Saturday, April 26, 2008


So, why did I climb mountains? There are many reasons from the 1920’s classic quote from iconic English climber George Leigh Mallory, "Because it is there" (speaking of Everest) to the basic, more inane motivation of peak baggers who are merely filling their dance cards. However a climber chooses to respond to that question, most folks (Family and Friends included) usually fail to understand that or any reasoning, putting climbers into a select, exclusive and sometimes suspect fraternity. The bottom line: I enjoyed it and liked the feeling of being one with the environment (yea, yea).

We Buxton boys were lucky to have a grandmother in Aline Armstrong Buxton who wanted to give us quality summer experiences (and give Mom a break) that for me included a several years tenure at Cragged Mountain Farm (CMF) in Freedom, NH and even more exciting summers at Camp Tohkomeupog in East Madison, NH. Tohkomeupog was owned and operated by the legendary Milt Hoyt who had connections to Providence, RI, Moses Brown School and Brown University so the association was an obvious one with our Family. Milt also operated the Purity Springs Resort on pristine Purity Lake in New Hampshire (since 1932) until his untimely death in a snowmobiling accident some years ago. Milt was sincerely dedicated to the development of each and every boy in his care and for that I owe him a debt that can’t be repaid.

After several years at Tohkomeupog and climbs on virtually every 4,000 footer in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine and whitewater trips that included the Saco and Allagash and every other major and minor river in those same states, he created a true appreciation and love of the outdoors in me and a drive to recreate those experiences throughout my life.

When we were kids we didn’t really try and bag all those peaks as we were merely pointed in the direction of every significant crag in the White Mountains including the entire Presidential Range, the Sandwich Range including my favorites Mt. Chocura to Mt. Moosilauke. On one early visit to the Presidentials I was enthralled with the ingenuity of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut boys at Lakes of the Clouds Hut (located between Mount Monroe and Mount Washington) who packed up a VW beetle (sans engine) and reassembled it adjacent to the 5,032 ft hut. Everybody was delighted and happy except AMC management.

The Green Mountains of Vermont offered up several major peaks to include Mt. Mansfield. Maine contributed many more to include the 5,267 feet magma-based Mt. Katahdin, highest point in Maine and for Friend Jim Kilpatrick the elusive northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

At Tohkomeupog Milt Hoyt ended up with a couple of cabins of increasingly enthusiastic senior adolescent adventurers who would otherwise been retired because of age. Milt either out of economics or more than likely in a sincere effort to round out our experiences in the great outdoors, extended our stay for one more year; a year of great adventure where we engaged activities that no Tohkomeupog campers ever dared before or since. We had a ball, I made Grand Sachem and thusly, the stage was set.

This group of intrepid adolescent adventurers were led by Registered Maine Guide Jim James who taught at the Kingswood School in Hartford during the school year. It was James who taught us how to paddle, pole and climb and to be able to ultimately handle ourselves in any situation whether it be on the water or on a mountain. By the way, for our efforts we all earned Junior Maine Guide status!

Fast forward to the 1970’s and a John Denver crazed faux adult aka Ned Buxton trained hard and went west like a moth to flame to experience his elusive Rocky Mountain High. I sought out the 13,865 foot Mount Meeker and the spectacular 14,259 foot Long’s Peak (through the keyhole) at the Rocky Mountain National Park long perceived as the twin jewels of the northern Rockies. While the routes I took weren’t dog routes or walk-ups they were a strenuous challenge to this neophyte.

Enter National Park Service (NPS) Ranger Norm Bishop who was moved from his position as Chief Interpreter at Mount Rainier National Park to NPS’s Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta where he engaged some not so mundane administrative issues to include the disposition of the Mount Le Conte Lodge above Gatlinburg, Tennessee and reconciling critical land and treaty issues with our First Nations in the state of Maine. Just before Norm came to Atlanta Denny Mays, Gerald Marshall, Bubba Sloan and I started High Country Outfitters in Atlanta in 1975. Soon thereafter Norm became a welcome visitor at our store at Powers Ferry Landing. Besides being a good guy, Norm was and is a font of knowledge and while at Rainier as a world class climber had more first ascents on that mountain than anyone else.

