Jay Rawe Doesn’t Like Being Grounded

27 Feb

Professional BASE jumper Miles Daisher needed a new roof on his house in Twin Falls, Idaho. So Daisher, who regularly teaches BASE-jumping courses, posted a trade offer online: help install his roofing and he’d teach a qualified person how to BASE jump. Which is how, in 2013, a 23-year-old skydiver from Florida named Jay Rawe and two friends ended up piling into a three-seater pickup truck and driving across the country in 36 hours from Florida to Idaho to learn how to BASE jump. 

“I recall Jay as being very eager, with big eyes and a thirst for learning and going big,” says Daisher. The three guys worked for a couple of weeks on Daisher’s house, and in exchange, he coached them at Twin Falls’ Perrine Bridge, one of the few structures you can legally BASE jump from in the United States. “I was hooked right away,” says Rawe.

After that, Rawe moved to Draper, Utah, where he worked as a bartender at a steak restaurant and continued to BASE jump whenever he could. A year later, on March 24, 2014, Rawe, then 25, and his friend Austin Carey, then 23, showed up at the Perrine Bridge. After two flawless jumps, they decided to try something different: a tandem jump, a move that’s not uncommon in BASE jumping.

Carey stood on the edge of the bridge, and Rawe climbed onto his friend’s shoulders. But then, as they leaned forward, Carey’s parachute wrapped around Rawe’s leg, tangling their chutes. Both men fell 480 feet, hitting the ground below. In a video of the accident captured by their friends standing on the bridge, all you can hear are loud gasps and the words “Oh my God.”

When Rawe was a kid in Bradenton, Florida, anytime he went missing, his teachers would say, “Look up.” He was usually hanging from the monkey bars. “He was always on top of something,” says Jay’s mom, Teresa. “When he was three, he climbed on top of the refrigerator.”

She enrolled him in gymnastics so he’d learn to fall gracefully. Later he wrestled, skateboarded, and had dreams of becoming a Hollywood stuntman. “I’ve always had an inclination to do flips and jump off things,” says Rawe, who’s lean and clean-cut, with a square jaw, friendly blue-gray eyes, and neatly cropped brown hair.

(Courtesy Teresa Rawe)

At 21, he learned to skydive at a popular drop zone in Zephyrhills, Florida, an hour and a half from where he grew up. “I started researching BASE jumping and found out that you had to be a skydiver first,” Rawe says. “I always wanted to fly, and the safest way to do that would be with a parachute. But you have to have 200 skydives before anyone will even teach you to BASE.”

His mom admits she was constantly nervous about her son’s level of risk-taking, especially once he learned how to BASE jump. “He wouldn’t tell me until after he landed that he was climbing on top of a tower,” says Teresa. “He’d take pictures of sunrises and text me afterward to say, ‘Look what I saw today.’ I voiced my opinion that it was unsafe, but there’s only so much you can do.”

After hundreds of successful skydives and then a year of BASE jumping with instruction from Daisher, Rawe made that one major mistake. Usually, that’s all it takes. That dual jump off the Perrine Bridge in 2014 could have killed both him and Carey, but instead it broke both of the young men’s backs.

It was a miracle he wasn’t paralyzed. Rawe suffered a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra—basically a severe compression of his spinal cord—and underwent surgery that night. He spent a week in the hospital in Idaho, then months in a rehabilitation center in Florida. He had severe nerve damage, and doctors weren’t sure if he’d ever retain full movement. “I tried to stay positive. I never once had bad thoughts,” Rawe says. “Doctors told me, ‘You might never walk again. You have to accept this as your new life.’ Inside, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to be jumping again.’ I was very confident in my ability.” After months in rehab, Rawe was back on his feet, walking with a cane.

Seven months after the accident, Rawe actually did do another BASE jump, off the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. He did a few more jumps and skydives after that, but things had changed. “There was definitely more fear there,” Rawe says. “I think time made the fear bigger.”

Two years after his accident, Rawe was depressed. Despite his attempts to return to BASE jumping, the nerve damage in his left leg and his spinal injury were just too much. He couldn’t really do the things he was used to doing—skydiving, snowboarding, and riding his bike were challenging, to say the least. He was back home living with his mom in Florida, and his life felt stalled. “He wasn’t able to do anything exhilarating and challenging, and his quality of life wasn’t the same,” says Teresa.  

