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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

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.

Comments (23)

Thanks for the climber's perspective. Too bad he didn't weigh in on the MLU vs no MLU topic.

MLU didn't deserve to be in a bowl game.

No, seriously, what is that? One of those locator devices?

I think MLU stands for Mountain Locator Unit, and I read today that they can be rented for just $5 at the base of the mountain.

What I've also heard on the news today are some incredibly illogical arguments against mandating their use.

Illogical Argument #1) People will take more risks if they have an MLU. The reality: Whether or not someone takes more risks, wearing an MLU is no different from wearing a seat belt, life jacket, or a bike helmet. Accidents can happen to anyone, no matter how experienced they are. I have a friend who bicycled across country, then a couple of weeks later took a header on his bike in a freak accident just blocks from his home. He screwed up both hands and wrists, but without a helmet I'd be writing today about my dearly departed friend.

Illogical Argument #2) Even with an MLU, they might have ended up in a place that rescuers couldn't reach. The reality: Well, yes, that always possible, but with an MLU rescuers would have at least known where they were located.

It's shocking to me that carrying a location device is even an issue with climbers. I mean how selfish and inconsiderate are these people?
The GPS device costs 5 bucks to rent according to one report. The arguments against it are that it weighs a little and it gives climbers a false sense of security - more incentive to take chances. I imagine that having a device lessens the sense of adventure somewhat, but how does that stack up against asking dozens of people to risk their lives looking for you?
We all saw that rescue helicopter a few years ago rolling down the side of Mt. Hood. Yesterday we asked another helicopter crew to go back up there and sweep over the mountain looking for these climbers.
It is beyond inconsiderate to ask your fellow human beings to search for you when a little device could make so much difference.
There's talk of requiring the device but why don't climbers act out of consideration for their fellow man? Is this some sort of ego trip where we all are supposed to admire their courage so much that we don't mind searching a mountain for them? I don't get it.
I understand that it's their lives and I feel sorry for the families who are suffering right now, but please...
Celebrities aren't this demanding.

MLUs are mis-used constantly. I recall reading of one guy who used it 3 or 4 times in as many weeks, because he was "tired".

Just as an ambulance cannot refuse to cart the same drunks to the hospital night after night if they so demand, selfish climbers with MLUs can gear up tons of expensive rescue operations with a single button press.

Some believe a MLU detracts from the "More Alive Feeling" they seek to enjoy when challenging death.

We don't need a law requiring mountaineers use a MLU, only a guideline that tax money won't be spent searching for those who don't have one.

Knowing that should enhance that "More Alive" feeling.

If they want a more alive feeling, why even register? Don't even tell anybody what you plan to do. This is more of a selfish thing: I want the more alive feeling but if it doesn't work out I want help and I'm going to make your task even riskier by not helping you at all.
Look, I get the danger thing. I did it as a kid in the Persian Gulf. We'd hire an Arab dhow to take us out for a day or two of skin-diving and we'd be hours from shore with no radio.
Picture 8 teenagers with spear guns in shark-infested waters, going from island to island. There were poisonous fish, snakes and sting rays not to mention dozens of other things that could go wrong. We had to think and weigh our moves very carefully, and it was invigorating. I get all that.

But I didn't enjoy the extra rush. I always wished we had a radio in case disaster struck, but one wasn't available until later. The rule was Safety First and anything you could do to enhance your chances, you did. I would have taken an emergency locating device in a second. I think it would have been more enjoyable to have one.
Don't these climbers owe it to their families not to put them through the last few days of hell?
You should never trade a more alive feeling for being dead.

Mr. McDonald:

I don't think you understand MLU or the arguments revolving around its use. Or, at the very least, you are proposing some novel arguments that have never before reared their heads in this debate.

It is that presence of MLUs amongst a large number of climbers/hikers results in excessive inappropriate use of MLUs which, in turn, results in huge amount of cost, danger, and time.

MLUs are not like a safety radio or 911 cell call. It is a binary communication which, often, puts in motion a huge and expensive rescue operation. And, as you probably know, rescue operations are incredibly dangerous for those performing the rescues.

