Needham native presumed dead in Mount Rainier avalanche was adventurous
SOMERVILLE — When Eitan Green was a boy in Needham, his family embraced the outdoors — hiking, skiing, kayaking, camping overnight. Then a chance encounter with a guide in Acadia National Park gave them the opportunity to rappel 110 feet down a rocky cliff above the Atlantic.
Eitan’s father, an investment manager careful about risk, looked down and was reminded how afraid he was of heights. His older sister backed out, but Eitan, a wisp of an 8-year-old, rappelled down Otter Cliff to the water and then scampered back. For the next two decades, he never stopped climbing.
Growing up to become a mountain guide, Green was a magnetic figure in base camps and on icy peaks, as well as an unusual one: A third-degree karate black belt, bossa nova drummer, and Colby College honors graduate, Green devoured books, worked to improve conditions for ethnic Sherpas, and connected with clients as varied as wandering backpackers and Wall Street bankers.
Friends and family knew him to be fearless but never reckless — meticulously prepared and analytical in his approach to guiding. That is part of why the news of his presumed death on Mount Rainier at age 28 last week has hit loved ones so hard, appearing not to come from a climbing mistake but from an avalanche that struck while Green, four clients, and a more senior guide may have been sleeping.
Green had a sense of humor about his job — “I’ve got the best office in the world, but the roof leaks,” he said — and relished the vistas while living to push himself and others to new heights. But he knew how to gauge conditions and climbers’ abilities and was skilled at delivering disappointing news to clients if they had to turn back.
“It’s about risk management,” Green said just this spring, defining his job in an interview with a student at Vermont’s Mountain School, a live-and-work semester program where he studied as a Needham High junior. “It’s a science and an art.”
Green’s group called the climbing company, Alpine Ascents International, last Wednesday as they settled for the night 12,800 feet up Liberty Ridge, a Rainier route known for technical difficulty. They planned to climb the remaining 1,600 feet to the summit the next day and descend, ending a five-day climb Friday.
With spotty communication on the mountain, the group’s ensuing silence did not become alarming until members failed to return by the weekend. On Saturday, Jeff Green got a call on his cellphone as he drove through Harvard Square. It was Randy King, National Park Service superintendent for Rainier.
“I knew as soon as he identified himself that this was not good,” Jeff Green said. King, at first, was cautiously hopeful. But he called back soon with the worst news: Searchers had picked up signals from avalanche beacons and found scattered gear atop a glacier 3,300 feet below where the group had camped. There was no sign of bodies. The son of Jeff and Beth Green was gone.
“He was a remarkable man and a wonderful son,” Jeff Green said, holding Beth’s hand as they sat together on their couch Tuesday in Somerville, where they moved four years ago. He swallowed hard.
The Greens, who met as freshmen at UMass Amherst in 1970 and lived in Israel as a young couple, gave Hebrew names to daughter Elana and to Eitan Shalom Green. His first name means “strength of character,” his middle name “peace.”
The two siblings revered each other, Eitan beaming about his sister’s Harvard MBA, Elana boasting of her brother the free-spirited mountain guide.
Independent from the start, Eitan demonstrated a “healthy disrespect for authority,” his father said. At Newton’s Solomon Schechter, a K-to-8 Jewish day school, he drove some teachers a little crazy.
“He was a really, really bright kid, a decent kid, and a kid who made his own way,” said Arnold Zar-Kessler, Schechter’s head of school, whose daughter was a classmate. “He wanted to get to the core of an idea and probe it to its innermost.”
At Needham High School, he chafed against conventions like the hall pass, and his grades initially were mixed. After he heard about the Mountain School, a selective program affiliated with Milton Academy, his report cards gleamed.
He investigated and applied himself, and his Vermont semester became a defining experience of his teenage years, along with a community service summer on a South Dakota reservation and a trek through Wyoming’s Wind River Range with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.
Still in high school, he hiked Vermont’s 270-mile Long Trail from end to end with a childhood friend, Zack Summit. The boys’ fathers joined the trek for 15 miles. At one point, they had to scramble up a steep slope. Jeff, who used to spot Eitan from behind in places like that, went first. “I felt his hand on the back of my pack, and I thought at that moment, that the circle of life was beginning to turn, and he was taking care of me in the way that I had tried to take care of him,” he said.
Eitan took a year off after high school, traveling and working on organic farms in Europe. At Colby, whenever his parents called, Eitan raved about the climbing opportunities or discussed his work as an emergency medical technician. They never asked about grades. So they were happily stunned to open the program at commencement and discover Eitan was magna cum laude and won the department prize for anthropology.
“He was charming, delightful, funny, loving, warm, and a great friend to his peers,” as well as someone who could wrap his head quickly around complex themes, said Catherine Besteman, an anthropology professor who taught Green in three classes. “He was one of those students we fought over — ‘I want him in my class’; ‘no, I want him in my class.’ ”
As a junior, he spent a semester with a Nepali family in northern India. He dug into topics such as gender and ethnicity in climbing and wrote a rigorous honors thesis that was both an anthropological study of climbing globally and an attempt to connect climbers around the world; his adviser could see a home for him in academia but understood his passion for climbing.
“He approached his studies with a clarity of intention and a keen intelligence that are rare,” Mary Beth Mills, the professor who advised his thesis, said by e-mail. She called him a “marvelous student, and so full of life . . . It is hard to imagine the world without him.”
After Colby, he moved to Washington, drawn to the Cascade Range that includes Rainier. Starting in a job cleaning up base camps, within five years he became what Alpine Ascents program director Gordon Janow called “a phenomenal guide.”
Two years ago, Eitan led his mother, a teacher, on a hike through the Cascades to celebrate her 60th birthday. “I found peace there, being in the moment,’’ she said, trusting herself in his hands. “There was not one ounce of worry.’’
He spent winter off-seasons as an ice climbing guide in Colorado and pursuing his own climbing in places like Mont Blanc and the Andes. In recent years, he began to envision a less itinerant life and searched for ways to balance his passion for mountains with a family. He brought his girlfriend, Anna Schwisow, home for his sister’s wedding last fall and talked of getting married, his parents said.
“He was really trying to find a way to be able to have that stable life while still being a mountain climber,” his mother said.
With his body probably buried deep in ice and debris, and unreachable by rescuers, the loss has been even harder to process. “It was hard to know when to start grieving,” Jeff Green said. “We didn’t want to give up on him.”
But on Sunday, they began the Jewish mourning process of shiva, rending their clothing and receiving visitors in their home even without the burial service that traditionally precedes it.
“Now, he’s part of the mountain he loved,” Jeff Green said.