A climbing party from the Oregon Episcopal School set out from Timberline Lodge on the morning of May 12, 1986 to complete the school’s required “wilderness experience” and climb to the summit. The party included fifteen students, one parent, two teachers, and two expert consultants. Within the first three hours of the climb, five students and one parent turned back due to altitude sickness and wetness. Three hours later, one of the consultants developed snow-blindness and also turned back. The rest of the group continued climbing, but decided to turn back when the weather worsened. While making their descent, the climbers were caught in a severe snowstorm and decided to dig out a cave for shelter until the storm passed. It took them two hours to dig the shelter since there was only one shovel (most of the party had to dig by hand), and the finished dugout was to small to hold all the climbers. Throughout the night, members of the group took turns in and out of the shelter. The next morning two of the climbers - Molly Schula , a student (17 years old) and Ralph Summers, a professional mountaineer hiked down the mountain for 16 hours to get help….”I told them we would keep walking until we found help or until we died,” Summers said….On Thursday, May 15 rescuers finally located the snow cave where the last nine climbers were buried under four feet of snow. Miraculously, two of the students were still alive, Brinton Clark and Giles Thompson (both 16 years old). Brinton made a complete recovery and went home within two weeks. Giles recovered also, but lost both his legs which were severely damaged by frostbite.
This could have been me, and every time I hear about a climbing accident on Oregon’s Mt. Hood, I’m reminded again about how close I came to succumbing to a similar fate.
It was 1984, two years before the tragic accident that would claim (if memory serves) 11 lives. I was just out of college, newly-married, and teaching at Oregon Epsicopal School, an exclusive private K-12 school next to the Portland Country Club along Nicol Rd. in southwest Portland. Being willing and eager, I took on just about every challenge I could find. At that time, it was a school tradition that the entire sophomore class climbed Mt. Hood in late spring. So, having always wanted to climb a mountain, and being young and dumb, I volunteered to be an adult chaperone for the climb.
After an afternoon’s training in building an ice cave and the proper use of an ice ax, we were ready to go. To call our sojourn up Mt. Hood “climbing” would be something of a misnomer. The most popular route up the mountain is from Timberline Lodge just above Government Camp on the mountain’s south side. It’s a strenuous hike (the thinning air makes it even more challenging), but there is normally no technical climbing involved. In retrospect, it was that perceived simplicity (and our lack of seriousness about it) that almost cost me my life, and two years later did cost 11 people theirs.
We started out in the middle of a cold, clear, starlit night from the lot at Timberline Lodge. The idea is to start very early- in our case, 2 a.m.- reach the summit by mid-morning, and then begin the descent before the late morning sun begins to degrade the snow conditions.
Timberline is at about 5,000 feet above sea level, and Mt. Hood’s summit is 11,249 feet. We had a long climb in front of us, but with seemingly perfect conditions, warm clothing, and a lot of adrenaline, we were ready to go. All told, I think there were 10-15 students, and 4-5 adults in our group. No one had any reason to suspect anything unusual as we began hiking up the mountain. It wasn’t until two years later that I would realize just how close I and the people with me would come to not making it down alive.
When you begin the climb from Timberline Lodge, it’s a lot of just putting one foot in front of another. If you can imagine climbing an endless staircase, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it feels like. It’s dark, repetitive, and not at all the glamorous experience you might think mountain climbing to be. As you look up the mountain towards Illumination Rock, it seems as if you’re never going to get there. It’s a long way up the mountain, a lot farther than it looks from the parking lot at Timberline Lodge.
As the night moved along, we made good progress, and by sunrise, we could look to the south down the spine of the Cascade Range to see the sun reflecting off Mt. Jefferson, about 100 miles to the south. Looking around, the view from the mountain slope was spectacular. I was having the time of my life.
Within about an hour, though, clouds began to roll in, and we quickly found ourselves in total whiteout conditions, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The visibility fell to about 10 feet, and except for the slope of the mountain, there was no way to gauge where you were. There was no wind, no snow, and it was the most incredibly disorienting feeling I’d ever had. I quickly began to understand how people can get lost and perish in those conditions. Our guide told us to rope up, and after making sure everyone was accounted for, we continued our hike up the mountain, tethered together so we wouldn’t lose anyone.
After another couple of hours, the conditions had deteriorated precipitously. Snow and wind had combined to make the going much tougher, and our guide began to realize that even if we did reach the summit, we’d have no view to celebrate. After evaluating the situation, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and determined that it would be prudent to turn around and head back down the mountain.
The problem with heading down the south side of Mt. Hood is that if you follow the slope, you’ll head straight into a crevasse. In total whiteout conditions, this is no small consideration. If you can’t see more than 10 feet in front of you, it’s difficult to determine the safest and most expedient route back to safety. Fortunately for our group, after a few minutes of something close to wandering aimlessly, we found some orange route markers in the snow. To call this a godsend wouldn’t begin to address our good fortune.
Experienced climbers going up an unfamiliar route will occasionally leave route markers (thin metal poles with small blaze-orange flags) in the snow, so that if conditions deteriorate, all you have to do is follow the flags to retrace your route. Normally, climbers will pick up their flags as they head back down the mountain. In this case, and for reasons I’ll never know, this unknown climber left his route markers in the snow. I experienced more than a few tense moments until we found these markers quite by accident. Even though I knew next to nothing about mountain climbing, I knew even less about survival in adverse winter conditions. Combine that with the reality of being partially responsible for the lives and well-being of a collection of teenagers, and I was beginning to understand that things could become very difficult for us very quickly.
Long story short, we found the route markers, and followed them back down to the warmth and safety of Timberline Lodge. Aside from being cold, wet, and exhausted, the worst part of the experience for me turned out to be losing a contact lens. Once we were safe and warm, none of us gave much thought to what might have been. I forgot about the risks and the danger almost immediately. I’d climbed a mountain, and I was happy for having had the experience.
Two years later, on the same sophomore climbing trip, 11 people died. I knew most of them. One of them had been my supervisor, a couple had been students I’d taught, and a couple others I’d coached on the JV soccer team. This group found themselves caught in conditions almost identical to what had happened to my group, and yet things went horribly, terribly wrong…and very quickly.
It was then that I realized how close that I and the group I accompanied up Mt. Hood in May, 1984 had come to a very tragic end. I’ll never know why we were so fortunate when, just two years later, so many died so tragically. I wish I knew, but I know that those answers will never come…and perhaps it’s just as well. It wouldn’t change anything or bring anyone back.
Twenty-plus years later, I’ve been able to put most of those memories into something resembling perspective, but whenever I hear of yet another climbing accident on Mt. Hood, I find myself right back there, feeling what I felt as we tried to make it down the mountain. I also find myself reliving the sorrow I felt when I heard of what had befallen the 1986 trip. There’s a lot of “that could have been me” in those feelings, and I still struggle with that.
It took two years for me to realize just how fortunate I was to still be drawing breath, and how close I’d come to no longer having the privilege. For a long time, I struggled to figure out why my group made it awhile, just two short years later, another didn’t. The passage of time has eased some of the pain and the survivor’s guilt, but I still grieve for the families who lost children, and for the children who lost parents.
I’ve never attempted to climb Mt. Hood since my first and only attempt in 1984. In fact, I’ve never attempted any sort of climbing, which was one of the reasons I was initially so excited to be living in Oregon. I suppose it was being brought face to face with the reality that mountain climbing is not the glamorous walk in the park I’d previously romanticized it as. Now every time there’s another climbing accident on Mt. Hood, I find myself right back where I was more than 20 years ago. I’ve come to recognize that it will always be there. I just wish I could understand why I survived when so many didn’t.