A longtime avalanche professional at Snowbird resort, and former president of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, Dean Cardinale is also an avid mountain climber, outdoor enthusiast, and adventure seeker. The founder of World Wide Trekking and the president and founder of Human Outreach Project, he has climbed and led expeditions to North America, Central America, Africa, Europe, South America, and the Himalayas, including summiting Mt. Everest in 2005.
Dean’s book Inspired due out in February is a collection of 10 stories about pushing yourself to the limit- growing, learning, giving, meditating, striving, being better, being your best.
In an exclusive pre-publication preview of Inspired, we have compiled several excerpts from Dean’s book, and his tales of travel from around the world remind us that a life lived to the fullest is as discomfiting as it is rewarding, and that we are all on this adventure we call life together.
Dean lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Alison, and their three dogs.
Mt. McKinley-Acceptable and Unacceptable Risks
McKinley was my first big, committed multi-day climb. It would be one of the great adventures of my life. Two of my good friends came along with me—Rob Moore and Mike Morris. We were a small team of friends on the adventure of our lives. We were all young and ready for adventure. I was about twenty-five at the time. We had saved hard for this trip, and I was now literally broke. I had spent the entire winter saving up money from my ski patrol job in Utah in order to pay for my plane tickets, gear, and climbing permits. When the time came to finally go, we were eager and full of drive. We were ready to face the mountain.
We flew to Anchorage and took a bus from there to the village of Talkeetna. From there, we took a small ski plane up the mountain. The pilot brought us down on the glacier and confirmed that he would be back in a month to pick us up before waving goodbye. We watched the plane disappear into the sky.
It was then that it hit me that we would be there for a full month!…
…While making our way up the Kahiltna Glacier, we camped at 11,000 feet when the first of several snowstorms hit us, dumping three feet of snow in two days. We were tent-bound for three days. Every hour or so, sometimes every few minutes when the snow was falling hard or the wind blowing snowdrifts over us, one of us had to exit the tent every hour and dig it out of the snow to keep from getting buried alive in your own tent…
… Half of the people who attempt to climb McKinley on any given year never summit, usually due to no fault of their own. The most common cause for not summiting is inclement weather conditions….
… Then the worst happened—the weather turned again, just as we were nearing the summit. The storm blew in quickly, nailing us when we were maybe only a hundred feet from the top. This may not sound like far, but at these altitudes, it can take an hour to cover that much ground. Meanwhile, the storm exploded around us. High winds. Blowing snow. Reduced visibility. The wind picked up and whipped at us furiously. The temperature crashed.
At this point Mike and I had a decision to make—continue forward, or turn back. We weighed our options and the consequences and risk tied to those options….
… This time we were near the top of the mountain. The altitude was much higher. We also would have had to cross the summit ridge to make the summit. The ridge is susceptible to high winds. That wasn’t a risk I was willing to take and neither was Mike. We understood that the consequence of going up on the ridge could be the loss of our lives. That didn’t seem worth it to us…
… Having made the decision to abandon the summit attempt, we turned back and started down in the middle of the storm. Our new goal was to forget the summit and focus on the second half of the journey—getting back down alive…
… Clouds had descended on us and snow began falling and blowing up in the wind. We went from being able to see out thousands of feet down to a visibility of five hundred feet, down to a hundred feet, then fifty, then ten, then to complete blindness and vertigo.
It was at this point that I realized I had lost Mike….
Carstensz Pyramid: The Not-So-Reluctant Leader
What was perhaps my strangest climbing adventure occurred on Carstensz Pyramid. I was forty-one years old at the time. The mountain is in a remote section of Indonesia where even getting to base camp is a challenge. You have to take a series of commercial flights into Indonesia, but to even get close to the mountain you have to take a bush plane to a dirt landing strip in the jungle. From there, it is a week of challenging trek through rain and mud, hacking your way through the jungle with a machete. You generally don’t see any other climbers the whole time, which was my experience, which underscores how isolated the area is. …
… Carstensz Pyramid is a challenging climb. Steep jagged cliffs rise to the summit at 16,024 feet. You have to traverse crags as you move from one rock pinnacle to the next by ascending and shimmying across fixed ropes. I wanted to run some scenarios to make sure everyone was properly prepared.
