I will never forget this day. Ever. When my life is winding down, and my own death is near, I am certain I will remember the events on Mt. Hood.
This was my first ‘big’ climb. I had been mountaineering for three years at that point, I had climbed Mt. Thielsen, Mt. McLoughlin, Diamond Peak, South Sister and Broken Top, and all of these climbs had been mid-summer hikes, with a little bit of quasi-technical climbing thrown in for good measure, but none could be characterized as serious climbs. No snow or ice, no alpine starts, no ice axe, crampons or harnesses had been donned for these peaks.
I had signed up for the climb of Mt. Hood with the Obsidians, and we met at the parking lot at Timberline Lodge. We attempted to get a few hours of sleep before heading up the mountain at midnight, but for me, no sleep would come. I was too excited.
We got geared up and ready to go, organized our group and set out shortly after midnight. It was a full moon night, so we never had to turn our headlamps, which is really amazing. Climbing in the dead of night over perfect snow illuminated by a full moon is something I have only experienced once. In fact, the only time we turned on our headlamps was when we needed to get gear out of our bags.
When you climb the south side of Hood, which is the route 90% of climbers take to the summit, you follow the eastern edge of the Timberline Lodge Ski Area, so it is a dreadfully dull snow plod for most of its length. Only when you enter the horseshoe-shaped crater does it finally get interesting.
With a group as large as ours — around ten or so climbers — the ascent can only proceed as fast as the slowest climber, which meant that we entered the crater sometime around seven in the morning, at which point the sun had risen and the glorious beauty of the upper mountain was revealed in all its icy beauty. We had stopped at the top of the ski area to don crampons and break out the ice axes, but we would not rope up until we reached the Hogsback, a unique snow ridge that is the traditional roping-up point.
We were about ten minutes below the Hogsback when shouts broke the morning stillness, and every single climber looked in unison to the upper mountain, and what we saw is etched permanently in my mind: A climber had fallen from right below a steep chute called the Pearly Gates, and was trying desperately to self-arrest (the technique of using an ice-axe to slow, or ‘arrest’, your fall.) Unfortunately, when conditions are icy, as they were that morning, it is notoriously difficult to stop yourself once any momentum is established, as was the case for this climber. I remember hearing the ice-axe chatter on the ice as she streaked down the steep face. She was doing a good job of keeping her knees bent so her crampon points wouldn’t catch and break her leg, but when her ice axe finally caught, she was going so fast that it ripped out of her hands, and immediately, her legs came down out of instinct. When that happened, she began cartwheeling down the mountain, gear flying off of her as she approached speeds that I can only guess were in the 50-60 mile an hour range. Her head repeatedly slammed against the ice-face as she flew down. It was a horrifying thing to witness. She had started something live six or seven hundred feet above us, but by the time she crashed into the crater floor, she was two hundred feet below us. When she slowed and started sliding along the relatively flat bottom, it was clear she was unconscious. Everyone was yelling at her to dig in with her feet to stop herself from sliding further, but it was to no avail. A climber went running towards her to help.
The rest of us were looking back up at the spot where she had fallen from, as there were more screams and shouts coming from above. Her climbing partner, apparently panic-struck at seeing her take such a terrible fall, began running down the mountain, something that is almost a guarantee of inducing an accident, and within moments he too was falling.
He didn’t even bother to try to self-arrest, he just pulled up his knees and slid on his backside down the mountain; It was amazing how in control his fall appeared to be, he never cartwheeled or tumbled at all, just shot down the mountain on his butt. When he started to slow beneath us, it would seem that he had gotten lucky and had managed to fall off the mountain without injury. I think a lot of people at that point looked back up the mountain to see if more people were going to fall, but I kept my eye on this climber. To my horror, as he was almost slowed to a halt, he slipped over the edge of a fumarole and disappeared inside of it.
Fumaroles, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, are basically holes in the ice of big volcanoes where steam and noxious gasses vent from the smoldering heart of the mountain. Some of the fumaroles on Hood are so powerful that peope have died standing too close to them, since they are complete oxygen voids. Now this guy had fallen deep inside of one.
