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Friday, July 10, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For Survivors, Fatal Avalanche On Mount Rainier Won't Go Away -- `Something Has Changed In Me'

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

SAUGUS, Calif. - In a hot little place near Los Angeles, where the haze is thick and the desert scrub looks as if it will catch fire, Gregg Swanson is alone and still recovering from nearly dying. He supposes he is thankful to be alive; he says the words, "I'm alive" a lot. But often, he says, he feels dead.

It all began as he clung to a rope for five hours after an avalanche on Mount Rainier. A few hours earlier, he had reached the mountain's peak, where he says he had found some long-sought peace with the climbing death of his nephew 18 months before. Now, he says, "the accident" has stolen that.

As he reads the paper, or eats his breakfast eggs, or awakens before he wants to, Swanson says he feels trapped in some bad aftereffect of being alive when he knows that maybe he shouldn't be. He gulps a half-glass of water and says, "Something has changed in me. For the life of me, I don't know what it is. I just know that when the avalanche happened, I didn't feel anything. And I know right now I don't feel anything either."

It has been almost a month since the avalanche, which killed a man and swept nine others down a split in the rock outcropping known as Disappointment Cleaver.

For the survivors, the accident has not, on the surface at least, greatly changed the look of their lives - the computer expert's finger is braced, the librarian's body is bruised, and Swanson wears a cast colored black - but it has eroded something. Their sense of physical safety, to be sure, but also something deeper, an essential human deception that everything, in the end, will be all right.

Swanson is back to work full time, mostly out of his townhouse north of Los Angeles, making appointments, making more appointments. He is 42 and sells phone equipment for a living. He is divorced, lives alone, and sees his two teenage children on weekends. He sits at his computer a lot and writes in a journal as his pet wolf, Crow, watches him with black eyes. People, he says, forget if they don't write things down.

He has pecked out June 11 on his keyboard, one letter at a time, with his good hand, and spent nights studying it. He says he knows he's probably in shock - "post-traumatic stress syndrome, the doctors call it. I used to think it was crap" - but that doesn't help him. And so he rereads, he says, because he is looking for something, like some old tree where he etched his name once.

Angels on the mountain

On the morning of June 11, it was like they saw angels.

Two dozen people, broken into groups of four or five, were ascending the mountain in staggered groups, silent behind their hats and parkas and headlamps, looking like a string of fireflies in the dark. On one side, the sun rose warm and red, and little flecks of it seemed to break away and dance around. One the other side, a full moon rested on the horizon, a mountain's height closer to earth.

If the climbers made their eyes just right, they could see both at the same time. Swanson says, "It was breathtaking. All you could do is stand there and try to breathe. Seeing anything after that is a disappointment."

And so they stood there, for six or seven minutes, more than 10,000 feet up, but still almost 4,000 feet below the top of Mount Rainier, Washington's highest peak. It seems strange now, the climbers say, but that was the first time they stopped and talked with any depth about why they were there. (They had not been close. During their five-day training, they were sardined atop one another on bunks, and that had made them draw inside.)

There were friends on vacation (Susan Hall, Deborah Lynn and Nina Redman had gone there from Manhattan Beach, Calif.); marathoners looking for a new challenge; guides who knew the mountain's face as well as they knew their own.

Swanson kept to himself; he stood aside and took pictures, he says, trying to save a morsel or two of what his eyes saw. One climber asked if they could stay longer.

They did not, others say, because one was sick and already lagging, and time was short. The group needed to reach the summit and find its way down before the weather turned harsh or too warm, as it often can.

Mountains demand strength

Swanson is fit; his biceps look like calf muscles hard as pine-knots, and his legs are corded muscle. Up close, his face looks severe, not jagged or angular but hard and powerful. Even when he breathes, it is with a conscious hard motion, like a piston.

He trained hard for the climb - eating raw egg whites, wheeling miles on an exercise bike, lifting weights he thought were going to break his arms off - because he knew that climbing a mountain demands a lot more than just desire. He says he also was motivated, in some ways, by fear, because he knew what mountains could do.