Despite the challenge, the ascent went off without a hitch. We all made it to the summit, where we celebrated for about a half hour before starting back down the sheer cliffs. Eventually we got off the cliffs and headed back to base camp. Everyone was exhausted. We were tired, hungry, and thirsty. After a quick meal, everyone crawled into their tents and passed out almost immediately.
That night, in the early morning hours before sunrise, I was awakened to the sound of shouting outside my tent. The shouting was in Indonesian, so I knew it must have been one of our porters. Not knowing that much of the local language, I couldn’t tell what the commotion was about, so I got up to investigate. There was indeed a porter outside screaming at some of the other people on staff, who all stood a few feet back because the porter had a machete that he was brandishing at them, swinging it menacingly. Thankfully, all of the guests had stayed in their tents, but surely the noise had woken and frightened them.
“What’s he saying?” I asked the other staff.
Someone leaned into me and whispered that he was shouting: “If one of us dies, one of you dies.” The porter was just chanting this repeatedly. ..
… The three of us hiked several hours down the mountain to the cave where the porters were. There was an Indonesian man with a rifle standing outside of the camp. We waved to him while making a slow approach. He stared at us coldly. I pointed at the camp, signaling our intention to come in, and when he made no move to stop us, we entered the camp. Suddenly, one of the porters took me by the forearm. He led me deeper into the camp, one hand on a machete and the other on me. He took me to the body of a porter who lay on his back in the middle of the camp, a tarp draped over him head to toe like a shroud. Everyone stood around the body. The tension in their camp was palpable. The porters avoided eye contact with us, looking as nervous and uncomfortable as we were. They seemed surprised that we had shown up. …
… Eventually, two more land cruisers pulled up and several guards with semiautomatic weapons and riot gear got out. The head guard, with whom I had spoken earlier, was with them. He came out of the land cruiser carrying a crowbar. Without saying a word, he came up to the vehicle we were in and smashed out the window with me there in the driver’s seat. He unlocked the door through the window and pulled me out. He threw me down to the ground at the feet of the other men. I fell in the mud but hoisted myself back up. I put my hands up defensively. Excitement and fear ran through me. I demanded to know who was in charge.
The men ignored me and ordered our whole group into the storage container. My heart sank as they closed the door and the lock clicked back into place. I looked around the storage container. We were all crammed together inside very tightly. We had no idea when we would be let out, or even if we would be let out.
Thus began one of the strangest ordeals I have ever had to face on a mountain. The hours ticked by slowly. The guards eventually ended up leaving the container unlocked so that we could go outside to attend to necessary body functions. We didn’t try to escape because we had nowhere to escape to. Sometimes, the guards bullied us by lighting up cigarettes and blowing smoke into our faces. They also tried to talk to us, but we had no way to know what they were saying. I wasn’t always sure whether they were being kind or taunting us. …
… By the fourth day, we were very anxious about what would become of us. We had been stuck in a tiny container for four full days. We were not getting good sleep because the guards kept coming by every couple hours, day and night, to harass us. I couldn’t get rest because I had to get up and greet them each time.
One time the head guard who spoke English came with them. I spotted him in one of the land cruisers. I went over to the side of his car and bent in to talk to him. I pleaded with him to please let us go and help us get to the airport. I promised we wouldn’t cause any problems—we just wanted to go home.
He shook his head impatiently while I talked. Eventually, he turned to me and said, “Go back through the jungle.” …
… Finally, on about the tenth day, our luck changed. Alec, the mine engineer, came and said he had talked to the general manager. “He said to get you guys out of here in the morning on the helicopter.”
A complete turn of fortune! After almost two weeks of confinement to a small box, and now we were suddenly free to go. We were even being offered aerial transportation. This was a good turn of fortune, but we weren’t out of the woods just yet. We still had to get by the security forces, who had so far been very hostile, and on the helicopter. …
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue: The Best Rescue Is One that Never Occurs
Rescue is exciting and rewarding work. It is also necessary in the mountains. Having worked in snow safety at Snowbird, I began to realize that, while snow safety focuses on avoiding accidents and mistakes, sometimes they happen. When something does go wrong, that is when the rescuers come in. Snow safety and rescue are two-sides of the same coin.