“He just fell in a fucking fumarole.” I mumbled to the leader of our climb, a woman named Deb. I was in shock.
“What?” She said, looking around to find him. She had been looking up the mountain, as had almost everyone else.
“He just fell in a fumarole.” I repeated.
A moment of silence passed.
“Do you have the rope?” She asked me.
“Yes.” I said.
“Let’s go.” Deb said, and we did, descending towards the crater floor. We had to first head towards the first fallen climber, who now had a crowd around her, before heading towards the fumarole, as there were crevasses in the area.
“Be careful,” Deb said repeatedly, worried that since we were not roped up, a crevasse fall would only compound the disaster we had just witnessed.
To our amazement, as we were about to head towards the fumarole, the guy who fell into it appeared, climbing out of the hole seemingly uninjured. He wasn’t even limping as he walked towards his climbing partner and the crowd attending to her. We did the same, our entire group descending to find a young woman now semi-conscious with a lump on her head the size of a golf ball. One of the lenses of her sunglasses had fallen out, so it only added to the surreal quality of the moment.
Very quickly it was discovered that she had broken her lower leg, most likely when she had initially dropped her legs and begun her cartwheeling fall. Her partner, when he arrived, was unharmed save for some bumps and bruises, but he knew he had gotten lucky. The entire time we were helping, he kept shaking his head and saying “I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid.”
We stabilized the woman, surrounded both of them with all of our extra warm clothing and did our best to keep the situation calm and relaxed. There was little else we could do. The moment she had fallen, multiple cel phones had dialed 9-1-1, so within a short time of the accident occurring a rescue was being organized. We knew they were on their way, so we just kept her warm and awake, since she was continually drifting towards unconsciousness.
After some time an EMT and a Wilderness First Responder arrived, and seeing that some of our group were drifting towards hypothermia, they kindly but firmly told us we needed to get down, especially since we had donated all of our extra warm clothes to the injured climber. So we gathered whatever gear was no longer needed and began the descent off the mountain. On the way down we encountered the rescue team heading up and relayed our knowledge of the event and the condition of the climbers to them before continuing. as it was, they would not be off the mountain for many more hours, but both climbers ended up making full recoveries.
Ironically, a week or two later, when I was climbing Mt. Adams in Washington, two of the people in our climbing group (this was another Obsidians climb) were friends with the fallen climbers, and relayed to us their gratitude and thanks in assisting them. We eventually got all our donated clothes back too.
That day really woke me up to the dangers of mountaineering. I joined Eugene Mountain Rescue shortly after that, especially since I felt like there wasn’t much I could do to help except donate clothes and be a reassuring presence. Had I been the only one on scene, it could have been a true disaster.
It has been eleven years since that accident on Mt. Hood, but it still stands as the one thing I remember the most of any climb I have ever done. It took me four or five tries after that to successfully summit Hood, in great part because after that I was fairly afraid of it. It had been a traumatic event, but I eventually overcame it and made it to the roof of Oregon.
Mt. Hood is one of the most deadly mountains in the United States. Nearly every year someone dies climbing it. Several years ago there was a famous helicopter crash during a rescue, which was witnessed on live TV. Part of the reason for this is popularity. It is widely regarded as the second-most climbed glaciated mountain in the world after Fuji-San in Japan. Another reason, and the major one, is lack of experience, which in this account was definitely the cause. The climbers had summited Mt. Whitney, which, at 14,505 feet is the highest peak in the continental U.S., and they figured Hood, which is several thousand feet lower, would be no problem, but there is no comparison between the easiest routes of both mountains. The standard route up Whitney is quite literally a trail all the way to the summit, with no scrambling or climbing of any kind involved, whereas Hood’s standard route is a bonafide snow and ice route with sections approaching 40 degrees in steepness. Before this day, the climbers had never used ice axes or crampons before, and compounding that was the fact that they were unroped, although there is debate whether this standard technique is appropriate on a crowded mountain like Hood.
In the end, this accident propelled me to be a more knowledgeable, competent climber, and woke me up to the reality that mountains have teeth, and sometimes, they do bite.