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March 2015 Newsletter

February 19, 2015

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News to Use
March 2015 Edition




It started with Mount Shasta. It almost ended on Mount St. Helens

Richard Pignatiello mountain climbing
Yes, that's me.
Ahead of the pack once the climbing began.

We met in our first year in college. He was getting straight A's and yet he studied anyway. I had never seen anything like it. He had the A's. What more did he want? Well, he actually wanted to know it. All of it. And he does. My college roommate today is Dr. Kent E. Wallner. He is the co-author of Prostate Brachytherapy Made Complicated and Kent has been called a "legend in the field." He was the best man at my wedding, and he is the reason I climbed Mt. Shasta, Mt. Rainer and Mount St. Helens. So you could say, it's all his fault.

Kent was doing his residency in California and an article in the newspaper caught his eye. It said that almost anyone in reasonably good physical condition could climb Mt. Shasta. So he called me. He got his father on board, as well as, another colleague Dr. Steve Turner. Almost anyone the ad said. Since I was taking along the equivalent of my personal physician, I said I was in.

Mount Shasta at 14,179 feet is the fifth highest peak in California. Did we train to climb the mountain? Does jogging count? We did that. But we were totally unprepared to climb and it showed. But we continued to climb for hours past the tree line, the point on the mountain where trees are incapable of growing because trees cannot tolerate the environment’s conditions which usually means cold. But that climb had us hooked. We returned to our homes and began to train for the next climb. Mt. Rainier at 14,417 feet in Washington..

We trained for six months all over the country. Kent in California, his father and I were back here in Northeast Ohio and Dr. Steven Turner who was based in Columbus at that time. To climb Mt. Rainier you are required to pass a class run by Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. Guides teach and evaluate you before they will agree to take you up. Three out of the four of us did not pass. Were we discouraged? No. We were determined.

Base camp Mount St. Helens
Base camp Mount St. Helens

Six months of brutal training went into preparing for the climb a year after our first attempt. I purchased the heaviest weighted vest I could buy. It was 40 pounds of lead cylinders. I left them all in the vest. I would wear it while using the stair machine at the gym where I climbed for hours to simulate climbing the mountain. We had already learned that on the walking portions of the mountains, my associates left me behind with their long legs. But when it came time to climb up, imagine a vertical climb like a ladder. Well then, they couldn’t keep up with me.

The next year, we were back on that mountain. And this time, we passed. The climb begins at 6:00 am. The guides say you will climb until 4:00 pm in the afternoon, eat and then go to sleep by 5:00 pm. And you think to yourself, there is no way you are going to sleep at 5:00 pm in the afternoon. But you do, because it's a tired that is both physical and mental. We arrive at the base camp, Camp Muir at the 10,060 elevation mark by 4:00 pm, and settle in.

The guides will wake us at midnight to begin the second day of the climb. The snow is harder at night without the sun to warm it, making it easier to climb. We slept soundly until they woke us up. A storm had come in at the top of the mountain that night and it was too dangerous to climb. We had to return to the bottom of the mountain for the second time without reaching the summit.

Mount St. Helens before the climb
Mount St. Helens Before the Climb

We were discouraged. For three years we had made this trip and without success. We were on vacation, so we decided to head over to Mount St. Helens, which was located a short drive from where we were staying.

Driving up to the mountain was shocking. Suddenly you turn a corner in the winding road, and miles and miles of trees, some burned like matchsticks and flattened all around you. A 4.2 magnitude earthquake hit Mount St. Helens on March 20, 1980. A week later, steam began venting and by the end of April, the north side of the mountain had started to bulge. A second earthquake on May 18th of a 5.1 magnitude triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain.

Flattened trees on Mount St. Helens
Picture courtesy of NASA

This has been called the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic eruption in our nation's history. Fifty-seven people lost their lives. And 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of train railway gone. Over 185 miles of highway destroyed. The eruption reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 feet to 8,365 feet. What was left when it was over was a 1 mile wide horseshoe-shaped crater.

Actually climbing Mount St. Helens is like a long walk in the woods. Wearing jeans and t-shirts, we had a snack and a little water. We set out for a couple hour hike. No problem after what we've been through. We climbed. And within several hours, we had passed the tree line. Before we knew it, we were peering over the edge of the crater, the volcano still bubbling. It was an amazing sight to see and then to look around and see the devastation it caused I was absolutely astounded. Other than the Grand Canyon, I’ve never seen anything more overpowering.

We headed down the mountain. And we lost our way. Once you are down past the tree line, its all forest. And it all looks the same. I won’t say that panic set in, but we were not equipped to be out on that mountain in the dark. The sun was starting to set. We had no food, no water and no warm clothes. And no sense of how far off we might be from where we had left the car. Between the four of us, we had 33 years of college and post graduate degrees. And no compass.

Pure, dumb luck saved our lives that day. Finally, we found our way back to where we had left the car.

I returned home, got engaged and we bought our first home on Mapleview. My wife insisted if we had a mortgage, I also needed a life insurance policy. The fine print, at the very bottom of the document, included three conditions under which the policy would not be paid. One of those, was mountain climbing.

My wife turned to me and said, “You know in the movie musical Sound of Music, where Julie Andrews sings 'climb every mountain'? Well, you're done."

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