I began working with WBR early into my patrol career. I started as rescuer and dog handler. Over time I moved up, first to WBR rescue dog coordinator, then to president of the organization, but I remained a rescuer and dog handler the entire time. …
… Working with the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, I gained a lifelong respect for the mountains. When you love being in the mountains as much as I do and have seen as much as I have, you never forget that the mountains, for all the beauty and adventure they offer, can be dangerous. They are places of recreation, but they can turn on you in a minute if the weather or slope conditions become active. …
… It is often family that first alerts us to the need for a rescue situation. Typically, we get a call at night when someone hasn’t returned from the backcountry or the slopes. A classic case is that of Bruce Quint and Mel Dennis, two snowshoeing who went missing in the backcountry in Big Cottonwood Canyon. When they didn’t come home at the end of the day, their significant others drove up the canyon. The car the men had taken was parked at the trailhead, but they were nowhere to be found. The family members then phoned the police who phoned us to request a rescue.
That night we went out with the helicopters to perform an aerial search. We didn’t find them. It was far too dangerous to go in on the ground and conduct a night search. The following morning, we spotted their snowshoe tracks from the air. We saw two sets of tracks side by side, and then one set of tracks where they were following each other in the deep snow. The tracks went into the slide debris, but didn’t come out the other side, which told us that they were in the slide debris….
… We found one of the victims quickly, who the family identified as Mel, buried under five feet of snow, but we couldn’t find Bruce. We had multiple dogs and patrollers shoulder to shoulder, probing down into the snow, but we still couldn’t locate him. We returned to the staging area where the victim’s family was with the sheriff’s command post. The victim’s wife was in tears. I made a promise to her: “We’re going to find him tomorrow.”
I regretted those words even as they came out of my mouth. Sometimes we didn’t find bodies until the snowpack melted in the spring. I stayed up all night tossing and turning, regretting what I had said, worried we wouldn’t recover him and I had given false hope…
…I have only ever had one live recovery in an avalanche situation, and the circumstances surrounding it were extraordinary. I was working at Snowbird when a call came over the radio from Liam Fitzgerald, the director of the Utah Department of Transportation’s avalanche program. He had been on the ridge across the canyon from Snowbird, out checking conditions above the highway, when he saw a skier traveling up a skin track. Suddenly, the slope failed on the skier. Liam watched as the skier was caught in the slide and engulfed in snow.
For a man swept away in an avalanche, he was very lucky. Not only did Liam see the accident, there also happened to be a helicopter already near Snowbird…
… In the end, your safety is up to you. I am proud to have saved several lives while working with WBR, but I am most proud of the prevention and education programs I helped to put in place. At the end of the day, only you can keep yourself safe in the mountains. …
The Human Outreach Program: Giving Back
On the first World Wide Trekking (WWT) trip to Mt. Everest base camp, in our first year of operating, I planned to take time to visit a nearby orphanage. The year before, one of the Sherpas with whom I worked had been killed in an avalanche in Nepal. We had summited Everest together. He was a very good friend. His three children were now living in an orphanage in Kathmandu. I had raised a few hundred dollars in charitable donations with which I planned to buy them some basic necessities, such as socks, shoes, underwear, coats, and other things. We made a day of it. I took them out to lunch and then shopping. Though I knew Pasang well, I had never met his children, so it was a great honor to get to do this for them.
At that moment, I made a pact with myself: I would do everything I could to give back to the often-underserved communities that World Wide Trekking operates in. My happiness and livelihood were owed to these places. It was the least I could do—the only right thing to do.
This was the genesis of the Human Outreach Project (HOP), a nonprofit organization that was founded to help give back to the communities where World Wide Trekking operates….
… Founding a nonprofit was one of the main reasons I wanted to start my own business in the first place. I believed that more outfitters should have a local social mission to give back to the areas they visit. Rather than wait for that to happen, I decided to, as Gandhi said, “Be the change I wanted to see in the world.”…
… The HOP Kilimanjaro Kids Community was ready to go. The Tanzanian government finally approved our permits, and we were now ready to bring in our first kids. Though we had beds for more, we started with only ten children. I couldn’t bear the thought of running out of money once they were in our care. So we started slowly. Never in my life have I taken on such a great responsibility. I was suddenly responsible for all of these kids’ welfare and future. When problems arose, the buck stopped with me. I took that very seriously and was careful not to get too in over my head. Taking on too many new kids would jeopardize the ones already there. We started with only ten, and even now at the writing of this book, we have only thirteen kids—but thirteen awesome, amazing kids! Whose lives have been forever changed.
-All photos courtesy of Dean Cardinale