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THE NATION

One Miscue, and a Casual Climb Can Turn Deadly

June 01, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — Perched at what seemed the top of the world--western Oregon spread out below like a carpet, clouds dotting the big green netherworld like wildflowers--Jeff Pierce didn't expect the human missiles that suddenly came hurtling toward him, threatening to blow him off the mountain and into the beautiful blue beyond.

He heard it first, a bunch of hollering from the six climbers above him near the summit of Mt. Hood. Somebody slipped. No problem. The 38-year-old firefighter looked up, thinking he would see what he had seen dozens of times: some guys planting their ice axes and hunkering into the side of the mountain, maybe someone dangling scared but safe on a rope. No. Six guys were headed his way, going so fast they were already nothing but a tangle of rope and flailing legs and silent fear.

"Move right! Move right!" Pierce screamed to the two other climbers on his team. But there wasn't time. Pierce slammed his ax into the snow and held on as he and his buddies joined the train wreck plummeting toward the glacial crevasse below.

"I knew I was going in," he said.

By the time it was over--some said it took five seconds, nobody thought it took more than 30--Pierce was lying on a steep slope of snow and ice 20 feet down the chasm. One climber was lying face down on an ice shelf below; he was dead. Four others were pancaked on top of each other in a deep hole at the bottom of the crevasse. Two were still alive; they yelled when you touched them. Two were dead.

As rescuers removed the last of the three bodies Friday from a mountain that glinted with disarming grace above the Portland skyline, survivors of Mt. Hood's second worst climbing accident--compounded by the crash of a rescue helicopter--recalled the terrifying conclusion of what was supposed to have been an easy climb.

The accident--in balmy blue weather, on what is a widely used ascent route, on the second-most-climbed mountain in the world--has sobered the mountaineering community in the Pacific Northwest and has prompted an investigation into the cause of the crash.

"This accident is going to make a lot of people start rethinking a lot of things, especially climbing with other people above them," said John Godino, a climbing instructor for the Portland-based Mazamas mountaineering club. "It's a real wake-up call."

John Biggs, 62, a retired airline pilot from Windsor, Calif., was among the dead identified Friday. Also killed were William Ward, 49, and Richard Read, 48, both of Forest Grove, Ore. Seven other people remained hospitalized, including Biggs' friend and pastor, the Rev. Thomas Hillman, 45, also of Windsor. Hillman was listed in fair condition with a head injury. A rescue specialist on the downed helicopter, Staff Sgt. Darrin Shore, 43, was in fair condition with a fractured left leg and rib.

Climbers on the mountain during Thursday's events said the day appeared to provide a better-than-normal opportunity for reaching Mt. Hood's 11,235-foot summit. Hard-packed snow made footings easy. The weather was the best it had been all year.

Five members of the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue Department set out early for their summit attempt, taking along one of the men's 14-year-old son and a paramedic from another department.

The climb was Pierce's idea--he had climbed Mt. Hood many times--and most of the guys thought it was a great way to get some exercise and see the world from a whole new angle.

Dennis Butler, a 28-year-old paramedic, was the only other member of the group who has significant climbing experience, so it was agreed that Pierce would lead the first team up the mountain and Butler would lead the second. Assistant Fire Marshal Cleve Joiner would climb with Butler, and his son Cole, with Pierce, in deference to an old tradition of mountaineering: split up families. That way somebody always goes home.

They arrived at the mountain at 2:30 a.m., but it was so icy it took longer than expected to ski up to the 8,500-foot level, where the climb begins. They weren't underway until 3:45.

"We took a pretty slow pace up the mountain from there," Butler said. They stopped frequently to give the less-experienced climbers lessons in the basics of mountaineering: how to climb in crampons (the notched boot attachments capable of digging into the ice), how to dig your ice ax into the snow and self-arrest if you start to fall.

By the time they reached the wide, sloping snow field known as Hogsback for the final part of the ascent, two other climbers--probably Biggs and Hillman--were roping up to mount the 250-foot-long Hogsback spine. Pierce's and Butler's teams carefully crossed the most dangerous part of the route, known as the Bergschrund--a gaping crevasse where the edge of the glacier falls away from the snow and ice field of the summit--then roped up and set off.

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