Last week, six climbers disappeared under an avalanche on Mt. Rainier, the worst disaster on the mountain since 11 were killed in an icefall on the Ingraham Glacier in 1981. I was saddened to learn yesterday that one of them was an Alpine Ascents guide named Eitan Green.
Three years ago, my SM East classmate and friend Adam Tilton, an NEJC resident and broker with Colliers International, organized a trip to climb Rainier with Alpine Ascents. I somewhat trepidatiously signed on, along with our fellow class of 1998 graduate Tyler Meyerdirk, who now lives in San Francisco, and Adam’s boss at Colliers, Bryan Johnson.
Eitan was the first guide to greet our crew at the Alpine Ascents office in Seattle the day before we left for the mountain, and he was instantly a group favorite. He was intensely focused on climbing safety and maximizing our chances of reaching the summit, but was a quick wit at the same time. He put you at ease because it was clear he knew what he was doing.
As we went through our initial gear check, Eitan did a quick review of the weather forecast. “Things are predicted to be clear through our summit,” he told us. “But you never know.”
For the first two days of the climb, the forecast held with clear skies and easy going. But as we readied to break camp at 1:30 a.m. the day of our final ascent, a few flurries started to fall. We had a group of eight climbers and four guides. Each guide was roped up to two climbers. Adam and I were roped up to Eitan.
Our three-man team made it up the Disappointment Cleaver in good time, and as we stopped to rest and wait for the other members of our group, the wind started to pick up. Soon, the flurries had turned into icy pellets. And they started to come down harder and harder.
The higher we went, the worse it got. The winds howled at 40 mph, and sharp snow pelted our faces. It became almost impossible to see. For a while I could make out Adam 15 feet in front of me fairly clearly, but could only make out Eitan’s outline. After a bit, I could barely see Eitan at all.
Every few minutes Eitan would stop, and start scanning the ground. There were wands with little orange flags on them planted every few dozen yards to mark the path to the summit. In the whiteout conditions, there was no way to see the next wand, so Eitan was trying to make out the path of footprints in the snow to keep us on course. But the footprints were disappearing under the new snow quickly.
I started to have second thoughts about the whole endeavor. The thought of not seeing my wife or one year old daughter ever again seemed suddenly plausible. I tugged the rope and signaled Adam and Eitan to stop.
“I think we should turn back,” I said.
Eitan looked at me for a moment and didn’t say anything. Then his lips pursed and a fired up look flashed across his face.
“Are you sure!?” he said, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling to be heard over the wind, or because he was upset. “You’re 20 minutes away. You’re sure you want to turn around now?!”
I looked at Adam. “What do you think?” I asked.
“I’m fine either way,” he said.
“You are 20 minutes away!” Eitan said. “We are so close. I have no doubt you can do this! I have no doubt you can do this!” The thought of turning around had never crossed his mind. And he knew he was ultimately responsible for all of us.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
We turned back toward the summit. I plodded along with a sinking feeling in my stomach. But, as promised, 20 minutes later Eitan stopped on top of a pile of boulders and drove his ice axe into the snow.
“Welcome to crater rim!” he said. “You made it!”
We were at 14,200 feet — 200 feet below the true summit, which lay a 45 minute hike across the crater snowfield. We wouldn’t make it all the way up to 14,410 feet that day because we needed to descend as quickly as possible. There was no great view to behold, just a grey and white mess of swirling snow. And we couldn’t take more than a minute to rest because the weather was continuing to deteriorate. Adam and I snapped a quick photo (which shows nothing but white in the background), and then the three of us turned around.
Eventually we caught up with the rest of our group. We’d been the only team to make the crater rim. Everyone else had turned back far below. Eitan had trusted his own abilities and his gauge of ours and pushed us to the summit rim “in the worst weather [the climb leader] had ever summited in with clients.” (You can read his recap of the climb on his blog In the Hills and On the Rocks here).
By the time we finally got back down to high camp and prepared for our full descent, I was exhausted. But I was already grateful Eitan had talked me in to sticking with it. That sense of gratitude has only increased over time. If he hadn’t pushed back when I proposed turning around, we would have stopped short of our goal. He trusted himself enough to get us there.
Eitan was a gifted guide and a talented climber who had a keen understanding of the risks associated with what he did. The Boston Globe story today described him as “fearless but never reckless.” From my short time with him, that sums it up pretty perfectly.
Alpine Ascents and the Rainier climbing community have lost a great person.