Norm would become a good Friend to High Country and a mentor to this new revolution going on in my mind. After a few years in Atlanta Norm was promoted to Yellowstone National Park where from 1980-1997, he worked as a park ranger in Resource Management, Interpretation, Research and in the Yellowstone Center for Resources. He was the leader and supporter of wolf restoration interpretation in Yellowstone. After 36 illustrious years Norm retired from the NPS in 1997 though he remains active as the Greater Yellowstone Region Field Representative for the International Wolf Center, Board member of Wild Things Unlimited and Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) and Nordic committee rep. to the BSF board.

In that interim I decided that Mount Rainier, originally known as Talol or Tahoma (mother of waters), was in my future. Well, that decision was not so deliberate as Friend John Bair then owner of Bair’s Ski Shop in Atlanta’s Buckhead facilitated that fantasy. Aware of my yearning for “the big one” John invited me to represent Bair’s at the annual JanSport dealer and supplier “Mount Rainier Climb” in August of 1975. Started by JanSport founder Skip Yowell and famed Mountaineer and Rainier Mountaineering founder Lou Whittaker, the climb was intended to familiarize JanSport dealers and suppliers with their products and allow them to experience the joys of mountain climbing firsthand.

So here I was, new partner of High Country Outfitters representing competitor Bair’s at the JanSport Rainier Climb? By the way High Country couldn’t get the JanSport line because of Bair’s. I think that Skip Yowell figured the relationship out much later but, thankfully, without prejudice. The Rainier climb is still one of the great annual traditions at JanSport and I am happy to be part of that history. My preparation for that climb included strenuous daily workouts and mandatory daily runs of three sub six minute miles. Friend and High Country Partner Denny Mays, a climber of great note, put me through accelerated bouldering and rock climbing instruction for many a weekend on Mt. Yonah in north Georgia. I was in bomb proof shape!

I arrived in Seattle and found that our first day was spent touring the JanSport factory which was at an abandoned military base near Seattle. It was an all American show then. We also attended an avalanche workshop at Seattle Manufacturing Corporation (SMC), and listened to various lectures on climbing technique and mountain safety. It was well done.

When I arrived at Mt. Rainier National Park there was a frenetic buzz all over the Paradise Inn about two climbers who were trapped in the caves beneath Rainier’s summit for several days because of a deadly storm. We could see the dynamic and ominous lenticular cloud that engulfed the entire summit in a text book white out that would later have significance for me and my new climbing buddies.

About an hour later the word was passed that the climbers had been able to descend the summit via the appropriately named Cadaver Gap and down the Cowlitz Glacier to Camp Muir. We saw them later that day and marveled in hushed reverent tones at their grizzled appearance. The same route they took off the mountain was made even more infamous when four years later in 1979 Willie Unsoeld the great mountaineer and mythical conqueror of Mt. Everest via the West Ridge in 1963 died along with a fellow climber in an avalanche while descending from their high camp at Cadaver Gap.

About fifteen JanSport dealers participated in the climb which was then more of an advanced Ice and Snow seminar. It was coordinated by Whitaker’s Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (RMI). The climbers ranged from experienced and in shape to somewhat inexperienced and out of shape folks from all over the country. Our adventure started at the Paradise Inn south of the mountain. We started our long four and a half mile trek to our home for several days, Camp Muir at 10,080 feet. Our elevation gain of around 4,500 feet took us through the Muir Snowfield part of which by late summer had developed sun cups and nieve penitentes (spikes of ice and snow caused by differential melting and evaporation) between the cups. While they weren’t right on our route I don’t believe it would have been advisable to fall on them.

While on our way to the rustic (OK primitive) Camp Muir I was kicking myself for not bringing my ski poles which all the Rainier Guides used. They afforded great stability and support especially if you were carrying a load. I always over packed so I endured the consequences of my actions. None of the seminar participants carried poles. We arrived at Camp Muir after a little over six hours (lots of breaks) and marveled at the beautiful vistas and especially our acclimation (or lack thereof) to the altitude. Some folks were already whipped and we hadn’t even started.

Over the next couple of days we were put through training that would include crevasse rescue, Z-pulley systems, self arrest, the finer points of ice climbing, various belaying systems and much more to include some glissading. That training would prove valuable later in the trip. Amusingly, both Richmoor and Mountain House had hoped to use the workshop attendees to test some of their new freeze dried food offerings. Mind you, these foods were nothing like the fancy freeze dried offerings of today (Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Teriyaki, Pasta Primavera. Sweet & Sour Pork with Rice, etc) though they were leading edge for their day. Of course, we had to melt snow for the all too necessary water to rehydrate them. It seems that old Rainier a long way from being dormant was and is still known to vent and blow a little sulfur dioxide now and then and had apparently done so in recent days. The snow had somewhat of a yellowish cast upon close examination but we didn’t think anything of it. Well, some of the water tasted like it came from some forbidden and mysterious orifice and imparted its flavor to the food. While we didn’t have a good outcome for Richmoor and Mountain House, it did test our sense of humor.

