3 climbers die in crevasse on Mount Hood; rescue helicopter crashes
Seattle Times staff reporters
TIMBERLINE LODGE, Ore. — As the accident unfolded, there was no time for even a scream.
"It was actually really quiet," said Peter Ash, who watched as nine people were swept up in a web of climbing ropes and dragged into a crevasse on Mount Hood. "I think everybody was in shock. My reaction was, 'Oh my God, this can't be happening.' "
Under beguilingly blue skies, three climbers perished after they plunged into Mount Hood's Bergschrund, a crevasse 800 feet below the 11,237-foot summit. Four others were critically injured.
It was the second-worst climbing accident on Mount Hood, Oregon's highest mountain.
And more pandemonium followed: Hours later, a rescue helicopter careened over startled rescuers, struck the mountain and rolled 1,000 feet down the snowy slope, capping two of the most chaotic and deadly days in Cascades mountaineering history.
Just a day earlier, three climbers were killed 100 miles north on Mount Rainier after being trapped in a howling whiteout near the 14,411-foot summit. Park rangers brought the bodies of a German man and woman down from the mountain yesterday.
Their names were not made public. The body of Keeta Owens, a 21-year-old Oregon State University student, was brought down Wednesday after the lone survivor of her party, a German man, hiked down and contacted authorities.
The Mount Hood drama unfolded in clear view of Timberline Lodge on the kind of day that climbers hope for as they attempt the south-face ascent of the mountain.
It can be a grueling climb, but the route poses few technical challenges. Several thousand climbers tackle the summit each year, and at least 49 ventured out yesterday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It's said to be the second-most climbed peak in the world after Japan's Mount Fuji.
For many, the trickiest part is the crossing of the Bergschrund. The crevasse opens up as the summer progresses, leaving climbers the choice of either crossing it on snow bridges or skirting its edges.
But on this day, icy conditions increased the risk of the steep final ascent to the summit.
There were conflicting reports, but some eyewitnesses say the first climber who lost his footing was part of a two-man team that tumbled down from near the mountain's top, entangling a team of three other climbers who were making a final push to the summit up a steep chute.
At least one of the trio tried to sink in an ice ax to stop his fall, but the group was overcome by the momentum of the first team as climbing ropes became entangled, said Ash, who witnessed the accident from a spot below the Bergschrund.
As the climbers fell down hundreds of feet of steep slope, a third group of climbers was positioned just above the Bergschrund. They tried to run for safety, but the last climber in the team was caught in ropes from the falling climbers.
The three teams all ended up in the Bergschrund, which ranges in depth from 10 to more than 30 feet, Ash said.
"A lot of people don't take this mountain seriously, but there were some really icy conditions," said Peter Leas, a former Mount Rainier guide who was climbing Mount Hood yesterday. "There were definitely stretches where you needed to know what you were doing."
Among the injured were Harry Slutter, a 43-year-old salesman from Oyster Bay, N.Y., who was on a mountain climbing trip with friends. Jeremiah Moffitt, a 26-year-old firefighter, was part of a climbing group organized by members of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
Mount Hood can fool climbers. Its summit looks appealingly close, even from downtown Portland, some 50 miles away.
The worst accident on Mount Hood happened in May 1986, when nine teenagers and two teachers from the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland froze to death after attempting the summit in poor weather.
That equaled the worst known mountaineering disaster in the Cascade Range, in which 11 people were killed in a massive icefall on Rainier in 1981.
As the rescue was under way yesterday, more trouble struck in a matter of seconds. As the helicopter crew of six prepared to hoist a third climber off the mountain, the pilot sensed trouble. An injured climber had just been attached to a hoist cable and was about to be lifted off the ground. As the helicopter began to wobble, a quick-thinking crew member released the line, possibly saving the climber.
Steve Rollins, incident command for Portland Mountain Rescue, described the crash as "dreamlike."
"You could just watch it in slow motion."