So when Rawe and his girlfriend set out on a cross-country drive in the winter of 2016, Teresa suggested they stop in Breckenridge, Colorado, and visit the town’s adaptive-sports facility, the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. There, Rawe learned to use a sitski, a device that enables those with debilitating injuries to sit in a bucket-like seat and slide down snow on a single ski, using outriggers on your arms for balance. Rawe had learned to snowboard as a kid on occasional family trips to the mountains, but the sitski was an entirely new beast. “I was back on the bunny hill,” he recalls.

Rawe took more lessons that winter in Utah at Wasatch Adaptive Sports in Snowbird and the National Ability Center in Park City, spending a total of eight days that season in a sitski. Not bad for a guy who lived in Florida. He eventually applied for a grant from the High Fives Foundation, an organization based in Truckee, California, that helps people with life-altering injuries, which covered the cost of his physical therapy. He saved money for a year to buy his own sitski, which cost about $5,000.

In November 2017, Rawe moved to Lake Tahoe; he wanted a change of pace and he had some friends there. That winter he quickly went from skiing groomers at Squaw Valley to venturing into the terrain park on his sitski. “I rode over the little boxes and rails and slowly progressed to the jumps,” he says. He talked to veteran adaptive skier Bill Bowness, who works as an instructor at Achieve Tahoe, the area’s adaptive-sports program. Bowness offered him tips on landing and balancing his sitski. “I was going over little side jumps and wrecking,” Rawe says. “Bill told me, ‘Don’t lean forward. Whatever direction you’re leaning is the way you’re going to go.’”

At the end of last winter, Rawe met another sitskier in the park at Squaw Valley, a 26-year-old named Trevor Kennison, who broke his back snowboarding in the backcountry of Vail, Colorado, in 2014. The two pushed each other to learn new things. “It’s rare to see another sitskier in the park,” Kennison says. “There’s not many people who do what Jay and I are trying to do, and his stoke level was high.”

By sitski standards, Rawe’s moves were groundbreaking. He progressed gradually, from regular airs to shifties, then 180s, then a quarterpipe trick he calls a pole-plant alley-oop, a 180 where he spins uphill. He was hitting cliffs on big-mountain lines, and in spring 2018, he stuck his first backflip off a jump in the park. In the process, he skied about 80 days and broke 11 skis (not the pricey bucket-seat contraption but its single ski, which he’d replace with hand-me-downs from friends). 

Canadian Josh Dueck became the first sitskier to throw a backflip, in 2012. “A lot of people are like, ‘I want to do that.’ Then they get out there and realize how hard it is,” says Dueck. “It’s exhausting.” For years there’s been ski racing for adaptive skiers but little in the way of freeride programs. Dueck teaches a freeride adaptive camp through Canada’s Live It Love It Foundation, but beyond that, there’s not much in the way of organized big-mountain or park-and-pipe skiing for adaptive riders. The X Games introduced an adaptive ski-cross event, called Mono Skier X, in 2007, but it hasn’t taken place in several years due to a lack of potenital participants.

(Courtesy Jay Rawe)

But now there seems to be a growing demand for competitions among rising adaptive freeriders like Rawe and others, who operate on their own but could benefit from an organized program. There’s Kennison, who has considered entering Freeride World Tour qualifier events. Then there’s a skier named Rob Enigl, who’s doing first sitski descents around Montana, and a Marine sergeant named Trey Humphrey, who lost his right leg after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan and is now doing sitski backflips into foam pits. 

Rawe would like to see more of this progression among adaptive athletes. He and Achieve Tahoe instructor Keagan Buffington have an idea for a first-of-its-kind adaptive freeride festival, where skiers with varying disabilities could get together and shred big-mountain terrain or throw tricks in the park or pipe. Maybe it’d be a competition, maybe a clinic, or just a gathering of new friends. “We thought, Let’s get a bunch of the best sitskiers who want to ride steep terrain together and see where this goes,” says Rawe.

Achieve Tahoe’s executive director, Haakon Lang-Ree, says the organization is open to the idea of hosting an event like this, but a date hasn’t been nailed down (though it could happen as early as next winter). “We’re not going to have 12 people throwing backflips. These are great ideas and dreams, but this type of riding isn’t for everyone,” says Lang-Ree. “But the more models you have, the more people will try new things and look at more terrain. Once you have mastery of the mono-ski, you’re about as limitless as anyone standing up on two skis.”

