i. the beginning
I met Stephen earlier this year in the Mountaineers basic alpine climbing class. I was struck with his intelligence, warmth, and humor. We wanted to be friends. Plus: he liked cannabis almost as much as I did. And he was from the East coast, which meant that he drove aggressively like me and presented an attitude like a switchblade. I knew he came from a difficult background, and overcame great challenges to get to where he was. He had grit, tenacity, endurance and resilience. My kind of person.
We kept trying to get out on a climb together. He approached me about joining the Mt. Rainier team, but ultimately lost motivation in the trip and didn’t feel prepared. He was self-aware, honest, and didn’t put himself in situations where he was overmatched. It’s an admirable quality. (We set a date for training and conditioning in late June, but decided it’d be more fun to go on an easy hike and drink a beer and smoke a joint on Island Lake. Apparently it’s really easy to talk me out of training.)
In August our calendars were finally able to align. Dewey Peak, in Mt. Rainier National Park, is mostly a hike and scramble with a class 5 section. Overall, it’s an easy climb with moderate gain and mileage. It would be my first alpine rock trip. We’d go with John, a climbing instructor who organized the trip, and Katja, our friend from class who Stephen rapidly grew close with. They were the cutest mountain goat team.
ii. the approach
Katja ultimately couldn’t join, so John and I left from Olympia in the early morning and picked up Stephen in Enumclaw. Stephen parked next to a hearse so he’d be easy to locate. I had just finished reading John’s copies of Accidents in North American Mountaineering (the American Alpine Club’s annual accident reports), and returned them to him that morning. As they sat in the trunk of John’s car, we discussed rappelling accidents and their causes (one the most dangerous aspects of climbing!).
We arrived at the trailhead around 8:30. I gulped the last of my coffee, strapped on my pack, and headed out to the smoky hills towards Dewey. We started on the Pacific Crest Trail, then turned south for an off-trail scramble to the peak. Along the way, we shared stories of adolescent delinquency (Stephen beat me on this front), debated polyamory and monogamy, and route-found our way up through the brush.
Once we arrived on the ridge, we spotted a pair of mountain goats: a mother and a kid. He rejoiced at seeing his favorite animals. I mentioned Mt. Rainier, that I’ll be organizing another trip in June 2019 and that I’d like to recruit him for the mission. “Eh, fuck Rainier,” he remarked, “I don’t care for the big mountains. These are the kinds of peaks I love. I want to do this kind of climbing, not joining the hoards on the DC route.” Fair point; I couldn’t argue with that. I was initially too much of a mountaineering hipster to attempt Mt. Rainier in my first year of climbing, but have fallen in love with the mountain and all the altitude and glacier challenges it presents.
iii. the summit
Eventually we arrived at the summit block. There is a short/20ft low class 5 section, followed by a class 4 ramp up to the summit. We discussed our rope strategies and began setting up the belay station, anchors, and flaking the rope. John led, I was second, and Stephen came up third. Stephen and I exchanged a few words about how we could have free climbed it, except for one exposed move where we could have used protection.
Once at the summit, I surveyed the scene. To the west is a smoky Mt Rainier, along with by alpine vistas in all directions. There were swarms of flying ants, which became a big problem as I tried to wrestle open the summit register. With a terrible dying pencil I recorded our names. We snapped some photos and tried to ignore the bugs.
John began outlining our descent. He identified an anchor for our rappel (a horn). Stephen said he doesn’t like it. I always listen to people when they get an intuition about something. We discussed a couple other descent options, but eventually returned to the original suggestion. John built a backup anchor and I found a cam placement. We reviewed rappel testing methods and make a descent plan. John rappelled down first. Once he signaled that he’s off rappel, I began my setup. Stephen checked me, and I started descending. It was a fun rappel, but I used a new hollow block and there’s too much friction and I fought my way down the brake the entire time.
I got down, signaled that I’m off rappel, and Stephen starts setting up his rappel. He starts with pulling the backup as discussed. I grab a snack from my pack.
I’m not sure what I can say about the long hours that followed his fall. Through the terror, chaos, frustration, and feelings of helplessness, we did everything we could to save Stephen. Miraculously we received a cell signal, and I worked with 911 dispatch, who struggled to find our location (even with the peak name, GPS coordinates, and so much other information). Activating the PLB initiated a parallel rescue operation, starting with the Air Force. I helped John with CPR, which he performed for 45 minutes. It took an hour for our location to be realized (quite common, I came to learn), and Central Mountain Rescue began their response.