The arguments I heard against them were from a climber interviewed on local TV news.
Frankly, I thought the big deal was cost and I was shocked that you could rent them for 5 bucks.
The weight thing was equally surprising as they appeared fairly small. It also looked like you could pull a tab even if you were falling or in an avalanche etc...
I'd say we address the false alarms with fines, and react to the real emergencies for free. You don't want someone crawling off the mountain with a broken leg because they can't afford the bill.
You mention a huge and expensive rescue operation that is incredibly dangerous for those involved. That's why going to a specific location quickly is better than searching a mountain - better in terms of cost and risk, and numbers of searchers involved, and way better in terms of finding the climbers before they are dead.
I always hear about snow caves. How do you find a snow cave from the air or hiking in fresh snow? These devices aren't just a help - they seem like the only way this can work.
Am I missing something here?

How about making the climbers (1) wear the MLUs and (2) staff the rescue squads, and (3) arrange your own rescue team.

That is, to be allowed to climb, you have to have completed so many hours of being on-call in the rescue squad yourself and for each climb, you have to have list X number of qualified people who have agreed to stay at the base and to be your rescue team should your MLU go off.

If climbers want to expose people to the risks of mountain rescue in horrible conditions, they should be willing to assume those risks and have them be assumed by people they care about.

I'm surprised and also glad that we are still allowed to challenge ourselves climbing mountains. I've been up Mt Hood only once (solo--that's what worked best for me) and St Helens, before and after the eruption. I decided that other challenges were more to my liking and physical abilities. But I will support freedom of choice and oppose those who would take away our remaining freedom, just because they "know" they are right and we "are wrong."

And yes, I'm saddened by this apparent loss of 3 young people.

"Am I missing something here?"

Yes you are. If a gun is in a household, the chances of accidental death, etc, rise precipitously. Similarly for MLUs.

That a few serious cases may resolve more quickly due to MLUs allowing rescuers to more quickly locate missing persons are outweighed by the many many false positives of people using their MLUs when they simply shouldn't be using them, because they are "tired". NYT had an editorial piece on this and weighed against their widespread use, or mandates for their use.

There's another aspect, what I call the Karl Wallenda effect. Karl Wallenda was a high wire trapeze artist who never, never, NEVER worked with the use of nets or safety devices of any kind. In 1979 at the age of 73 Karl Wallenda fell to his death in Puerto Rico, doing it his way. Likewise the climbers, taking on the mountain, mano-a-mano, they don't want or need no stinking locator device, and what's the use anyway? That defeats the purpose. That's planning to fail. And that's the climbing culture going on there.

PJB, you don't address the idea of people having to provide friends as volunteers for their rescue party -- I don't think many climbers would frivolously endanger someone they cared about ... but we know it happens when the rescuers are anonymous employees.

How many "false positives" would be generated if you knew it was your spouse, SO, or climbing buddy who would be responding to your alert?

I read more about this and here's a Mt. Hood incident that caught my eye:
"Beginning on New Year's Eve in 1975, two 16-year-olds and an 18-year-old survived in a snow cave 13 days through a snow storm."
Maybe they're still alive up there.

This MLU & SAR debate resurfaces whenever the news media hypes a story like this. A few points to consider:

The American ethic is to let people do what they want and then to help them when they get into trouble. Whether its mountain climbers or, much more frequently, hikers, hunters, snowmobilers, folks that get lost on back roads in the Coast Range, kids that wander away from campgrounds, those that get caught on the rocks when the tide comes in, grandma that drives off and doesn’t return, out-of-bounds snowboarders upside down in tree wells, or a thousand other situations, we look for them tirelessly because it’s the right thing to do.

The cost of a Mt. Hood rescue operation is largely borne by volunteers or National Guard. Volunteers, like Portland Mt. Rescue, are not paid, don’t charge for their services, and rely on contributions (they get a check from me every year). The National Guard (Blackhawks, etc.), consider search and rescue to be real-world training so that they are not just faking it when they try to extract their buddies in Afghanistan.

MLUs are NOT widely available, nor are they available at the times climbers usually head up to Mt. Hood (the middle of the night). Go/no go climbing decisions are often made only a few hours before a climb due to weather and snow conditions. A cell phone and GPS (many phones now have GPS capabilities) is often the better choice because cells are active, two way devices. MLUs are useless unless the person is already known to be missing and they’ve had the opportunity to activate it.

