Jon Luthanen is a climber, mountaineer, and active member in our Bellingham Branch. He was on a climbing trip in southern Utah in May 2017 when he experienced a traumatic ankle injury while bouldering outside. He needed major surgery, and now requires a carbon fiber leg brace to pursue his outdoor passions. In this interview, Jon shares the story of his injury, his recovery, and why he chose our Basic Alpine Climbing Course to support his reentry into the outdoors.
How did you fall in love with the outdoors?
I’m a bit of a mutt. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Connecticut, and then moved to Ohio. After college, I moved to Bozeman, Montana, where I worked with AmeriCorps for a couple years. I had never lived any place mountainous before, and I fell in love immediately. I resolved at that point to never live in the flatlands again. I got into climbing in Bozeman when my buddy John invited me out. Unbeknownst to me, I was seeking community after having exited collegiate athletics, and he kind of took me under his wing. John was four or five years older than me and had a little bit more life experience and a lot more technical climbing ability. We summited several local peaks and I was hooked. I moved to Bellingham in 2013. The setting is similar to Bozeman in that it’s a really beautiful town with lots of young, outdoorsy energy.
Can you tell me about your injury?
I was visiting a buddy in southern Utah in the Saint George area, with the intention of summiting a local 10,000-ft peak. He was a bit tied up with work, so one of his housemates, who I didn’t know very well, suggested that we go bouldering in Moe’s Valley. Prior to this I had a good amount of indoor bouldering experience. We’ll go ahead and say overconfidence took the reins in my decision making that day, because I felt pretty sure of myself on introductorylevel routes. But it’s very different when the entire floor is a gym mat versus rock with only a crash pad for protection. We went up one or two routes that were pretty easy – V3 or V4 tops. The route I was on wasn’t very technical at all – again, introductory level. And it was highball. (Editor’s note: “highball” boulders are boulder problems that are particularly high off the ground, typically over 10-15 feet). I was at the last move, 10 to 12 feet above the ground, and I went to grab something with my left hand that looked really sturdy… and it was not.
My left hand popped off and my left foot shortly after. With my feet directly below me, I looked down and my crash pads were about a foot to the left of me. I hit hard-pack dirt and rock and knew instantaneously that I had broken something – I felt it, I heard it. I’ve broken bones before, so I was mainly just annoyed at the situation. We were about three quarters of a mile away from my buddy’s truck, and we both had some Wilderness First Aid training. We packed up all the gear and hopped out of there and got into an urgent care facility. The injury happened at 3:30pm and by 5pm I had already gotten X-rays, a walking boot, crutches, and was out the door. The doctor said “Eh, maybe surgery, maybe not, go back to your orthopedic doctor in Bellingham, see what they have to say.” And he sent me on my way. What the doctor in Bellingham told me was a different story.
How was the recovery process?
After additional X-rays and MRIs to both my foot and my wrist, which I had also landed on, I heard what every outdoorsy person never wants to hear. The urgent care doctor in Utah had said “Maybe surgery.” My orthopedic surgeon in Bellingham, Dr. Warren Taranow, said “No no – anyone who told you anything but surgery either has no idea what they’re talking about or didn’t want to ruin your summer. And I’m here to ruin your summer.” He told me I had sustained a severe pilon fracture to my right ankle, and the injury would permanently disable me.
He immediately followed up with questions about what I like to do. He said he could get me back to climbing and skiing, though we both agreed bouldering was something I could give up. I asked if I could run and he said, “Well, now… maybe you’ll pick up a sport like swimming or biking.” And I’m sitting there, stiffening up in my chair, at the time age 31. “The repetitive impact on that injury site is not something that people who undergo the surgery usually entertain as it’s too painful.” My immediate thought was “yeah, let me tell you what I’m going to do.”
I spent two months non-weight bearing on a one-legged scooter, one month in a walking boot with crutches, and an additional month with just the boot. It was three months of occupational therapy followed by three months of physical therapy for my wrist and ankle, respectively. Following physical therapy at the end of 2017, Cornerstone Orthotics & Prosthetics built me an AFO carbon fiber leg brace.
Hardware installed in Jon’s ankle. Photo courtesy of Jon Luthanen.
Why did you choose to take The Mountaineers Basic Climbing Course as you were starting to become active again?
It was a multi-tiered decision. For one, I’ve been climbing for a long time and I wanted to take an introductory course to refresh my skills and pick up some new ones. The course is also spaced out over several months, which allowed me to continue to rehab over a decent time frame and push the envelope a little bit each time. It was also a safe program, where I could push my limits with the knowledge that I’d be in lower-risk situations. I wanted to be around people that could look after me in the event that things went wrong.
What was it like re-entering the outdoor world?
It was less than smooth. For our first climbing practice night for the Basic Climbing Course we met at the local YMCA’s 70-ft indoor rock wall. We typically started our meetings at 7pm. I wanted to show up early because I knew I was putting rock climbing shoes back on for the first time since my injury. I was not excited – it was nerve wracking, and I didn’t know how my foot was going to respond. So in my mind, I was going to show up half an hour early. Turns out I was half an hour late; our meeting time had been moved up due to time constraints at the Y. There was a lot of noise and commotion – many bodies in a confined climbing space. I felt flustered and had to throw my gear on really quickly, fumbling through my knots and making several mistakes. To say that my reentry into the world of climbing was a rough one would be just touching the surface. I did not have a good time that night.
When did your anxiety around climbing start to subside?
I’ve never really been a “climber” climber. I hadn’t done a lot of technical rock climbing prior to the course last year. I’d dabbled, and I’ve climbed a number of peaks that I feel I probably could’ve had more protection on. But one of the reasons I signed up for the Basic Climbing Course was to get a more well-rounded climbing experience. The rope skills part of the course was foreign to me, but by the time we progressed into our snow units I was in my comfort zone. I’d been climbing mountains for almost a decade, so walking on snow made me feel much more in my element. I also felt like I had physically gotten stronger and more confident through the course requirements of hiking and backpacking. The brace started to feel like an extension of my body, and I didn’t feel awkward using it anymore.
Jon Luthanen with climbing partners Tim Duryee, Andrew Hollen, Maura Rendes, and Sydney Lopez DeVic on Mt. Watson. Photo courtesy of Jon Luthanen.
How has the brace affected you on trips?
My leg brace was built to allow me to run and climb again, and at first it seemed clunky and made me kind of unsure of my footing. But I noticed a couple awesome benefits as the course progressed. It has a slightly spring-loaded step – because my calf is not allowed to flex while I’m in it, muscles that might typically get torched early on a hike don’t fatigue. My kick steps in snow are also rock solid because my foot is locked in at 90 degrees. Another funny, positive side effect is seen going down less technical snow terrain. In snow people can boot ski, or use your feet to kind of slide. I essentially have a built-in ski blade on my right foot. My ankle’s not going to flex and move anywhere, so I can get a running start and one-leg it down snow. It’s a great, efficient way to get down a mountain.
