L'CHAIM (FALL) MAGAZINE
As Allan Striker reminisces about his years as a mountain climber, high clouds swirl in his eyes. You can see his spirit leap up from the couch of his Cherry Creek home and fly over transcendent peaks and plunging valleys.
Striker, now 73, didn’t venture where most people fear to tread until he was 52. “And I’d do it all over again,” he smiles. His wife Helena, a beautiful woman who enjoys trekking through Colorado with her husband, shakes her head and whispers, “No!”
“I was born with an adventurous love of the outdoors,” Striker says. “I had this passion at a very young age. But when I finished college and started a career, I just didn’t have time for those things. My work consumed every hour of every day.”
After his successful tenure at Deloitte Touche, he opened Safesport Manufacturing Co. in 1979 and came into contact with avid climbers. Striker inhaled their stories like a kid in a candy store. Visions of mountains danced in his imagination. But he was still land-locked by the demands of work.
“After I sold the company in 1992, I thought I could do all the things I’ve dreamt about my whole life,” he says. “Running marathons. Climbing mountains. Marrying Helena (Aug. 25, 1998).”
He planned to summit Mt. Everest in 1996. It never happened, which may have been a blessing in disguise. That’s the year eight people died in the worst climbing disaster in the mountain’s history. The tragedy inspired the book Into Thin Air.
But in 1992, Striker had no idea the master’s excursion to Everest wouldn’t pan out. He spoke to the organizers, who said, “If you can climb huge mountains and make it to the top and prove that you can oxygenate properly and that your body is strong enough, we’ll put you on a team with eight men.”
Striker commenced his training in earnest. “I had climbed mountains in Colorado but not the big ones like Mt. McKinley,” he says. “I started by running up Colorado’s Mt. Bierstadt about two dozen times to get in shape.”
The guidebook says it’s a four-hour up, two-hour back trip. He managed to accomplish the entire feat in three-and-a-half hours.
Striker told his son Doug Striker that if he perfected his climbing technique, he could accompany his dad to Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in Africa. A guide from Boulder Mountaineering whipped them both into shape.
“We learned the basic techniques of climbing rock, and it was a wonderful experience,” Striker says.
“We also did the Flatirons, which has one of the longest rappels (descent of a vertical surface) in the world — 150 feet straight down. You’re in the air.”
The duo climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in 1994 and then assaulted the three highest volcanoes in Mexico.
Now ready for his first major challenge, Striker traveled to Alaska to scale Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali (20,320 feet high).
“The weather was atrocious that year,” he says. “The mountain is so massive that it creates its own weather patterns.
“But we were one of the few teams to summit.”
Then Striker headed for the Alps.
His final journey toward the heavens occurred in 1998, on the foreboding Dent du Géant on Mont Blanc.
It was over.
But the stories — how he mastered the mountains or narrowly escaped their fatal traps — are fixed in his heart.
“I’m here,” he says more than once. “I’m here.”
Striker navigated the tortuous, twisting Alps with his partner Jan Spieczny and British guide Bill O’Connor. Their awareness of one another’s strengths and weaknesses was as strong as the rope connnecting them.
“Trust is crucial,” he says. “Climbing is not as dangerous as you think if you are prepared and have a really good guide. Bill O’Connor was one of the best. And Jan and I were dear friends. I learned so much from them.”
He also learned from McKinley, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, Kenya, the Matterhorn and Piz Bernina that mountains don’t tolerate arrogance. Perhaps that’s why Striker still refers to himself as a neophyte climber.
“I don’t think anyone should say they are an expert climber,” he cautions, “because that’s when you get killed.”
Climbers constantly risk death on these imposing edifices. Sudden storms blind and disorient. Avalanches threaten. Falling rocks slice ropes in half. One misplaced foot can result in a 4,000 foot drop to utter oblivion.
Asked whether he leaves fear in base camp or carries it up the mountain, Striker’s eyes widen. “If you leave the fear in base camp, your chances of survival are diminished. You have to climb with caution, and with fear.
“I’m talking about being in situations where there’s danger and real exposure. Anything can happen at any time. Of course you can walk across the street and get hit by a car . . . ”
Striker tells a story of a near miss on Piz Bernina. His language is punctuated, concise, economical and descriptive — like a Hemingway novel.
