Thoughts on the climbers, from a climber
It's déjà vu. One body recovered, two fellow climbers lost, on Mount Hood in the first half of December. As a lover of the mountains, I carry this sort of story around with me for a while, and I like to ask my friend Doug the Mountain Climber what he thinks. Unlike I, Doug's been to the summit many a time, and he's even had to be carted off the side of Hood himself once.
When I asked for his thoughts on the latest episode, he remarked in a good-natured way that I was creating a niche for him in "dead and missing climbers" -- not the sunniest topic. But since his is the most knowledgable voice I know, his reaction is worth reading (links added by me -- I hope I got them right):
Based on the public information, it appears that these folks were headed up a route on the west side of Mt. Hood, probably either Reid Glacier Headwall or Leuthold Couloir. These are both routes that should be done in a day, say 8-12 hours car to car. They filled out the climber's registration form in the alcove at the Wy'East day lodge commonly known as the "climb cave" and I believe they started relatively early Friday morning. According to friends who have been up on the mountain recently, snow conditions were reasonably good, though the west side was probably somewhat icy and the weather was still cold and windy. The weather deteriorated over the course of the day with some precipitation by evening.
The alert went out late Friday or early Saturday when they did not return, and the body was found at the 9,000' level of the Reid Glacier on Saturday. Recent information indicates that he did not have a substantial fall (no broken bones, etc.), but that he did appear to have crawled for a distance. There was a water bottle near him and one extra glove, perhaps that of the
woman. It appears that he had a waist harness on, which suggests that he was roped at one point, but he was not roped when found. He was reported to have died of exposure.
What we're left with are questions. Why did the three separate? Did he decide to turn back while the others continued on? While that would be unlikely, I suppose it's possible. If he had no substantial injuries, why didn't he make it back? The upper Reid Glacier is only 30 minutes from Illumination Saddle which, in turn, is an easy 30 minute stroll to the top of the Palmer ski lift. Even in the worst weather, one can then follow the lift line straight south to Timberline Lodge. A fit person (these folks are all in their 20s) could literally drag themselves from the upper Reid to Timberline if it meant the difference between life and death. Why didn't he dig in, say dig a small snow cave? A snow cave, a tarp or space blanket, and a pad or pack for insulation from the snow could have given another day or more. Was there an injury to one of the other climbers and they separated so that one could seek help only to succumb himself? Who knows?
Jack, we could speculate endlessly, but it doesn't bring any more clarity to an unfortunate situation. These were young people with some climbing experience and with familiarity with Mt. Hood. Accidents happen to even the best prepared climbers. Last year, a Portland Mt. Rescue member had to be rescued himself when he fell a couple hundred feet after the ice chunk his picks were lodged in gave way. So it goes. I can say for myself (and suspect this would echoed by most climbers I know), that I've never felt more alive than when I'm up high on a mountain working hard to get to the top. Sure, there are objective dangers, gear can fail, people can make mistakes, weather can change unexpectedly, and the mountain is unforgiving. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I'll be back up there soon.