That said, one thing that is difficult is transitioning from snow to rock. It’s definitely something I’ve never had to think about before, but now that my ankle can’t flex it’s difficult to get a grip on loose rock or scree with that foot. Smearing is out for me on slabs, and it would be very difficult to crack climb even without the brace on.
What’s next for you?
I’m actually back in a walking boot. In November I started testing my ability to run indoors, and I came away from a workout limping the next day – nauseous with every step. I thought I’d just overused my ankle, but went in for an X-ray. A bone spur had developed near the bottom of my tibia, and it collapsed and fractured one of the plates installed in my leg. The same surgical team went in and removed almost all of the hardware in February. I have another 6 weeks in a walking boot before I start physical therapy again.
That said, I just entered grad school. I had planted that seed two years ago, when I was completely disabled. So there’s a lot of energy focused on that right now. As for climbing, I should be fully back in action soon.
I’m also going to volunteer with the Basic Course in Bellingham. Post-surgery I’ll be a bit limited, but it’s nice to refresh my skills as a volunteer leader. Every year I try to build a list of climbing objectives. It’s going to be a forever list – it’s a revolving door as I check things off. I try to hit one major objective at the end of every year, and essentially build myself up to that as the summer progresses. Mount Hood has been on my radar for quite a while. There’s also an organization called Summit for Someone that fundraises through guided climbs. They donate funds toward a program that gets intercity youth into the wild through week-long camping trips. There are times in climbing, especially mountaineering, where summiting can be ego-centric, and I think this could be a great way to try to give back while doing something that I really enjoy.
What would you tell folks newly dealing with a traumatic injury?
It’s easy to be defeated by situations like this. To give in, to get down on yourself and the situation, maybe to only feel the pain or see the negative. I would challenge anyone facing similar circumstances to buck that trend and have more of a ‘come what may’ attitude. There’s a lot of life left to live, and if you’re passionate enough to be a climber, in particular someone who enjoys mountaineering, then suffering is a part of that experience. From that perspective, it seems embracing pain, becoming familiar with it, and channeling that energy into positive pursuits helps. Whether that’s physical therapy, going to the gym, or socializing with your friends, the key is to not isolate yourself – even if that is the easier choice.
I heard a quote recently, “Never let a crisis go to waste”. I kind of love that, and have been using it to guide my decision making since the fall. With my experience, there were lessons learned, wounds licked, and I was more clearly able to see my path after having such a traumatic injury. Again, probably no more outdoor bouldering, but I still chase the things that I want – just with minor physical alterations. It’d be cool if in any way, shape, or form, telling this story helps someone facing similar circumstances. I remember feeling helpless when I was told what my trajectory would be for this from a medical perspective. It’s helpful to know that you have a lot of options, and that you may be the one limiting your particular situation. It’s all a mental game. But as long as you can overcome that, the sky’s the limit.
Photo courtesy of Jon Luthanen.
Jon offered this piece in commemoration of his father, Bruce Alan Luthanen (09/13/56 – 03/25/19). “I’ve been provided the opportunity to pursue the things I love because of Dad,” Jon says. He will be dedicating all of his 2019 climbs to his father.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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Hiking is a great way to appreciate our lush forests, mountains, and rivers in the Northwest, especially if you’re just starting to explore the outdoors. Learn about how to choose gear, select hikes, practice trail etiquette, and more, to make the most of your time on the trail.
Technical clothing can be cost prohibitive, and is not required to get outside and enjoy all that the northwest has to offer. That said, many people choose to invest in gear that makes them more comfortable on long days on the trail. If you’re new to hiking it’s best to start with what you have and slowly build on it as you develop an understanding of the types of hikes you prefer. Conditioning hikes call for a different type of clothing than more leisurely trips, warm weather needs are different than cold weather needs, etc. As gear can be expensive, it’s best to determine your long-term needs before making purchases.
However, it is generally accepted that cotton is not appropriate for any kind of outdoor activity with a risk of hypothermia. Because cotton holds a significant amount of its weight in water, it doesn’t dry quickly or insulate when wet. It will also chafe when wet, and wearing damp cotton in the cold can will result in discomfort and potential injury.
That said, cotton can be appropriate for casual excursions. If you are new to hiking and starting off on well-established, popular trails where there is little chance of getting lost, your usual weekend clothing should work just fine.
Knowing how to layer is key to staying dry, warm, and happy in cooler temperatures. A base layer is the first layer you wear, wicking sweat away from your body and offering some insulation. Your mid-layer goes on next and provides the bulk of your insulation. This can be multiple items, like a fleece zip-up and a puffy jacket. Outerwear is your final layer, designed to block wind and rain, and has varying levels of breathability (how much moisture it lets in and out). Outerwear is not always worn, but a good idea to have around even if you don’t anticipate precipitation.
For more information on layering, check out our blog on how to layer in the backcountry. Though it was written with backcountry skiing in mind, it applies to any outdoor activity where you can expect cold weather.
Though many people are eager to reach for waterproof jackets in northwest winters, it’s important to keep in mind that moisture can appear under a jacket too. When you’ll be sweating, you want to dress so that the moisture can escape to keep you dry. Jackets which are more waterproof often have a lesser ability to breathe and let moisture out, so choose a jacket that is appropriate for the expected level of exertion and precipitation. A conditioning hike on a chilly, dry day will call for a breathable layer, while a slow hike with a chance of rain may require a waterproof layer.
How long your hike is, the supplies you are bringing, and personal preference all determine the best backpack for a hike. For a day hike, a bag between 10 and 25 liters is generally preferred. Be sure to have a pack that is large enough for your Ten Essentials.
Trekking poles can be excellent tools if you want to relieve some of the burden from your knees, especially on the downhill. Read more in our blog about trekking poles to decide if they would be a good fit for you.
Choosing the right shoes is important to avoid rolled ankles or blisters. The type of footwear you need is typically dependent upon the length of your hike, the type of terrain, and your body’s needs.
If you’re just starting out and don’t have hiking boots, your usual walking shoes will work fine on shorter, well-established trails. For most people, that would be a hike at or under 6 miles with less than 1,500 feet of elevation gain. If your shoes aren’t waterproof, check to see if there will be any mud or stream crossings by looking at recent trip reports for the trail, especially in spring when the rivers are full. If you’re moving toward more extended hikes or starting to backpack, choosing a quality boot is a good idea. But be sure to try them on before committing – a poor fit can result in hot spots or blisters. There is a wide variety of trail shoes to choose from, and many long-distance hikers opt for hiking sneakers over boots. Select footwear that’s right for you and your activity level (learn more in our Low Impact Recreation Hiking video).
