The LedgeAn Adventure Story of Friendship and Survival on Mount Rainier
Ballantine BooksCopyright © 2011 Jim Davidson
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780345523198
The airplane's engine droned rhythmically, the only sound in an empty sky. Mike Price peered out the window, taking in a snow-covered landscape that unfurled as far as he could see. He'd studied a map of this area for weeks, but even that hadn't prepared him for the reality of the Yukon.
Glaciers wider than mighty rivers; ice-streaked peaks reaching into the evening sky; a brilliant white blanket undulating across a barren landscape.
It was June 11, 1981, and Mike Price was on the cusp of one of the greatest adventures of his life. In the coming weeks, he and three friends would trek and ski ninety miles across this isolated stretch of uninhabitable expanse, lugging eighty-pound packs, aiming for the summit of a desolate peak called Mount Kennedy.
It was Mike's job to drop two plastic barrels of provisions along their route—and to know with certainty that they'd be able to find them days later, when they'd be out of food, isolated, alone. The plane swept in low over the snow, and Mike pushed one of the barrels out, watching as it crashed to the ground in a spray of powder. He marked the precise spot on the coffee-table-sized map.
A little later, deeper in the frozen wilderness, he dumped the second barrel, and again marked the map. The hired bush pilot banked the plane and headed back to base camp.
Later that night, in his tent, Mike cracked open a leather-bound journal, lifted a black ballpoint pen to page 46, and began writing.
"Tomorrow we're off! For real."
The magnificent desolation he'd seen out the plane's window riveted him.
"I find it difficult to write. The visual experience simply does not translate to paper well. Awesome."
To emphasize that entry, he took a blue pen and underlined the words.
In the coming weeks, Mike Price would learn things about himself that would help shape his destiny, that would one day lead him to a snowcapped mountain near Seattle.
During those long, muscle-numbing days in the Yukon, not only did he see things he'd never forget, but he was able to reaffirm in himself something he'd always known, something his parents had seen, too, when he'd boxed older, bigger boys as a kid, or when he'd loaded up his backpack and headed into the woods alone as a teenager: Mike Price was tough. He could survive hunger, weariness, and fear.
Mike was twenty-three years old in the summer of 1981. A native of Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, the son of an air traffic controller, he'd already led an exciting, nomadic life. Military school; college in Colorado and Montana; work in Wyoming. And lots of time in the mountains.
Now, the four friends—Mike, Andy Thamert, Bob Jamieson, and Bob's brother, Lee—were ready to reach for a dream that was as audacious as it was difficult. They planned to make their way across the ice and emptiness of the Saint Elias Mountains in the Canadian Yukon, then climb Mount Kennedy, a steep, snow-crusted peak. Named in memory of the late president after he was murdered in Dallas, it had first been climbed in 1965 by Robert F. Kennedy and a team of experienced mountaineers on a trip sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
Mike and his buddies would spend thirty-seven days in unforgiving country, beginning in the mud along the Slims River and then, roped together in their climbing harnesses, trekking through endless fields of ice and snow. They would cross seven major glaciers, go thirty-four days without seeing another human being, run short of food, fight off overpowering boredom and tension, and skirt yawning crevasses that threatened to consume them.
"I will always remember the trip as being equally difficult, beautiful and desolate," Mike would write near the end of the journey.
No one who'd known Mike Price as a kid would have been surprised to learn that he would one day possess the confidence to set out into the Yukon with three friends and that they would rely on their wits and little else to get home alive.
Small and skinny all his life, with a bowl cut of blond hair, he was self-assured beyond his size and years. After he advanced in a junior high spelling bee, he told a reporter for the local paper that he wasn't surprised.
"I've got momentum," he said. "The Price is right."
He was barely a teenager when he uttered those words, but they illustrated the combustible mix of mischievous joy and wit that would form the core of his personality.