“We summited. We were tired. We were coming down, and I was exhilarated. When you descend a mountain, the guide is at the back so he can protect you from falling. The least capable climber is usually in front. I happened to be in front.
“If you encounter ice, you want three points in the mountain: two feet and an ice axe. We’re coming down a razor sharp ridge. There’s nothing on this side, nothing on that side. I plant my ice axe, we have enough room, the axe goes in, and then the whole cornice comes off.
“I don’t know if I can regain my balance. Jan is in back of me, and when I look at him he has a horrible expression on his face. Finally I got my balance.
“It was not my day to die.”
Emotion silences him.
“When we got down, Jan said, ‘I could not tell which way you were going to fall. If you fell to the left, I had to fall to the right to balance us. If you fell to the right, I had to fall to the left.’ Based on my teetering, he had to decide which way to jump!”
Striker, who sometimes had a gut feeling that a particular expedition might be his last, mentions a strange, cautionary coincidence in a lodge near Piz Bernina. “We’re sitting down to have dinner the night before heading to base camp,” he says. “This woman is taking our order while we’re talking about which route to take when we descend the mountain.
“We were considering an area called the Forteeza Ridge, which is very steep. We glance up, and the woman is crying. Bill apologizes — ‘I’m so sorry, we didn’t mean to offend you.’ He’s a very proper British gentleman.
“The woman says, ‘You didn’t offend me. You mentioned the Forteeza. My husband came down that same route and was killed.’”
Despite the synchronistic encounter, the men chose to take the Forteeza Ridge on their return trip down Piz Bernina.
“So we’re on the ridge,” Striker says, “and my hands are freezing. I need some water, so I reach into my pack to get the water bottle — and it falls.
“Have you ever dropped anything off the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” he asks. “It falls in an arc.” He gestures accordingly. “It’s really falling straight but the perception is that it circles in and out and around.
“My bottle dropped exactly like that. We stared at each other.
“If we fall, the same thing is going to happen to us. We were too exposed.”
The thriving business of climbing amasses enthusiasts of all aptitudes at base camps throughout the world. Summiting is the goal. Failure to achieve this exalted end results in bad feelings and broken hearts.
In the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest, guides and business owners Rob Hall and Scott Fischer died trying to give their clients a taste of paradise and a few triumphant photos. Six clients also perished.
“Those guides lost themselves,” Striker says. Although Hall set a firm time of 2 p.m. to start their descent regardless of whether they reached the summit, “Hall didn’t stop them. They continued summiting and came down the mountain in the dark.
“My guide Bill O’Connor says you cannot guide Everest. You go up at your own pace. Unless you tie all the people to a rope, you can’t guide them. The mountain is too expansive.”
Striker says Hall and Fischer “were trying to create a business. If they could get the man who was so insistent on summiting and the wealthy socialite to the top, they could attract more clients.”
Both climbers who have abundant technical skills and the less experienced must rely on expert guides to make the right choices — often in a matter of seconds.
But regardless of skill level, Striker feels every person climbing a perilous mountain has to understand his or her own body.
Striker often faced the ultimate existential dilemma: Do I stop or push forward?
When he ascended the Eiger range in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, he climbed two out of the three main ridges — the Mönch (Monk) and Jungfrau (Maiden). He did not attempt the Eiger (Ogre).
“We tried the Eiger many times but the weather was never right,” he says.
“It’s so difficult to climb up there. And you can’t down-climb the Mittellegi Ridge, which was the route we took. Once you commit, you either make it to the top or, if they can rescue you, it’s by helicopter.
“Look, I probably could have climbed the Eiger,” he says in retrospect. “Maybe I would have made it and maybe I wouldn’t have made it. But none of the signs were right. The ice wasn’t right. The weather wasn’t right.
“What if one of these major storms hit? What if our worst expectations materialized? We would have died. We made the decision not to do it.”
Striker confronted a similar choice on Mt. Kenya, “a hard, long climb. I reached Point Lenana, where most people stop. Then there are two more pillars, Bation and Nelion. We went up Bation (17,057 ft.) and summited Firman’s Tower.
“After that, we could have gone on to another peak but I decided to stop. We couldn’t get down the mountain until after midnight. I remember it suddenly became very cold. The batteries in our headlamps froze. We descended in the dark, and moonlight was sparse.
“Then the guide overshot the place where he was supposed to stop. He ran out of rope. He couldn’t get to us, and we couldn’t get to him. But obviously we made it. I’m here.”