Socks often have just as much impact on comfort and performance as shoes. Padding, insulation level, material, and more will impact how your feet feel after a long day. You can sweat as much as half a pint a day out of your feet, and moisture and chafing lead to blisters. Cotton socks will often cause blisters on longer hikes, because they are unable to wick moisture away from your feet. Experiment with different sock types to determine what’s best for you, and keep in mind that a pair of socks that work great with one pair of shoes or boots may cause blisters in another.
If you do choose to invest in gear, taking care of those items is a good way to ensure that it continues to perform well for many years to come. Because many of the waterproofing treatments on jackets and boots will wear off, they need to be reapplied. Read about your gear’s treatments and what the manufacturer recommends. It helps to use sports wash on clothing with water repellant finishes, as this is gentler than traditional detergents while still getting the dirt and oil off a jacket that will inhibit its performance. Brush dirt off your boots and be sure to re-treat leather periodically to prevent cracking. If you get a rip in a puffy jacket or vest, learn how to patch it. If you have a leak in your boots, you can use seam sealer to close it up. Don’t be afraid to patch, sew, and glue your gear to keep it in working order.
Choosing a hike
There are four key elements to keep in mind when choosing a hike. Those are:
- Elevation Gain
- Trail Conditions
Distance and Elevation Gain
All hike distances are measured round-trip, and should be considered when you think about your preferred difficulty and duration for a hike. However, elevation gain is often a more significant factor in a hike’s difficulty than distance. Elevation gain is the distance in elevation from the trail head to the highest point of the trail. Many people can walk on a flat trail for 8 or 9 miles with little issue, but a 5-mile hike with significant elevation gain can be difficult for fit hikers. Developing an understanding of elevation gain and what you prefer per mile is important as you explore more varied terrain. Keep in mind that how difficult elevation gain will feel is relative to the trail length; 1,500 feet of elevation gain is not much for a 7-mile hike, but will feel like quite a bit on a 3-mile hike. Generally, a hikes are classified as “difficult” when your gain is 1,000 feet per mile or more. Learn more about how ratings are categorized on our trip ratings resource.
Trail Conditions and Weather
Trail conditions and weather should be checked close to the date of your hike, especially in rainy seasons when mud, streams, and washouts are concerns. Check road conditions as well, as there are many trailheads in the area that require passage across poorly maintained roads to access them. To check trail conditions, call the local ranger station or check the Washington Trail Association’s trip reports. They will be listed below the hike’s details and driving directions. Be sure to note the date on trip reports.
Hiking Guide Resources
Mountaineers Books offers hundreds of guidebooks on hiking and backpacking, which offer a wealth of information on both remote and urban areas. Many hikers start with Day Hiking Snoqualmie Region, Day Hiking North Cascades, or Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington. You can also use the Washington Trail Association’s hiking guide or hike finder map to find hikes.
The Ten Essentials
The Ten Essentials are a list of supplies and equipment to bring on outings to ensure that you stay safe and prepared. Formalized in our 1974 edition of Freedom of the Hills and updated in the 9th edition of Freedom, the Ten Essentials have become a standard across the outdoor industry.
Although you will not need every item on every trip, essential equipment can be a lifesaver in an emergency. You should tailor your supplies to the nature of the trip – weather, remoteness from help, and complexity should be factored into the selected essentials. See our blog on Ten Essentials for day hiking to help determine what to bring on your trips.
It is encouraged for new hikers to become familiar with trail etiquette to ensure safety and civility on-trail. Some useful tips include:
Downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers. The exceptions are if there is a large group going downhill, or if someone is injured.
Stay on trail. Although it’s tempting to beat the crowds, cut corners, and go off-trail, this can have a significant negative impact on the surrounding environment. This includes erosion, disturbing wildlife, and damaging plant life. Avoid using “social trails” as well – those trails previous hikers have established off the main trail.
Obey leash laws and keep dogs on-leash if they have poor recall. Respecting leash laws and being a responsible dog owner helps ensure that the trails that allow dogs remain that way. If your dog does not quickly come when called, keeping them on-leash is considered appropriate as this helps ensure the safety of everyone on the trail.
Refrain from playing music out of a speaker. Many people seek out the woods for quiet and solitude. Be respectful of their experience and use headphones when on the trail.
For more information, visit the National Park Service’s page on hiking etiquette.
Leave No Trace
Being familiar with Leave No Trace (LNT) principles is a key component of being a responsible outdoorsperson. Learn how to to minimize your environmental impact and help ensure that our natural spaces remain happy and healthy.
Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
For more information, visit our page on low-impact recreation skills offering quick, educational videos for a variety of activities.
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Each week we bring you a personal story from one of our members. For our member profile this week we talked to…
Name: Siana Wong
Hometown: Norman, OK
Member Since: March 2014
Occupation: Environmental scientist for the Washington State Department of Ecology
Favorite Activities: I love to play outdoors in any way! Rock climbing, mountaineering, cycling, mountain biking, hiking, paddling, etc.
10 Essentials: Questions
How did you get involved with The Mountaineers?
I joined The Mountaineers mainly because of the climbing courses offered. Before I moved to Washington, I would often go on hiking/scrambling trips in the mountains by myself. I learned all I could about wilderness navigation and survival skills via the internet and Bear Grylls. But I wanted to gain more knowledge and technical skills, and to meet people to climb with. I was also attracted to the many other activities and courses offered.
What motivates you to get outside with us?
The opportunity to take or volunteer to help instruct high quality courses and meet cool people are what motivate me to get outdoors with The Mountaineers. I have met a wonderful community of people through The Mountaineers, and some of my closest friendships today formed through taking or volunteering for the courses.
What’s your favorite Mountaineers memory?
There are so many! But perhaps the most memorable is collectively my Basic Climbing course experience. It was a pretty intense year with a lot of new material to learn and a lot of requirements to graduate, in addition to balancing non-Mountaineers life. But I got through it, went on neat trips that I never would have done otherwise, and met a lot of friends that I still climb (and volunteer, bike, take sailing, play board games, eat tacos, and drink beers) with today.
Who/What inspires you?
This beautiful planet inspires me the most. There is so much here to see, do, and learn, and curiosity about our living earth is what inspired me to become a natural scientist, and what inspires me to continue exploring through adventure.
What does adventure mean to you?
Adventure means getting out and exploring this awesome planet, often under physically or mentally challenging or slightly terrifying circumstances. My most meaningful adventures have been where I have been an equal participant in all of the planning, logistics, and implementation of a trip.
Sunrise or sunset? Sunset
What’s your 11th Essential? Gummy worms
What’s your happy place? The mountains
If you could be a rockstar at any outdoor activity overnight, what would it be? Skate skiing
Know someone who should be featured?
Have you had a memorable experience with The Mountaineers you’d like to share, or know someone who should share their story? Submit your info for a chance to be featured!
