IF YOU ARE AT ALL concerned about bumping into death around a blind corner, this has been a bad season to be outdoors. Every Monday evening seemed to find some bundled hairdo reporting live from search headquarters, a makeshift encampment of Blazers and Pathfinders from which a dozen volunteers fanned out into the snowy woods to find the hikers or snowmobilers who didn't return home Sunday night. The local live stand-up was inevitably followed by a snip of videotape from farther afield, some godforsaken spot in Montana or Alaska where—you think we've got it bad—another avalanche had swept four or seven innocents to their untimely demise. Even the most housebound spud has by now picked up the rudiments of the avalanche search: Gather 20 volunteers, stretch them out like advancing Redcoats, and set them jigging those 20-foot poles.
It's not that this winter has been an unusually bad avalanche season. We did get dumped on—Mount Baker and Mount Rainier threatened their all-time snow records—but the number of victims claimed by sliding snow—four—was only one more than in an average year. It seems like there's more death in the outdoors now because when it happens, it's shoved in our faces. KBN—Killed By Nature—has become one of America's most popular cultural motifs. It began with the best-selling books Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm; now, local TV news shows, national magazines like Dateline NBC, tabloids like Extra!, snuff-video showcases like Real TV, local and national newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and book publishers are ravenous for blow-by-blow accounts of disaster in the woods. We're still feeling the impact of the 1996 deaths on Mount Everest; next month's three-year anniversary will see the publication of at least three I Was There Too books. When Joe DiMaggio died last month the editors of People opted not to put him on the cover, an unusual move for a magazine whose all-time best-selling issues are celebrity-obit numbers. Instead, the editors went with the story of three women who vanished from Yosemite. The Krakauer-ish cover line: "Without a Trace."
If our contemporary supply of Donner Party survivors dries up, we're not above digging through the archives to find more. Last autumn's resurrected hero was Ernest Shackleton, whose crew of Antarctic explorers endured months of icebound captivity on the frozen Weddell Sea in 1915-16. This spring will witness the return of George Mallory, pioneering Everest victim and coiner of the mountaineering clich頢Because it is there." Mallory, the original Everest obsessive, was on his third expedition to the mountain in 1924 when he and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, set out from their 28,125-foot camp and walked into oblivion. A team of climbers led by veteran Rainier guide Eric Simonson is currently ensconced at Everest base camp, preparing to make a run up high to find the still-missing remains of the English explorers.
The day before he left, I asked Simonson why he was going after Mallory. "My goal is to tell a great story," he e-mailed in reply. "This is a classic story of people going into the unknown with the absolute minimum of equipment—tweed jackets, leather boots, canvas tents. They were climbing at 28,000 feet without oxygen, with the most primitive systems. Most people have only heard about Mt. Everest in the context of the 1996 tragedy. They don't realize that there's 75 years of great history associated with that mountain. That's what this climb is about. It's not just a search for some nasty corpse!" Daily reports on the search's progress will be broadcast from base camp on the Mountain Zone Web site (www.mountainzone.com). If the expedition finds Mallory's body, look for it on the front page of The New York Times.
Call it an uneasy fascination; death in the outdoors continues to intrigue me. I find myself carrying months-old newspaper clippings in my wallet: a story about a guy who died when a tree branch fell on his head, another about a snowmobiler buried in an avalanche. Freezing to death, suffocating under snow: They strike me as almost ancient ways of death, as unexpected and archaic as a public stoning. We live in an age in which humans constantly imperil wilderness. We put miles of forest to the blade, plug rivers with concrete, drive wolves, salmon, bears, and lynx out of existence. The helplessness of nature in the face of industrialized civilization has become so routine that the idea that wilderness might pose a danger to humans appears as a quaint contrarian notion.
Among the following seven deaths, some lend themselves to obvious lessons: Don't forget the 10 Essentials,* don't high-mark a 40-degree slope, don't snowboard an avalanche chute. But most do not. They happen in unexpected and sometimes unexplainable ways that challenge our most commonly held notions about nature and our place in it.
