n December 10, 2006, Portland Mountain Rescue was activated to hunt down three climbers overdue in the vicinity of Mount Hood’s Eliot Headwall. Little did we know we were stepping onto the center stage of what would become the biggest show in town. Satellite trucks would soon be milling about the small town of Government Camp, Larry King and Billy O’Reilly would be chiming in with their important opinions, and reporters would be preening themselves in the shop windows of Hood River. As “the rescuers,” we found ourselves once again thrust into the rift of misunderstanding between the climbing community and, well, the rest of the planet. Nowhere in the world is this rift better illustrated than on the slopes of Mount Hood, Oregon, where reporters have easy access to high mountain drama. This story relates my experience as someone in the field for days on this mission, and the aftermath that will affect us all.
We began our search effort at the Tilly Jane Sno-Park. The climbers’ rented Chevy Suburban was still just as they left it, sitting alone in the rain. A copy of The Oregonian was sitting on the dash blaring out headlines about the missing Kim family found in Southern Oregon. Photocopies of routes sat on the seat, sandals were on the floor – tossed in after a change into climbing boots. An REI shopping bag sat on the back seat, containing some last minute stuff like a new pair of socks and a balaclava. A wrapper from an energy bar was left on the seat, and the phone charger was still plugged in. The typical stuff we all see as climbers leaving the trailhead, and civilization, behind.
We packed into a tiny snowcat for the long, bumpy ride up to Cloud Cap Inn. Ten of us were assigned to get to Cloud Cap and attempt to crawl as high up the mountain as we could. Built in 1889 and on Oregon’s official registry of Historic places, Cloud Cap Inn is an old wooden structure that remains a monument to Mount Hood history and a testament to the toughness and intensity of our ancestors. From Hood River, guests had to endure a multi-hour stagecoach ride up to 6,000ft, where the Inn perches on a peninsula overlooking the Eliot Glacier. Now, the Hood River Crag Rats manage it as a rescue base and clubhouse.
Conditions at Cloud Cap were “brisk.” We barely got in the door. Winds from an impending storm were already sustained and broken tree bows littered the area. The old Inn creaked with each gust, threatening to finally give in after all these years. Just getting up the Eliot moraine was going to be a desperate affair. With typical Crag Rat hospitality, huge piles of food came out of nowhere, and we loaded up on pancakes and hot coffee. We took the “Mountain Locator Unit” (MLU) receiver out and pointed it at the mountain. Nothing.
Meanwhile, teams on the south side of the mountain were trying to force their way up the Palmer snowfield in a pathetic attempt to find any sign of human life. Conditions were so poor, the highest team could only crawl to about 500ft below Crater Rock. One of the most discouraging aspects of this search was having the entire mountain as a search area. The intended descent of these climbers was not clear at all. They had planned for the south side, but also suggested they would head down Cooper Spur (a north side route) in the event of a storm. They could all be huddled in snow caves at the top or wandering the trees down below. We knew at least one of them was near the summit from a desperate phone call made to his family from a snowcave nearby. That night a few of us stayed at Cloud Cap, trying to sleep as the building shuddered in the wind and snow.
The next day brought some clearing to the north side, but the winds were fierce. Most of the area was in a full ground blizzard. A massive lenticular cloud capped the entire hill – an ominous, evil-looking monster that suggested winds were topping 100mph on the upper mountain. Avalanches could be heard raking the north side. Teams were forced to search the perimeters, hoping for signs that at least one of the climbers made it down. The early hours of this search were critical to confine the enormous search area, to make sure none of these climbers were down wandering in the forest while we were up on the mountain. At the start, the search area was defined effectively as “Mount Hood.”
December 14, four days into the search, marked a week since the climbers left their car. The day brought buckets of wind-driven rain to Mount Hood, power-washing everything up to 8,000ft. The newly-saturated snowpack was now unstable on steeper slopes. No one went above 7,400ft. Driving winds and heavy snowfall shut down the mountain for the next 48 hours, and rescue crews went back to their other lives, waiting for a break in the storm and for avalanche conditions to settle.
