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Mr Quarter to Two: Life and Death with Mother Nature’s Misfits

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Mr Quarter-to-Two: Life and Death with Mother Nature’s Misfits explores, through character sketches, the eccentric personalities of several unique individuals that indulge in a variety of extreme pursuits—mostly outdoor adventure sports such as rock climbing, mountaineering and over-the-edge whitewater boating. In a striking parallel the book also traces a similarity between traditional adventuring and a young man’s fascination with eco-terrorism. The focus is not just what was accomplished by these individuals, but what drove them to “put it on the line” and step out of the normal routine of life.

The book’s underlying theme is ultimate human values. Adventurers play with the fine line between Life and Death. In making the choices that define this line, they call upon intensely personal aesthetic values that are then given the ultimate testing. Both authors, Robert H. Miller and Rusty Baillie,
were protagonists in their stories and while it may seem that their extreme experiences isolate them, their sharing here has the flavor of universal humanistic values.

The essays are not all philosophical navel-gazing; on the contrary, they are laced with humor, pathos, drama, old-fashioned, compelling story-telling and unimaginable adventure, fully illustrated with 70 photographs. Though technically an anthology, the essays cohere to a larger whole—a story of how we can step outside ourselves and find a fascinating, transcendent, world.

Learning by Dying

Canadian Mt. Everest Expedition, 1982

That night the weather shifted. The Summer Monsoon was finally over and winter started to send its icy fingers probing into the mountains—along with a fine high pressure system. The morning’s blue skies and crisp snow promised the beginning of the clear climbing window we hoped would take us to The Top.

But we had to get moving, before the Jet Stream descended and the winter gales arrived. A large carry party headed for Camp 1, together with a New Zealand party that was sharing our Icefall route (but not the danger of rigging it). Along with Dave Read, Pasang Tenzing and Nima Tshering, I went up into The Traverse to secure some ropes and ladders that had become rickety. This Traverse was the place where our route left the right bank of the glacier and plunged into the heart of the jumbled mass of the Icefall. It was a gloomy, shadowy corridor, with high ice walls overhanging an unstable floor. The Traverse ended at the steepest part of the rock step that caused the glacier to break up so dramatically. This was where the deepest crevasses were and an impressive ladder system led up and through the labyrinth. Our job site was near the top.

As soon as I had set foot on that morning’s snow, I realized that conditions had changed. All night long the glacier, on which we were camped, had creaked and moaned. I was wakened several times by sudden clicks that seemed to come from right under me. The snow was no longer soft and accommodating. Up until now I had not had to wear my steel-spiked crampons, preferring to press out small steps with my rubber soled boots and to glissade back down in fun, sweeping turns. Now, we all strapped crampons on firmly and watched carefully where we methodically set our crampon points.

What we should have been thinking about was the plasticity of the glacial ice. This cold snap had hardened the ice, and made it more brittle. The hardness was blocking what little fluidity the glacier had to flow smoothly over the rock step; while the unrelenting pressure of gravity was building up inside it.

Dave and Nima worked the bottom of the ladders while Pasang and I fixed new anchors above. Later we were to go up and check the avalanche site, re-rigging the buried ropes. I also wanted to ensure that my pack was still in place up there, waiting for me to reclaim it and move it on to Advanced Base, in the Upper Western Cwm.

Photo: Courtesy of Rusty Baillie.

It was fun. Soon Blair joined us. He was our official videogorapher, seconded from the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) to bring our live antics to a waiting public. Young and fit, Blair was a total enthusiast. He had quickly learned to use the fixed ropes and was soon following us up the mountain. He stayed below with Dave, hammering away at snow stakes with a small sledgehammer Speedy, the expedition carpenter, had brought along especially for the task.

Quite soon the New Zealanders passed by. They were on their way down, having completed their carry in record time. Adrian, big brother to our own Alan Burgess, was worried about us working in the Icefall: “Bad place this”, he commented, “You need to wrap it up and get a cup of tea down below”. Another of their team chimed in with, “You have to learn to move fast up here”. I had to work hard to restrain an angry response—after all, he was the son of Ed Hillary, whom I admired greatly. How the hell did he think the ladders he was using so freely got fixed in place! But we were nearly finished anyway. There was just one final guy rope that needed tensioning with a trucker’s hitch.