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On June 12, 2019, we celebrated the beginning of summer with a kick-off party in partnership with Mountaineering Club. More than 200 Mountaineers made their way to the ‘summit’ of the Graduate Hotel – the stunning rooftop bar with panoramic PNW views – to celebrate another great season of our favorite warm-weather activities.
Mountaineers members and their guests had exclusive access to the wraparound rooftop deck, and each guest received a complimentary punch cocktail to begin the night, courtesy of Mountaineering Club. The peaks and waterways in clear view from the building’s summit provided fodder for summer trip planning. As one member put it, “It’s hard to NOT get excited about climbing the Brothers when you can see the peaks so clearly from up here!”
Favorite spots for climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, scrambling, hiking, and backcountry skiing were in clear view, giving new and seasoned members stoke for their adventures to come!>
Amid the friendly chatter in the warm breeze, cool drink in hand, Mountaineers Board Director Brynne Koscianski welcomed the crowd and gave thanks for the adventurous and generous members within our community. Donations of time, talents, and dollars empower The Mountaineers to be regional leaders in outdoor education and exploration. And with Mount Rainier to the south, the Olympics to the west, the Cascades to the east, and Mt. Baker to the north, Brynne reminded the crowd how lucky we are to be completely surrounded by some of nature’s most beautiful playgrounds. Powerful advocacy from Mountaineers past and present have played an integral role in protecting the landscapes seen in the distance – a feat we’re truly proud of!
As a special surprise, Brynne also announced a new membership benefit to the audience: all members will receive a year-round, 10% discount off of any food or drink purchase at Mountaineering Club! This means that members who weren’t able to attend the kick-off party can take advantage of their views, food, and drinks at a special discount just for Mountaineers. Cheers!
The evening gently concluded as the sun dipped over the horizon and attendees gradually made the descent down the elevator and back to their homes.
We send many thanks to our friends at Mountaineering Club, who generously hosted our group for the evening. You can check out our event photos here and see the fun and the views for yourself. And thanks to all of our incredible members, volunteers, and donors who make The Mountaineers such a rewarding community!
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Picnics and Northwest summer evenings are made for each other. It gets even better when you add in active outdoor people, friends and families, a beautiful setting, and great food. Join us for our Summer Picnic to celebrate our community and enjoy the height of summer with your fellow Mountaineers. This is a great opportunity to connect with people you have been training and recreating with this year in a more casual setting. Find out what your friends have been doing, and plan those late summer/fall events!
We will be holding the picnic at Pioneer Park, on the shore of the Deschutes River. This park offers great walking trails, playground equipment for the little ones, and two sand volleyball courts for a little friendly competition.
This event will be a potluck, with burgers provided by the branch. Grill masters Bob Keranen and Marko Pavela will be serving BBQ hamburgers and veggie burgers with all the fixings, so be sure to come hungry.
We ask attendees to bring a side dish, dessert, or appetizer. Please also bring beverages, table settings, games and activities, and a folding chair as seating will be limited.
August 1 2019, 5-8pm. Food is served at 6pm.
Pioneer Park picnic shelter, located at: 5801 Henderson Blvd SE, Tumwater
- A side dish, dessert, or appetizer
- Table settings
- Folding chairs
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Last May, what started out as a straight forward backpacking trip turned into a harrowing ordeal for Mountaineer member Michael Kelly. With humor and grace, she recounts the good, the bad, and the downright ridiculousness of having to travel five miles without the use of her right leg.
We encourage our readers to keep Michael’s story in mind on their adventures. When managing risks in the backcountry, we must all factor in the difficulty of a rescue operation miles from the nearest road. Accidents happen, even on relatively “easy” trails. Make sure you have a plan before you go!
I knew it would be hard to make it out.
Two days prior I had taken a nasty fall as my trail companions Nanci, Laurie, and I were backpacking into the Enchanted Valley, a lovely meadow northeast of Lake Quinault. As we approached our camping spot at the 12-mile mark, the “horses to barn” mentality set in and we started cruising down a hill with large rocks imbedded in the dirt. I was suddenly down, hitting the ground hard on my right hip.
I unbuckled my pack, rolled over, and laid on the trail, fighting waves of nausea. There were no obvious injuries, though I felt spacey and in mild shock. There was only a little over a mile left to camp, so I pushed on.
I was able to make it to camp, where I spent Saturday cycling through napping, walking, and stretching, while Laurie and Nanci went off to explore the trail toward O’Neil Pass. I checked in with the rangers in the area, Richard and Brendan, to let them know about my injury and our plans to hike out. By evening I could almost do a few yoga poses and get my own socks on – the 13-mile hike out looked like a go.
We broke camp, tucked away our dew-soaked tents, and were on the trail shortly after 6am. I was in the “lead,” traveling slowly with short breaks every 45 minutes. At the 7-mile mark, I was starting to feel grinding in my hip. My pace began to slow. Then, my right foot slipped and I went flying. I landed hard on the ground alongside the trail. “This is not good!” I screamed. Looking down, I realized I had been felled by a large banana slug. “How could there be so much slime in one place?” I thought to myself. “I know they grow giant slugs in the Olympics, but really?”
It didn’t take long to realize I could not put any weight on my right leg: the last five miles to the car now looked less possible. There was no cell service and I was stuck, unable to even crawl. Laurie took off down the trail to reach her car and drive the six miles to the nearest ranger station. Fortunately she ran into the ranger from our camp spot, Richard, near the trailhead. She alerted him to my injury and followed him to the North Forks Ranger Station to get the rescue started. Meanwhile, Nanci and I knew we had a long wait ahead of us. Laurie had left us with her emergency first aid kit, and I had one, two, and finally three doses of oxycodone to calm the spasming and cramping. I was eventually able to reposition myself onto level ground with a sleeping mat to lie on.
1pm – A doctor passed by as he and his companion were working their way up the valley for the night. Asking if he could examine me, he did not find any signs of bruising or internal bleeding. They insisted on staying with us until they could pass me off to a ranger or an EMT. By 1:30 a group passed by with a satellite phone, allowing us to get an emergency call out.
By this point, we had multiple calls out and knew help was coming. Two hours later, Ranger Brendan arrived, relieving the doctor as we continued to wait for emergency services. The oxycodone was wearing off, but fortunately the pain and cramping had subsided. Brendan did not recommend taking any more medication as I needed to be alert with strong vital signs when the EMTs arrived. The warm day faded into the shadows and, with the sun going down, the temperature started to drop. We bundled up and awaited the arrival of the rescue team.
9pm – Our EMT Katie and her husband Steve arrived. They knew the Olympic Mountain Rescue team was assembling at the trailhead and were on their way via headlamp. My trail companion Laurie was also on the way back with food. It was wonderful to see her breeze in; we knew she’d be back in spite of the extra ten miles.