As for Rawe, he’s still working on his own moves. “The hardest part is working up the nerve to hit a jump for the first time,” he says. “It’s this big unknown, but then you do it and you’re fine, and you know: I can do this. All outcomes are possible.”

How to Grow an Adventurous Family

1 Sep

In June 2011, with a nine-month-old and a two-year-old in tow, photographer and writer Somira Sao and her husband, James Burwick, a mountain guide, professional skipper, and marine consultant, set sail aboard their 40-foot carbon-fiber racing boat Anasazi Girl to cross the Atlantic from Maine to France. They did it—and then kept on going, adding two more members to their family as they sailed around the world over the next six years.

Sao had fled Cambodia as a two-year-old with her family in 1979, during the Khmer Rouge regime, and eventually settled in Maine. She says she wants their children—Tormentina, ten, Raivo, seven, Pearl, five, and Tarzan, two—to see that “the world isn’t so big after all.” Aside from being dismasted by a rogue wave off the coast of Chile during one particularly stormy passage, their years at sea were filled with invaluable family time. They completed their circumnavigation of the globe in May 2017.

This June, the family relaunched Anasazi Girl in the Caribbean. Sao, who is expecting their fifth child in December, says they are considering selling the boat and switching to a catamaran to sail Polynesian style—just a paper chart, the stars, and a few simple navigational tools. She spoke with Outside by phone from a dock on Grenada.

“When we got pregnant, we said to each other, ‘Let’s keep the adventure going. Let’s not settle down.’ After I gave birth, I did not have that nesting feeling. This traveling, changeable lifestyle with the kids became a natural extension of how we were already living.

Before our Atlantic crossing in 2011, we had never even gone on a day sail with the kids. We figured that if everyone was miserable, we could pull into port in Canada. We had an amazing trip—21 days nonstop to France—and realized that this lifestyle was much better than living in a van. All of a sudden, we were eating baguettes and Camembert. No looking for hotels, no searching for a place to camp.

I wouldn’t encourage novice sailors with no experience to go sailing with their kids, but I do feel like parents should be able to do what their skill and comfort level allow. James had 32 years of experience as a professional captain and a solo circumnavigation under his belt. I felt very familiar with the boat from helping him prep for his solo voyages. We didn’t see it as endangering our family.

The kids have learned adaptability, understanding, problem-solving, and risk management. They know what it takes to accomplish a really big project. They have a broad knowledge of the world and many different cultures. We involve them in every step of the voyage—making lists, maintaining the boat, working on the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, sails, lines, and rigging, using navigation instruments, provisioning, and prepping safety gear. They have an understanding of limited resources, that fresh water, power, fuel, and food are not available endlessly at sea. What they don’t have is a set idea of what’s expected in life. A lot of kids grow up with this assumption that you’re going to go to school, go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, raise them, and then retire.

In 2014, on day 21 of a passage from New Zealand to France, a gigantic rogue wave knocked us down and broke our mast in three places. Nobody was hurt, but we were stressed. We stayed calm and did not panic. We were 13 gallons short of diesel fuel to make it into port. After about 48 hours, a Chilean navy ship picked us up, and the captain offered to tow the boat into Puerto Williams, so we didn’t have to abandon ship.

When we’re on our boat, we’re not just on a two-week vacation visiting a foreign country. We’re actually living in different places around the world together, making long-term friendships beyond what a short trip can allow. I wouldn’t trade any of it—not even the experience of getting dismasted.

The longest passage we’ve done is 32 days, from the Cape Verde islands across the equator to South Africa. The kids make a lot of art, do origami, play games. We read books out loud and watch movies. It’s a different type of reality when we’re at sea. All that stimulation from land is gone, and you are left with the basics of nature—sunrise, sunset, subtle changes in light, clouds, and sky. They notice the changes in wind, sea, all the elements.

Many people we’ve met while sailing and traveling have become our kids’ teachers: biologists, engineers, doctors, naval architects, professional sailors, professional athletes, sailmakers, filmmakers, musicians, actors, artists. These world-class leaders and innovators are who we want our children to learn from.

Making a big passage may seem overwhelming to some, but for our kids, these seemingly hard problems are not that difficult to accomplish. They’ve learned that whatever you want to do, it’s possible to break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces to accomplish the big goal.

We’re looking for clean air, clean water, clean dirt. A lot of the voyages that we did, especially in the Southern Ocean, allowed us to be in very remote and wild places that people never get to see, and to show the kids that these untouched places still exist.

