Sunday, May 2, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Paraplegic Climber Taking Another Crack At Mount Rainier

Tri-City Herald

PASCO - Eighteen hundred vertical feet.

A third of a mile.

Half the height of Rattlesnake Ridge.

One day's climb for Pete Rieke on a good day.

But Rieke and his companions ran out of good days last June when the paraplegic Pasco climber tried to reach Mount Rainier's 14,411-foot summit in a homemade, hand-cranked snowmobile dubbed a "snow pod."

Now he hopes to string together enough good days early in June to conquer that last 1,800 feet to reach the top of Washington's highest mountain.

In June 1998, Rieke's group took seven days to climb from 5,420 feet at Paradise Lodge to the upper reaches of Mount Rainier's Emmons Glacier at about 12,600 feet.

Nasty winds gusting to 50 mph blasted them. Clouds sent signs that worse weather was coming.

Then came a wide crevasse with a snow bridge across it. The bridge looked crossable. But there were serious doubts it would still be there on the group's return trip.

The risks were too great - especially during a week that had an avalanche slam a nearby climbing party, killing one.

Rieke's group turned back.

"It was the only logical thing to do," Rieke said at the time.

He was right, no doubt. A few days later, a pair of climbers had to be rescued about 1,000 feet above the shaky snow bridge.

Now Rieke, his wife, Wreatha Carner, and friends plan to return to Mount Rainier. As with last year, Carner will be the expedition leader.

"For me, it'll be a lot easier this time," said Rieke with two 1998 climbs - to the top of Mount Hood and almost to the top of Mount Rainier - under his belt.

"We should be able to move more efficiently and with fewer people," he said.

Organizing a snow pod climb is complicated. It includes coordinating with friends' vacation times to build up a support group of experienced climbers.

Also, a good, able-bodied mountain climber can climb at least three times faster than Rieke in a snow pod, even when he's in top condition.

That means more food and equipment have to be packed, coordinated and moved up the mountain to accommodate the longer journey. And he needs helpers with safety ropes on both himself and his snow pod to stop him when he falls or slides, especially in areas with crevasses.

That translates to a couple of teams of safety-rope handlers for Rieke, with the extra handlers needed to set up ahead of him so he does not lose momentum while climbing.

"We learned a lot (on Rainier) about efficiency in rope handling," he said.

With that hard-won knowledge, Rieke expects to climb a mountain maybe once a year.

This year, he plans to take a different route to Rainier's summit.

On their first attempt, Rieke's party climbed more or less north from Paradise to the Emmons Glacier to hang a left and head west to the summit. This year, he plans a more northwesterly route that traverses the mountain and the Nisqually Glacier before switching north at the Kautz Glacier and on to the top.

The Kautz Glacier route is shorter, but steeper than the route Rieke took in 1998.

"For me, it'll be a lot easier," he said.

That's because when the snow pod goes sideways on a steep slope, its treads can slip off their rollers. However, the pod and its treads work well going straight up slopes of up to 45 degrees.

The Kautz Glacier is such a straight, steep path.

Rieke plans to put a 10-day limit on the upcoming climb.

That's more than enough time to make it to the top with enough good weather days. And he can't keep his friends and helpers away from their jobs too long. Finally, 10 days is long enough to wear the same clothes without taking a shower.

Rieke had to start using a wheelchair in 1994 after he fractured his spine in a rock-climbing accident at the Index Town Wall cliff in the Cascade Mountains.

It left him unable to move almost everything below his belly button. He can move his hips a little.

The idea of the snow pod surfaced as a daydream while Rieke was in the hospital after his accident. But a long, complicated recovery and adjusting to using a wheelchair kept the idea from becoming anything more than a daydream until late spring 1995.

Rieke hooked up with two others - machinist Mike Poole and materials engineer Greg Coffey - to design and build the snow pod. The homemade machine went through two prototypes before the third was used to tackle Mount Hood and Mount Rainier last year.

Back in the mountains, Rieke was away from civilization for the first time in four years. He loves to camp, hike and climb. And being away from the wilderness nagged at him.

He missed the peace. The mental and muscular challenges. The isolation giving him a feeling of being at home.

And Rieke hopes to recapture that again in less than two months.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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