11pm – We heard via radio communication that the team was getting closer, and it was time to “package” me into a transportation device. Katie and Steve carefully transferred me into the middle of what looked like a large bean bag, using my backpack as a back rest and cinching the straps tightly. In a flash, the team arrived and announced that we were going out that night. We had five miles to travel, and at a good pace they expected to move about one mile per hour. They assembled the litter and attached one large wheel in the center of it. I was lifted on top and cinched in by a second set of straps. It took five people to keep it balanced: two on each side and one at my head. It felt like a large unicycle.
11:30pm – I was finally moving along the trail after 12 hours of patiently waiting, conserving energy, and trying to keep my mind and body calm. The lead scout and the five people circled around me were in constant communication about upcoming hazards. Their dialogue provided an ongoing and insightful soundtrack to my trip. We went up, down, and over rocks, and dropped into a few holes. The trail became narrow and sometimes we’d lose one of the rescuers when they were brushed off or fell into me. Hours went on and the team would seamlessly rotate to alternate their carrying arm or request a replacement. I could see the sweat dripping off them and knew what hard work it was. Our EMT Katie would occasionally pop into view to ask if I was okay.
The biggest challenge for the team was crossing Fire Creek, the bridge being too narrow for me and my entourage to pass over. The leader had scouted out the creek in advance. He had found an area that looked like a safe crossing, even though the water was moving fast over the rocks and at places was a foot deep. Before I knew it, the team was pulling me across the stream. The next challenge was a long uphill climb; the rescuers commented that last time they faced a hill like that, they had a mule to help. Two of the rescuers attached ropes to the front of my rig and slowly pulled me up the trail.
3:30am – Around this time we arrived at the trailhead, a full hour earlier than expected. Our EMT offered to call an ambulance to transport us to the closest hospital, but I preferred to get into Laurie’s car and endure the 4-hour drive to a hospital back home. After hours of being “packaged,” I was so stiff I could only move my arms. I was carefully transferred into the car, with two oxycodone to set me up for a comfortable ride back to Seattle.
7:30am – We arrived at Valley Medical Center, and by 3pm I was being wheeled back into my room with a total hip replacement, the “Ferrari” model with titanium and ceramic. My surgeon told me I’d feel the effects of the injury for six weeks, but I could get back to hiking and even backpacking with full pack weight quickly. The summer was not lost! That evening was filled with visits from family and featured a wonderful dinner from the hospital kitchen, my last real meal since breakfast 18 hours before.
Reflecting on the rescue and all that it involved, my first thought is how blessed I was to be surrounded by loving family and friends, and embraced by the kindness of strangers. I’m deeply grateful to the role each of them played in my rescue. I know I’ll be back on the trail soon. Thank goodness for modern medicine!
- Consider carrying a satellite communication device and know how to use it – one can’t count on cell service
- Share your trip plan with a friend before you leave
- Make sure your fellow trip members have your emergency contact’s information
- Listen to your body, stay calm, and be clear with your needs during an incident
- Be grateful for the kindness of strangers, friends, and family
- Watch out for slugs
Photo by Douglas Indrik.
Michael joined The Mountaineers in 2003 and has taken courses in Snowshoeing/Winter camping, Wilderness First Aid, Navigation, Sailing, Intro to the Natural World, and Conditioning Hiking. She credits meeting like-minded people in The Mountaineers changing her life. Her recovery is going well, and she recently enjoyed her first backpacking trip since the accident.
Olympic Mountain Rescue – Thank you! Michael would like to thank the Olympic Mountain Rescue team for their successful rescue efforts. Olympic Mountain Rescue is a volunteer organization dedicated to saving lives through rescue and safety education. Their response and professionalism exemplified the dedication and expertise of their organization.
This article originally appeared in our Fall 2018 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
Credit: Source link
One of the more unusual pieces of climbing jargon, the word ‘snafflehound’ fails to strike fear into the heart of the uninitiated. However, snafflehounds have ruined more than a few climbers’ days, and for good reason.
A snafflehound is any kind of rodent that feasts on climbing gear. This can include mice, rats, squirrels, and even marmots. The catch-all term was popularized by legendary alpinist and Mountaineers member Fred Becky. Snafflehounds are attracted to the salty sweat in your boots left at the base of a climb, and take the opportunity to gnaw on whatever else they find. Climbers tell tales of snafflehounds raiding food, gnawing through ropes, chomping holes in (occupied!) sleeping bags, and chewing ropes in use. You can even find two places named after these mischievous rodentia – Snafflehound Ledge, on the BeckeyDavis route of Prusik Peak, and Snafflehound Spire, located in the Bugaboos in eastern British Columbia. Though their alpine reputation veers into the stuff of legend, they’re so commonplace that you have certainly seen a potential snafflehound – even if it hasn’t had the opportunity to earn the title (yet).
Snafflehounds of the Northwest
Though we typically think of tree squirrels, ground squirrels are more likely to be snafflehounds as they live in subalpine areas that are minimally forested. The Cascade goldenmantled ground squirrel has an appetite benefitting its robust name, and can be seen popping its head up from rocky outcroppings and eyeing your perfectly flaked rope.
Mice and Rats
Mice and rats can be found almost anywhere, and for good reason. These small, sturdy creatures can easily find shelter in the forest as well as alpine environments, and have been known to venture far from home in search of lunch. They’re often difficult to dissuade from their chosen target, and are the inspiration for the ‘rodent hang’ food storage method. They’re the most likely creatures to become snafflehounds.
Chipmunks are also bold inhabitants of the Cascades and beyond, as many of us have learned at lunch after a long hike or climb. The most common local chipmunk is the yellow pine chipmunk, although all of them will attempt to sneak into your pack when you have your back turned.
As some of the largest and most-admired rodents of the region, marmots make for an impressive snafflehound. Likely the biggest creature you’ll see gnawing on your gear, when marmots strike their damage can be substantial. Fortunately they choose to spend most of their time in subalpine regions, enjoying large amounts of vegetation below tree line.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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SLIPSTREAM, part 2
BY JOHN ROSKELLEY
Excerpted from The Roskelley Collection, in memory of Jess Roskelley. (See Part 1 and Part 3)
The difficult pitch had taken Jess an hour to lead. He had willed himself to overcome frozen hands and poor protection to finally reach a belay point. After a full hour of freezing down below, I wasn’t sure I could follow. I removed the belay screws and yelled, “Climbing!” The rope pulled on my harness and I started up, my hands encased in frozen gloves as I tried to move fast enough to stop shivering.
Once to his belay, I stammered out the words I never thought I would utter in my mountaineering career. “You’re going to have to lead the next pitch. I’m too cold.”
Even though I had managed to climb the pitch without help, my hands were like dead wood. Not only were my hands without feeling, spindrift from the continual avalanches coming down the route had snuck into the neck opening of my jacket as it bounced and flew down the ice, leaving me as hypothermic as if I’d just stepped from an icy pond.