Each port we’re in, we say, ‘OK, is this working for the family?’ If not, then we make a change.

Anasazi Girl is a boat designed for one person, so it’s always too small. But you know what? When it’s nice out, it’s fine. We live mostly outside. With boat life, there’s a closeness that I don’t think most families who live on land ever experience.

You never know what your family’s adventure fit could be. There are no rules. It’s all about making the choice to try something different from the norm.

Right now we don’t have the financial security of having a house or a big savings fund for college. In my mind, that’s not really investing in a child’s future. I believe the time we invest in our kids now is what is important.”

Whitney Has Turned Into an Overcrowded Catastrophe

27 Jul

At 3 a.m. on June 10, my brother-in-law Dan and I started walking uphill from the Whitney Portal trailhead. Our goal: the top of California’s 14,494-foot Mount Whitney, three hours north of Los Angeles, at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. It’s the tallest peak in the lower 48, and the grueling 11-mile hike gains more than 6,000 vertical feet on its way to the summit. I’d scored a hard-to-get permit through the Forest Service’s online lottery in March, paid my $15, and spent the past few months training with long runs and high-elevation hikes. For years I’ve wanted to stand on that peak, and finally the pieces were coming together.

I’d read online that the trail wasn’t entirely melted out and that the steep section of the hike known as the Chute, at about 12,500 feet, was still covered in snow and ice. Crampons and ice axes were required to ascend it. I’m not a veteran mountaineer, but I’ve climbed a dozen or so 14ers. I had the necessary gear and experience using it.

It didn’t take long to realize, though, how significantly unprepared other hikers on the mountain were. While picking up our permit at the ranger’s station the day before the hike, I overheard a couple chatting with a ranger. “You need crampons and ice axes and to know how to use them,” the ranger said. “We do?” the guy asked. “Where can we get some?”

After a couple hours on the trail, a brilliant sunrise lit up the towering granite walls that make up the eastern Sierra Nevada. Soon, we came across a woman in her twenties from Los Angeles. She’d slipped in a stream crossing and banged her knee. Her friends were way ahead of her. Dan wrapped her knee in a bandage, and the three of us trudged on together. She said they’d driven up from sea level for the weekend and had rented ice axes and crampons. But they had never used either before.

We came upon snow six miles in around 7:30 a.m. Dan and I stopped to eat, hydrate, and ready our crampons, helmets, and ice axes to ascend the Chute. To reach it, we first had to traverse a snowfield. Several other people were also gearing up, and a few of them looked completely ill-equipped for the conditions. I saw a guy wearing shorts and trail running shoes start making his way onto the snow and a woman with a tag still on her ice ax holding it backward and in the wrong hand while traversing. (You’re supposed to carry an ice ax in your uphill hand.) Several people didn’t have crampons, and others were using trekking poles instead of an ice ax. It felt as if everyone had raided an REI and landed here, posing as mountaineers.

Several hikers were injured in a fall on the Chute section of Mount Whitney on June 10 (Courtesy Inyo SAR)
(Courtesy Inyo SAR)
(Courtesy Inyo SAR)

As we inched closer to the bottom of the Chute, I looked up and watched in horror as three hikers toppled uncontrollably head over heels hundreds of feet down the 30-degree, ice-covered slope, none able to self-arrest. I later learned that one hiker, who wasn’t equipped with crampons or an ice ax, had slipped and taken out several others below her. That domino fall apparently spooked another woman, who fell separately moments afterward and tumbled down into rocks jutting out from the snow near the bottom of the Chute. She suffered the worst injuries—major head trauma and a possible pelvic injury. When we arrived at the scene minutes later, fellow hikers were shouting assessments: One person had a broken arm, another was unconscious and bleeding badly.

A guy nearby yelled, “Do they have a pulse? Check their pulse.”

“Yes, there’s a pulse,” a hiker shouted back.

As people tended to the injuries, Dan handed off his first-aid kit, and the two of us elected to head down the mountain to call for help. The person with the head injury would require a helicopter evacuation. We soon encountered a hiker with a satellite messenger beacon and later ran into a volunteer search and rescue member on his way in to assist with the rescue.

Nearing the trailhead a couple hours later, we ran into a group of muscular guys with huge backpacks. “Do you have spikes you want to sell?” one asked. He was attempting to buy crampons on his way up. I felt like telling him to turn around right then, but instead I just told him, no, I wasn’t selling my crampons.