The first I knew of trouble was a loud craaaack—like a rifle shot. At first there was no movement that I could feel. Then a cloud of light powder drifted out of a fissure in the serac wall above me, where gigantic forces were beginning to assert themselves.

At times like this eyewitnesses usually report that “Time seemed to stand still” or that “Things seemed to be happening in slow motion”. Time is such a subjective thing, even before you start to mess it around with quantum mechanics and string theory…but I certainly felt that there was no rush for me to appreciate what was about to pass.

One of the things I had always been concerned about, when contemplating death in a violent accident, was what the Moment of Impact would be like. What would it actually feel like to have my body ripped apart? Would it be excruciatingly painful? Would the pain be slow and unavoidable—enough to make me break down and cringe? My preliminary evidence, gathered in fairly minor incidents, seemed to indicate that the moment of impact is protected by a sort of psychological anesthetic; that it is the dread of such a thing that causes us anguish. It looked as though I was about to learn the truth of the matter…

Soon, the “solid” ice I was standing on was beginning to undulate and buck. Then, my floor turned into a large slab, which started to rear up, with me having to move up the slope to avoid being tipped into whatever was happening down below. My crampon points gripped the hard ice tenaciously and I could maintain my balance. I gave silent thanks for those sharp points! This seesawing happened several times as my massive surfboard rocked back and forth and we all dropped downwards. For some wonderful and benign reason my slab did not flip over, though at one point it seemed I was on the tip of a pinnacle.

As suddenly as it had begun, it was over. My block was still—and flat, and I was securely on top. It had been a wild ride and it looked as though I had, once again, lucked out.

But…before I could relax and start looking around for my friends, the shivering deep within the glacier began again. Again, it started slowly, though now it seemed to be coming mostly from above me. Towering above were a new set of cliffs: the edge of the ice that had been left behind when my platform dropped down. These cliffs were about fifty-feet high and loomed over me ominously. As they started to shudder and totter, I tried to estimate their trajectory. One in particular seemed to be aimed directly at my happy home. It was probably the one that would squish me.

I cast a speculative eye into the depths of the crevasse below. About thirty feet down was a jumbled ledge, formed by falling ice and snow blocks. Maybe I could jump down there and take shelter from the falling tower. It was a complex decision: Was it better to risk sure annihilation by the tower, or to take a chance of being injured by a jump into the crevasse. And what would I do then? Yell for help?

Eventually I decided that I would rather die quickly (painlessly?), being crushed by the tower, than suffer a slow and unknown future in the crevasse.

Along with this rational choice came the very same calm acceptance of death that I had reached in the avalanche. I was dead. Time to go. Ave atque Vale…it had been a good life.

Damn tower must have had a slight twist to it, because it missed me by inches. No respect for my powers of reasoning! There was one final moment of doubt when I hoped that it wouldn’t come down hard on the end of my slab and catapult me, like a circus acrobat, into the crevasse after all. But it just pulverized the edge of the ledge and continued downrange, with a great clatter and whoosh.

Now it was—finally—eerily still. The sun was still shining brightly and my existential question was still unanswered. I sur- faced from my reverie to realize that there were two people nearby: Pasang, my fellow rigger, was standing a short distance away, uninjured, muttering a few “Om Mani Pedme Huns” in a dazed voice. I was about to join him for some sincere moments of gratitude when I noticed Blair lying down in the ice below me. He was tangled in some ice blocks and it looked bad. He had a serene half-smile on his face but the edges of the blocks enclosing his chest seemed to be just a bit too close together. I wasn’t totally positive, but it didn’t look completely right. Around his neck he wore an active radio, which was squawking and belching. I lifted it tenderly down and called Base:

“Rusty to Base. A terrible accident. I think Blair is dead.”

Pick up a copy of Mr. Quarter To Two here!