have never liked climbing by headlamp, but something felt very wrong that
night. My seven-member Tacoma Mountain Rescue team was following the
last radar coordinates from a missing airplane. As daylight faded into
dusk, we were moving quickly upward through a steep hillside full of
downfall and undergrowth. We picked up the faint smell of jet fuel.
After about half an hour, we were a quarter-mile from the last radar hit
and had lost the fuel smell, so we stopped to prepare for the impending
darkness. I turned on my headlamp and tried to move but couldn’t.
I was in a state of near-panic.
It was all I could do just to keep moving. The others were calling out to potential survivors and searching for signs of the missing airplane, but I was just trying to keep from panicking. I had an overwhelming sense of not wanting to be there. I stayed at the back of the group, trying to hide my emotions from my teammates. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the point where the radar had lost the airplane, but found nothing. A Seattle Mountain Rescue team radioed that they had found the wreckage about 200 yards downhill.
After taking care of business at the crash site, our team headed down. I was still struggling with panic, but less than before and as soon as we hit the road, I felt relief. Each of us was processing the crash site and I was still trying to figure out why I had struggled so much in the darkness. Along the road we unexpectedly encountered the family and friends of the victims, sobbing, which triggered a realization: The last time I had searched with a headlamp was looking for my own missing friends.
Three and a half years earlier, I had joined a group from the Tacoma Mountain Rescue Unit (TMRU) and some of their friends for “John’s annual ice climbing trip” to the Canadian Rockies. Because of the large group and the danger of icefall, we often split up to do different climbs each day. That day, four of us had climbed “Wet Dream” while the three others—John and Jim from Tacoma Mountain Rescue and John’s friend Russ—were planning to climb “Sniveling Gully”. If another party was on “Sniveling Gully”, they would climb “Midnight Rambler”. It had been a beautiful day for climbing—not a cloud in the sky, and the ice was like plastic. That evening we returned to the David Thompson Resort in Nordegg to prepare dinner. About an hour after dark we started to get concerned about the others. Two of us left to look for them while the others stayed by the phone in case they called. We had driven for about 45 minutes when we found their car at the approach to “Midnight Rambler”.
After quickly inspecting the car for signs of returning climbers or car trouble, we located the path to the climb. Through the dark, we saw tracks heading in but none coming out. Kenny and I yelled for them. We could hear our voices echoing off the cliff walls, but there was no response, so we packed minimal climbing gear, donned our headlamps and started up the trail. I was in a full panic; there was no scenario I could think of to explain why at least one of them couldn’t get out. It hadn’t snowed in a week and a half, so avalanche danger should be low. They were too disciplined as climbers to all have fallen off the route. And they had three ropes with them, so one person could rappel off if there was an injury. With my senses limited to the tunnel view provided by the headlamp and the sound of squeaking snow, I just wanted to turn around and run home. When the trail ended in a large pile of avalanche debris all our questions were answered. I instantly knew my friends were dead.
We climbed onto the debris pile and started searching. I could barely move. It took every ounce of will-power I could muster to keep searching. I knew my friends were dead and all I wanted to do was leave. We continued searching, but all we found was a helmet and the rope I had lent them that morning. Knowing our friends were likely at the ends of the rope, I tried to pull on it, but the rope wouldn’t cut through the snow because it was too hard. A few minutes after finding the rope, I suggested to Kenny it was time to go get help. He began hacking at the snow at the other end of the rope with the ice tools we brought, but his efforts to move any snow were futile as it was hard as ice. He agreed it was time to get help. Despite the dark, we thought we had seen the whole debris pile. We took one last look, yelled one last time, and left for help.
For months after the accident, I questioned everything I had done that night. I knew nothing would have changed the outcome, but what if things were different? Had we done everything we needed to do, or had my desire to leave the scene clouded my decision making? I had always envisioned myself as being calm and collected in a crisis. But in that moment of pure instinct, between fight and flight, my instinct was flight. If one of my friends was partially buried and breathing, but could not move, would I have found him? It took me a long time to realize that even though I had been fighting the urge to leave and our thought processes were not clear, Kenny and I had assessed the situation accurately and had made reasonable judgments.
The four-mile drive to the Saskatchewan Crossing ranger station seemed to take an eternity, enough time to figure out which activities and life goals I would quit and who I could sell my ice climbing gear to. When we reached the ranger station, a light was on and Marie, the ranger’s wife, answered our knock. She contacted the Parks Search and Rescue team. Kenny took the phone to give the necessary information to the rangers. Suddenly he handed me the phone and the ranger asked, “You are an experienced rescuer and know what you saw. Do we need to come tonight or can we wait until morning.” A lot of thoughts went through my head. I knew there was no chance they were alive, or Kenny and I wouldn’t have left the scene. But I wanted them to come right away anyhow. I rationalized to myself that our Tacoma rescue team would not hesitate to search in the middle of the night even if there was no chance the subjects were alive. Still I felt awkward about the decision to make them come out in the middle of the night.
