TERRE HAUTE —
Ninety minutes after sunrise on a 21-degree July morning, 14,410 feet into the sky, David E. Cox fought to keep his mind focused on a final, snowy step that lifted his weary body to the summit of Mount Rainier’s Columbia Crest.
And then, balancing against wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour, he eyed the “prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Before him lay an expanse of clear blue sky that settled seamlessly atop puffy white clouds. In spots, gray rock formations punctuated the mountain’s heaviest snowfall since 1916. All under a bright sun.
“I could see forever in all directions.”
For about half an hour.
Despite being exhausted, minutes after Cox and his fellow climbers reached the summit at about 6 a.m., they were hustled back down Rainier in what would become a 14-hour day that had begun in full darkness at 1 a.m.
Cox’s first act when reaching Rainier’s summit was not to marvel at the view but instead, because of fatigue, to sit on his pack and take a break for five or 10 minutes. Cox — who has white-water rafted for 20 years, climbed two other mountains, has run in the Chicago Marathon and has jogged three miles a day at lunch — said he was weary beyond any other exertion he’d experienced, the “roughest thing I’ve ever done” physically.”
“It was twice the Chicago Marathon all at once,” Cox said. “It was the best of times and the worst of times. [After the climb] I was dead tired and miserable.”
It also was “a real rush — beauty mixed with self-satisfaction.”
After resting, the 62-year-old Cox — a Terre Haute native who has practiced dentistry in his hometown since 1974 — joined thousands who have successfully reached the summit and signed a log book that is protected from extreme weather inside a metal box.
In space that asked for his feelings, he wrote, “I love you, Mary Beth.” That would be his wife of 43 years (on Tuesday) — Mary Beth Jackson Cox, the girl who grew up across South 19th Street from him in Terre Haute, the only one he ever dated, the wife who stayed behind at the state park below the snow line while he went climbing.
Training, then a two-day climb
Cox, eight fellow climbers and two guides had reached the summit on the second day of actual climbing and on the fourth day overall.
• Day one, a Sunday (July 24), was gear day. After Cox had double- and triple-checked his gear before leaving his log cabin home near Mill Creek Park in Marshall, Ill., his climbing guides from Rainier Mountaineering Inc. made him check it all again before beginning the ascent. The climbers also watched a slide show, reviewed the climbing route, met with National Weather Service forecasters and park rangers, and studied landmarks they would be seeing. They stayed overnight in a rustic cabin.
• Day two, a Monday, was “snow school” day in a snowfield at about 5,000 feet. From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Cox practiced falling into the snow — both feet first and head first — and trying to keep himself from sliding down the mountain. It’s a process called “self-arrest” and involves using an ice axe to dig into the snow to stop the fall. Because climbers are roped together for group safety, they also practice “team arrest” to both prevent the whole group from falling and to collectively save a single climber who might lose footing.
“Falling!” a climber would yell (sort of like “Fore” in golf, but more life-saving), and other climbers would spring into action.
Cox said guides also teach climbers “how to walk and breathe” — normal acts that take on new meaning on a mountainside two miles above the ground.
Climbers are taught to take duck steps (slow, heel-to-heel steps), crossover steps (one foot laterally in front of the other) and kick steps that set their crampons (spiked devices that strap on to boots in the snow for better traction). They also learn to take a rest step and pressure breath. That involves stopping on one foot, deeply inhaling and then forcefully exhaling. The pressure breathing is believed to maximize the body’s oxygen intake.
It is more the rapid rate of ascent, rather than mere elevation, that causes oxygen problems, Cox said.
• On day three, a Tuesday, the group climbed to the base camp, Camp Muir, elevation 10,030 feet. They arrived at the camp at 3 p.m., had an early supper and went to bed at 6 p.m.
Cox said the anticipation of the next morning’s climb to the top was like Christmas Eve, and sleep didn’t come easily. The group spent the night inside a shelter carved out of mountain rock, sleeping on plywood bunks with only their faces sticking out of mummy-style sleeping bags.
That day, bonds among the climbers had strengthened, although they could talk only during rest breaks. “You almost immediately bond after snow school because you work together and depend on each other,” Cox said.
It also was on rest breaks, and again at the summit, that he missed contact with his family — contact cut off because he had no cell phone signal on the mountain.
• Day four, a Wednesday, was Summit Day. The climbing guides awoke Cox and crew at midnight, checked the weather report and left at 1 a.m. for the summit.
Sunrise came at 4:30 a.m. near Emmons Glacier. “It was beautiful, like the beginning of time,” Cox said.
They climbed 14 hours that day, from Camp Muir to the summit named Columbia Crest. “The amazing thing,” Cox said, “is that you start below the clouds, climb up through the clouds and end up looking down at them.”
Amid those clouds, he symbolically connected with his family below, leaving behind in the summit’s snow a polished pebble bearing an engraving of his wife’s name — and engraved pebbles for each of his six grandchildren (Ashlyn, Delaney, Madison, Caitlin, Anna and Brady Cox).
Then, from the summit, it was down the mountain to their starting point, fittingly called Paradise, at about 3 p.m. A lodge, food, rest and bed awaited. Cox fell asleep eating a cheeseburger.
The climb down: dangerous, mandatory
The climbers had to descend from the mountaintop so soon after reaching the summit because, even in winter, the sun could soften snow bridges over crevasses. And falling into a crevasse could mean serious injury — or worse. Four people have died this summer on Rainier, the fourth coming on Sept. 12, when a Florida man fell while taking photos near a cliff, according to the Seattle Times. One estimate is that 100 people have died there since 1887 on Rainier, known as having the most glaciers in the lower 48 states.
Going down the mountain can be harder than going up, and most climbing accidents happen on the descent, Cox said.
As a climbing guide told him, “Summiting is option, getting down is mandatory.”