Patrick Nestler, 29, killed June 11, 1998, while climbing Mount Rainier. Nestler, a client with Rainier Mountaineering Inc., was caught in an avalanche that swept two teams of RMI climbers off the nose of Disappointment Cleaver. Still clipped into the climbing rope, Nestler dangled from a rock cliff directly in a snowmelt waterfall for more than three hours. He died of hypothermia not long after rescuers reached him.
Nature has become such an ubiquitous symbol of all things pure, rugged, wise, and good that it doesn't even register on a conscious level anymore. It's a given. Leafing through a randomly plucked magazine just now, I tore out every ad that associated a product with wilderness. My stack includes pitches for Ford automobiles, Allegra allergy medicine, Honda sport utility vehicles, Moosehead beer, Tecnica boots, and Crixivan protease inhibitor. Use of these products, we're to infer, will make us purer of heart, bolder of spirit, and bring us closer to the natural rhythm of the planet.
What in the (real) world would make us believe this? I mean not the product tie-in—absurd on its face—but the idea that all that is right and good in this world resides in deepest wilderness? Credit part of it to 200 years of cultural conditioning, beginning with that original English supergroup: John, Percy, George, William, and the rest of the nature lads known as the Romantic Poets. As early as 1805, William Wordsworth was looking at "every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower" (in The Prelude) and giving them "a moral life: I saw them feel . . . " Percy Bysshe Shelley did Wordsworth one better. Truth, liberty, and love, he proclaimed in Prometheus Unbound, are "Nature's sacred watchwords." We Americans have adapted and modified this line over time (Thoreau to John Muir to Barry Lopez), but the core sentiment remains with us today.
Truth, liberty, and love as nature's creed? Rubbish. Let me show you the death of Patrick Nestler. Explain to his family how much love there is in the mountain that sapped the life out of him, drop by snowmelt drop. Why Nestler? Why this Connecticut civil engineer and not one of the RMI guides, who at least would have died as he or she lived, struggling with the unpredictable moods of Rainier? I will tell you why: Because Nature, contrary to Wordsworth, has no moral life; it does not feel.
This isn't some nutty anti-environmentalist rant. I'm well aware that we've trashed more than enough of the planet. We're sitting here in the Northwest with a thumbnail of old-growth forest and a thimbleful of wild salmon DNA. But somehow we've fallen into the habit of justifying the conservation of nature by portraying it as a repository of all things good, wise, and fair. On the macro level, the clich頩s true: We live in a complex web of life, one strand tied to and affecting all others. But on the micro level, day by day and hour by hour, it's chaos out there—the random violence of an avalanche, the deadly cruelty of a snowmelt stream pouring onto Patrick Nestler's head. Writer Annie Dillard is one of the few writers who's captured this truth about the wilderness. With her essay on the death-by-flame of a flickering moth, or her description of a water bug sucking the life out of a frog, Dillard seems to be one of the few to notice that it's a horror show out there. "Many carnivorous animals devour their prey alive," she writes in a typical passage from her most famous work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. "The usual method seems to be to subdue the victim by drowning or grasping it so it can't flee, then eating it whole or in a series of bloody bites. Frogs eat everything whole, stuffing prey into their mouths with their thumbs. People have seen frogs with their wide jaws so full of live dragonflies they couldn't close them. Ants don't even have to catch their prey: In the spring they swarm over newly hatched, featherless birds in the nest and eat them tiny bite by bite."
"That it's rough out there," she concludes, "and chancy is no surprise."
Just because wilderness can be a garden of Hobbesian cruelty doesn't mean we're free to destroy it. Nature is more complex than the pasture of goodness and light we'd like it to be. It contains moments of both extraordinary savagery and indescribable beauty and joy, and we need to save the ugly bits just as much as the pretty bits. Earlier this month I traveled to the coast of Mexico, where I spent an early morning floating on an isolated amniotic lagoon. All around me, gray whale calves no more than a few weeks old played with their mothers and a handful of fishing skiffs. Later that afternoon, I sat on the sand next to a beached adult gray and watched seagulls peck out its eye. To draw meaning from the morning but not the afternoon is to ignore the state of nature. It contradicts itself; it lives.