He drove his mother crazy at times, his curious preteen mind fueling a motor mouth that seemingly wouldn't quit. They'd be out in the station wagon, Donna Price up front, Mike leaning over from the back seat, yammering on about the army, about soldiers, making it up as he went, like a junior Dick Vitale, one sentence crashing into another and then another, no hint that an ending was coming. Sometimes he'd go on for so long that his mother would think silently about offering him a dollar to just be quiet.
Over the years, as he grew older, his parents and his younger brother, Daryl, saw a gentle transformation. Mike grew to be more introspective, and he would sit in a gathering and listen rather than yammer.
After his family moved to Colorado, an abiding love of the outdoors blossomed in Mike, and as it did he developed an inner confidence. He was the son who, as a teenager, ventured up Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins, Colorado, camping out in weather so cold that—family legend would have it—he used a frozen stick of summer sausage to drive his tent pegs into the icy soil. He was the traveler who blew into town the day before his first class at the University of Montana, found an apartment, and got a part-time job in a ski shop—no worries.
"He did what he wanted to do," Donna would say years later. "How many people can say that? How many people have the chance, and the courage?"
There were times, when Mike was out in the desert or up in the mountains, that concern, even alarm reverberated in the minds of his parents. But Don and Donna Price were determined that their boys would stand on their own, that they would make their own way in the world.
MIKE CARRIED HIS bravado with him to the Yukon, where the four young men—"unknowns and never-wases," as he described them beforehand—fought through at-times horrific weather in their quest to climb a peak few had ever visited.
Near the summit of Mount Kennedy, rocked by blasts of wind, blinded by sheets of snow, they found they could go no farther. Bitter cold froze their eyelashes together when they dared close their eyes for longer than a blink. In that no-man's-land, only a few hours from the summit, Lee Jamieson, then just seventeen years old, stopped, his hands numb. Bob, seven years his brother's senior, sidled up to Lee and slipped off his frozen mittens, replacing them with his own.
"Andy and I move behind," Mike would write of the moment. "At 12,500 feet the climb is over. Simultaneously all four of us know it, but stand dumbly in the blowing snow, waiting for Bob to speak . . . Less than 1,400 feet from the summit, no one wants to be the first to give in. We are so close. We have come so far."
It was July 4, 1981, their twenty-third day in the mountains.
As they started down and began the ninety-mile trek back, a sense of dread swept over Mike.
"Thinking about the descent I worry about falling on the steep slopes below," he would write. "I picture myself sliding sideways, head downward, into an open crevasse, with snow pushing up the sleeve and collar of my jacket, packing into my clothes."
As he skied, roped to one of his partners, it almost happened.
"Bracing into a tight turn above a particularly ominous crevasse, I push my skis and nothing happens. I try again and am still unable to drive the tails around and into the slope. Picking up speed I am shocked to hear the icy skitter continue. Already I can see into the depths of a dark hole vaguely ahead. I feel the blood pulse through my neck, grip my ski poles tightly, and give an all-out oompf! into the mountain, slamming to a stop."
Later, as he crawled across an eight-foot snow bridge spanning a giant glacial crack, one arm punched through. He scurried across, shaken, and then sweated it out as each of the others crossed. Everyone made it.
A day later, Mike lay in the tent, tired, hungry, homesick. A kind of melancholy gripped him. He'd filled his journal, even writing inside the back cover. Now he unfolded his map of the Yukon and began writing of the experiences, people, his parents in Kansas City, and even Patches, the dog he missed.
"I long for warm days in the woods, the aspen trees, the green pines, the blue lakes, dirt and rock under my feet. And very much for the hot sun deck in K.C., listening to the ballgame on the radio with Dad and Patches, Mom cooking supper, snacking on chips, having something 'real' to drink, in anticipation of a large, tasty, brim-filling meal of solid food. I think I am the most pronounced in the group in missing these, though I don't bitch about it—just say that I miss them and let it go at that."
Handwriting—some of it neatly printed, some of it wandering sloppily downhill—would eventually fill every inch of the map's milk-white back side.
"We are completely isolated. No contact whatsoever with the outside world. No radio. We have not seen another person in about three weeks . . .