A misstep going up offers the opportunity — but not the certainty — of falling toward the mountain and into the snow, where an ice axe might allow the climber to latch on. A mistake going down, especially when one is fatigued from the climb up, could mean a life-threatening fall down the mountain — a fall that might stop only when one’s body hits an immovable object such as a snowbank or rock.
“One drawback when climbing,” Cox said, “is that you really can’t look at the view. You have to focus on where your foot is going to go so you don’t make a mistake. … You have to channel extreme enthusiasm into focus.”
But when he could steal a glance down, “it was better than looking down on a roller-coaster. It was almost as good as holding the wing [of a plane] before letting go while parachuting” — which Cox has also done. “Adventure just doesn’t happen,” he said. “You have to go out and look for it.”
Preparing body and mind
To prepare for the exertion of climbing, Cox added 15 pounds to his lean, runner’s body. He theorized that the extra weight — which he has now mostly lost — would help him carry his pack and equipment while climbing, and that the more he weighed, the warmer he would feel in the zero (or lower) wind chill of the mountain air.
Besides his daily three-mile jogs, for six months he added race walking: 50 minutes at 6:30 a.m. with a 50-pound pack on his back. He also walked up and down staircases wearing the pack, and on several trips to Snow Hill in Deming Park walked up and down that incline 40 times per trip with that same weight.
Cox also researched Rainier: its climbing trails, its climate, its climbing success rate (between 8,000 and 13,000 people try each year and about half succeed) and its fatalities (three to five a year).
He also studied reasons climbers failed: lack of physical fitness, climbing mistakes brought on by fatigue and loss of focus, and lack of hydration and food intake while climbing.
Before setting off, Cox made sure he had thoroughly studied the map of the climbing route and had a copy with him. He learned that self-preservation tactic on a rafting trip when he became separated from his guide and had to find his own way.
He also learned that even though Rainier is a volcano, it had not erupted since 1894.
He also knew that Rainier experiences as many as five earthquakes a month at the summit. (Cox felt no quakes during his climb.)
That research, Cox said, gave him the confidence and peace of mind that fought away any fears he might have had about the tall challenge.
Last chance to turn back
Disappointment Cleaver, at 12,300 feet, 2,000 short of the summit, is true to its name. At that spot, Cox said, guides take a close look at all climbers and have the authority to decide if any should stop there and go back down the mountain.
From Cox’s climbing group, a 49-year-old man, 13 years Cox’s junior, was forced to go back down the mountain, accompanied by a guide.
Everyone else was told that if they wanted to go back, that was the last time they would have a chance.
“The guides said if you don’t go down now,” Cox said, “there would not be enough guides to send anyone else down later, [and if anyone later decided to go down] the whole rope team would have to go, which would cost your rope teammates their summit chance.” They would not be happy campers if that were to occur, Cox knew, and so he fought on to the top.
‘You remember … the thrill’
Rainier was Cox’s third mountain. In 1996, a rafting trip to Chile involved climbing a 10,500-foot mountain in the Andes.
“At the time, I thought, ‘If I ever get off this mountain,’ I’ll never do it again.”
But he did it again in 2005. He took on the 14,179-foot Mount Shasta in northern California, the fifth highest peak in that state.
Again, because of fatigue, afterwards he thought he’d never climb again. “But as time passes,” Cox said, “all you remember is the thrill.”
He chose Rainier for his third climb, at first, because he tried to win a contest on Facebook to ascend with two guides who have rock star status within mountaineering: Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker.
Cox didn’t win the contest, but was so enamored of Rainier that he went ahead anyway.
Frequent meals, high calories
Along the way, climbers stopped every two hours for a 15-minute break, at which they rehydrated and ate. Cox and his group were encouraged to “eat all the time” and take in 5,000 calories a day to offset those burned from the exertion of climbing. That meant high-carbohydrate, high-calorie foods —mixed nuts, raisins and chocolate-covered espresso beans for Cox.
At supper, Cox boiled water on a camp stove and poured in bags of pasta.
His last meal before climbing was meat-filled Napalese dumplings called momo. His first meal after climbing was more American: a cheeseburger.
To stay hydrated on the climb, Cox drank water and Gatorade.
Next? Maybe a 19,000-footer
What’s next? Another trip up Rainier? For sure, Cox said, if he could climb with a godfather of mountaineering, 82-year-old Lou Whittaker, who has guided more than 250 groups to the summit and has trained generations of other guides.
But there are so many choices of climbing sites.
All would be “14teeners” — mountains that top 14,000 feet — or taller.
As after his first two climbs, Cox had a never-again mindset right after Rainier.
“Now, I’m starting to research other climbs.”
His Rainier climbing guide is directing him toward Cotopaxi, a 19,357-footer in Equador’s Andes, as his next target.
Cox is looking for something that will “tax you a lot, something really hard but something you don’t have to make your profession.”
Family dentistry’s his profession
Cox, a 1966 Terre Haute Wiley High School graduate with degrees from Indiana State University and the IU Dental School, already has a profession that he has no plans to end soon.
“A friend once said if you marry the right person and pick the right job, it’s 90 percent of your life and you’ll be happy.” He’s sure he has done both.
His patients are now multi-generational.
“The sign out front [at 2510 Hulman St.] says ‘Family Dentistry.’ Over the years I have built up relationships with the people who work with me and with a lot of my patients, and I’m not ready to give those up.”
He feels fortunate that he has seen patients grow and that he is now meeting and learning about their children.
That may in part be because, when you talk with him, he often shows a youthful wonder in his eyes, and a smile, not unchildlike, comes naturally to his face.
That all makes sense when he says: “Inside, I’m still a little kid watching Walt Disney adventure hour on Sunday night, all the while thinking ‘I could do that.’”