AT THE WHIM OF FATE
Kelly Richards, 12, killed July 20, 1998, while walking up from the beach on Vashon Island. Richards was one of 300 children staying that week at Camp Sealth. Without any warning—no wind, no lightning, no fire—a 100-foot alder tree uprooted and fell directly upon Richards, who was killed instantly. A sheriff's sergeant who investigated the scene called it "a freak of nature."
On July 22, 1998, I was staying at Camp Schurman, the climbing compound nestled between the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers on Mount Rainier. I say "staying" because I wasn't doing much climbing, having promised my wife, who was then six months pregnant, that I wouldn't risk leaving her husbandless for the dubious fun of crevasse-hopping up to the summit. The odds against dying on Rainier are long—about one death for every 10,000 climbers—but the odds against winning Lotto are longer and somebody's lucky number always comes up. So I sipped hot cocoa and listened to the radio while my friends zipped up the route. As mornings go, I've spent worse. Green River Community College's station KGRG is powered by something like 23 watts, but that morning a wisp of it blew up the glaciers with the news of Kelly Richards' death. I've been trying to make sense of it ever since. The tree fell on her less than a mile down the beach from the summer house where my enceinte wife rested in (apparent) safety. Up on the mountain our death rate for the day remained at zero.
AT THE WHIM OF FATE, REDUX
Steven DeLaTorre, killed September 20, 1998, on the shores of Riffe Lake, about 20 miles north of Mount St. Helens. DeLaTorre was seated at a table on a Sunday afternoon playing cards when a gust of wind ripped a large branch from a nearby tree. The 7-inch-thick branch landed on DeLaTorre's head. He was pronounced dead at Morton General Hospital.
Members of the US Special Forces based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, carry with them a card that sets out some of the criteria on which to base command decisions. One of the lines on the card reads, "Does the expected outcome justify the risk?" This seems as reasonable a risk assessment as I can imagine. But then we're confronted with the death of Steven DeLaTorre, hard-luck cardsmith. How do you assess the risks of a hand of gin rummy? And how do you live in light of enormous, ever-present risk? Like a reckless 19-year-old, flaunting the odds, figuring if your number's up, your number's up? Or do you hedge all your bets: No card playing, ever!
The diarist and Trappist monk Thomas Merton once summed up a day in which he had both killed a spider and heard that a member of his monastery had died. "Death," he wrote. "We think we understand it. That we know what it is. That we know what life is. That we know who we are."
CHANGING TO DIE
Clarence Breeden, 89, killed December 22, 1998, 50 yards off the Brinks Lake trail on Tiger Mountain. Breeden, who suffered from dementia, had left a note three days earlier telling his son he was driving his truck to the dump. His truck was found parked just off Interstate 90 at a popular trail entry point. His body was found 3 miles from the truck, lying on top of his sweater with a blue plaid jacket over him. Breeden laid down to sleep and froze to death.
During the past year I spent time with a man who was considering killing himself. A tumor that began in his lungs spread to his brain, and he wished to end his life—he considered it "hastening death," not suicide—before his body and mind completely left his control. We visited or spoke on the phone every week or two about the ups and downs of chemotherapy, about his recent climbs in the Olympic Mountains, and about the idea of a good death.
He was a respected health professional and carried with him a sense of dignity that he wanted to preserve right up to the end. This was the reason—not fear of pain—he considered an early exit. We all want a death consistent with our lives. It seems more fitting that George Mallory died on Everest than, say, in the sort of countryside motorbike crackup that took the life of his contemporary, T.E. Lawrence, and lent an anticlimactic, almost silly, twist to the final page of Lawrence's legend. (Or that Thomas Merton, technological minimalist, should die of electrocution.) We want the narrative to retain a thematic consistency. Death should come, if not in the sleep of ripe old age, then as it did to Dr. George Bacon, a microbiologist who died in the early 1960s of the very disease—bubonic plague—for which he was trying to find a cure.
