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On Mountaineering

Author : Radford C. West
Published : 2014-01-13

Probably everyone has a book inside themselves, somewhere; some interesting....some not so much. Radford West's is interesting, mainly because he's had an interesting life, with a keen passion for the outdoors. In 1971 West came home from the confusion of Vietnam and sought solace in the high, lonesome.  "The mountains gave me a new respect for nature and myself," he says, and his book reflects that.

On Mountaineering profiles seven climbs that West took from 1971 through 1980, from the High Sierra to the Canadian Rockies to Mount Kenya.  But this is more than a climbing guide. In fact it reveals the education of West's climbing career. He initially leaned on Marine training to survive and master the skills needed to survive in the peaks. Every trip was an education. And this was back in the early '70s people when people just went and did it, no sponsors, base camps, or radios. They were there for the climbing and the sense of inner-accomplishment, the challenge of a life outdoors in extreme environments.

West is not a big-wall, multi-day bivvy climber. He found that out quickly as a greenhorn in Yosemite, but he had a passion to explore, and go higher. His writing reveals that his boldness had a solid foundation of caution, planning, and cool decision making. When he climbed to the summit in  Mount Rainier National Park, for example, he relied on more-experienced mountaineering partners, learning from them every step of the way. In his journal he describes mapping the steam fumaroles at the summit with a group of geology students, just as a storm rolled in on July 5, 1971: 

"I put on my down parka and went out the zippered door where all the snow was blowing in. I could see outside, and the only support for the tent was our ice axes tied to the center cords. All the stakes had been pulled up, and upon inspecting the poles on the far side, I discovered that one had been snapped by the wind."

He prayed that the gale would not hurl them off the 14,300-foot summit, and spent an uncomfortable night in a collapsed tent, waking to high winds and low visibility. Having ascended the Gibraltar route, the next morning they opted to go down the easier Ingraham Glacier, where, with great foresight, he had placed orange wands to mark the route off the summit cone. 

"As I walked out to find the way down, the wands that I had placed as a trail from the tents were spaced every twenty feet. I hit the crater rim and paralleled it, looking for familiar rocks. I bypassed the gap where the trail starts but realized that I had gone too far, turned around and came back on the trail ...."

They made it back to the ranger station at Paradise, in the dark at 10 p.m., but only after helping two other groups of climbers find their way through the whiteout. "It seems we had brought down everyone left on the mountain, and then some," he wrote. "It had been a very long day and not without adventure, the kind that leaves you limp to the bone marrow."

Not everyone makes it off the mountain however, as evidenced by the June 1, 2014, deaths of six climbers, presumably swept away by an avalanche. Their bodies will likely remain on the mountain.

Luckily for us West kept a journal of these seven climbs, which form the centerpiece of each chapter, accompanied by a modern-day essay about the climb, and an afterword of good advice for those venturing into the mountains. It's a good read, and this small book will fit perfectly in your pack's map pocket. It's worth its weight.


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