Friday, May 1, 2009

20 Loads

A feature article by volunteer Russ Hanbey

The moon was just emerging from its ellipse on this August morning as we gathered around the shop area of Sahale Construction along Lake Union in Seattle. It was still dark, but the crew was going about its work with quiet efficiency, readying themselves for a long day in the mountains. We piled into the oversized rig and headed out.

Blending in with early morning traffic and the rough edges of Mercer Avenue, it was hard to believe that the five men in this truck/trailer would find their way to the exposed and icy slopes of Mt. Rainier, some 100 miles away and 10,000 feet higher. Instead of down coats and climbing boots, this crew was equipped with Carharts and work boots. No need for ice axe and crampons, when shackles, tie downs and cargo nets were needed. Working man’s hard hats would be required, not climbing helmets. The job for this 14 hour day was to top off a three year reconstruction job at Camp Muir, high camp for the southern climbing routes on Mt. Rainier. The day was full of promise, only slightly tinted by the specter of impending hazardous and hard work.

Camp Muir, way station over the decades for thousands, had gotten itself a face lift. Several years of planning and months of on-the-ground work had delivered significant improvements to this rag-tag village in the sky. Instead of the noisy, messy, dank hovels that served as the public shelter, cook shack and privy, newly rebuilt structures had revitalized those spaces with rustic allure and stability.

Camp Muir has housed the adventurous and the scientific for 86 years. It is strategically placed at 10,000 feet, some 4,600 feet above Paradise Lodge yet 4,000 feet below the summit. Named after celebrated wilderness sage John Muir, this narrow ridgeline between the Nisqually and Cowlitz Glaciers provides a sanctuary for the weary on stable ground, despite being fully exposed to the elements.

The Guide Shelter was built in 1916 and is the oldest rock structure in the Park. 1921 brought the construction of the Public Shelter, then the erection of the toilet by CCC workers in1936. All were failing and in dire need of reconstruction. Along came Ellen Gage and her crew of historians at the Park. Meetings were held, planning took place and eventually Sahale Construction won the bid for the high elevation work project.

As the truck bounced its way down past Tacoma and on through the endless strip of neon and traffic lights that defines Spanaway and Parkland, the sun began to lighten the sky. The early morning chatter of working people picks up. Behind the wheel is Aaron Nelson, young, confident and seemingly ready to take on the day. Filling up the back seat are Steve Howell, Marty Walz.and Keith Jellerson. Steve and Brian are regular employees of Sahale, but Keith, who runs his own business, is just along for the day.

Seated in the middle front is Carroll Vogel. Carroll is the Principal Manager, team guidance counselor and quiet inspiration behind the bridges, trails and special back country projects that Sahale has designed, fabricated and erected in difficult landscapes throughout the country. As with most people who manage complex projects, I expect his mind is preoccupied with the many details and arrangements that have to fall into place to make this day a success. Or maybe he is replaying the previous night’s loss to the Angels or thinking about his kids.

The road winds its way out of suburban sprawl into more scenic farmsteads and intersection businesses. The trees get taller and more tightly packed and soon we are approaching the gateway cities to Mt. Rainier National Park. These small towns seem relatively prosperous despite the dramatic flooding that had closed down the Park for an historic period of time just months previously.

Along the way, we get an occasional glimpse of THE MOUNTAIN, which is cloud free and glistening. Though unspoken, the work crew appears to be elevated by this sight, since bad weather in mountainous terrain makes for a very long workday. This is building to be a pristine work day in spectacular terrain, coming near the end of a long, wet summer that is almost history.

Adding to the buzz in the cab is the upcoming opportunity to spend the day working with Anthony Reese, legendary Cascade Mountain helicopter pilot. Tony is 71, in recovery from his first serious crash in 30 years of flying last spring, and the only person that Carroll and his crew trust to fly the tricky slopes of Mt. Rainier. Multiple trips loaded with both humans and unwieldy cargo are involved and no one wants to toss the dice on a pilot they didn’t know. Tony has a reputation with all of the regional National Forests and Parks as the person of choice for smaller, complicated lifts and deliveries in and around the remote traces of the Cascades and Olympics.

The truck rounds a bend and pulls into Ricksecker Point, a closed off viewpoint several miles below Paradise. Directly in front of us is the expansive west face of Mt. Rainier which starts low and continues upward over tier after dramatic tier until the summit snowfield of Rainier trails off into the heavens. Our destination for the day is up and out of sight to southeast over Mazama Ridge and atop the Muir snowfield.

We are greeted by a man dressed in a flight helmet, orange jumpsuit and expansive smile. Rich Lietner is the Park Service ‘ground man’ for the day for their share of loads being flown back and forth to Camp Muir. Rich is a man of multiple talents, on the one hand having earned a Doctorate and on the other making himself an expert on high elevation toilets. Some of the Park’s earlier loads that day have been sealed barrels of semi-decomposed human waste. Camp Muir and the higher camp on Ingraham Flats produce a monumental amount of excrement, much of which, in previous years, worked its toxic way into down glacier watersheds. Now, most of it is collected and hauled offsite, paid for, in part, by the $40.00 climbing permit required to ascend Rainier.