In the end, the rescue, which took many hours, required 11 volunteer SAR members and a California Highway Patrol helicopter flying in dicey high-wind conditions. I later spoke with two hikers who were among the first responders and saw the incident unfold up close. They said five people fell in a matter of minutes. The hikers I spoke with, who asked not to be named, helped stabilize the injured with aid from a Coast Guard medic and a physical therapist who also happened upon the incident, in addition to countless other hikers who donated food, water, first-aid supplies, and spare clothing.

They sat vigil for hours, wrapping the victims in sleeping bags and checking their vitals. Two of the injured people were transported by helicopter and taken to the nearest trauma center. I reached out to the two most injured victims through one of the first responders but didn’t get a response. The sheriff’s office can’t share names or contact information of the injured for privacy concerns. But I was told by one of the first responders that both patients have since been released from the hospital and are recovering.

On the drive home from Whitney that day, I started to wonder: Are accidents like the one I witnessed a fluke, or are they a regular occurrence because people with minimal experience are taking weekend jaunts to 14,500 feet?

A few days later, I called some friends who’d spent time on Whitney. One, who works in an outdoor gear shop, said he won’t go near the mountain anymore because it’s such a cluster of catastrophe. Another, who skied Whitney a number of years ago, said she passed a dead body, wrapped and awaiting transport, on her way down the mountain; a woman had died from a fall while descending an icy section of terrain. “Try skiing after seeing that,” my friend said.

There’s no database recording fatalities on the mountain, but they’re hardly infrequent. In May of this year, a 29-year-old man was killed after a 2,000-foot fall while solo climbing Whitney’s more technical Mountaineer’s Route. Two other hikers spotted his body on their descent.

Carma Roper, the public information officer at the Inyo County Search and Rescue office that serves Whitney, told me that accident rates jump up and down. Over the past five years, they’ve performed between six and 20 rescues a year within the Whitney Basin. She said emergency calls ramp up in late spring and early summer, when climbers arrive in droves, and that snow travel and glissading are common causes of the more serious or deadly accidents.

The Forest Service says it’s seeing a steady increase in the number of permit applications, and because of that, just 33 percent of those who want a Whitney permit get one. Only 100 people per day are permitted for day hikes, plus 60 more for overnight backpacking trips. Often, a ranger told me, since folks have put in the effort and had the luck to score a permit, they have an overly committed attitude about reaching the summit.

In July or August, a strong-willed person with solid fitness and no altitude sickness could pull off the long hike up the Mount Whitney Trail. But in a snow-covered May or June, certain sections are life threatening without proper mountaineering skills and equipment. An estimated 20 percent of hikers aiming for Whitney’s summit don’t make it to the top.

“I’ve seen people hiking up there who had no business being there,” Roper says. “They’re getting sick and continuing to push themselves. These accidents are hardly isolated incidents. People are looking to get that great selfie from the top of Whitney.”

It’s not that the warnings aren’t out there. On a well-used forum called WhitneyZone, posts about what can go wrong on the mountain include group separation, darkness, lightning, dehydration, altitude sickness, injury, and rescue. Pages with tips on safe mountaineering warn climbers that YouTube is not a substitute for personal instruction and offer links to guide services, mountaineering courses, and accident reports. Before you even leave the Whitney Portal trailhead, there’s a huge photo of a rescue underway that reads: “Don’t let this happen to you!”

“You can educate all you want, but people spent their $15, got their permit, now they want to go play,” says Bill Kirk, a Southern California resident who has summited Whitney seven times and runs a Mount Whitney hiking blog. “There’s no Plan B up there. People want to summit no matter what. I’ve seen hikers at the top of Trail Crest, two miles from the summit, and they’re completely out of water and they’re still going forward.”

Ryan Huetter, the head guide with Sierra Mountain Center, a local outfitter that guides clients on the more technical routes on Whitney, says he’s been involved in many rescues of troubled hikers he’s encountered on the mountain and its neighboring peaks, including two fatalities in the past three years.

“People are getting lost. They’re looking incredibly sketchy using ice ax and crampons,’” Huetter says. “Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48. It should be treated as a culmination climb, not as your very first peak.”

The guidebooks, the forums, the rangers—they’ll all tell you this climb is hard and can be dangerous. But when you see your friend’s Instagram photo from the summit, you think: I can do that, too.

