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Area Alvanche Survivor Begins Healing Process

Tragedy: Father of two teens recalls mountain of snow that took one life and injured eight, including himself, during a memorial climb for a nephew.

June 14, 1998|BRETT JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAUGUS — Gregg Swanson wanted to climb Mt. Rainier not for himself but to honor his nephew, a mountain guide who died on another snow-capped peak in Canada in 1997.

A veteran rock climber and mountaineer, Swanson, 42, of Saugus, never imagined the memorial climb would end with an avalanche plowing into him, his brother and 25 other climbers Thursday, killing one and injuring eight, including himself and his brother.

As the father of two teenagers reclined on the couch in his townhouse after being released from a Tacoma-area hospital Friday, Swanson said he was lucky he suffered only two broken fingers and some possible ligament damage to his left knee when the snow broke loose near an area known as Disappointment Cleaver.

"I'm glad to be home," he said. "Part of [the healing process] is knowing that it is behind me. Now I can start dealing with the future."

Swanson and his brother, Kent Swanson, of Phoenix, Md., enrolled in a five-day, $745 mountaineering course taught by Ashford, Wash.-based Rainier Mountaineering Inc. to remember Kent's son, Kent Jr. RMI is the same company 25-year-old Kent Jr. was working for as a guide when the helicopter he was in crashed into the side of a mountain in British Columbia.

But the memorial trip ended in tragedy when the slide swept over two climbing teams about 2 p.m. as the group descended from the 14,408-foot peak. Kent Swanson suffered injuries to his right leg and left hand. Three Manhattan Beach women--Deborah Lynn, Nina Redman and Susan Hall--were also injured in the accident. Patrick Neysler, 29, of Rowayton, Conn., died from hypothermia.

"We made the summit around 10 o'clock in the morning," Gregg Swanson recalled. "It was a beautiful day. You could see Mt. Hood, Jefferson, St. Helen's. We stayed up there for an hour, then decided to come back down because the snow was starting to get mushy."

Swanson said he heard someone yell, "Snow!" Then "Avalanche!" and then "Run, run, run!"

When he tried to unclip himself from the rope that connected him to four other climbers, Swanson looked up and saw the avalanche coming toward him.

"I grabbed on to the rope, and was hoping to ride it out, then I felt the impact of snow," he said. "It took me.

"I was in the snow for what seemed like hours but it was only maybe 10, 15 seconds. I popped up and was sitting on the snow and then I began sliding down feet-first. I could see where the cliff was dropping off and I was heading there and I knew then it was it--that I would die."

"So then I came to an abrupt stop," Swanson continued. "Snow kept going past me. Then after 15, 20 seconds it subsided."

Swanson said he sat on the edge of the cliff, pinned for several hours by a rope that was connected to one climber who had whisked past him and another who was still above him before authorities were alerted by walkie-talkie and a helicopter arrived to transport the climbers to area hospitals.

Although the accident was a close call, Swanson said he will continue to climb because, he said, mountaineering provides a spiritual fulfillment that non-climbers don't understand.

"It's a sport that has inherent risks to it," he said. "But you get into a massive car wreck, and most people continue to drive afterward."

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