I realized that we had switched roles. In the past, we were the rescuers—now we were the victims. In retrospect, it surprised me how quickly I had transitioned to the victim role, with no desire to participate as a trained rescuer. I had previously assumed that if my friends were injured or lost, I would want to take part in their rescue or recovery. But now, even when asked by the Park Rangers to help them find the location, I actively avoided participating. Part of it was because the accident location was so obvious; there was only one car on the Icefields Parkway and only one trail to the climb. The other part was that I had no desire to go back to the scene or to see my friends’ bodies. I had already visualized them as lifeless when I was at the scene, and didn’t want to see it for real. Another climber in our group had the opposite reaction and had to be given a task by the rescuers to keep him out of their way.
How the Accident Happened
We later learned that the accident had been caused by an un-forecasted temperature inversion that triggered a slab avalanche 4,000 feet above my friends. The avalanche released from a large bowl and travelled down the drainage, gathering more snow at each small snow field until sweeping them off the route and depositing them at the bottom, under as much as 13 feet of concrete-hard snow.
After the bodies were recovered, one of the Park Rangers asked me about how our friends climbed. Specifically the Ranger told me that they had climbed the route and found no ice screws or obvious screw holes. I told him that John always insisted that a screw be put in immediately on each lead, and he would always remind those he was climbing with. After that I became obsessed with figuring out exactly where they were on the climb when the avalanche hit, in part to prove that my friends had not made any careless climbing mistakes. I looked at pictures of their gear and reread the route description and concluded that the climbers were clipped to a tree or fixed anchor at the top of the climb which is why there were no screws in the ice. Later, when Jim’s camera was recovered, this sequence was confirmed.
The night after the recovery, a contingent from Tacoma arrived including John’s brother Tom, a long-time mountain rescuer and sheriff’s department search-and-rescue leader. Before we left the Park the next day, all of us walked up to the accident site. The debris pile was twice as big as Kenny and I had seen in the dark. Near the spot where his brother was found, Tom called us over and gave us a very heartfelt acknowledgement and expressed his gratitude for what we had been through. This greatly aided my recovery from the accident. Through all the doubts and second-guessing of the following months, I continually fell back on Tom’s words and knew that, in his eyes, we had done all we could.
Some critics will say that climbing is inherently selfish and dangerous. But as an engineer, I struggled with the fact that I could not find any significant decision-making errors that led to the accident. The climbing community, and to an even greater extent the rescue community, is very critical of accidents. I spent many hours assessing what others had to say and analyzing my own thoughts from the days leading up to the accident, but reminded myself that at the time we had no information suggesting significant avalanche risk. Very seasoned and critical climbers and mountain rescuers told me they couldn’t find any significant errors made by the climbers or our group.
The only potential error was mentioned by the news media, which criticized the climbers for not having avalanche transceivers. I had no problem dismissing this, nor did the Park Rangers, since it would not have changed the outcome (though it might have aided the recovery). That being said, when I ice-climb now, I always wear a transceiver so that if I am buried my family won’t be harassed by the press.
Six months passed before I really started to mourn my lost friends. I saw how the loss of two very experienced leaders had left a huge hole in Tacoma Mountain Rescue. John and Jim were close friends to many of us, and those who knew them are constantly reminded of how much their training skills and special dedication meant. Initially I felt a need to fill the leadership hole, but instead found a much stronger drive to participate on search-and-rescue missions. Unlike training sessions, missions are unpredictable and my family is more accommodating now that we have a greater understanding of the impact of unfortunate situations.
Prior to the accident, I thought the main goal of each search-and-rescue mission was to help the people who were lost or injured, while the recovery of remains was a less critical part of the job. After the night we searched for the lost plane, I realized that bringing out the deceased isn’t just for the victims but also to help bring closure to the family and friends. Now I am very motivated to bring resolution to the families and friends and I feel a bond to them I never felt before.
In October, following the accident, I took my wife to where the accident occurred. Winter had come early to the Parkway. On the ride home, she told me she understood, from the beauty and isolation of the area, why I liked it up there and said I could return if I wanted. Although I will always remember that tragic night, I have returned twice to Canada to ice-climb, though with much greater awareness of my incomplete understanding of local snow conditions and terrain.
The accident has truly changed me as a father, husband, and climber. Some of those changes were already in process because life is, after all, a moving target. But the accident accelerated them. Prior to the accident, I was obsessed with bagging the 100 highest peaks in Washington, while now my focus is on introducing the mountains to my kids. Now that they ski, I have pretty much hung up my backcountry skis in favor of lift-area skis and a snowboard. But once they get older, I can’t wait to share the backcountry with them. Whether searching in the dark for a lost person, skiing or backpacking with my wife and kids, or enjoying a backcountry adventure with friends, I can’t imagine losing my need to experience the mountains.
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