Given how hard it was for me to admit that I couldn’t lead the next pitch, I can’t imagine what Jess was thinking upon hearing those words. But he didn’t flinch.
“All right. Do you need some food or water?”
“I’ll grab something while you lead the pitch. Just don’t take too long,” I replied.
Jess climbed steadily for twenty feet, placed a pin, and then moved right, to where the frozen waterfall dropped in vertical steps as it made its way along the rock wall. Once again, where I had thought my belay stance was protected from spindrift and tool-displaced ice, his route put him directly over me and I became the target of all things hard and cold. More ice screws; more time. Jess overprotected the pitch, but the ice was pocketed and several of his placements were “prayer pins” at best. He disappeared from view, and only a slight, agonizingly slow upward movement of the rope convinced me that he was still moving.
We were now smothered in cloud. As is often the case with big alpine walls, the wind was blowing from every direction, including from below. Visibility was down to one hundred feet. What were light winds to us on the east face, though, was a howling tempest at the top of Slipstream on Mount Snowdome’s summit. These winds deposited snow in the basin five hundred feet above us and below the ice-capped summit. From this catch basin, spindrift avalanches broke loose and poured down around us and upon us. Menacingly, the massive cornice that crowns Mount Snowdome was now in perspective, and we could see it overhanging Slipstream like the prow of an aircraft carrier.
“Belay on!” Jess yelled from above.
When it came time for me to follow, my hands couldn’t function well enough to use my ice tools. I attached my jumars to the rope with short slings and hollered at Jess for him to secure the rope to the belay anchors. He did so, and I began pulling myself up the rope using the two jumars for my hands and trying to get a bite of the ice with the front points of my crampons. The process proved more difficult than just climbing the pitch with my tools. Every time I pulled on the rope and stepped up, my front points, lacking the necessary body weight to hold on to the ice, slipped out from under me. My hands quickly lost all feeling. I stopped after every few moves, removed my hands from the jumars, lowered them to my sides, and shook them until some feeling came back. After thirty minutes of agonizing struggle, I reached the belay. Jess didn’t want to lead again, but he didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t get my hands warm enough to use ice tools and place protection. I was beginning to get warmer, though. At the last belay, I managed to put on my down coat, which improved my mental state considerably, from cold-induced mental defeat to “we might get off this face.” At this point, the safest direction was toward the summit. We either climbed up and over the top, or faced the extremely difficult task of safely descending 2500 feet under severe avalanche conditions to return to camp.
Thirty feet up the eighty-five-degree ice of the next lead, Jess stopped to put in his third ice screw. Frustrated at not being able to get one in after several attempts, he yelled down to me and asked if I wanted to lead the pitch.
He must be hallucinating, I thought. “No,” I replied. I still didn’t have feeling in my hands.
This is when I said to him, “Jess, you’ve got to move faster,” and then added, “Or we’re going to die right here.” I had been looking for a place to bivouac for hours, and there was not a ledge large enough to sit on or a snow slope that looked suitable for a bivouac on the upper face. I’m sure we could have stomped our feet and shook our arms through the night to survive, but this was an alternative we hoped to avoid.
The character of climbers cannot be judged by what they can do at the start of a climb, when their blood is hot and flows like a river and their energy is bursting from their pores. It’s at the end, when they can no longer grip their ice tools, their mouth feels as if it’s full of chalk, and their gut tells them that now the odds favor the mountain, not them.
Jess’s character rose to the top. He finished off the 180-foot pitch in the fading light and called for me to follow. More rested and warm than I had been just an hour earlier, I climbed the long ice pitch quickly, taking out the two ice screws above my belay and the single ice screw Jess had placed three-quarters of the way to his belay. It was a magnificent lead, despite spindrift avalanches, pocketed ice conditions, and my incessant urging for more speed.
“I can take the next lead,” I said. “My hands are back and I’m feeling stronger.”
I grabbed a few ice screws from Jess’s harness and led the steep ice steps above the belay. I was soon out of sight, moving quickly over moderate terrain. Within fifteen minutes I reached the end of the rope, placed several belay screws, and then yelled to Jess to start climbing. After ten minutes, he planted his second tool in the ice next to me at the belay, just as any semblance of light disappeared on the western horizon.
The summit loomed above us in the starlight, seemingly a stone’s throw away, but our hopes of reaching it that day faded as night blanketed the peak.
“I’ll lead up to the ridge,” he offered. “That’ll get us out of the gully.”
Jess waded waist deep in sixty-degree snow from the belay up the right side of the snow basin perched above Slipstream. After 150 feet, he reached the arête that separates Mount Snowdome’s east and north faces. Once on the arête, he kicked out a small stance and belayed me to him.
It was close to midnight when I reached Jess. The clouds had departed and along with them, the wind. Now that we were stopped, we were aware that the air temperature, under clear, starry skies, was falling rapidly. Two hundred feet above us was the summit, an hour of climbing—in daylight. But in the dark, when we were cold, tired, and thirsty, it was a different story.
“Let’s dig an ice cave right here,” Jess said.
I bent down and dug into the snow to test his option. “I think you’re right,” I agreed. “We can tunnel into the rib until it’s big enough for the two of us to sit in.”
Using our frost-nipped hands, ice tools, helmets, and feet, we plowed into the Styrofoam-like ice like two badgers digging for a mole. Upon hitting the solid rock of the arête after three feet, we turned and burrowed along the arête’s length to create a cave-like structure. Within an hour, our makeshift snow hole was large enough for the two of us to lay the rope and packs on the floor for insulation, remove our crampons, stretch our legs to the opening, and collapse.
Planning to bivouac is an alpinist’s cardinal sin. Alpinists either summit in one push or else.
The sky was speckled with stars; there wasn’t a breeze more powerful than our breath; and our view out the bivouac opening framed Mount Snowdome’s tentacle-like eastern ridge and the silhouetted Rockies. We didn’t feel like kings, but we had a kingdom before us as we settled into our bivouac.
Planning to bivouac is an alpinist’s cardinal sin. Alpinists either summit in one push or else. The “or else,” of course, is the unavoidable consequence of an alpine bivouac—the never-ending, cold-induced gyrations of turning, twisting, pushing, holding, slapping, and shivering as the night drags on toward dawn, bringing with it a chill that can harden flesh and numb to the bone.
Jess and I are self-proclaimed alpinists, and with that title come certain responsibilities. We planned to top out on Slipstream and make it down in one long day. We didn’t plan to bivouac. That’s tantamount to planning to fail. At the end of the day, we miscalculated the start time, so it was “or else” as we prepared for a long night. Fortunately, that morning Jess had insisted that we pack a stove “just in case.” He must have read the tea leaves. Once we were situated in the snow cave, he brought out the stove and, while I tried to hold it steady on my lap, lit it and put the remaining Gatorade from our bottles in the pot. Within a few minutes, we each had enough for a cup of steaming hot liquid. I no longer felt that we were on the edge of disaster. The warmth spread through our bodies and minds like early morning sunshine on a winter day.