Rich is the perfect person for the job. Highly competent, broadly educated, he is a jack-of –all mountain trades sort of Park Service seasonal employee. He is the kind of person that the previous administration felt compelled to eliminate and replace with task specific contractors several years previous. An outcry from Park Administrators and worker organizations thankfully nipped that in the bud before a bad idea became reality.

Pretty soon, the drone of a small helicopter increases in intensity, and approaching, off to the east, is our workhorse for the day. The four passenger Hughes 500 helicopter swoops in over the parking lot from on high, gently lays down another barrel, and flies off for its last load for the Park. Carroll’s crew holds back until the humming of the engine fades then starts setting up for their end of the work day. The plan is for Carroll, Eric, Keith and I to fly up to Muir for the day and package up the loads of left-over construction debris, leaving Brian and Steve at the parking lot to manage things as they are dropped off.

Back comes Tony 15 minutes later and gingerly sets the helicopter down as if it were a leaf off a tree in late fall. He approaches the waiting group with the type of confidence mixed with humility that people of substance exude later in life. Carroll stops the proceedings and presents Tony with a dedicated photograph acknowledging their work from the summer before. Neither man knows quite what to say, but the measured deference and affection between the two men is obvious. Since no politicians are present, the formalities are over in short order – it’s time to get down to the business at hand.

Tony gathers us all together and talks about the conventions and safety needs we’ll all have to honor when working around the machine. He semi-jokingly tells the group to treat the helicopter ‘as if it were trying to kill you’. This means to assume nothing, follow established protocols and don’t be stupid. Once said, he loads up our first human occupants and prepares to disembark. One of his biggest concerns is flying the chopper in tight spaces and thin air around Camp Muir, where there are dozens of people already gathered for their trips up and down Mt. Rainier. We’ll have to work with care and efficiency to set-up our loads safely since most of them will not be taken from the helipad but from around the reconstruction sites and groupings of people.

Depending on the helicopter’s level of fuel, we’ll have to gauge the size of our loads to about 500 pounds a carry. Each load will have to be netted up with a swivel clamp on top so that Tony can electronically release them at the parking lot below. The hazards for the pilot, and for all of us for that matter, are not only the lean air that reduces the effectiveness of the rotor blades, but unpredictable updrafts and downdrafts, intensely reflected sun off the glaciers, and ungainly loads that might throw the helicopter off balance. An extra added attraction will be rotor wash from the hovering helicopter which will kick up plumes of volcanic pumice and anything else not tied down.

Within an hour, Tony begins sweeping loads off the mountain. Each trip is called a ‘turn’ and represents a round trip. Each load is different enough that aerobatics and finesse are vital on each turn. Radio communications and hand signals keep all parties connected but in the end it is the skill of the pilot that kept the process safely flowing.

To our advantage on this day is the friendly weather at Camp Muir. It is mostly calm and surprisingly balmy. The views off in every direction are amplified by residual moisture in the air. Camp Muir itself is alive with climbing groups and guides, day hikers, Park service workers and us. In contrast, we are surrounded by absolute quiet punctuated only by the roar of the Hughes sweeping in and out every 20 minutes or so and the ‘Mountain’ itself delivering occasional salvos of rock and ice fall.

The reconstruction of three of the primary buildings at Muir is inspired. The exteriors have been rebuilt to reflect the design and look of the original buildings. Rock extrusions along the rooflines called crenellations mimic the sharp rock outcropping nearby. The exterior of each building is dressed in locally collected rock and just below roof line are cantilevered timbers that act as roof joists on the interior and ornamentation on the outside. The interiors of each building have been efficiently redesigned to maximize space, storage and insulation needs. Door frames have been moved to face warmer southern exposure and are adorned with attractive and practical iron mongery. Even tubular sky lights have been installed to lighten interiors and concrete spread on the roofs for durability and water proofing.

One trip leads to another until it is time for Tony to gas up. We fuel ourselves with lunch and enjoy the sustained silence for awhile. Off on the horizon are Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens puffing away. All of the ridgelines and watersheds that connect them are distinct on this clear day. Over our shoulder are groups of climbers snaking their way up and down the hillside, their routes clearly defined in the snowfields. We lay back as silent observers, enjoying the show.
After freighting down 20 loads and 10,000 lbs. of debris, the work day is drawing nigh. As we pull away, we are encouraged by the now more natural and uncluttered look of the place. This, of course, will be taken for granted by subsequent legions of visitors to Muir. This is as should be – come in, do the job, and leave no trace. For us, the flight down is as dreamy as this world of ice and snow. We buckle everything down and head out for our head bobbing, joke filled commute back to the city.

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