Buried somewhere on Mt. Rainier is the body of a fearless, funny doctor
Friday, March 31, 2000
Buried somewhere on the south side of Mount Rainier is the body of a fearless, funny doctor who built houses for the poor, kayaked rapids in his spare time and poured ketchup on everything he ate.
Tres Tietjen crammed adventure into every minute. He constantly tested his limits, whether in the classroom, where he'd always made straight A's, or the outdoors, where he conquered Class 5 rivers and 19,000-foot peaks.
When the 28-year-old moved to Seattle last June to begin a residency program at Harborview Medical Center, he tackled life in the Northwest with the same intensity.
He and his parents arrived on Thursday, June 17, after driving cross country from Plains, Ga. Within two days, Tietjen got his Washington driver's license and car tags, arranged to take a karate class, unloaded his rental truck and set up the apartment in Queen Anne he was sharing with a friend.
By Saturday afternoon, he was itching to try out the snow on Mount Rainier. It would be the last chance he'd get to snowboard; on Tuesday, he would begin his residency. Tietjen called just about everyone he knew in Seattle to see who wanted to go with him. No one could.
That night, friends of his parents had him to their Federal Way home for dinner. "By the time he came over," Shirley Hamilton recalled, "he'd decided to just go up to Mount Rainier, have an adventure and see what he could cram into one day."
Tietjen filled up on Southern cooking, gave Mrs.Hamilton a big hug and drove back to Seattle to get ready for Mount Rainier.
His roommate, a friend from Georgia named Ken Turner, tried to persuade Tietjen to go to Mount St. Helens instead. Tietjen, he said, was a good snowboarder, but he hadn't done any backcountry snowboarding, and he'd never been to Mount Rainier.
But then Turner remembered how crowded Rainier had been two years earlier, when he'd climbed to the summit. "I figured the route would be clogged with people," he said. If Tietjen got into trouble, there'd be plenty of people around. Besides, Turner thought, at that point, nothing would have stopped his friend.
Turner helped him pack. In Tietjen's day pack were a few layers of clothes, a flashlight, a headlamp. He'd packed candy bars, crackers, water, a map and compass. He would also carry the ever-present plastic peanut butter jar filled with first-aid supplies because, Turner said, "he always played so hard that he tore himself up."
Tietjen planned to wear a hat, Gore-Tex jacket, climbing gloves, snowboard pants and boots. He stuck his snowboard and snowshoes on the back of his climbing pack and filled his car trunk with a sleeping bag, tent and camping equipment. He planned to hike to 10,000 feet Sunday afternoon, then snowboard down. If the snow was decent, he'd camp in the parking lot that night and go up again the following morning.
At 7 a.m. Sunday, June 20, he hopped in his Cavalier and drove to Paradise.
* * *
On paper, William L. Tietjen III was impressive. He majored in physics at Georgia Institute of Technology, was valedictorian of his class at Emory University School of Medicine, regularly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. He spoke Spanish fluently, was a skilled outdoorsman and a soon-to-be resident in internal medicine. His goal: to specialize in infectious diseases and help people in Third World countries.
But it's what wasn't on his resume that was most amazing. Tietjen, pronounced TEE-jun, had an intensity, a spirit, a love of learning that inspired everyone around him. His parents had raised their only child, this Georgia boy with a Jimmy Carter drawl, to appreciate and embrace other cultures. They'd taught him to take advantage of opportunities and to go where life led him. As a teenager, he headed to the Air Force Academy. When he wasn't happy there, he transferred to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to study aeronautical engineering, then physics.
He joined an outdoors group on campus, went mountain biking, climbing and taught hiking and kayaking. As a teacher, he stressed safety, his friends said. No one was hurt on any of the trips he led.
"You wouldn't have seen him doing or advocating unreasonable things while he was teaching," said Suzi Beaumont, the outdoor organization's training coordinator. "But there are two different levels of risk." One was as a teacher responsible for others' safety; the other was as an individual responsible only for himself. "I've never seen Tres do something foolish," she said. "I'd seen him do brazen things, but not stupid things."
After college, Tietjen, who friends say had a photographic memory, won a full scholarship to medical school. He composed and played a moving piece on saxophone at a memorial service for the cadavers anatomy students had dissected. He played Ultimate Frisbee every week. He went climbing and hiking and kayaking every chance he got.
Everyone who knew Tietjen has a story about him living on the edge. He had broken both ankles kayaking. He'd injured a knee skiing. Once, while kayaking, Atlanta roommate Brian Ginn said, Tietjen sliced open his hand with a pocket knife. He poured antiseptic on the wound, closed it with duct tape and, when he returned to Atlanta, refused to go to an emergency room because he didn't want to pay for treatment. Instead, he called a fellow medical student, who stitched him up with no anesthesia.
"He was incredibly frugal," Turner, his Seattle roommate, recalled. "Well, OK, he was cheap. He'll admit he was cheap."
Tietjen wore hiking boots to medical school interviews. Once, he showed up for a black-tie affair in a loud tie and khaki jacket. When he ran Atlanta's Fourth of July 10K race, he wore American flag boxer shorts and a matching tie.
