By Kristin Dizon
Peter Rieke cranks over the last little slope. (AP Photo/George Waymire) Peter Rieke had stood at the pinnacle of Mount Rainier before -- seven times, to be exact. On Sunday, he made it to the top yet again.
But this summit was different. The weather was bad, and Rieke, a paraplegic, conquered the mountain using a custom-built snowpod.
On Wednesday, a cheering crowd of about 100 people greeted Rieke as he finished his descent and appeared in the Paradise parking lot at 3 p.m.
Visitors snapped Rieke's photo and shook his hand. The National Park Service gave Rieke a Mount Rainier centennial medal.
For most, Mount Rainier's summit is inhospitable, inaccessible terrain -- widely regarded as the toughest continental mountain to climb.
As the first paraplegic climber to reach the mountain's 14,411-foot crown -- traveling 9,000 feet in 11 days -- Rieke made history.
But his climb wasn't so much a message about disability. It was about achieving goals in the face of immense obstacles and growing because of the journey.
"There were enormous numbers of friends who said, 'I think he should accept reality and give up mountain climbing.' But after a while they began to see that that's not possible.
"We just needed the technology to get it done. And so they started joining one by one by one," Rieke said.
"And we got there, not because I have big muscles, but because my friends had belief in an idea."
Final Push Lasted 18 Hours
It meant conquering doubt's clawing, icy fingers. It meant 18 straight hours of exertion on summit day for Rieke, a 45-year-old chemist and experienced mountaineer from Pasco, Wash.
To celebrate, Rieke said he was looking forward to food and a shower.
Wearing a lavender bandanna, tucked under his blue baseball cap French-legionnaire style, and an enormous grin, Rieke bantered and joked with his descending party of seven. They strolled along to the spinning sound of his crank for the last quarter-mile.
Asked why he climbed the mountain, Rieke tinkered with the old phrase, "Because it's there." He said: "Because I can."
But he also said that being the first held meaning for him.
"Setting a goal for yourself in life and something that nobody has ever done before is something that few of us ever really get an opportunity to do," Rieke said.
Now Rieke would like to increase mountaineering opportunities for people with disabilities. He plans to tackle Mount Shasta in northern California next year with three other paraplegic climbers.
Rieke tried to conquer the mountain twice before using his $30,000 snowpod. A cross between a snowmobile and bicycle, the pod has spiked, 5-inch wide treads that can handle a 45-degree slope.
Using the snowpod, Rieke tried to summit the mountain in 1998 and again in 1999. But bad weather and melting snow forced him to turn back.
This year, he chose a shorter but steeper route through the Kautz Glacier. Brutal conditions and mechanical difficulties almost ended this year's climb, too.
Rieke has been paralyzed from the waist down since a rock-climbing accident in 1994.
While in the hospital, in full traction, Rieke told his friend and business partner, Greg Coffey, about his desire to top Rainier again.
Coffey, a materials engineer, enthusiastically signed on. They labored on a snowpod prototype three nights a week.
Rieke also skis, canoes, camps and often logs 40 miles a weekend on his bike. His gigantic biceps are the size of most people's thighs.
Rieke is not the first person with a disability to make the ascent.
Several climbers with prosthetic legs have reached the volcanic pinnacle.
But Rieke's goal wasn't to become the first paraplegic to climb the 33rd-highest peak in the United States. He just wanted to climb the mountain.
Planning began last fall for the logistically challenging climb, said Mark Easterwood, a mechanical engineer.
Meetings, workouts and a scouting trip preceded the ascent.
Teams of climbers, including Rieke's wife, Wreatha Carner, rotated every two to three days to haul heavy supplies and parts to preset camps.
Others scouted ahead or manned safety ropes attached to Rieke's pod.
The most dangerous part of the expedition -- just above Camp Hazard at 12,500 feet, where large ice chunks or rocks can sweep a person into the gully below in seconds -- went smoothly.
But there were setbacks including technical difficulties with the snowpod and bad weather along the way.
Numerous times, Rieke thought of turning back. But he kept going.
Whiteout Conditions at the Peak He made the summit at 12:23 p.m. and spent only 10 minutes in the freezing, whiteout conditions.
Photos were snapped, then the long way down began.
About 10,000 people try to climb Mount Rainier each year, with 60 percent of them reaching the top.
Rieke's parents made the trip from Wheeler, Ore., so they could welcome their son down from his historic summit.
It had been 45 years since their last trip to Paradise, not long before Rieke was born.
As a teen, Rieke was an energetic Boy Scout who excelled at snow camping.
At the age of 16, he took a mountaineering class in Portland, Ore., passing it by successfully climbing Mount Hood.
Even as a boy, Rieke had determination that was fierce and unyielding.
The thin youngster received a trophy from his high school football coach
sticking with the team even though he sat on the bench all four years.
"The coach wouldn't put him in -- he was afraid Peter would get flattened," recalled his mother, Ann Rieke.
Yet the mountaineer is unnerved by a common household implement, his mother disclosed with a chuckle.
"He's the only one of us who couldn't get up on a ladder," she said.
Like Rieke's friends and colleagues, his parents, both 73, weren't particularly surprised when he told them he would try an arm-powered ascent of Rainier.
There was no gasp, no fear of the dangers involved -- just confidence that their child would succeed.
Their reaction was, in fact, understated.
"Oh, that's Pete," exclaimed his mother. "He'll do it."
To celebrate, the Riekes brought a cooler full of champagne, although they know their son prefers scotch or beer.
And when Rieke went from pavement to snow and from pod to wheelchair, climbing buddy Paul Soboleski popped open a bottle of Freixenet and sprayed him with it.
"Snowpod to base camp, signing off," Soboleski said into his radio with finality.
Rieke and his wife clinked plastic cups and kissed before sipping the bubbly. Then, as the bottle was passed around, Rieke made a toast.
"To the hundreds of people who thought this was the greatest idea in
the world and that it was worth doing."
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(This story was posted on 23 Jun 2000)