much more miserable, and the possibility of hypothermia would have been greatly increased.
It began when my friends, Dave and Jorg, and I decided to climb a mountain that would be challenging but could be climbed in a day. We picked Mount Washington, which gets its name from its resemblance to George Washington’s profile (if he was lying on his back). The night before the trip we got our gear ready and agreed to leave at 5:00 in the morning, weather permitting.
At five o’clock the weather was permitting, but Jorg’s alarm clock wasn’t, so we ended up leaving at 6:00. Then after driving for a half mile we headed back to Jorg’s to pick up a flashlight, because he forgot his, and I didn’t bring one, figuring it wouldn’t be needed on a day climb.
A two-hour drive brought us to the starting trail, which led us fairly easily through woods. Then we came out of the woods and went through a meadow where blueberries grew, the best I’ve ever had. They were ripe and huge and a great distraction from our goal of reaching the summit that day.
Then we left the trail to follow the ridge that led to the summit. Here the directions in our guide-book seemed ambiguous, and we took a lot of time trying to decide where the route went. One of the directions said something about “passing the gendarmes on the right.” This presented two problems to us. First, we didn’t see any French policemen, and second, were they supposed to be on the right, or were we?
See any gendarmes?
Somehow we managed to get back on track and the route became easier to follow. The problem now was that it was starting to rain, and we were behind schedule. In our mountaineering class, we had learned it was good policy to turn back at 2:00, but at that time we were climbing a wet rock chute. We figured it would be easier to continue on to the summit and find an easier way down than to descend the chute.
We made it to the top of the chute at 4:00 and were on George’s nose. The summit is his chin, not too far away, but with a sharp drop off in between. We lost more time here trying to find out how to get over to the chin. Thinking a rappel would be needed to get off the nose, Dave volunteered to go first. Of course that would leave Jorg and me to fight it out to go second with the last one stuck up on the nose forever. We looked around a bit more and found a fairly easy way, but didn’t get to the summit until 5:00. We only had time for each of us to eat a sandwich and for Jorg to take some pictures. Then we started down another way.
Heading down a deceptively easy-looking slope, we headed for a large snow-filled cirque. To our right was an arm of the snow that stuck up from the cirque and appeared to block our way, but we were able to head down its left side until we found a hole in the snow which we could climb through.
From there we could have climbed down the right side of the cirque on easy rocks, but we thought it would be easier on the snow. We roped up, and with Jorg leading the way, followed by Dave and then me, we went onto the snow, which we soon found to be ice. At one point Dave slipped, and began sliding down, but I jammed my ice axe into the ice, and because we were roped together, his descent was halted.
Having wasted an hour on the ice, we decided to return to the rocks and soon made it to the bottom of the cirque. At this point we realized it probably would have been better to let Dave (and all of us) slide all the way down. It really wasn’t that far and probably not really that dangerous. But we were novices, and had learned much in our mountaineering class, all of which was great information, although some of it probably made us overly-cautious, which is definitely better than being stupidly over-confident.
It was now 8:00 p.m. The lights of Seattle and Tacoma were shining at us across Puget Sound. I was impressed with the unexpected sight.
We began talking over the possibility of finding a good place to sleep, but we still thought maybe we could find our way back to the car. However, the going was slow because of the darkness growing about us.
We came to a saddle which we remembered from our way up. On one side of it was the way we had come up, that part of the route we’d had so much trouble finding. On the other side was a valley that we figured we could descend into and follow out to the road. By that time fatigue was taking its toll on our figuring.
Down we went into the valley, making our way slowly over rocks and through extremely wet brush. After what seemed hours, we reluctantly decided to look for a place to make camp.
The only reasonable place we could find on this wet, dark slope was where a log was lying horizontally and could keep us from sliding down the hill. We tried to light a fire, but everything was too wet. We had to break open our survival kits. They’re kind of like insurance. You bring them along, but you hope you never have to use them.
We ended up using the tube tarps. They took the place of sleeping bags and a tent. We climbed in our tubes and hoped we could sleep. We were all cold and wet. I hoped our families back home wouldn’t panic because we weren’t back.
I kept sliding down the hill under the log and got stuck under it. It was impossible to get comfortable. I slept awhile and woke up. It was 11:00. Then again at 12:00, 2:00, and 4:30.
Finally it was light enough to move out. Returning the way we’d come down in the night, we reached the saddle within a half-hour. We blew our whistles occasionally in case any mountain rescuers were looking for us, but we got no answers.
From the saddle we pushed our way through wet brush until we finally made it back to the trail. We almost got carried away and passed the trail, but Jorg spotted a small orange trail marker on a tree.
When we made it back to the car we were thoroughly wet. We couldn’t wait to get in and get the heat turned on. We stripped off our wet clothes down to our shorts and headed for home.
We were convinced we’d be the laughing stock of the local mountaineering community. We envisioned radio announcements back home telling of the three novice climbers who were missing on 6000 foot Mt. Washington.
Because of our concern that our parents would be worried about us, we looked for a place to call them. Back in those days, nobody had cell phones. We pulled over at a motel where the manager came out to the car to see what we wanted. We asked if he had a phone we could use. Looking into the car at us and apparently not liking what he saw, he said, “No.”
At home we found our parents had called one of the mountain rescuers, but he told them not to worry, because we knew how to take care of ourselves in the mountains. I guess he was right, but little did he know that this was the beginning of an elite club called the World’s Worst Mountaineers, usually known as the WWM.
Leaving the summit of Mt. Washington many years later.