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A Chronicle of Missteps and Heroism : Desire to Reach Summit Perhaps Misled Climbers

Times Staff Writer

The nine students and teachers who died on Mt. Hood last week apparently were driven by an unusually competitive desire to reach the summit and simply realized too late that they would fail because of the stormy arctic conditions, rescuers and mountain climbing experts said Saturday.

Two teen-agers continued to recover Saturday after spending 96 hours in a 10-foot-square snow cave, while funerals were held for two other members of the high school expedition.

The party from the exclusive Oregon Episcopal School southwest of downtown Portland apparently did not see soon enough that they were in trouble.

“Mountains are not very benevolent or forgiving,” said Alan Kearney, a climbing teacher in Bellingham, Wash.

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Mt. Hood, a majestic peak visible from Portland, is one of the most heavily climbed mountains in the world. About 10,000 people a year scale it. But while it is not especially steep, it is treacherous, particularly in the spring, when sudden storms sweep in from the Pacific.

The ill-fated party from the parochial school began the climb at 2 a.m. Monday, but did not turn back until 4 p.m., even though the storm that became a blizzard dur ing the night was already upon them.

Climbers commonly begin at 2 a.m. But while the climb up and down the 11,235-foot peak can take 14 hours in good conditions, many climbers are off the mountain by noon, said Susan Shafroth, a part-time art teacher at the school. Shafroth also is a mountain climber who helped in the search and debriefed one of two members of the party who struggled out of a snow cave Tuesday and went for help.

Although the climbers were well-dressed and well-equipped for the blizzards that commonly strike Mt. Hood in spring, they lacked an altimeter that could have told them their position.

Markers Were Obliterated

More importantly, two climbers who reached safety Tuesday could have used the device, together with a map, to direct rescuers to the others. It was not clear that the party had a map, Shafroth said. As it was, the markers that were left Tuesday--backpacks covered by a yellow tarp and a pair of skis stuck in the snow--disappeared under snow and were of no use to rescuers, said Master Sgt. Richard Harder of the Air Force Reserve, one of the leaders of the rescue operation.

But while there were missteps, a picture also emerged of heroism by some of the deceased climbers. It’s also a story of persistence by rescuers, coupled with a “hunch” by Harder that the teens were at the 8,200-foot level.

Harder was in a helicopter Thursday morning flying over the much-traveled south slope when he had a feeling about their location. He threw a smoke grenade from the helicopter that landed within three feet of the snow cave. The search that afternoon began at the mark he left.

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The full story of the accident may never be known because, doctors say, the two teen-agers who remained in the snow cave and survived probably will not remember many details of the trauma. Giles Thompson, 16, of Longview, Wash., and Brinton Clark, 15, of Portland, remain in critical but stable condition in Portland hospitals.

Account Given by Rescuers

Additionally, the two climbers who came out Tuesday have not described to reporters the events leading up to the blizzard. They did talk to members of the rescue team who relayed their descriptions.

As the climbers set out at 2 a.m. Monday, the National Weather Service was predicting snow at the 4,500-foot level, with winds picking up to 25 m.p.h. by the afternoon. Weather reports were available at the lodge from which they began. Whether they paid attention is not known. Several climbers said they rarely pay much attention to such reports and rely instead on how the weather appears when they set out.

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“Experienced climbers climb in conditions that are not perfect,” noted Dunham Gooding, director of a mountain climbing school in Bellingham, Wash. “In the Northwest, if you never went out when there was a chance of precipitation, you would never go out.”

By about 4 p.m., the party had scaled to within 14 feet of the summit. But the weather had become severe, forcing them to turn around.

Hit by Hypothermia

By the time they reached the 10,500-foot elevation, one of the students--one who had been among the strongest and had been among those who was leading the group--developed hypothermia, or subnormal body temperature.

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To warm him up, a sleeping bag was unfurled and he crawled inside with another member. The group remained there for about an hour. All the while, the remaining members of the party were exposed.

Some climbers said the party should have stopped there for the night and built a snow shelter. Instead, the group pressed on. The boy who had hypothermia, however, could not walk and had to be carried, apparently by the Rev. Thomas Goman, a teacher at the school and leader of the expedition.

By 7 p.m., the group could go no farther. The storm picked up, visibility was probably near zero and the climbers were fatigued. The group decided to make a camp by fashioning a snow cave.

Cave Hard to Build

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Experienced climbers can build a two-person snow cave in an hour--but only in the best of conditions and using a metal shovel, said Kearney, who has scaled Mt. Hood 15 times. In a whiteout at more than 8,000 feet, it can take much longer.

The following morning, as the blizzard continued, a paid guide, Ralph Summers and a student, Molly Schula, went for help. They, however, became disoriented and ended up walking to a ski slope several miles from Timberline Lodge, where the party had begun.

Rescuers, meantime, had been searching for several hours. They subsequently got directions from Summers and Schula and pressed on. The terrain, however, had changed dramatically by then. Winds gusted to 70 m.p.h. Harder’s goggles broke in the storm.

On the mountain, sometime Tuesday or Wednesday morning, three students left the cave. It is not known why. Several climbers speculated they became disoriented, a common problem stemming from hypothermia. They were found Wednesday. Two of them, both boys, had fallen down a 20-foot gully. A girl had apparently turned around and may have been heading back to the cave when she collapsed. All were within a few yards of the cave.

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Search Moved Higher

Searchers, believing the three had gotten farther than the few yards, turned their attention up the mountain. It wasn’t until the Thursday fly-over--and Harder’s hunch--that they decided to return to the 8,000-foot level.

The search party landed and then hiked to the 8,000-foot level, where 23 rescuers began a methodical probing. Standing six feet apart, each would plunge a 12-foot pole into the ground until they were certain the cave was not underneath. They repeated this after each step.

A few yards ahead, Sgt. Charlie Ek of the Air Force Reserve scouted for crevices, pole in hand. He poked into a bank and found the cave.

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Inside, Thompson and Clark, their body temperatures in the low 70s, were the only ones who showed signs of life. Within two hours, all eight people in the cave were at hospitals in Portland, 60 miles away. Doctors could not revive the remaining six, despite hours of efforts.

Turned Back in Past

The school, founded 117 years ago, has as part of its rigorous curriculum a four-year wilderness course for its 150 high school students. In the second year, sophomores are led on an expedition up Mt. Hood. The school has not decided whether to continue the climb.

While the school excursions often had to turn back in past years because of weather, this year’s sophomore class was described by other students as especially competitive, Shafroth said.

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“I think there was a lot peer pressure to go up . . . " Shafroth said. “I was told by other kids that this was a highly competitive class, real smart, real competitive.”


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