Early this year, Swanson decided to make the climb and persuaded his brother Kent, who lives in Maryland, to come along. It was Swanson's way of paying tribute to his nephew, Kent Junior, who had worked as a climbing guide on Rainier and as a rescuer on various other mountains in the Northwest. Kent Junior died in early 1997 in Canada in a mountain helicopter accident while on his way to an avalanche-rescue training school.

Gregg Swanson says of Kent Junior, "I wanted to see firsthand what he loved so much," to see ultimately what he died for. He missed him. On long weekends in Southern California, the two had become close companions. Kent Junior climbed, and Swanson wanted to learn how. They scaled and rappelled and skinned their knees on rocks, sharing dehydrated food, charting peaks. Kent Junior was a dreamer who loved the streams and the hills and the natural bounty of the world.

He taught Swanson about the rewards of climbing, and the risks ("Calculate risk. If it's only a 10-foot drop, that's acceptable.") He taught him how to yearn for the face of beauty and how, if the weather's not just right, it can break your heart.

On top of the world

The group reached the summit at 10 a.m., only a few minutes behind schedule. The weather was perfect, the air crisp, like the sting of soda pop. The climbers stood muted by the silence of being so far away from any city. In the distance, they could see the tops of Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson and Mount St. Helens, looking like the tips of icebergs in the ocean. "I forgot how tired I was, just forgot," recalls Nina Redman, a librarian from Manhattan Beach.

They stayed there 45 minutes, the climbers say. "Do we have to go?" one asked as she snapped another photograph.

It was getting warmer, perhaps approaching 70 degrees, the climbers say. Even behind sunglasses, they squinted; the sun magnified the whiteness of the snow, and sometimes the sky was the only relief from it. Some climbers shed their warm clothes and replenished themselves with energy bars and water.

Swanson stood by himself, weeping. He doubted he had ever felt that way before. He says he was facing something, maybe his own fear of dying too young, something the passing months, with their countless moments of sorrow and loss over Kent Junior, had done little to change.

"I was overwhelmed," he says. He found a notebook, stored in a metal box in the snow and containing the names of people who had climbed Rainier, and dedicated the climb. "Dear Kent . . ."

He wrote a lot. He was angry that Kent Junior was dead but glad, at least, that he died on a mountain. Swanson wrote how, atop Rainier, he finally felt as if he understood how Kent Junior could feel that the top of a mountain was good as home.

Talked about avalanche

When they remember their walk down the mountain, the climbers say they talked about the possibility of avalanche. But it had been a good trek, with good weather and decent timing, and they figured there was no worry. A few extra minutes, though, to take a photograph, a few over a climber who felt sick, or to relish their accomplishment perhaps mattered more than they knew.

There were two climbing parties now - 10 people - because the others had already made their way down. At 2 p.m., they had come to a traverse, a ledge of ice and rocks over a 300-foot drop into a crevasse that roots down deep inside the mountain. The clouds were a mattress of fluff below, but Swanson remembered just then, with a small knot forming in his gut, what Kent Junior had said about calculated risk. The traverse was difficult; each footstep insisted on being in front of the other. Swanson and others remember the ledge being 12 inches wide.

A few of them had snapped onto an 800-foot rope anchored by aluminum spikes into the side of the mountain along the ledge; it was a hand railing of sorts. The climbers were also attached to one another, in groups of five, by ropes attached to their harnesses.

When it fell - 12 inches of snow 40 yards wide - it fell so quickly, the climbers hardly moved at all.

Somebody yelled. "SNOW!" Somebody else yelled: "It's an avalanche!" And the snow, tons of it falling for 10 to 15 seconds, came over them quietly, like the sound table salt makes when it pours, but heavier, it seemed, than gravity.

Voices from the slush: "Oh God! . . . Don't let me die. . . . Mayday, mayday! . . . I can't breathe. . . . We're going to die."

Quieter: "Are we alive? . . . God don't let me die. . . . I can't breathe . . . Mayday, mayday! . . . God save us."

Just hanging on

The 10 climbers were spread over 100 feet, connected by a tangle of rope. The safety line was taut and strained. Another line was fraying. Six of them would hang for hours.

Deborah Lynn hung under a ledge that poured ice water over her head. Nina Redman hung next to her, steeling herself, she said later. Susan Hall, maybe 10 feet above them on a steep slope, nursed her hand, bent so it looked as if she might be missing two fingers. A man named Pat Nestler hung 75 feet below, out of sight.