I didn’t sleep that night. First of all, the cold from the ice underneath me and at my back forced me to do the “ice cave shuffle” every few minutes. Jess’s body adjustments and snoring didn’t help either. Second, my hands and feet were painfully cold, and that moment of blissful warmth from the hot drink vanished as quickly as my warm breath in the night air. As uncomfortable as I was, though, it was the reality of our situation and reflections on my own mortality that kept me awake.
I sensed that this adventure just might be a life-changing event. At sixty, I’m still in good physical condition, but admittedly not the powerhouse I once was. Although I’ve been able to push back the yearly toll of aging by working out daily, I now have minor arthritis in my toes, which hampers my running, and my system doesn’t adjust to dehydration as readily as it once did. Not radical physical problems, but enough for me to give thought to my future on big alpine walls such as Slipstream.
It’s easy to agree to attempt these climbs, especially when Jess needs a partner, but what was I doing bivouacked at ten degrees below zero, two hundred feet below the top of a grade VI alpine face? After climbing for forty-five years, I thought, maybe it’s time for me to enjoy the mountains for the wilderness experience and climb less demanding routes to stay mentally and physically fit rather than tempt fate on climbs that test even the best young climbers.
The problem is that I still believe I can climb at a high level. I don’t feel sixty, as I perceive that age to feel. My soul pushes me to try, so I work out daily to overcome the obvious effects of aging, including the fear of being “old.” The physical strength I develop from running and biking, climbing and weight lifting gives me confidence to come to grips with the challenges of climbing. It’s too easy to tell myself at the base of a climb, “Maybe another day.” The truth is, I may not get another day. Whatever I believe I can do, I’d better do it now.
* * * *
NEXT: PART THREE
Photo at top: Jess Roskelley approaching the upper vertical waterfalls on Slipstream, 2009
Credit: Source link
I have to say, Mountaineers seem to be an excited bunch when the weather gets nice. With summer on the horizon, the number of trip reports you posted in May went WAY up. These reports have been wonderful, and it looks like it’s bound to be a good summer for The Mountaineers community. This month, we have six climbs, one scramble, two hikes, and one sailing report to highlight from our favorite trip reports.
You can find recommendations for how to write a solid report here. The following write-ups are listed in the date that the trips occurred, not ranked in any way. Click on the photos to read the full reports from the volunteers and members.
climb – Mount Rainier/Fuhrer Finger 5/4-5/5
“We woke up to a starry, moonless night. After packing up camp we started out at 3:15 a.m. The snow conditions were great. The crevasses we encountered had reasonable snow bridges. Other than a stretch of maybe 50 meters where the lead climber kicked in toe-deep steps, the climbing was straightforward.”
A real alpine start! Doesn’t sound like there was a single complaint on this trip, which is always good to hear.
climb – Mount Rainier: Gibraltar Ledges + Ingraham Direct 5/4-5/5
“A car-to-car attempt on Mount Rainier via Gibraltar Ledges, early in the climbing season- that was the mission! Marlisa and I picked Gibraltar Ledges after getting some feedback from some of our Mountaineers mentors. Our initial plan was Ingraham Direct, but we switched ascent routes to Gibraltar Ledges because we would only be traveling as a team of two”
Over the past year, I’ve been reading through all of the trip reports that get posted to the website. This report, in formatting, detail, and imagery, is the best trip report I have seen, hands down. Kudos to Greg Overton for such a great write-up.
climb – Colchuck Peak/North Buttress Couloir 5/4-5/5
“On route, we had a bit of everything in snow quality. Our early start afforded us safe travel up the NBC prior to excessive direct sunlight, morning shade on the NW face, and loose cloud cover protected the Colchuck Glacier during our decent. All and all, many variables lined up nicely for safe and enjoyable climbing.”
Another report from a day that sounds like it went off without a hitch. With the sunny weather in early May, too many routes to count must have been perfect for climbing!
hike – lake serene 5/5
“First stopped at Bridle Veil Falls about 2 miles and 600 feet of gain for a nice view of a high volume of water cascading down a several hundred feet high rock face. One of our trip participants who has lots of wildflower and bird call knowledge kept us informed on the various wildflowers and birds in the area.”
I mentioned in the last Top-10 blog post that we were headed into waterfall season, and it sounds like the rivers sure are running high! Catch one if you can on one of the upcoming weekends. (We have some suggestions for the summer if you’re looking for a trip or two)
Sail – Esther, Port of Edmonds Marina 5/15
“Diligently we set the upwind mark off the Edmond’s off-leash beach, then motored South. “How deep is your keel?” was asked. “About five feet. Why do you ask?” “I can see the bottom.” Oh, that shallow, eh? Though it was probably plenty deep for most boats keels, it was a little unnerving having crabs wave at us.”
Another great Carl Harrington sail report, though I’m not sure seeing the crabs waving from the boat is a good thing…
hike – easton ridge 5/15
“The trail ascends fairly quickly with long switchbacks. In less than a mile look for signed trail junction for Easton Ridge to the right. More switchbacks before attaining the top of ridge. The trail starts to go down the ridge and ends without access so we turned around just past the opening at the top with views of Lake Cle Elum, Easton Lake, and Lake Kachess plus mountains beyond.”
PSA: The snow is melting from the trails, and the wildflowers are out. Time to get out and starting hiking a bit higher into the mountains!
scramble – snoqualmie mountain 5/23
“Finally above tree line, the snow became more continuous on the ridge but still patches of trail and rocks were distinguishable on an off. Wore micro-spikes or crampons from here to the summit and back to this section and used ice ax and helmet as well.”
A great trip report from a well-prepared group. Good route detail from Emma Agosta.
climb – North Twin Sister/West Ridge 5/18
“Our original plan was a 4 day climb of Dark Peak in the North Cascades, but we ended up here due to bad weather there. The weather was excellent, clear skies most of the day and moderate temperatures. As we drove up the FS road to the trailhead, we passed a man riding his bike hard up the road, I was so glad I didn’t have to push my bike up that road for the 3rd time!”
Another great report from Susan Shih, from a trip to the North Twin Sister in perfect weather, and apparently an open gate at the trailhead!
climb – Mount Mystery & Little Mystery 5/25-5/27
“Next morning clouded in and windy. Headed out 6:30am, gained the ridge at Constance Pass, couldn’t see anything. Turned around and started back down, but then clouds started to lift, decided to head on out the ridge. Ridge runs OK except for a couple sections, big bypass at Twin Benchmark that took some time. Just kept plugging along, clouds kept lifting little by little, and after a couple of hours Mystery finally revealed itself.”
