I know exactly where they get this disagreeable trait. Among other things, my children have inherited their mother’s defective gene for caution. They accept Aristotle’s view that courage (the oddest of the four classical virtues) is the “golden mean” between feckless and reckless. However, they have difficulty defining reckless in connection with anything they think might be fun to do.
This genetic imbalance applies directly to my son, Jonathan, who is “collecting” the high points in each of the United States. I had no problem with the high point of Iowa which is in a farmer’s field near Okoboji. The summit is reached with three long strides. However, glacier covered, crevasse scarred Mt. Hood in Oregon (elevation 11,235 feet) is another story.
Mountain climbing requires a team effort. So with friend Foley, a strong, eager, but untried flatlander, Jonathan advertised for two experienced climbers to join them in getting to the high point of Oregon. Atkins and Jones quickly volunteered. Atkins was a 31 year old civil engineer who regaled the group by e-mail with stories of his climbing exploits. Obviously, he was the most expert and would be the team leader. Jones, 36, a medical physicist, claimed to be a decent rock climber and an experienced mountain climber, especially in the Grand Tetons. Jonathan, the youngest in age and lightest in weight, expected to be the third best climber.
The team assembled at the bottom of the ski lift on Mt. Hood and followed it up to 8,500 feet. Two days in a row the snow was blowing too hard and visibility was too poor to continue. On the third day, conditions looked better and the team left the safety of the ski area. Without the lift stanchions to guide them, they had to rely on their orienteering skills. At this point, to Jonathan’s surprise, neither Atkins nor Jones was willing to take the lead. So using his Eagle Scout training, Jonathan started out in the first position.
An hour beyond the ski lift and onto uncharted mountain, visibility was reduced to a quarter mile. The snow was knee deep and soft, requiring enormous effort to climb through it. Growing fatigued, Jonathan asked Atkins to take the lead, but the self-styled expert had wrongly believed that his corpulence was good strength rather than pure fat. Jones likewise refused to lead because he said he was too slow. Obviously, the confidently self-described experienced mountaineers had evaluated themselves too generously. Foley tried to lead for one hundred feet but gave up claiming exhaustion.
The whole point of selecting Atkins and Jones for the team was their experience and leadership abilities. To think more highly of yourself than you ought to think is always a presumptuous sin, but in mountain climbing it is dangerous and can be deadly. Forced to continue climbing in first position, Jonathan often had to remove his dark glasses in order to identify the horizon — the thin line between the gray snow and the gray sky. Not far from the summit the team passed a huge bergschrund — a crevasse that occurs when a glacier pulls away from a stationary ice pack.
Since the top of Mt. Hood is covered by ice, the team stopped to don glacier gear. This equipment includes (1) ice axes essential to stop a fallen and sliding climber; (2) crampons on feet for ice traction; and (3) ropes and harnesses. Once in the harness and clipped into the rope a falling climber is stopped by the other three from sliding the mountain. To his dismay, Jonathan discovered that Atkins, the team “expert,” could not put on his harness without help. At this point sober judgment dictated that they all turn back. However, having driven from Iowa, having broken the climbing trail by himself for 3000 vertical feet, there was no way my wife’s son was going to stop 200 feet from the high point of Oregon.
After a brief celebration at the top, the four climbers started their descent. This meant negotiating a 20 foot ice chute and moving across a 65 degree snow slope in order to stay well away from the bergschrund at the bottom of the slope. Foley went first, then Jonathan, anchoring their ice axes to the side to avoid the fall of dislodged snow. Atkins, the third man down, reached the bottom of the ice chute and was expected to anchor himself and belay Jones, i.e. make Jones secure.
When Jones was five feet above Atkins, Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief. If Jones fell now he could not slide far because Atkins would have taken up the slack in the rope and Jones would stop within a short distance. Assured, Jonathan looked down at his ice axe so the dislodged snow would not continue to hit him in the face.
In that split second, Jones evidently missed his last step, dropped his ice axe, and hit the slope on his back sliding toward the bergschrund. Atkins, the expert mountain man, had not belayed Jones! He had just watched him.
When Jonathan heard the hum of Goretex on the snow, he looked up just in time to see Jones careening toward the icy maw of the bottomless crevasse. As the rope slithered by, Jonathan leaped for it, caught a handful, and braced for the impact. Slammed into the back of his harness, Jonathan held on as the rope slid more slowly through his hands, and observed his own ice axe beginning to work free. Fortunately, the axe held or both men would have gone hurtling into the bergschrund. Jones struggled to his feet, looked up the slope toward Atkins in complete disbelief, and said to Jonathan, “Thanks.”
At the end of the descent, Foley was now not tired. Jones, realizing that he had very nearly plunged to a frozen death, was subdued. In spite of causing a near disaster,Atkins was quite frolicsome, indicating how pleased he was with his accomplishments on Mt. Hood. Jonathan Partee went to a hospital and spent the next four days in total darkness to allow his snow burned retinas to heal.
If my wife, Margaret, ever reads these lines, she will learn for the first time how close she came to losing her baby boy on Mt. Hood through no fault of his own. If Jonathan ever reads these lines he will learn that his Dad admires his quick-thinking courage if not exactly his sober judgment.