We had really wanted to meet the Whitakers but were told that they were off on some great adventure on the other side of the world. Jim and Lou had long been heroes of mine and that was a disappointment. We were told that there was a Sherpa in residence with RMI who was short, muscular and had a huge barrel chest. The joke on the mountain was that his lungs were so well developed that he could suck pebbles from the trail. After you’ve climbed around 10,000 feet for a while you do notice that the oxygen is somewhere else, down below, and you are drawing extra deep breaths in order to oxygenate yourself. You soon learn to force air into your lungs and expel it under pressure so you can extract the last bit of oxygen from the atmosphere. I remember when at 14,000 feet when the climb was literally one slow step in front of another with the climbers on your rope sounding like mini steam locomotives taking one or more breaths for every step (rest-stepping and pressure breathing).

In residence and in good spirits was accomplished mountaineer and co founder of JanSport, Skip Yowell. He turned out to be a great guy and no doubt one of the reasons for JanSport’s great success. He remains Vice President of Global Public Relations at JanSport and consults with JanSport International businesses in Europe, Asia and South America. Recent communication with Skip reflects that he remains vibrant as ever and the author and archetype for his, The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains.

The next day we engaged all that we had learned in our lectures and I had a ball. We had practiced a lot of self arrest and crevasse rescue techniques and not ironically when we were traversing adjacent to some crevasses on five man rope teams on the Ingraham Glacier a ice/snow bridge gave way and in I went. I was running sweep on the rope and everybody else made it across except me. I managed to stop my fall and landed on a ledge only a few feet from the top of the crevasse. As I fell I yelled out as taught, “Falling!” I easily front pointed out of the crevasse only to find my climbing mates still in self arrest, butts up, front pointed and ice axes in. I suspect they stayed in that position for at least five minutes. It was a good laugh, but showed that the team was almost ready.

I really enjoyed climbing the ice walls and towers (seracs). We were top belayed and the route (60-70 feet) which contained no more than two pitches, was fairly easy. The interesting thing about this exercise was that the two performance standouts appeared to be a gentleman from Arkansas and yours truly, well above some prima donnas who had to that point talked a good talk…

It was a beautiful day with incredible views to what we are told was about 147 miles. You see the curvature of the earth and along with a variable called atmospheric refraction one can see that distance to a degree. Again, with the curvature of the earth, we could see nearby mountains while those farther away only presented their summits. Interesting phenomenon…

The next morning (very, very early in the am) we got up headlamps at the ready and started our ascent to the summits of Rainier. We were told that there was a chance of nasty weather so we had to get up and down as quick as possible. The Chief Guide even insinuated that there may be a chance that we might have to turn back.

At that time I was employed by the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta, Georgia as one of their training managers. Retail Credit was in process of changing their name to Equifax so I asked for an Equifax flag and after some deliberation one was provided by Corporate Communications. I felt privileged as most folks in the company weren’t aware of the name change, yet here I am with THE FIRST FLAG! I was hoping to have the chance to plant the flag on one of Rainier’s three summits. At that point our chances looked pretty slim.

We took the well traveled route from Camp Muir across the Cowlitz Glacier through Cathedral Gap where we ran the ridge to the Ingraham Flats across to Disappointment Cleaver. Well, we started having problems even before we got through Cathedral Gap. One of the ladies in the group persevered as long as she could and that took her as far as Disappointment Cleaver. She could go no farther and there was no one to take her back to Camp Muir. The decision was made to bag and pin her into the cleaver with the intention to pick her up on the way back. Best laid plans o mice and men… Shortly after the group left Disappointment Cleaver the weather started to close in.

Step, step, inhale, step, step, exhale, step, step, inhale, step, step, exhale, step, step inhale, step, exhale, step, inhale, step, exhale, step inhale, step exhale, etc.

The RMI guides and their rope teams moved on and by the time we made it across the top of Emmons Glacier, negotiating some crevasses along the way, and then to High Break at roughly 13,500 feet, the wind had picked up and was at gale force. Had we not been so close I suspect that we probably would have turned back. We made it on to the crater rim, across the crater and on to Rainier’s highest of three summits, Columbia Crest at 14,411 feet. I quickly whipped out the Equifax flag with the vision of doing a Jim Whittaker flag on the ice axe photo op. Well, it took three of us to hold that two by three foot flag in the shelter of an ice formation just off the summit. Our RMI guide took the shot. All Hell was breaking loose now as the word came to start the journey back, NOW.

