15 Letters

Posted on: April 25, 2014

Signs at Night

In response to "Nocturnes," Alpinist 45: I'm a grandmother of seven, and I still climb at night with my Deaf friends. I am hard of hearing. Sign language is difficult to see with just a headlamp or a flashlight. We wear gloves instead of mittens in order to sign, but we take them off for fingerspelling, no matter how cold the weather. Two of us climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and our summit bid began at 15,000 feet at midnight. We followed the group closely as if part of an uphill parade under the full moon. Our guide took very slow steps in a cadence that was easy to imitate. I could tell that he was singing to establish a slow, deliberate step. My Deaf friend Miriam followed my rhythmic steps close behind.

Since we can't hear the usual sounds that hearing people can while climbing, we like to keep our lights on, so people and animals know where we are. It's difficult to change headlamp batteries when you must limit the amount of time your hands are exposed to the weather. Thus, we hope there will someday be lights that shine for longer hours. We focus on our eyes more than other climbers who depend on their ears do. I remember snowshoeing up Mt. St. Helens as the comet Hale-Bopp streamed vividly across the night sky above us. We set our tents on ice for the night. I had never seen so many stars in my life!


Another evening, two of us started up Mt. Hood. I was concerned about the big snowcats that go up the lower slopes of the mountain to groom for skiers and to transport people to 8,540 feet who don't want to climb all the way from the trailhead lodge. My friend Miriam is fully Deaf. Even to me, the snow seemed so absolutely quiet. I could hear nothing—I could only feel my own breath. I just sensed that a snowcat might come over a rise and level us with those tank-like treads. Miriam admonished me for worrying. When our lights failed just before the last pitch, we huddled under our silvery space blanket. A snowbank shielded us from the wind until sunrise. By then, we were too cold to continue, and we went back down. Again, I enjoyed the stars that seem so much closer when we're up high and that fill in every space in the heavens.

Then on Mt. Whitney, some hearing people told me about a bear that was trying to pull down the bear bags that campers had hung over high branches. I was afraid the bear might step on Miriam, since she was sleeping in a low bivy-bag tent. By morning, however, she laughed again: "Why worry about what you can't hear?"

We see the lightning; we don't hear the thunder.

—Hilary White,

Corvallis, Oregon

The Origin of the Ice Hammock

Great article in Alpinist 45 by Raphael Slawinski, "A Reasonable Risk," about his and Ian Welsted's outstanding climb of K6 West. It was cool also to see another cutting-edge ascent in the Himalaya that utilized my "Ice Hammock" invention. After years of suffering poor bivies on narrow ice ledges, I developed the Ice Hammock as a direct response to the challenges we faced on our first attempt on the South Face of Saser Kangri II, a huge ice face nearly devoid of suitable bivy spots. My friend Pavel Shabalin had described to me how his Russian team used traditional climbing hammocks, packed with rocks and dirt, to shore up fixed tent platforms during their 2007 ascent of K2's west face, the Russian Direct. That story inspired me to design a super lightweight (about 2oz) reusable nylon hammock devised so that climbers could extend chopped ice ledges by anchoring the hammock with ice screws and then filling it with the chopped ice debris.

Certain that the innovation would prove invaluable to alpinists, I spent the better part of two years perfecting the design and testing several models in the White Mountains of New Hampshire prior to employing it with great success in 2011, on the first ascent of Saser Kangri II, with Steve Swenson and

Freddie Wilkinson. My friend Titoune (Marie) Meunier fabricated the first Ice Hammocks in her Wild Things shop in North Conway. Since then, I've given the design to a dozen friends and serious alpinists heading to the Himalaya or Alaska, including Raphael, and I'm delighted it's proving worthy.

—Mark Richey,

Newburyport, Massachusetts

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