"Every man's death should correspond to his life," wrote Montaigne. "We do not change to die." Would that the great essayist's maxim were a natural law. In real life, the inverse is too often true. We do change to die. We set out to take the truck to the dump and end up lying down to die on Tiger Mountain.
BY WINNING A CONTEST
Craig Rogers, 37, killed January 18, 1998, while snowmobiling near Blewett Pass. Rogers was one of a group of 18 snowmobilers riding on a late Sunday afternoon in the Wenatchee National Forest near Drop Creek. Rogers and his friends were "high-marking," a competition to see who could drive the farthest up a steep 40-degree snow slope. Rogers ended his life in Pyrrhic victory, setting a new high-mark line, but touching off the avalanche that claimed his life. His body was found, under 3 feet of snow and 50 feet from his snowmobile, just after noon the next day.
This is one of my greatest fears: dying a stupid death. To take great pains calculating risk-and-reward only to dive into the shallow end of the pool at a Motel 6 or fall into a crevasse while carrying a rope on your back. To die a senseless death and spread embarrassment while doing it. Poor, dumb Craig Rogers. Makes me shudder. Because I've done even dumber things. We all have. We just never got caught.
AT THE END OF A TWO-HOUR TOUR
Diane McManus, 44, killed in early February 1999, after becoming lost on a snowmobile trip in Chelan County. McManus and her husband, 50-year-old George Back, rented two snowmobiles for a two-hour tour of the backcountry around Fish Lake, a few miles east of Stevens Pass near Leavenworth. The couple lost their way and eventually got their snowmobiles stuck in deep snow. They waited for rescue without food or shelter for 12 days. McManus froze to death; Back and the two dogs survived.
This one is just unbearable. Reads like a Russell Banks novel. Guy goes out on a snowmobiling lark with his wife, gonna be a fun couple of weekend hours, what the hell, bring the dogs too. Ends up starving for 12 days in the snow, watching his wife slowly freeze to death. Then has to stay there with her lifeless body. Wanting, I imagine, more than anything in the world to just talk to her. But he can't. And then he's found and gets bombed by calls from Dateline NBC and Extra! and a dozen other outlets all wanting to buy the precious commodity he finds himself left with: the story of the senseless death of his wife.
Shawn Riches, 25, and Justin Parker, 19, killed February 14, 1999, by an avalanche near the Mount Baker ski area. Riches, Parker, and others had been skiing and snowboarding in Rumble Gulch, an area beyond the Baker boundary ropes that had claimed the life of a snowboarder less than a month earlier. Parker was found not long after the slide, but had succumbed to suffocation. Riches' body has not yet been found.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm imagining these deaths as worse than they really were. I'm thrown into this reconsideration after talking with Suzanne Rowen, who survived the same type of avalanche that buried Shawn Riches and Justin Parker.
In March 1993, Rowen, a management consultant from Seattle, helicoptered into Canada's Selkirk Mountains with a group of friends for a weeklong backcountry ski vacation. On the afternoon of their arrival, Rowen and five others volunteered to test the snow on the surrounding peaks for avalanche danger. She'd had a bad feeling about the avalanche risk that day, but wrote it off as timidity; everyone else was raring to go. The group dug a 6-foot-deep pit, which revealed a layer of depth hoar about 12 inches below the surface. (Depth hoar forms when a top layer of snow melts slightly, then freezes. Fresh snow forms a very weak bond with the sugary hoar, making everything on top of it susceptible to slides.)
"That was the time to get out," recalls Rowen, who was standing away from the pit in what was considered a safety zone (in case the diggers were buried). "But one of the guys wanted me to come over and take a look at it." As she skied over to the pit, another skier climbed higher on the slope to do a second test. That disruption was all the slope needed.