After many inches of new snow, December 16 provided a slight reprieve, and was the first day of workable conditions since the climbers went missing. A long, grinding snowcat ride brought us to the top of the Palmer chairlift at Timberline, on the south side of the mountain, a ride we’ve repeated hundreds of times before.
The sheriff had ordered a closure of the upper mountain to all activity, so we were all alone, save for the ridiculous sight of a massive C-130 cargo plane lumbering around in a slow orbit. On-board were apparently all kinds of heat-sensing cameras that made me wonder if I could even use the bathroom without appearing on some remote-sensing device. If the C-130 didn’t catch me, maybe the circling H-60 Blackhawks and CH-47 Chinooks would. With all the hardware up there, I wondered how they kept track of each other’s location. The C-130 would become our companion for the next few days, lumbering like a bumblebee around the summit. It would periodically terrify us by “buzzing the tower” with a pass over the summit right off the deck.
The thermometer read -5°F at Palmer (8,500ft) with winds at 25mph. Very workable weather compared to earlier. We brought along Dale Atkins from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Damian of Recco, Inc., who arrived to train us on the Recco avalanche rescue system before this incident happened. Fresh out of Colorado and Utah, Dale and Damian were going to sample some of the finest 3-D rime skiing the Cascades have to offer. Teams came up behind us to erect support tents, but the weather became too fierce to establish anything and they retreated, leaving us alone.
We reached the Hogsback, a distinct catenary of snow near the summit. In spring you can lounge in your shorts here with 1,000 of your closest friends. Today we were alone in the bitter cold, with no sign that anyone had passed through. Changing for the worse, the weather brought driving winds and blizzard conditions. We had to dig into the Hogsback and wait to see if the weather would clear for a run to the top. We passed time playing with the Recco detector, which provided marginal entertainment.
After sitting through yet another whiteout, we turned around. While we could have made the summit, we knew finding someone in a snowcave up there would be an impossiblity, never mind taking care of them. As we skied our way down, H-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters hovered over the crater rim, scanning for any signs of the climbers. I felt like I was in a Teton Gravity Research movie, minus the powder skiing.
The helicopters were often difficult to see in the billowing snow, and I wondered how effective they were considering the risks of flying in those conditions. But that evening before dusk, a National Guard H-60 spotted tracks leading down to an anchor on the North Face, and what looked to be a cave at that anchor. Finally, some progress, 10 days after the climbers left their vehicle. That evening was spent working out a plan to send a group up in a Chinook to evaluate the clues, and if possible, insert a team to check it out. We drew straws on who would take a ride in a Chinook and who would climb the mountain yet again.
The following day was incredible: blue sky, no wind, and a million satellite trucks and flying news choppers off in the distance. They were miles away, but with their cameras I figured they could read my notepad if I held it up. I wound up climbing again, which was fine with me. Our job was to advance quickly up the south side, make sure the chute was climbable, and fix some ropes to bring large amounts of gear up and down. We had to ensure that anyone inserted on the summit via helicopter would be able to make it down if the helicopter could not do a pick-up. Unlike the staircase conditions frequently found on the south side in spring, winter conditions can be downright interesting. Right when we were at the interesting part, the Chinook began hoisting operations on the summit.
The experience of a Chinook helicopter above you hoisting people onto the summit of Mount Hood is unlike any other. The Chinook is the size of a large school bus. Its downdraft is enormous and bitterly cold on a high mountain in winter. As the Chinook methodically plopped its team (PJs from the 304th Pararescue Squadron, Portland Mountain Rescue, and Crag Rats), my partner Nick and I were both pinned in the chute under massive chunks of fresh rime ice hurtling into space behind us. We feared that the whole cliff would calve off and crush us, given the unprecedented nature of the hoist occurring above. Silence returned after the helicopter moved on, and we were happy to be alive.