It’s always rewarding when the day starts out cloudy, only to clear up just in time for the summit or the viewpoint you are climbing to reach. Keeps you cool on the way up, but you still get the reward you are looking for!
climb – The Tooth/South Face 5/28
“Opted for the summer route as weather was warm recently with some rain. Route is in a very good condition. Pretty much snow free until the Snow Lake fork. Afterwards some post hole danger in the Source lake band and a few thin snow bridges. At upper elevation snow cover is still quite good.”
Another trip report from an ideal-weather day. Great photos from Assaf Israel. Looks like a great trip for a great group!
Our last Top-10 blog post is also online for you to check out. If you have a trip report you’ve really enjoyed, or wrote one yourself that you are quite proud of, send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may be featuring the best of the best in an upcoming edition of Mountaineer magazine!
Credit: Source link
Sometimes a seabird is simply a bird that lives on the sea; other times it can lead you to a deeper connection with the world around you. For Joe Sweeney, that magic happens every time he visits the shore.
What could lure a beginner to look for seabirds? “The thrill that anything could show up,” Joe says. “Any bird could fly by, but also whales. I‘ve seen humpback whales, orcas, porpoises, sea lions, and river otters.”
A lifelong health and fitness devotee, he has hiked Mt. Whitney and Mt. Kilimanjaro, bicycled across the United States twice, and gained a bird’s-eye view of the earth more than 700 times hang gliding. But his latest passion is seabirds.
The leap isn’t that unexpected. It all began with hang gliding. It was only natural that his thoughts would turn to birds. Gliding over the California landscape, he was inspired to learn more about birds. Later, when he was living in Mexico and working as a fitness instructor at a health resort, he began leading bird walks. For 10 years, he introduced resort visitors to the wonders of the local birds. But he still wasn’t very familiar with seabirds because he didn’t live near water.
Harlequin Duck. Photo by Joe Sweeney.
Not All Seabirds are Seagulls
Joe moved to Seattle five years ago, and that’s when his birding world suddenly expanded. He was living in a place surrounded by water; defined by water. He was drawn to the shore, where he began to spend lots of time studying the seabirds. He’s a graduate of Seattle Audubon’s Master Birder program, and now leads bird walks and teaches seabird identification. Joe prefers to be descirbed as a “graduate” of the Master Birder course instead of “master birder.”
Though he still consults as a personal trainer, retirement has given him more time to indulge in his new passion. Living so close to so much water, he’s like a kid in a candy shop. He’s hooked on our marine life and spends much time along the shore. His usual haunts include Richmond Beach and Edmonds Pier.
After all, he says, “You don’t have to drive to the ocean to see seabirds.” Puget Sound abounds with seabirds. With dozens of species of seabirds living in our region, you don’t need a boat or even a spotting scope to appreciate them. Around Puget Sound, you can see a wide variety of seabirds year-round from the shore. Joe says a pair of binoculars and any decent field guide are all that’s necessary to appreciate these underappreciated birds.
If you think all seabirds are all gulls, or dark, uninteresting blobs, consider the harlequin duck. He wears a jaunty suit of blue-gray and rust, with striking white patches and a mask befitting any member of its namesake troupe. Harlequins are winter visitors to Puget Sound, helping to lure birders out on otherwise dreary, cold gray days.
No doubt you’ve spotted great blue herons. They’re actually a shorebird and not a seabird, but they are common year round and easy to see standing on their long legs near the shore. Ducks, geese, cormorants, and grebes are some of the others that are easily seen.
Some you see, then you don’t!
Species like mergansers and grebes frequently dive below the surface to find food, popping up a short distance away.
Cormorants are familiar big black seabirds that congregate around the harbors and ferry terminals. If you look closely, you’ll see the differences between the double-crested and pelagic.
Everyone knows gulls, but which one? Which plumage? Gulls are some of the most challenging birds to identify. Their appearances vary by age and season. There are breeding plumages and winter plumages, first summer, first winter, second winter, and adult plumages. It’s enough to discourage anyone! Yet, Joe assures us it is possible to unravel the mysteries of gulls.
Don’t forget the terns. You may have seen terns but mistook them for gulls. Terns have a sleeker look, with longer and more pointed bills. The Caspian tern, which summers around Puget Sound, is a striking bird, with a black cap and bright red-orange bill.
There are other rewarding seabirds to identify. One of Joe’s favorite families of seabirds are alcids, a large group that includes murres, murrelets, puffins, guillemots, and auklets, many of which can be spotted around Puget Sound at different times of the year.
Despite their name, seabirds aren’t necessarily confined to water all of the time. Imagine a seabird whose existence is deeply intertwined with old-growth forests. That’s the marbled murrelet. This is a small but chunky, robin-sized bird that nests in big trees in the Pacific Northwest. Maria Mudd Ruth, author of Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, published by Mountaineers Books, said, “Most Mountaineers have been in marbled murrelet habitat without knowing it. Maybe they have heard the keer calls, which can sound like a cross between a hawk and a gull. There is one marbled murrelet sound that no one has yet recorded. It sounds like a jet airplane.” (See related article in The Mountaineer, Nov/Dec 2013, p. 12)
During nesting season, marbled murrelets fly as many as 30-45 miles from the sea to their nests, every day. In June, says Joe, they are often fairly easy to see in Puget Sound. The fact that their numbers are dwindling makes it all the more exciting to see one. Marbled murrelets are federally listed as threatened, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended they be state listed as endangered. There are an estimated 5,000 marbled murrelets left in Washington. Logging, declines in prey fish, oil spills, and deaths from fishing nets, in addition to a naturally low reproductive rate, are cited as factors in their decline. “The broad, horizontal limbs of older trees are generally needed to support the single murrelet egg which is laid on the limb,” the agency website states.
Pigeon Guillemot. Photo by Joe Sweeney.
Another species that can be seen here is the common loon. Loons are widely distributed across the United States and are often associated with northern wilderness areas. They have a haunting call. You are more likely to see them in Puget Sound and on lakes during migration and winter here. But their population numbers are unknown and state biologists consider them a “state sensitive species.” As common as seabirds might seem, it’s sobering to realize all the hazards they face daily: being eaten by something bigger, being caught in a fishing net, being hit by a ship, starving, and choking or strangling on plastic garbage. They are survivors; they carry eons of nature’s rhythms in their DNA.
“The best way to get people to take care of the environment is to turn them on to nature,” Joe notes. “That’s why I lead these bird walks.” Puget Sound abounds with life, especially birds. Wander down to the shore sometime and drink in all that the water offers. Do you like a challenge? Try identifying seabirds during and after the breeding season. Plumages can change radically during the breeding season, and males and females differ at all times in some species.
Rachel Carson wrote, “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides …to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years… is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
This article originally appeared in our Fall 2017 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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