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Dive enthusiasts scale the heights

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Dive enthusiasts scale the heights
By Kevin Wadlow Senior Staff Writer kwadlow@keynoter.com
Posted-Friday, October 29, 2004 5:12 PM EDT
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Ric and Janet Altman take a quick break on a steep snow-covered slope at Mt. Rainier in Washington state. A fall could mean a slide into a crevasse. For more photographs and details on Ric and Janet Altmans' attempts to climb Mt. Rainer, see their web site: www.silentworldkeylargo.com/ric/index.html Photos courtesy JANET and RIC ALTMAN
Key Largo couple tackle Mt. Rainier

Given the altitude-induced exhaustion, the bone-chilling cold and very real danger of plunging into an icy crevasse, Ric and Janet Altman have a hard time themselves explaining their 'obsession' with conquering Mt. Rainier.

'It's not fun when you're up there,' said Janet. 'There were times we looked at each other and said, who's idea was this, anyway?'

In July, on their fifth attempt in five years at climbing the 14,410 feet to reach Mt. Rainier's snow-covered summit, the Altmans saw the view from the top.

'The scenery is one reason we do it. It's something you can't see anywhere else,' said Ric. 'This biggest draw is probably that it's so completely different from everyday life.'

Especially when that everyday life is running a dive shop in balmy Key Largo, where elevation above sea level gets measured in inches.

To take a break from the dive business, the Altmans got into recreational cave exploring several years ago. Caving skills helped Janet overcome a lifetime fear of heights, and Ric had always been curious about mountain climbing.

The last sleep before mounting an assault on the Mt. Rainier summit comes in a small tent perched precariously on a rock-and-snow covered slope.
Photos courtesy JANET and RIC ALTMAN
After attending a five-day mountaineering school in Alaska, the Altmans considered themselves ready to take on Mt. Rainier in September 1999.

A naive notion, said Ric. 'We grossly underestimated the mountain.'

The exhausting physical demands of the climb, compounded by altitude, proved overwhelming.

Looking back over their shoulders, the Altmans see the cold, rocky terrain covered in climbing Mt. Rainier. 'We don't have pictures of the really scary stuff,'Janet says. 'That was no time to be taking the camera out.'
'Your legs feel like lead. You can barely move,' Ric said. 'At 11,000 to 13,000 feet, you're completely trashed by the altitude.'

Added Janet, 'You have to eat, but you have no appetite.'

Four times over the next years, the Altmans crossed the country to Washington and started up Rainier. Four times they turned around.

'You get to a point where you're trashed, and you stop to think: Can I get through this safely?' recounted Janet. 'You swear to yourself that you'll never do this again.'

Rainier generally is not considered the most formidable mountaineering challenge in the U.S., but it's on the list. A local climbing firm warns of risks including 'avalanche, ice fall, rock fall, crevasse fall, inclement weather, high winds and severe cold.'

Said Ric, 'You need to stop and rest but you can't because it's too steep, too scary. You say, I'll never put myself in this kind of danger again.'

A climb to the top of Rainer typically takes about three days: a hike through woods to reach the base camp, then a trek to another camp far up the mountain, all while carrying a pack weighing about 55 pounds. 'You've got all your outer gear, ropes, heavy boots, crampons [boot spikes for ice climbing], sleeping bag, tent, and all the food you're going to need,' Janet said.

The final push up the last several thousand feet, up steep snow-and-ice covered slopes to the summit, often begins at midnight.

'The goal is reach the summit by dawn,' Ric explained. 'The ice is frozen at night. Once the sun starts hitting everything, the risks increase. Rocks become unfrozen and there's more danger of an avalanche.'

The Altmans gained experience on each attempt at Rainier, and on successful climbs of somewhat lesser peaks. They worked on conditioning, strapping on dive weights to repeatedly climb the stairs of their Keys home.

Before making their fifth attempt in July, the Altmans spent a week climbing in Colorado, getting their bodies used to the altitude.

With climbing partner Chris Molling of Homosassa ('He's a motivational speaker,' Ric Smiled. 'What could be better?'), the Altmans finally reached the Rainier summit on their July expedition.

'About two hours from the summit, we realized we were going to make it this time,' Janet said.

The view was indeed grand, said Janet, 'but it was cold and very windy. We couldn't stay long.'

They reached the peak at mid-morning, 'which is late to be summating,' said Ric. 'We had to get back down.'

The sense of achievement was tempered by weariness and some melancholy. They remembered well the long hours of frigid fatigue.

'We'd been working toward this for six years,' Janet said. 'It took about three weeks, but then we said, you know, that was fun.'

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