Once it became clear that there was nothing that we could do for Stephen, we realized that we have to address our own safety and resist becoming secondary victims (also very common with wilderness trauma). Fortunately, I had been eating throughout the day. John had not, and neither of us had an appetite. We forced ourselves to drink water. I realized that I only have about a liter left. We talked to a lot of people on the phone. Mountain rescue, Katja (who had been notified as the safety officer of the Mountaineers Olympia branch) and her mom, Tom, Henry, who initially asked us if we need a ride back to Olympia (and later realizes that we were not of sound mind and insisted on picking us up). We learned that rescue is not coming due to the late hour. We were queried about our ability to spend the night at the summit block. While we always venture into the backcountry prepared for an emergency overnight, we communicated that it would not be healthy for us to remain in dangerous terrain with little water. Mountain rescue incident command agreed and directed us to self evacuate.
We began hiking out. I was in total shock and felt horrified but relieved to walk away from Stephen’s body. We tried to piece together what happened and what could have caused the fall. We also tried to follow Henry’s gpx track, but descended too far to climber’s left and kept getting cliffed out, warily scrambling down some rocky terrain. We were rapidly losing daylight, and needed to get back to a trail before nightfall. We bailed on trying to follow Henry’s track and moved towards Dewey lake, which tangents the PCT.
At last, we reached Dewey lake. I looked back at Dewey peak. I felt Stephen up there, at peace. Things became quiet. The sun was setting. We identified the trail, and sat on a log to force some food for the remaining 2.5 miles. We don’t talk much. When we do, it’s about the accident, and how we’re in a trauma bubble. I remarked that the reentry into the world is going to be hard. We were scared of facing his loved ones and our climbing community. We were scared of everything. After a few pale minutes we continued pressing for the trailhead. Once we arrived, it was dark. I saw what may be Henry and Tom, along with park ranger vehicles and ambulances. We stopped 30 yards short of the trailhead. John turned to me and asked if I’m ready. I said yes, and we exited.
We walked in with 3, and came out with 2. And more than one of us fell that day.
v. after, and unfolding
I am also not sure what can be said about the aftermath. My traumatized brain felt concussive. The Mountaineers responded with total support, assisting John and I with acute trauma therapy (which I believe is preventing PTSD). I reunited with Katja with a thousand hugs. I finally met his beautiful soulmate Joy (who I hope to support and grow close with, because she’s awesome). I cried with Tristan and my sister Emily, and a dozen more people. Our climbing community turned up with clear and strong support. I took medical leave from work. I smoked cigarettes and drank a lot (I am not anymore, thank you for asking). I got acupuncture and craniosacral therapy, and ingested huge amounts of magnesium to calm my nervous system. I told the story over and over again. We gave statements. We talked with NPS climbing rangers who investigated the accident. We made steps toward reconciliation.
I cancelled all my climbing trips. I reevaluated who I climb with. How well do you know your climbing partners and leaders? Can you trust them to build anchors and construct climbing systems? How? Do you trust everyone to respond to a critical incident? To climb with someone is to trust them with your life. It’s a sacred bond.
Finally: is climbing worth it? We are aware of the risks, Katja says, but no one goes out looking to die. Through climbing I healed from a vast about of mental and emotional trauma from being ill for many years. It was redemptive and liberating. There is truly such as thing as alpine medicine, which is fascinating for this herbalist and usually below-treeline person. If nothing else, you learn endurance and resilience—vital qualities for living in our world today.
I can only begin to outline the ways in which this has altered my life. Reflection and integration has only begun. I return to my life with a new perspective, having been so close to losing mine. I hug Tristan more. I cuddle my dog and cat. I thumb through my books and play my harp. I work on my painting. So close to losing it all. It’s life changing.
I don’t know how I can fully honor Stephen’s life and gifts. He was a perceptive climber and outdoorsman. Perhaps, how I can best honor him is to live and love more fiercely, and be the best human I can possibly be. I owe it to him, because he saved me by offering to descend last. I spent many hours in a psychic black hole, saturating in the realization that I could have prevented his death. If only I been more educated, trained, and able to catch the mistakes before they exercised their consequences, I could have saved him. I am starting to forgive myself for these failings, as I am still learning, having shown up to this trip exactly to do so.
Each day is a step towards forgiveness, integration, growth, resolution. Rebuilding. It is a monumental task—truly a mountain to climb.
One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. Eventually, we realized we climbed a mountain.
Off belay, friend. We will never stop loving, learning from, and missing you.
For Stephen Kornbluth