We reached the summit to find a full-on party underway. Nick and I were surrounded by activity, after spending most of the day in solitude on the closed slopes below the top. The summit was bustling, as 600-foot ropes were lowered down the north side, anchors were built, and assignments were carried out. The highly-efficient operation had to get a lot of work done in limited time.
The tracks found the night before led to an anchor. The anchor consisted of two vertical pickets with a big loop of one-inch webbing attached. Girth hitched to the webbing were one Dyneema sling and one nylon cordelette. One had a locking carabiner attached. Sitting in a pile below the anchor was a length of rope. It appeared to be cut with a knife. Near the anchor, buried in a small depression, were two Charlet Moser Aztar ice tools, a pad from a Wild Things pack, and a lone wool glove. Strange things for anyone to leave behind on purpose. We assume that something very bad must have happened right here, at this anchor. The assortment of items we found remained a mystery, and we found no sign of anyone. The PJs were over investigating what turned out to be old steel cables that supported a summit shack which was destroyed decades ago.
Nick, trying to think like a climber unfamiliar with Mount Hood and in a storm, decided to explore the area above what we call the “Black Spider.” This would be a natural way to go along the summit ridge, heading down toward the Wy’east route tring to find Cooper Spur. Sure enough, he picked up two sets of tracks heading down. These tracks were remarkably well preserved, right down to the crampon straps. The climbers’ boots had compressed the tracks and the hurricane force winds had scoured away the surrounding snow, leaving their haunting boot imprints sitting up above the surface. The old snow cast their boots perfectly. The tracks wandered down above the cliffs of the Black Spider and into the unknown.
Nick followed the tracks until he ran out of rope, where they took a hard left heading back for Cooper Spur. We climbed back up and instructed the PJs and PMR to set an anchor to drop the 600 foot ropes down where they could intercept the tracks. Nick and I had to descend now; the hour was late and we needed to be out of the way when the giant flying school bus returned to pick up the summit team and scour a new runnel down the south side.
On the way back down the chute we got a radio call that the tracks led to a rock outcrop thinly covered by snow. One of the PJs had been poking around with his axe, and ended up falling through into a large snow cave. In that cave was the body of Kelly James, all alone, with next-to-no gear. An all-but-empty pack, light clothes, a single ice axe, and perhaps the most famous cell phone of the day. He didn’t stand a chance with the equipment left in there and the weather he faced. No time was left to extract the body this day; a team would return the following day and bring Kelly James home.
Where the other two climbers are at this point is still unknown. Aerial photos revealed tracks that wandered down farther to the top of the cliffs above Newton Clark Glacier. No sign was found of anyone below. Many people will be back up there looking for them to try to solve this mystery and bring some closure.
This accident hit home for many of us. It took place on a true climber’s route, one that many in the climbing community know about and aspire to do, requiring skill and experience well beyond what is needed for the standard south-side route. The party had asked questions about the route on CascadeClimbers.com, the message board where many others go for the same information. Many climbers could imagine themselves in the boots of these unfortunate souls.
This marked the end of operations for this mission. The bad weather returned, and we had no other clues with which to work. But back in town, the show was just getting underway. Fueled by non-stop coverage of choppers swooping over the mountain and unmanned drones hovering outside Cloud Cap Inn, many began to cry out for mandatory beacons, or mandatory rescue bills, or mandatory anything else that would keep “these idiots” from going out and committing suicide by climbing in winter. Legislative action seemed imminent.
Mount Hood has again become the battleground between climbers and the public. No doubt it will continue to be so. Since the 1986 Oregon Episcopal School calamity, when seven students and two faculty members froze to death, Mount Hood has served for the public as a showcase for climber recklessness. It illustrates a rift of understanding between those of us who climb and those who do not. Even very knowledgeable people have asked, “Why didn’t these guys just carry a rescue beacon?” It is then up to the climber to delicately explain the concept of self-reliance, one of the core reasons people are attracted to climbing, without being labeled as reckless themselves. We have found it best to leave the conversation with, “An appreciation of the laws of nature will save far more lives than any regulation our lawmakers can design.”
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