Mount Whitney isn’t the only U.S. peak with these issues. While some think iconic high points like Denali or glaciated peaks like Mount Rainer are the most dangerous to climb, more and more accidents are happening on far less technical mountains.

In Utah, the National Park Service reported a 67 percent increase in rescues within the state’s national parks between 2014 and 2017. In Colorado, 14,137-foot Capitol Peak, one of the state’s harder 14ers to climb and about four hours west of Denver, near Aspen, claimed the lives of five people within a six-week span in 2017, compared to four deaths over the previous 14 years.

Most of the deaths on Capitol Peak were caused by climbers getting off the route, intentionally or accidentally, and falling in loose rock above high-consequence terrain. A forthcoming analysis on the Capitol Peak fatalities, being published this August in the American Alpine Club’s annual Accidents in North American Climbing, offers this: “Capitol Peak is not a beginner climb and should not be attempted unless the climber has extensive Class 4 mountaineering experience. Climbers should build their capability patiently, creating a solid foundation of experience.”

“There are generally two kinds of peaks that have a lot of trouble,” says Dougald MacDonald, executive editor of the American Alpine Club. “One are technically difficult peaks, like Rainier, Denali, Grand Teton, where you have bad weather, crevasses, and climbing accidents where bad things happen or people make mistakes.”

The other kind? “There’s this category of less technical mountains that attract hordes of people: Whitney, Shasta, Hood, the Colorado 14ers, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington,” MacDonald continues. “Most of those accidents are people falling on snow and not being able to stop themselves. On Whitney, people seem to get in over their heads. They get exhausted, they get trapped by bad weather, they stumble and fall.”

In response to the accidents on Capitol Peak, the National Forest Service, the local Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, and the nonprofit Mountain Rescue Aspen teamed up to create a coalition that launched this summer with classroom workshops and outdoor skills courses to educate climbers on mountain safety. “We want people to build up their experience,” says Justin Hood, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen. “Go with a guide service or learn mountaineering skills on a peak where, if you slip, there are not crazy consequences.”

Hood says there’s been some debate if the Forest Service should add more route-finding and warning signage on mountains like Capitol Peak. But do we really need more billboards telling people that what they’re about to do is dangerous or provide hikers a dotted line to the summit? That’s not why people head into the mountains.

mt whitney
The author approaching the Chute section of Mount Whitney. (Courtesy Megan Michelson)

While we can’t tell people to stop posting smiling selfies from 14,000 feet, we can encourage each other to start posting more photos of the day we turned around and didn’t summit—which is what I did after my Whitney attempt.

Magazines like this one and writers like me are also part of the problem. For every story published on the six iconic peaks you need to climb before you die (literally a story I’ve written for this magazine), should there also be an asterisk warning readers that with poor decision-making or bad lack, you could actually die in the process of reaching those summits? Nobody wants to read that, trust me.

So, what’s the solution? Rangers don’t have time to evaluate applications and experience levels, and no one has the right to turn someone away from their wilderness objectives. The mountains should be open to everyone.

“I don’t have the answers,” Roper, from the local SAR, told me. “I’d hate to deter people from going outside and recreating. I don’t like leading with a horrific narrative of people getting hurt. I’d rather lead with public education, teaching people what they can do to be safe.”

Education is key. Chamonix, France, has set a good example of what public education in mountaineering skills can do for safety records. Since 2006, the town’s mountain rescue operation, La Chamoniarde, has offered one-day mountaineering safety courses to teach skills like glacier travel and crevasse rescue. While accidents still happen amid a growing number of aspiring alpinists, the education certainly hasn’t hurt.

But we also need to hammer home the message that 14,000 feet is serious business. Huetter, the Whitney climbing guide, said, “If you go to Mount Rainier, they don’t pull any punches—they’re very forthright about the dangers and conditions. It can scare people away. Maybe we need more of that on Mount Whitney.”

The solution, if there even is one, is self-regulation. It’s up to us to take ourselves out if we’re not up for the challenge. Sign up for a course; hike smaller, easier peaks first. And when you’re ready, hire a guide, go with a mentor, study the conditions and your route, have the right gear, and most important, know it’s always okay to turn around.

As for me, I’m not sure I need to return to Mount Whitney. I’m enchanted by the Sierra, but after the day I had on Whitney, I no longer feel the need to top out on the highest point. It’s too crazy up there. I think I’ll go climb some lesser-known, lower-elevation peaks nearby instead.

