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- July 08, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 26
On a Stormy Mountain, a Stout Heart Fails
Halfway Up Scotland's Ben Nevis, a Group of U.s. Climbers Faces Death in the Ranks
WE WERE AT 2,500 FEET ON THIS, THE highest mountain in Great Britain, a cold rain drumming against our waterproof jackets and pants. Above us, the 4,400-foot peak we were climbing toward was shrouded in fog. We paused briefly to put on helmets to protect ourselves from falling rock. It was, we were told, the single greatest danger we would face.
We began climbing again. Suddenly, above the sound of the wind and my own labored breathing, I heard six long blasts on a whistle, the mountaineering signal of an emergency. We stopped immediately. A hundred yards down the slope, a second group in our climbing party was clustered in a field of boulders. A third group was lower still, moving up. I assumed someone had slipped on the mossy rocks and hurt himself.
A few minutes later one of our guides said we would be delayed and told us to wrap up in our plastic sheets to prevent hypothermia. He had no other information. So we sat on the soggy ground, encased in orange plastic, and wondered. Soon the guide returned to tell us that the climber down was John Greene. Still no details.
Journalists are not accustomed to waiting for news. I walked down the mountain a way, and others followed. What came into view made me realize that the situation was far more serious than a banged-up leg. In that rain-slick huddle, I could see the unmistakable motion of someone administering chest massage. Oh my God; we looked at one another. John Greene had had a heart attack.
Ironically, he was the man who had brought us to this bleak landscape—as chief operating officer and executive vice president of Outward Bound U.S.A., the famed organization that puts its participants through rigorous physical activity to promote self-confidence and teamwork. John was a genial marketing expert who had invited us—17 editors, publishers and executives—to challenge ourselves in rugged Scotland. It was his way of acquainting some of us with Outward Bound and thanking the rest of us for publishing its public-service ads.
We had gathered at Glasgow airport on Wednesday, June 12, and were driven to the Scottish Outward Bound headquarters at Loch Eil. There we got our foul-weather equipment and an orientation on the difficulties of the climb. By late afternoon we had hiked up the base of the mountain to a small stone hut where we spent a restless night—24 of us, including guides, all men, in one room. The wind howled, shutters banged, and many among us snored.
Dawn in that high latitude came at 4:30 A.M. We ate a breakfast of porridge and tea, shouldered our 30-pound packs and began our ascent in a pelting rain. The mid-June temperature was in the low 40s.
It was slow and tough, across a rushing stream, up a shale slope, through a steep boulder field, jumping from one rock to the next, all of them drenched and slippery as soap. The conditions were close to appalling. I felt nothing but pure exhilaration—the kind of emotional magic that Outward Bound instills.
Then at about 9:30 came the whistle. After waiting a half hour, we were instructed to return to the hut. Descending, we paused at the grim scene. John Greene was on his back, eyes closed. Outward Bound guides were giving him mouth-to-mouth; others rhythmically pushed on his chest, trying to coax his wounded heart into some response.
John, 46, had been hiking directly ahead of Eric Utne, editor of the Utne Reader. He suddenly, soundlessly, collapsed. Eric bent over him and saw his arms move; then, nothing. Resuscitation efforts began within seconds. His fellow climbers recalled that John, who was a rather heavy man, had been moving up the mountain steadily, but with effort. He had apparently gotten little sleep the night before in the hut, and the night before that he had been flying across the Atlantic to Scotland. (We learned later that his family had a history of heart problems, although John, the father of two sons, had experienced no previous symptoms.)
Tired or not, John had been wonderful company on this trip, cracking jokes, offering encouragement, shooting pictures, which he promised to send us. He and I had reminisced about our first Outward Bound expedition together, a white-water rafting trip in Utah two years ago. Now I watched the frantic efforts to revive him and knew, with a sickening certainty, that he was beyond help.
We reached the hut and learned that a local mountain-rescue unit and an RAF helicopter were on the way. I stood in the rain beside an emergency radio telephone and listened to crackly messages about their progress.
An hour later I saw the yellow chopper cautiously maneuvering up the canyon. It dropped a smoke pot to gauge the tricky winds, but on the mountain the fog had settled at ground zero. There was no chance the aircraft could land. We would have to bring John down ourselves.
All of us climbed up again, carrying an aluminum stretcher. By this time the Outward Bound staff had been working on John for an hour and a half. He was not breathing; he had no pulse. His skin was changing color. An Outward Bound mountaineer shook his head. All their heroic efforts had failed.
Gently we placed John on the stretcher. And then we stood there in the chill driving rain, as if unsure what to do next. Two southerners among us provided an answer. Phillip Moffitt of Tennessee, former editor of Esquire, suggested, "I think we should have a few moments of silence." We bowed our heads, and presently the Kentucky-born John Mack Carter, editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, spoke a prayer. There were quiet amens, and we picked up the stretcher and started down.
It was treacherous. Our load was heavy and the fooling even worse than earlier. Everyone look turns with the stretcher, slipping, sliding, falling on the jagged rocks. Finally we reached the hut, and the just arrived rescue unit carried the stretcher down to a clearing where the helicopter could land. In silence, I watched it take on its melancholy cargo.
Within a few hours, all of us would have to decide whether to continue with the program of island hikes that John Greene had devised for us. A few, shaken by his death, chose to return to the United Stales. The rest of us felt we would honor John best by staying. I had experienced his death with these men; I wanted to share the aftermath, the slow decompression from tragedy.
But those decisions were for later. At the moment, tired, wet, cold, emotionally battered, I found myself remembering some final lines from Hamlet, so appropriate to this awful afternoon: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." And with that, the helicopter took off and flew into the stormy distance.
October 10, 2015
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