We came to realize that we had just finished the second leg of the climb, the easiest part. The only way that I knew I was on a rope team was the tug on the rope. For some time I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. Going back down to Disappointment Cleaver was a steep and treacherous exercise in this white out. The RMI guides were great and I remember a gentle admonishment from one when I got just a little rattled on a particularly steep switchback. My ice axe was way too long for the steep pitches and heavy snow and I could gain little purchase when I was descending. My Galibier Superguides and Chouinard rigid crampons with drooped picks ultimately served me well in those tight spots. Yes, for a relative novice my equipment was always first class. Luckily everybody was cautious though we later found out that at least part of our descent required National Park Service assistance to talk us through the storm. You had to give the calm, cool and collected RMI guides a lot of credit for getting us safely off the mountain that day.

We retrieved our still very ill female from Disappointment Cleaver and headed back down to Camp Muir. There was little time for a break though we were going so slow, we really didn’t require one. We were concerned about the quality of the rock on Disappointment Cleaver and potential rockfalls and avalanche though we were helped by the very cold weather and storm.

The weather continued to get worse even as we went through Cathedral Gap and started back across the Cowlitz. We stayed roped up and after a short break at Camp Muir, started back to Paradise. We were a fine sight as we came back to Paradise no doubt reminding some of the touristas of those two most recent climbers that heroically descended Rainier through Cadaver Gap. Now, we were the grizzled veterans.

Well, I got through the adventure and have almost had a lifetime to relive the great times and the great hospitality of JanSport and RMI. By the way when we arrived at Paradise we all hit the bar and I remember having at least three Rainier Beers before I felt properly hydrated. I could have consumed many more! Some of my fellow climbers ended up with frostbite though I seemed to have sustained no physical damage. I bought a boggan which one of our lady RMI guides, Tori, had knitted in the Andean style with ear flaps. I wear that knitted cap to this day.

Plato wrote in his magnificent Republic that youth should learn the cardinal virtues of wisdom, bravery, temperance and justice through adversity and adventure. The Scottish born Outward Bound program and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) of Lander, Wyoming were the 20th century manifestations of that philosophy. That philosophy and those organizations seem almost foreign when one ponders the remote wielding, game playing youth of today. Well, both Outbound Bound and NOLS remain healthy and significant numbers of today’s youth literally embrace that philosophy.

UK Adventurer and outdoorsman Colin Mortlock has suggested that “Risk is as basic to adventure as competition is to sport, but the stakes are normally higher.” Mortlock would have you believe that unpredictability should be a key element of any adventure. He would recommend that a person experience challenges that are strategically near or close to their limits. I suspect that he would apply that metaphorically to business risk management practices and the development of solid succession planning exercises. I can say that I have been to that mountaintop.

So what were my emotions when I arrived at Paradise? When you summit, successfully finish your climb and arrive back at your car, the epitome of human emotion and the celebration of life and the joy of living literally overwhelms you. I have always been gratified with the experience. As I’ve heard it said before, “You have been given an astonishing gift.”

Indeed, that for me sums up why I continued to climb: that rush of positive emotion is almost as good as… well, you know. Mallory got it right when he said, “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money.” Native Scot John Muir who helped formulate the ethics of responsible mountaineering admirably capped the sentiment off with, “…you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature.”

So, why did I evolve my trekking to climbing and mountaineering? Well, aside from my love of the great outdoors, I have a very real fear of heights and though it falls well short of acrophobia, I knew that I had to address that fear or let it haunt me the rest of my life. To this day I will never forget that angst in the pit of my stomach when I went through the Keyhole on Longs Peak in Colorado and at the ledge, then the trough and on to the narrows (Yikes!) where there is a sheer drop off that appeared to be around a thousand feet. I was alone on the mountain, the trail was very icy and here there was no room for error. I was literally chased off the summit back to the tree line by a lightning snow storm. I wondered if I was worthy of this climb…

So time to again appropriately reference the great British climber George Mallory who wrote in his 1917 article about an alpine ascent in which he posed the question: "Have we vanquished an enemy?" and immediately answered: "None but ourselves."


Ned Buxton

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