The Rabblerousing Queen of Grand Canyon Rafting

24 May

Ask anyone who’s been around Grand Canyon for a while about Georgie White Clark and they’ll have a story to tell you. Retired river historian Roy Webb remembers meeting Clark at Lees Ferry in 1986. She was 76 at the time. “There was this massive rubber boat on the ramp, a giant pile of ropes and rubber. This lady popped up out of the back and said, ‘What are you looking at?’” Webb says.

Clark was famous for pioneering commercial rafting in Grand Canyon in the 1940s and being among the first to use inflatable rubber boats. But she was also controversial—Clark went on TV to pitch her inexpensive, no-frills trips down the biggest whitewater in America, which brought in mass tourism like the canyon had never seen before.

“There was this tension between people who felt like her groups were too large and those who wanted to keep it small and intimate,” says Brian Merrill, CEO of Western River Expeditions, a Grand Canyon outfitter since 1961. “Some people saw her as revolutionary, and others didn’t like what she was doing at all.”

In the 1970s, Clark’s trips cost $300 for a ten-day journey, while other outfitters were charging guests three times that price. In total, Clark led more than 12,000 people down the river during her 45-year career. “In those days, the Grand Canyon was an elite place where manly men went down in boats,” Webb says. “People didn’t like that Georgie introduced mass tourism and low-cost river running. But she introduced so many people to what had been an exclusive adventure.”

Clark was born in Oklahoma in 1910 and grew up in Denver. She married and divorced twice; in 1944, her 15-year-old daughter, Sommona Rose, was killed in a bicycle accident while they were riding together in California. Many say it was the grief of losing her daughter that drove Clark to Grand Canyon. That, and the fact that her friend Harry Aleson invited her there. In 1945, the duo swam 60 miles of the Colorado River in life jackets, toting a backpack with instant coffee and dehydrated soup, for four days on the river.

The next year, Clark and Aleson hiked in and floated the river in an Army Air Corp rescue raft. By 1947, she brought her first paid clients down the river. Clark launched her own company, Georgie’s Royal River Rats, with army surplus rubber rafts.

In the early 1950s, Clark used ropes to lash three rubber rafts together, with a motor on the end, to create a sturdier ride. They became known as G-Rigs; the “G” stood for Georgie. She’d point her flotilla straight into the rapids, squat in the back, and hope for the best. “People were thrown off her boats all the time,” Webb says. Clark later hired Los Angeles firefighters as guides, because they’d work for free and had good safety training.

“The difference between me and the men was I plowed through the rapids while the guys carried their boats around the rough water,” Clark once said.

There was nothing royal about her trips. For dinner, Clark would put canned food into a bucket of hot water so the labels would fall off. Guests would grab a can and get whatever was inside—ham, corn, lima beans. If people complained about the food, her response was always, “Did you come to eat or did you come to see the canyon?”

On the river, Clark famously wore a leopard-print leotard and lived on tomatoes, cheese, and Coors beer. When the National Park Service insisted she feed her clients salad, Clark started serving plain lettuce. “Nobody cared about gourmet meals,” says Roz Jirge, who worked with Clark for 12 years. “They were there for an adventure. But it was definitely very Spartan.”

At the end of the trip, Clark would line up her clients, whack them in the butt with a paddle, dump mud on them, and hand them blackberry brandy. They’d earn a pin, declaring them a Royal River Rat. “It was a badge of honor to complete one of her trips,” Webb says.

“She was definitely her own person, doing what she wanted to do,” says Clark’s friend Sue Holladay, co-founder of Holladay River Expeditions. “Here was this woman, running her own business, doing the things men were doing. She stood for what she believed in.”

Clark ran the river for the last time just before her 80th birthday. At her birthday party that year, hundreds of people showed up to celebrate at Hatch River Expeditions’ metal warehouse. A band played, and there was a cake in the shape of her boat. Clark wore the same red cape she’d worn on countless other trips.

Soon after, Clark was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She refused treatment and made arrangements to sell the contract from her company to Western River Expeditions. “Her main ambition in life was to keep running that river,” Jirge says.

Clark died in 1992 at the age of 81. Soon after, Jirge began the process of trying to get a rapid named after her friend. Nearly a decade later, in 2001, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed the name of a spunky little rapid at mile 24 to Georgie.