But his eating habits were the most baffling. For breakfast, Tietjen ate cereal with milk and ketchup. When he was home for lunch or supper, he had whatever was in the cabinet -- crackers or tuna -- with ketchup. At potluck dinners, one professor said, he was known for his peanut-butter-and-tuna concoction.
Dr. Jonas Shulman, who became Tietjen's mentor, says Tietjen had a hard time deciding what field he should specialize in because he became engrossed in each of his rotations. When he began considering infectious diseases, he took three months off in 1998 to go to Guatemala. He lived with families and learned Spanish. He worked with the local office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He hiked and climbed.
When friends told him they were going to Ecuador for a week during Christmas break, he jumped at the opportunity to climb the country's 19,000-foot peaks. But during a hike with a friend, two bandits -- one with a gun, the other with a knife -- accosted the students. They put the gun to his friend's head and the knife to Tietjen's neck, gagged them, tied them up, robbed them and pushed them down a hill. The two freed themselves by chewing through a rope. When they walked into town, residents cleaned them up, fed them and gave them money to get back to their friends.
The experience didn't scar Tietjen. He came back telling stories of the wonderful townspeople. And he resolved to learn martial arts so such a thing could never happen again.
By graduation, Tietjen "seemed settled on wanting to do things in other countries, for people less fortunate," Shulman said. "He never was thinking about the world of the HMO or where the next dollar was coming from."
He chose Harborview Medical Center's internal medicine program and began to get excited about living in Seattle, where he could kayak and climb and snowboard, a sport he'd learned the previous year.
His parents helped him get settled in his Seattle apartment and then went to Vancouver for the weekend. They planned to meet their son -- and Turner and his father -- for dinner Monday night before Tietjen began work the next morning.
But Tietjen never showed up.
* * *
It was overcast, 42 degrees and drizzling that Sunday, June 20, when Tietjen began his hike to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. He arrived at the public shelter about 5:15 p.m., changed into dry clothes and left 15 minutes later to snowboard down, witnesses said.
Fog covered the area; tracks were barely visible. A ranger at Camp Muir invited Tietjen to join his group hiking down. Tietjen declined. He wanted to snowboard.
Tietjen's first mistake was coming to the mountain alone when he was unfamiliar with the terrain. But insisting on snowboarding was his fatal error. He didn't realize "what happens if you get off-road," ranger Steve Winslow said. You need to stop, look for tracks. "Walking down is the way to go, not snowboarding. As soon as you put skis or a snowboard on, you're moving too fast to be able to pick up tracks."
Tietjen probably wanted to get down as fast as possible. It was late in the day and hard to see beyond his snowboard.
The natural slope of the mountain leans west toward Nisqually Glacier. "You have to bend east," Winslow said, "almost as though you're going uphill." Otherwise, you wind up off the cliffs.
The other problem in fog is the possibility of falling into one of the deep crevasses on Paradise Glacier. "They can be 400 to 600 feet," ranger Rick Kirschner said. "If you get into one that wedges, you can't move. You're stuck. You might be upside down."
Tietjen's parents worried Monday night when their son didn't show up for dinner. About 10 p.m., Ken Turner called the Highway Patrol, then rangers at Mount Rainier National Park. He wasn't worried.
"I was thinking, 'He's snowed in, hunkered down.' I figured he was trapped at Muir."
The next morning, rangers found Tietjen's car parked at Paradise. They searched east and west of his expected route from Muir. Visibility, they reported, was 10 feet.
Turner drove to the mountain Wednesday. He found Tietjen's spare car key, opened the trunk and saw the full backpack, tent and sleeping bag -- all dry and well packed. Tietjen hadn't been back to his car on Sunday.
"I knew he was gone," he said. He didn't have any of the gear -- his down jacket, cold weather clothes and crampons -- with him.
Tietjen's parents stayed with their friends in Federal Way, hoping their son would find his way out and reach a road where someone would see him. "If anyone could do it," William Tietjen said, "he could."
Searchers combed the area for three more days, encountering crevasses, snow avalanches and rockfall. They found nothing. "Not a rope, not an ice axe, nothing," Winslow said. "It leads me to believe (Tietjen) and all his gear went down into a crevasse."
Friends in Georgia couldn't understand Tietjen being lost in the snow. Turner knew better. "I'd hiked over these crevasses. You could put a bus down there and never see it again."
* * *
Tietjen was so large in life that the people who knew him well still talk about him in present tense, nine months after he disappeared.
They're angry with him for dying, for flirting with disaster once too often. "He had so much potential to do so much for so many," Shulman said.
They remember the way he lived his faith instead of talking about it. They remember his quirks, particularly when they see a ketchup bottle. They miss the way he used to spur them to do better.
Turner, who ran track in high school, recalls Tietjen running with him, pushing him to go faster. "On his bad knee, he'd be doing sub-seven-minute miles for six miles.
"I miss that."
Tietjen's parents returned to Seattle last summer and visited Mount Rainier. They took home a photograph of the mountain. Friends of Tietjen are planning a memorial climb this year to honor the beloved daredevil buried on the mountain.
"There's something poetic to be said about leaving him there," Ginn said. "What better place to show his adventure and his love for the outdoors?"
P-I reporter Candy Hatcher can be reached at 206-448-8320 or email@example.com
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