In 1880, the notable climbing team Mummery and Burgener described the Dent du Géant (Tooth of the Giant) as “absolutely inaccessible by fair means!” While climbing equipment and techniques have improved tremendously, the giant hasn’t budged an inch.
The sharp, merciless pinnacle is located in the Mont Blanc massif in France and Italy. Many climbers have attempted to scale its daunting edges. Many have failed.
For centuries, human beings have assigned physical metaphors to mountains. “Tooth of the Giant” is a perfect description. If you’re not careful, it will eat you alive.
“One of the rules of climbing is that you have to save a little bit to get down,” Striker says.
“You must save something. Most people don’t get hurt going up a mountain. They get hurt going down, because they’re so exhausted. They are completely spent.”
In August, 1998, Striker was scaling Dent du Géant’s 600 feet of sheer claws of rock when his energy gave out. “When you climb rock, you use your legs,” he explains. “You’re holding on with your hands so you can push another foot ahead with your legs. But I was scared.
“I looked down and there was nothing. You’re on a pinnacle. If you fall or the rope breaks, you fall 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 feet — and you don’t hit a thing. It’s just straight down.”
He began pulling with his arms instead of using his feet, an instinctive reaction to fear. Before long, the muscles in his arms shook like jello and his legs felt like mud. He had no control.
“Everyone has their limits on technical rock. Taller climbers have longer arms. I’m not tall. You have to stay within your limitations; gauge your abilities. I felt like I was reaching the end of both.
““I was 30 feet from the summit but I had nothing left. I was gone. I was climbing rope. The guide kept yelling, ‘You’ve got to summit!’ I looked at him. I could have made it. But I said no, I don’t have anything left. If something happens on the way down, I’m not going to make it.”
He never climbed those brooding, enchanting corridors to the heavens again.
Striker and Helena regularly explore the Colorado wilderness and ski together. Happy to be alive and in love, his nostalgia hovers like a benign ghost. Five or six books crammed with photographs of his exploits line the living room table.
Upstairs, painted peaks by artist Jan BeDan sprawl across an entire room, and a lovely mural of mountains decorates one wall of the outside porch. “I love coming out here,” Striker says. “It’s a great place to relax, and remember. You almost feel like you’re back up there.”
Striker, a member of Temples Emanuel and Sinai and a community volunteer, has studied Judaism since his youth. Straddling the theological abyss, he is fascinated by the fundamental questions of existence.
Is there a G-d? Why am I here?
“I’ve been searching for those answers all my life,” he admits. “I encounter true spirituality, if I understand the meaning of the word, on the mountains. To all my questions, I find intangible answers.
“You get up at midnight,” he describes. “You’re wearing a headlamp, and you hear the crunching of snow under your crampons and maybe the sound of an ice pick. You hear nothing else.
“Then the sun comes out, and you behold the vastness of these peaks and realize how small you are. You see another set of climbers, but they seem miles and miles away.”
The experience, which borders on the mystical, only occurs when he stands motionless in a secure spot. The physical act of climbing requires too much concentration to accommodate spiritual receptivity.
“It’s the beauty, the majesty, the colors and the sky,” he says. “You’re there. Yes, you’re conquering yourself because you’re doing the impossible. You are bringing forth all that you have inside, you’re in control, and feel as safe as possible. Then you see the magnificence.
“I am most comfortable with myself on a mountain. And when it’s a dangerous one I feel even better, because although I’m pitting myself against nature, I’m part of nature. I exist with it.”
Suddenly Striker’s back on Mt. McKinley, breathing thin, pristine air at an elevation of 17,500 feet. “It doesn’t get dark in Alaska in the summer,” he says. “You stand on this flat plain right before the summit, looking across at another mountain. The colors of the sun are incredible.
“Whether or not you’re religious, it makes you feel that there has to be something much more powerful than we are. It makes you believe.”
Striker, who has watched climbers plunge into cavernous crevasses that become their graves, says he has never felt cradled or protected by this sublime presence.
“I feel exhilarated, not protected,” he says. “What I feel is, ‘I’m here.’ I always tell Helena that you don’t know what tomorrow brings. You might get hit by a car or fall off a mountain.
“Helena is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. And survivors have their own unique, terrible sensitivities. I’ve always felt since I met her that once you have these moments of awe, no one can take them from you.”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News