"All of a sudden we heard this wumph!" says Rowen. "I looked up and there was a huge wet slab coming at us." It was a Class 2 avalanche, which has enough velocity and strength to move a house.
Most of the group, including Rowen, already had their skis off. "So the good news was, none of us were going to break a leg. The bad news was, we couldn't move.
"The guy who had been digging the pit said, 'Just go with the flow,'" recalls Rowen. "It was like a horrible body surf; this huge wave came over us. I tried to swim, but the snow was so heavy and wet that my limbs were pinned down below me and my body sank into the slab.
"As you slow down, things start hardening around you. I tried to get my hands up to create an air pocket, but there was no chance of doing that. It feels like concrete hardening all around you."
When the snow came to a halt, Rowen was buried in complete darkness 3 feet down. "Your first instinct is to hyperventilate and scream, but your voice can't carry more than 2 or 3 inches under snow."
Let me add at this point that Suzanne Rowen is mildly claustrophobic, so if she were a character in a Stephen King novel, being buried alive is pretty much the way she'd go.
"My first thought was utter disbelief," Rowen recalls. "I had this gasping, hyperventilating feeling. But after that initial hysteria, your mind very quickly starts adjusting to the reality that This is it.
"The good news is, after that first feeling you don't have the sensation of being buried alive. You become oxygen-deprived, you become quiet and accepting, and things start getting a little hazy. It's very gentle in a way, very accepting. I was still conscious when they found me, and I was quietly reviewing things as I drifted off. I wondered why I didn't trust my instinct about the snow conditions—it wasn't self-flagellation, just a sadness. I thought about the unfinished business in my life. Why now? There was so much left to do. It was like, Aw, damn. I was just catching my stride here."
After seven minutes under the snow, Rowen's friends brought her to daylight. They dug out her head, cleared the snow from her mouth, and left her there breathing but unable to move (the rest of her body was still buried). She was OK; there were others still to find. Four of the six volunteers had been fully buried. Because all wore avalanche transceivers, which give out a homing signal, all were found within 13 minutes. Without the transceivers, all four would likely have died. Of the six who were initially caught in the slide, only Rowen has returned to the backcountry. "I snowshoe every weekend," she says. "But I spend an enormous amount of time watching the weather. I'm serious about it. I have no patience for people who think it's safe if it's a sunny day."
So despite your claustrophobia, I ask her, you go back out and risk being buried again?
Well, yes, she says. She's also become a crusader for avalanche transceivers and teaches a course through the Mountaineers to help others stay off unstable slopes. But the experience wasn't so bad that it's given her a permanent snow phobia. "It's actually not as horrible as you would imagine," she assures me. "You know, the beauty of it, like drowning, is that it's very peaceful and quiet."
IN AN ESSAY WRITTEN last year for the magazine Open Spaces, Dr. Thomas Hornbein, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington and one of American mountaineering's respected elders, suggested that risk is "an essential dietary constituent." It's like a drug, he wrote, "and, as with any drug, dose matters. Too much or too little may not be good for one's health." Nature is inherently menacing; it's liable to kill you when you're most or least prepared. And yet we still venture into it, crave the experience. At some level we need it as much as Dr. Hornbein's drug.
If there is meaning to be gained from these seven deaths, it may be this: If we're going to learn from nature we must be willing to learn that nature is sometimes wrong. We go into the woods to reconnect with wildness. But there's a reason we don't stay. Remain in the wild too long and the wild will kill you. Our ancestors, those poor living-scratchers, learned that lesson the hard way, and after a while started building huts and houses and villages and cities and said to hell with this lifestyle of the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. This is what seven deaths in the outdoors leads me to—not a waning of my love for nature, but a greater appreciation for its opposite. "In wildness," wrote Thoreau, "is the preservation of the world." In civilization is the making of a better one.