"Psyched for the return only because each step is a step toward home. It cannot pass quickly enough. Like waiting for Christmas when I was a kid . . .
"I'm so moody and sensitive both. And I'm finding out that while I have a lot of stamina, I don't have endurance on the same plane. Day-in day-out heavy-duty ski-packing wears my body down badly . . .
"I look forward to this fall and even before then—I look forward with unprecedented eagerness to see Mom, Dad, Patches, Daryl and the relations at the family reunion. The cloud has passed from my sun . . . From this trip, I have restored my pride—fiercely—but even more so and unexpectedly so have gained a sense of humility—of niche—I've never had before."
Holding the ice ax in my right hand, I probe the glacier ahead. The ax shaft sinks in six inches and the snow feels solid, so I step forward. My boot settles into the soft, wet slop up to my ankle. Probing before each step is exhausting but necessary as I check for hollow snow bridges that could conceal yawning glacial crevasses.
I probe again, feel firm snow, and sink to my ankle as I take another step.
The air is calm, and the midday sun is strong on this first day of summer, June 21, 1992. We can't see or hear any other climbers. The snow before me lies smooth and flat and blindingly white as we descend from the summit of Mount Rainier. I flip aside the rope that leads back fifty feet to Mike. Looking at the glacier in front of me, I see no cracks, sags, or aberrations.
I stab my ice ax shaft into the snow, and it sinks in the usual six inches before resisting. Stepping forward, I press down my right boot. I sink to my ankle, and then my shin.
Snow seems deep here.
Momentum pushes me forward, and more weight rocks onto my front foot. Oddly, my boot is still settling into the soft snow.
It should feel firm by now.
I sink almost to my knee.
What the . . . ?
The ground beneath my foot caves.
A burning electric shock of fear jolts my body. Before I can even say it or think it, my body knows what's happening: I'm on a snow bridge across a hidden crevasse, and it's giving way.
I'm falling . . . into . . . the mountain.
Instincts take over. As I scream a warning to Mike—"FALLING!"—my right leg locks to avoid stepping down any farther. But there's no stopping; inertia carries me forward, and I sink faster into the snow, up past my knee. My scream sounds like a scared shout from the other end of an empty house, and the confused terror in my own voice sends a second wave of adrenaline burning through my veins.
I dart my eyes sideways and think about scrambling to the solid ground behind me, but momentum and my backpack's weight drive me down face-first. There's no turning back. My left leg also crashes through the weak snow bridge, and in a heartbeat I'm in up to my thighs.
I vaguely hope the wide bottom of the backpack will spread my falling weight across the weak snow and somehow stop me; instead, with a muffled whompf the fragile bridge ruptures further, settling and sagging all around me.
I drop faster into the ever-widening hole, and I instinctively thrust my left arm to the side. Through an open crack, I see blackness underneath.
I'm going in!
I'm slithering downward, my chest above the snow, my belly encased in the disintegrating snow bridge. In the void below, my legs churn madly. There's nothing but air under me now. Only the side walls of the snow hole dragging against me hold me up.
Just a split second has passed, but my mind has slowed it all down. It's as if I'm watching a movie, and someone else is in it.
As I sink to my sternum, I slam my ax down hard. The pick bites deep into the snow surface in front of me.
My right arm snaps ramrod straight; I grip the ax shaft even tighter, preparing for the impact, expecting the 220 pounds of me and the pack to rip my shoulder joint. I don't care—anything's better than going into the crevasse.
But the pick tears through the wet, granular snow in a spray of slush. There's no resistance.
"FALL . . . !" I scream. My one last attempt to warn Mike ends abruptly as my face smashes into the crevasse lip, ramming ice crystals up my nose, into my mouth. Just one or two seconds after the collapse of the snow bridge started, my helmeted head vanishes below the surface.
Gravity yanks me from the warm world into the belly of the glacier, as though something evil has a deadly tentacle around my feet and is dragging me deeper. The monster has me.