Swanson was pinned to the jagged face of a rock; across his chest was a rope connected somewhere above him and pulled taut by the weight of two people hanging below him. His hand was broken. If he looked down, he would see two people and the crevasse, which darkened from light blue to black. So much, he thought, for calculated risk.

From below, he heard the words: "Will somebody please talk to me?"

But Nestler apparently could not hear anyone's response. He died there, hearing nobody, seen by nobody.

Two women talked about their children, and agreed to care for each other's families if one of them should die. Redman remembered smoothing her son's hair the week before when he asked if she was going to die on the mountain. She whispered to herself, searching her soul for old sins and her memory for forgotten prayers; she was getting right with God.

Daylight seemed to be fading, even though it was mid-afternoon. Swanson could not look down. In his mind, he was falling, his equilibrium was off. His body drew hard breaths. He had no voice.

He says he wondered what he had done to get in the way of an avalanche, why it was he who was going to die. That selfishness felt mean and cold, and it sickened him. He didn't know whom to hate for it, or if he should be ashamed.

Inside, he wanted to survive, and pleaded not to die as he had never pleaded before. He says he was thirsty. He was still, but in his mind he was still trying to snag his pick in the ice, trying to break his fall.

Somebody said "PACK!" and a backpack, Susan Hall's 50 pounds of warm clothes and food, tumbled off the mountain. "Pack!" Somebody else's disappeared into the crevasse. "All I did was hang there," Swanson says. "That's all we did. That's all you can do. It's over. You don't think."

He says he knew he would die. He wondered where the backpacks went, as if they might help him understand where he was going. And he wondered what Kent Junior thought when he died. He wasn't afraid, he says, not even a little.

Rescue begins

The rescue was delicate and slow. Rescuers arrived by helicopter and rappelled to the climbers, securing each one with new ropes and pulling them to a safe rock to rest and drink warm Gatorade. All told, the climbers had hung there more than five hours.

They returned to their lives with two broken bones and a few dozen bruises among them. None suffers any effects of hypothermia.

Their voices are soft, and they retell their stories clinically, painlessly, as if they are not speaking from their memories, but stringing together words that make sense.

The climbers now say it's hard to remember it all, that it comes back to them in everyday moments: a dry mouth, an uneasy stomach, a tiny stumble on the doorstep. People ask the same questions over and over. How do you feel? Do you still think about it? Will you climb again? It gets old. They wonder if the snow fell because of somebody's misstep, if it was weather, a miscalculation of time, or maybe some penance for teasing the fat kid a long time ago.

Nina Redman, who carries herself as if she is looking for a place to rest her head, says she probably will not climb again. Deborah Lynn won't talk about that. Susan Hall says she doesn't want to go outside: "I'd like to work at home."

Swanson normally is a gregarious man, the kind who will offer a glass of ice water to a vacuum-cleaner salesman. These days, he's sparse with words. When you ask how the climb has altered his life, he almost laughs. Often, he seems to shrug aside questions about his feelings and changes the topic to something more concrete, like how much he likes to exercise, or how hot it is that day, though he says he doesn't want to do that. He tries. One day recently, he said, "I feel fine after all this. It's over." On another day, more recent, "I'm screwed up." Another, "I think someday this will be over. But I still don't know what happened up there. Sometimes I just don't care."

The other week, he says, he awoke early and, without thinking, prepared to train for the climb up Rainier. "What is happening to me?" he wondered. He still feels unsteady, as if his balance is off and he'll fall. It is difficult for him to leave his home, he says. Not that he cares much either way. "I'm alive, and I just want to be for a while."

Some bad thoughts come back, though, and flit around him like moths on a light. When he was on the mountain, he wondered if God had made Kent Junior pay some kind of price for living his life a certain way, if dying was the cost for all the wonders he witnessed.

"What lessons does Nature want to teach us?" Swanson says. "It's a scary thing to think about."

And when the rescuers came, he says, he wondered why he, a businessman, had been allowed to live, and Kent Junior, a saver of lives, hadn't. The guilt can be merciless.

Recently, he read his journal entry again, with Crow again at his feet. Five pages. He wrote about falling. In his head, he still is.

And it breaks his heart.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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