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Terror and Ice

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Every year thousands of adventurers climb Oregon’s Mt. Hood, but that doesn’t mean that the 11,237-ft. peak, the highest in the state, is without risk. That became abundantly clear on the morning of May 30, when seven people connected to Tualatin Valley (Oregon) Fire & Rescue set out for what was supposed to be an enjoyable seven-hour hike to the top of Mt. Hood. Among those in the group were Cleve Joiner, 48, assistant fire marshal with TVF&R, his son Cole, 14, and Dennis Butler, 28, a firefighter and paramedic who is also an experienced climber. Before the day was over, they and the others on the mountain would be a party to two terrible accidents—and, as they describe it, they would need all their professional skills to help save their fellow climbers.

Prior to starting the ascent, the TVF&R group, all of whom had done at least some climbing, practiced an “arrest” maneuver, in which the climbers drop down and sink their ice axes and crampons into the snow in order to avoid being swept down the mountainside.

Cleve: Jeff Pierce [a firefighter and EMT who is a seasoned climber] was really adamant. He made us lie down on our backs and slide down the hill and get some momentum and then throw the ax to the side to arrest and swing our bodies around.

Cole: I didn’t have any problems doing it. It all seemed to be working pretty well.

The group set off around 4 a.m. In one squad roped together were Cole, Pierce, 38, and Jeremiah Moffitt, 26, a paramedic; in the second squad were Cleve, Butler, Selena Maestas, 27, Moffitt’s girlfriend and herself a paramedic in Portland, and Chad Hashbarger, 33, a nutritionist and physical trainer with TVF&R. Pierce, who was acting as the group leader, thought it best to have family members on separate rope lines in case of an accident. As the group closed in on the summit at 8 a.m., the slope steepened to about 45 degrees. The surface was unusually icy for late May. The group also encountered a deep glacial crevasse, known as a bergschrund, which forms every spring and which can be 50 ft. deep and as much as 30 ft. wide.

Cole: We started going up to the left to avoid the bergschrund. When we walked by, I looked in. It looked like something you see on those nature shows. It was all blue ice.

Suddenly, 100 yards ahead, another group of roped climbers—William Ward, 49, and Richard Read, 48, of Forest Grove, Ore.; Harry Slutter, 43, of Centerport, N.Y.; and Christopher Kern, 40, of Northport, N.Y.—apparently lost their footing and began sliding down the mountainside. They in turn crashed into two other climbers—John Biggs, 62, and the Rev. Thomas Hillman, 45, of Windsor, Calif.—and sent the whole tangle hurtling toward the crevasse.

Butler: I heard some people yelling, and I looked up and I just saw a jumble of bodies and arms and legs and heads just flying down the mountain.

Cole: It sounded like a sled coming down on a hill. Jeff shouted, “Try “to get out of the way!” I saw one person on my left side, going maybe 40 or 50 mph. We dug in with our ice axes and self-arrested. They were past me in a matter of seconds. Jeff and I got out of the way, I believe, and Jeremiah got hit by the guys. Then we got pulled down by our rope. I was getting pulled down with my ice ax still in the ground, thinking this is supposed to stop me, but it didn’t. I knew when we started sliding that the bergschrund was below us. I knew we were going in. I felt my feet go over the edge.

Butler: I didn’t watch them actually falling because with climbers there’s a general fear of getting a crampon in the face, so I had my helmet pointing up the mountain. All I saw was a blur of colors and bodies hitting the ice wall [of the crevasse], two and three at a time, everybody smacking the ice wall and then silence as it just swallowed everybody up.

Cleve: I was on the lower side of the bergschrund [with Butler]. All this ice started hitting us. It’s like an ice storm coming at you. Then I remember looking up. It was total silence. All kinds of things went through my head. The first one was “I’ve lost my son.” I even thought, “Everybody’s been telling you how dangerous this is. Now you’ve killed your son.”

Within a matter of minutes the four uninjured climbers made their way to the lip of the crevasse. Cleve got out his cell phone and called 911, who alerted mountain rescue authorities.

Butler: All of a sudden I had to shift gears and realize that now I was back at work, back doing my job, because lives were at risk.

The rescuers determined that Cole and Pierce were unhurt. But three of the other climbers—Read, Ward and Biggs—had been killed, while the rest were injured and needed to be brought up 30 ft. from the bottom of the crevasse.

Butler: We set up a haul system to get people out with ice axes, rope, pulleys. They were moaning down there. A lot of them were screaming in agony as we lifted them. At one point I had to tell some of the people that ankle fractures and arm fractures weren’t going to kill them, but hypothermia will.

Cole: I was down in the hole for two hours helping out.

Cleve: I was proud of him because he was down there helping, he hadn’t lost his composure. When he got out, I gave him a big hug. Tears never came. You get that emotional feeling but part of it is, as ridiculous as it sounds, you’ve got to shut that off and do what you have to do.

Jeff Livick, 36, a medic with the Timberline Ski Patrol, reached the crevasse at about 11 a.m., in time to assist in treating and airlifting the injured by Air Force and Army helicopters.

Livick: Because it’s a very tricky part of the mountain, with really tricky winds and thermals, they don’t often do helicopter rescues up there. But it was a fabulous day.

Two of the choppers hovered in and removed victims. But as the third one was about to take off with Moffitt already hooked to its lifting rig, the pilot lost control for reasons that are still to be determined.

Livick: I saw the tail sag down. An extremely sharp flight engineer quickly severed the cable to keep from dragging our patient, which probably would have killed him. I have to believe the pilot knew he was crashing and did his best to get away from all of us on the ground. But the rotors hit the side of the mountain. As the helicopter crashed and began rolling down the mountain, I could see the flight engineer hanging on outside, getting rolled over a couple of times. Then he was ejected out and left sitting in the soft snow.

Mercifully no one aboard the chopper was killed, though one crewman sustained serious injuries. Afterward several more helicopters safely removed all of the injured.

Cole: When it first happened, I didn’t want to climb again ever. But now I’m starting to feel that maybe I could.

Cleve: Jeff Pierce said it better than anyone. He was a victim for about five seconds. After that it was just another day of work.

Bill Hewitt

Lyndon Stambler in Portland and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles