Student Profile: Rick Witting . . .
a different type of Songahm mountain
by Connie Gulick
Spring 1997 The Way of Traditional Taekwondo
Until April 19, 1996, taekwondo for Rick Witting, 41, or Aurora, Colorado, was just something else he did in his already active life that included running, weight-lifting, and most of all mountain climbing. He had been in taekwondo only two and a half years, but his mountain climbing years totaled 13. Then Witting climbed the highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley, in Alaska.
"Taekwondo saved my life," Witting said. "We were six days into the trip when I fell into a crevasse. Because of my quickened reactions, I was able to 'stem,' get my feet apart so I didn't fall any farther. I fell just to my armpits. I truly think it was because of my martial arts training that I was able to react quick enough." The crevasse was in an ice fall, a part of Muldrow Glacier on Mt. McKinley, where an incline allows big blocks of ice to break off Denali downhill.
Climbers call Mt. McKinley by its Athabascan name, "Denali," and claim it is the coldest mountain in the world because of its proximity to the Arctic Circle. "Mt. Everest, for example, is at the same latitude as Miami and not nearly as cold as Denali!" Witting explained. His party faced minus 20 degree temperatures in the daytime, and at night the temperature plummeted to minus 40 degrees. "There are only so many socks you can put on."
Witting and his companions, Alan Hunt and Scott Williams, both of Aspen, Colorado, weren't satisfied with climbing the 20,320 foot high mountain up the West Buttress, the most commonly used route. Rather they took the "traverse," traveling northeast to southwest across the glacier. "A park ranger told us that only 15 parties have tried the traverse. Everyone tries the West Buttress."
The traverse crossed grizzly country, so Witting and his friends started out early in the season hoping the grizzlies would still be hibernating,. However, a "mild" winter had put an early end to grizzly hibernation, as one-hour-old bear prints soon attested. The men went to great lengths, yelling, blowing a whistle, and watching for signs, to avoid meeting up with a grizzly on their way to Muldrow Glacier. Their early start in the season meant they were the first ones to cross; there were no trails already blazed. Then came the ice fall where Witting nearly met his end.
"It was the end of a long day," Witting recalled. "We were taking a cache of fuel and food to a new campsite. In negotiating the ice falls, we'd read deadends and have to backtrack and try another way.
"All this route-finding took time. It was 8:30 p.m. and we had gone up what we discovered was a serac, a chunk of ice isolated from the rest of the glacier. Since it was so late, we decided to cache the food there and come back the next day.
"I was following Scott's and Alan's tracks when suddenly the snow opened up below me."
Witting yelled, "Falling!" according to climbers' safety rules, but realized there was too much slack in the rope connecting him and Scott Williams.
"All this happened in microseconds. I looked down and saw black; I couldn't see the bottom of the crevasse. Then I looked to the sides of the crevasse, saw blue ice, and reacted. I spread my feet and stopped my fall."
Scott Williams, who was belaying Witting, took in the slack while Alan Hunt grabbed Williams to anchor him. Williams kept tension on the rope so that Witting would not fall any farther. Then Witting enlarged the hole around him with his ice axe and climbed out.
Witting attributes his quickened reactions to sparring. "A bunch of us guys would get together on Wednesday nights and just spar. In sparring, you have to react to whatever's coming, no matter where it's coming from."
Witting has hand an interest in the martial arts since his college days, but the interest soon got put on the back burner. Then his son, Erik, got interested in taekwondo. Witting saw this as an activity he and his son could participate in together.
"I figured we would be on a level playing field. We would both start out as white belts." Yet Witting was also anticipating the advantages taekwondo would provide him in rock climbing. "I thought it would help me with my balance and flexibility." He found this to be true but also that his rock-climbing helped him in taekwondo. "The sports are symbiotic."
Balance attained in taekwondo was also key in Witting's survival of his climb up Denali. "We were carrying loads of 60-plus pounds in our backpacks and pulling 45 pounds on sleds through crevasse fields. Balance was really important when leaping across crevasses and crossing ridges. There was no margin for error.
"Once I stepped off the edge of a hidden crevasse just as it collapsed under me. I was able to get my balance over my forward foot, and then I pulled the sled up after me."
"The potential for a fall is continuous," Witting emphasized, "but you don't know where it might happen. Just like trap doors, holes open up, so I'd say 'awareness,' the ability to be constantly aware, is another way taekwondo helped me.
"Also concentration and focus. You have to focus on where to put your foot or hand."
Because of the 5% fatality risk and only 40% success rate in challenging Denali, Witting's group took no unnecessary chances. "We did everything right. We drank four to five quarts of water a day, and ate 4,000 to 6,000 calories. We made sure we were acclimated, going no more than 1,000 feet a day and giving ourselves time to get used to the altitude. Then at 17,000 feet, we got stuck in storms." That was day 23 into their trip, May 13.
Witting and his friends tried to wait out the bad weather in their tents, but they were steadily running out of food. At that altitude, they were aware that their cells were dying for lack of oxygen. As Witting put it, "Our bodies were atrophying."
Then the strength of the wind blasting their tents allowed them very little sleep for seven nights. They couldn't talk with each other over the sound of the wind although the tents were 18 inches apart.
"Under such constant psychological pressure, I was glad for the mental discipline martial arts provides. It helped me clear my mind." While waiting for the weather to clear, Witting reviewed all the Songahm forms, visualizing himself going through them.
Finally on the 32nd day, the weather was still bad, but they decided to make one last attempt anyway. Either way, they would have to go down soon. As they began climbing the final slope, the weather began to clear. Clouds were even clearing out of the valleys below them.
"We summited at 7:30 on May 22nd," Witting said, a touch of awe in his voice. "We stayed there a half hour, then started descending the West Buttress. As we went down, the weather closed in again. We were lucky."
On the West Buttress were several parties of climbers, none of whom spoke English. There were groups from Korea, primarily, and from France, Spain, Germany, Austria and other countries. "Since we had succeeded in the traverse, people knew it, and we got a hero's welcome."
The only casualty of that trip was half of Alan Hunt's right big toe, which he lost to frostbite. "He thought it was a small price to pay," Witting said.
"It's important to have goals," Witting said. "Last year my goal was to get my black belt. This year it was to climb Denali. My next goal is my 2nd degree. If you have goals, you'll do all right."