MLUs are a dated technology limited to Mt. Hood (that’s the only place where the triangulation receivers exist). There are many other mountains to climb in Oregon – Jefferson, North, Middle, and South Sister, Washington, and the Wallowas for starters, as well as vast tracts of wilderness for people to get lost or injured in.

An estimated 10,000 people a year summit Mt. Hood, and many, many more attempt the climb. Most return without incident, indicating that the vast majority of climbers exercise good judgment and climb safely. As for the two remaining on the mountain today, it appears that they were experienced (one was a SAR volunteer in the Olympics) and simply hit some bad luck. That’s where my thoughts are.

Here is a novel idea. We are a smart society and I think someone could invent something like this. How about a MLU that has a timer on it. A climber would set it when they embark on their climb. If a climber is, say a few hours late getting back to the finish of their hike, the beacon would go off, setting in motion rescue operation. Now, obviously there would be flaws in this system, and much smarter people could figure out the fixes, but maybe, just maybe this can satisfy all of us.

Re: 1975
I went to the same private school Randy Knapp, Matt Meacham and Gary Schneider attended. "They were sustained by the Bible, Jell-O and pancake mix." They were serious Christians, very much in shape, (Gary used to ride 20 miles down Weston mountain to school)
A couple years later Gary loaned me the same coat he used on Hood because I was unprepared for a cold night on the river.

A big difference from now is they were uninjured.

As for MLU's and other such, I always defer to those that actually climb on the mountains and those that are the actual rescuers.
I busy myself in support roles, fixing hot food and coffee...

My response to Doug's comment about the MLU is to point out that the vast majority of the climbers who summit Mt. Hood do so during the Spring climbing season (late April through late June) under "blue bird" weather conditions. These kids went up there in Winter conditions when a major system was moving in after several days of clear cold weather. In my mind this was not an ideal set up for a Winter climb and the avalanche risk was probably very high above 9000 feet. If they insisted on climbing while a weather front was moving in they should have gotten MLU's. If it wasn't convenient to get an MLU before the climb then they shouldn't have gone on the climb. I think Bill McDonald is spot on in regard to this issue, and it is very selfish to elevate the level of danger to potential rescuers when it isn't necessary.

To add to Usual Kevin's comments . . . most climbing groups and individuals summit by climbing the south side route which, if you've been hiking at distance and elevation to condition yourself and go with experienced people, is what Mazamas and their ilk would consider a "walk up." A group brought a monkey to the summit via the south route in the 1960s!

These folks were taking a more challenging approach across Reid. There are approaches to the north that should never be attempted by most of the Sunday climbers who sally up the south. And they aren't. That's why so many summit Hood safely.

In a majority of situations around the world involving major peaks, climbers who get stuck or have an accident can expect to pay for their rescue; it's not like that here but climbing alone, at an inappropriate time of the year, undertaking a difficult route without a cell phone/GPS or MLU, or not qualifying for the job at hand by attending mountaineering classes or traveling under the supervision of a qualified guide is on a par with the old school who sneered at the use of oxygen when tackling Everest, K2, etc.. I'm not saying these folks did all of that (they sound as though they were seasoned) but without any communication devices they are making it difficult to impossible to home in on their whereabouts - endangering searchers and lessening their chances of being found alive.

Yeah, it can be done, but at what to cost to yourself and others?

So, let me see if I understand; the closer you are to being dead, the more "alive" you are. Ok, guess I will simply kill myself. Hurrah!

To weigh in here, it appears there was some sort of accident - and the climber who was found had a cell phone. Perhaps the battery had died, perhaps there was no coverage, perhaps the phone was broken in whatever event occured.

Even if this party took up a MLU, if the person carrying it fell into a crevasse, was carried away by an avalanche, etc., they likely would not have been able to activate the device. The argument about MLUs in this case may really not be relevant.

Doug the MC, here's an obit to contemplate when you're "back up there soon":

Bonatti survives.


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Road Work

Miles run year to date: 5
At this date last year: 3
Total run in 2017: 113
In 2016: 155
In 2015: 271
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In 2013: 257
In 2012: 129
In 2011: 113
In 2010: 125
In 2009: 67
In 2008: 28
In 2007: 113
In 2006: 100
In 2005: 149
In 2004: 204
In 2003: 269

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