Shortly before 2 p.m., some five hours after the climbers slid haplessly down the mountain, the Air Force helicopter went down in a cinematic spectacle of shattered rotors. The radio chatter on the mountain erupted: "Blackhawk down."
Footage of the crash, captured by Portland television station KGW, led all three major national TV newscasts. American Medical Response reported there were two critically injured helicopter crew, but witnesses said three fliers walked away from the spectacular crash.
The HH-60G Pave Hawk, similar to the chopper featured in the movie "Black Hawk Down," had just dropped off a rescuer and equipment above the crevasse when it lost altitude.
Its refueling probe jutted into the snow and the helicopter careened sideways down the mountain. Its rotor blades sheared off, and the helicopter rolled about 1,000 feet before coming to a rest.
Leas, the former mountain guide, was heading down the mountain, having already helped pull survivors from the crevasse, when the helicopter crashed a few hundred yards away, raining debris down the mountain.
"The pilot and everyone pretty much stumbled out on to the snow," Leas said.
The pilot told Leas the wind changed directions, causing him to lose power. Leas said the pilot tried to steer the helicopter away from the rescue scene to minimize injuries on the ground.
For another witness, Cleve Joiner, the climbing accident was a personal horror that threatened the life of his son, 14-year-old Cole.
The father-son team was part of the seven-person climbing group organized by members of Tualatin Fire & Rescue. Joiner, an assistant fire marshal, was on a rope just below the Bergschrund, and his son was on the three-person rope just above the crevasse, the last team to be caught up.
For 10 awful minutes, Joiner didn't know if his son had survived.
"I went through all kinds of emotions," he said later. "A lot of people in my family said, 'You know this is kind of a dangerous thing — you sure you want to do this?' I was worried about having to answer that call. When I found out he was alive, it was an emotional moment. I fought back the tears and carried on."
Others who fell were not so lucky. One climber appeared to have been killed by a large chunk of ice that fell into the Bergschrund along with the climbers, according to Ash.
In the first two hours after the accident, the rescue party expanded as other climbers converged at the Bergschrund. Many came from medical professions, and a paramedic made the initial cell phone call to authorities.
Actual numbers of the injured varied throughout the day in the ensuing confusion. By one estimate, there were six climbers injured and three dead.
The rescuers set up a system of pulleys and ropes to hoist out injured climbers. The most seriously injured were lifted out first and were then tended to on flat spots carved out of the snow.
Cole Joiner was the last to emerge from the crevasse, said his father, and the young man got high marks for his help in tending to the others.
As the morning wore on, the climbers involved in the rescue were joined by other rescue teams from Portland Mountain Rescue and American Medical Response. Helicopters arrived from an Army National Guard base in Salem and an Air Force Reserve base out of Portland.
The flying was treacherous, with winds of 40 mph gusting about the peak and pilots hovering their crafts some 40 feet above the steep slopes. They lowered rescue workers, and helicopter teams were able to hoist six of the injured into the aircraft and evacuate them to Portland-area hospitals.
Air Force Maj. Chris Kraiger, speaking at Timberline Lodge last night, would not speculate on the cause of the Pave Hawk accident. He said the pilot did the right thing by getting out of the way and avoiding injuries to those on the ground.
"We think he did an outstanding job," Kraiger said.
By late yesterday, after all survivors had been pulled to safety, the operation shifted to the retrieval of the three dead climbers still lodged in the crevasse. Two were expected carried down the mountain by Sno-Cat last night; the last would be retrieved today.
The south side climbing route will be closed indefinitely by the Forest Service while investigators look at the helicopter crash site and remove the aircraft.
All afternoon, climbers who had aided in the rescue came streaming off the mountain. Some of the early arrivals were Cleve and Cole Joiner, who hiked by foot then took a chairlift for the final descent to the lodge. Ash, who accompanied them, said the pair were a bit tentative at times in the descent.
"I think they're glad to be alive," Ash said. "This makes you realize that on any mountain, anything can happen."