Dark side of adventure

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Mount Rainier

Glacier Vista at sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State. (MIKE SIEGEL, KRT)

I had been flirting with the idea of climbing Mount Rainier in July and tried goading a dozen friends into joining me for a trek to the top of the 14,410-foot peak southeast of Seattle. It's a relatively technical trek, involving ice climbing, ropes, axes and a fair bit of nerve that seemed like a worthy adventure.

But none of my friends bit, so the trip became a 30-mile backpack through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which will happen later this summer.

Then, at the end of May, came harrowing news: Six climbers attempting an ambitious and less-common route up Mount Rainier — four visitors and two guides — fell more than 3,000 feet to their deaths in what is believed to have been either an avalanche or a fall.

My first thought, of course, was profound sadness for the climbers and their families; the terror those six people faced is gut-wrenching. My second thought was, "I'm glad I'm going to the Smokies this summer." It was my third thought that surprised me: I still want to climb Rainier.

Granted, I would take one of the "less risky" routes. But even so, a handful of people die on Rainier each year, be it by fall, hypothermia or another cause. And, as the recent tragedy reminds us, sometimes it can be more than a handful of people. So why would someone feel compelled to climb it?

Mike Gauthier, author of "Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide," wondered the same thing after two of his climbing partners, one of them his roommate, died on a Rainier rescue mission in 1995.

"It was heartbreaking," Gauthier said. "I swore it off. I thought, 'This is a silly, silly waste of time and not worth this.' But it didn't take long to circle back and realize it was part of my identity."

Gauthier, who was the National Park Service's lead climbing ranger at Rainier for 19 years, kept climbing. By his estimate, he has summited Rainier nearly 200 times.

The reason I called Gauthier, now chief of staff at Yosemite National Park, is because I couldn't quite identify the desire for uncomfortable and potentially dangerous adventures. Neither could he, exactly. But he understood what I was saying.

"That motivation for many people is deeply personal," Gauthier said. "It's unique to them, and it can be challenging to articulate with those who don't share that pursuit."

The bottom line, I think, comes down to what we want out of travel, which arguably, is a microcosm of what we want out of life. I enjoy five-star luxury as much as anyone, but I also long for novelty, adventure and challenge.

I don't always get those things at home, which makes travel the ideal time to find them. Climbing a mountain isn't always completely safe, and nothing is guaranteed, but that is part of the journey and the adventure. I don't say that lightly; the desire to live to a fine old age makes safety paramount — and the reason that, with a reputable guide, turning back before the summit is far, far more likely than dying. But not knowing what's ahead, and what exactly the adventure holds, can be the draw.

"When you're in these environments, the quality and richness of life is tangible," Gauthier said. "It doesn't mean throwing yourself into a raging river. But it's being engaged in the world and present in these landscapes. And it keeps calling you back."

jbnoel@tribune.com

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