We were nearing the Hogsback, the distinctive snow feature that divides the center of the Mt. Hood Crater just like a, well, a hogsback. This is the traditional ‘roping up’ spot where the climbing steepens just before the summit. We were five minutes below this spot, it was around seven in the morning, the air was crisp, clear and cold. The ascent through the night had been near-miraculous, with a full moon so bright we never put on our headlamps until we needed to look in a pack. The sun had just risen, we were making fair time for such a large group (this was another Obsidians climb) and I personally was excited to get onto the steeper terrain. This was my first truly ‘alpine’ mountain, that is, glaciated and icy, requiring the use of an ice axe, crampons (the spikes that go on the bottom of mountaineering boots) and a team of climbers roped together. Everything was going well.
Screams rent the morning air, a sound so shocking that every head was instantly looking in the direction it had come from. It was a woman screaming, and I turned in time to see a figure falling on the steep ice six hundred feet above us. I could tell that she was trying to self arrest with her ice-axe, the technique climbers are generally trained in before setting foot on a mountain like Hood, but the conditions were very icy and she couldn’t get the sharp pick of her axe to slow her rate of descent. Part of the technique of self-arrest is keeping your legs bent and your feet off the ice, since a single crampon point catching can mean a broken leg, and this climber was doing just that – until her ice axe finally caught, but due to her increasing velocity, ripped right out of her hands – at which point both feet came down, out of instinct, she couldn’t help herself, her crampons caught and she began an awful, cartwheeling descent down the steepest terrain on that part of the mountain. Her gear flew off of her and she repeatedly smacked her head into the slope as she rocketed down to the crater floor. From start to finish she fell close to eight hundred feet. When she slammed into the relatively flat bottom of the crater, she was clearly unconscious, and spun slowly towards an area of ‘hot rocks’ called the Devils Kitchen. She wasn’t moving. A climber ran out towards her, but everyone else, all several hundred of us, looked around in shock. It had been liking watching a car wreck.
Then unbelievably, another series of screams broke the air, once more from high above us. Our climbing group looked up to find the woman’s climbing partner literally running down the mountain in a panic, down a thirty-five degree ice slope – in crampons. Of course, the inevitable occurred, he stumbled, slipped, and began sliding on his backside down one of the deadliest mountains in the United States. We just watched, dumbfounded, as he took one of the most amazing rides I have ever seen. It was insane, he flew down the slope at what must have been forty-fifty miles per hour, but somehow managed not to start cartwheeling or losing control, and ended up slowing down below us, and I know I certainly thought he had it made.
Mt Hood is very much an active volcano. Climbers and vulcanologists are the only people who truly realize how lightly this giant is sleeping. Fumaroles, holes in the snow and ice that belch out poisonous vapors, litter the crater, and steam jets straight out of the crater walls. Unfortunately for this second climber, his ride wasn’t quite over.
I watched him slow, but even as he was almost stopped, he slipped over the edge of one of these fumaroles, and he disappeared from sight. Gone. No screams, no nothing, he just slipped and disappeared.
I turned to my climb leader, an experienced climber named Deb who was looking back up the mountain to see if anyone else was going to plummet from the mountain, and I could tell that she hadn’t seen the final part of the second climber’s descent.
“He just fell in a fucking fumarole.” I said, shocked at what I had just seen. Two climbers had just fallen 800 feet in front of us.
“What?” Deb said, her head swining to where the climber should have been. He was gone, of course.
“Do you have the rope?” Deb asked me a split second later.
“Yes” I said.
“Let’s go.” She said, and like that our climb became a rescue mission. We headed out across the crater ice, and Deb kept telling me to be careful and look for crevasses. As we skirted the area the climber had fallen into, we couldn’t believe our eyes. He was walking out of the Fumarole! Realizing he was okay, we diverted attention to the fallen first climber, who now had a small crowd gathered around her.
She was in and out of consciousness as we attended to her, and adding to the strangeness of the scene was the fact that one lens of her sunglasses had popped out and she was still wearing them. She had a knot on her skull that was bigger than any I have ever seen on a person before, and one of her lower legs was broken. We gave her all of our extra warm clothes and made her as comfortable as possible. Eventually an EMT and Wilderness First Responder arrived and booted us off the mountain, as we were starting to show signs of hypothermia. So we gave up our summit and headed back down.
This was one of the most important moments in my climbing career. Before this, I didn’t really realize how dangerous this business can be, and how sharp their teeth can be, and I saw with my own eyes how badly a climb can turn bad. I was quite shaken by what I saw that morning, and it took me four or five more tries before I summited Hood, by far the worst success rate I have with any mountain.
Ironically, the next week I climbed Mt. Adams, second highest mountain in Washington, and a couple in our party for that climb were actually friends with the people who fell on Hood, which shows how small the mountaineering community is. It was nice to know how appreciative the fallen climbers were, though. I also decided that I needed much more training, I realized during the course of taking care of these people that I didn’t know nearly enough, I felt like a fifth wheel. This accident led me to join Eugene Mountain Rescue later that year, and also made me understand just how dangerous this path I had chosen can be.