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Mt Hood - Fall on Snow - Cooper Spur

May 23, 1999

This is the report from the 2000 edition of
"Accidents in North American Mountaineering":

FALL ON SNOW, WEATHER - UNSTABLE SNOW CONDITIONS, FAULTY USE OF CRAMPONS
Oregon, Mount Hood, Cooper Spur Route

Carey Cardon (31) and his wife Tena Cardon (29) were experienced mountaineers training for a proposed climb of Mt. McKinley. They started climbing the Cooper Spur at 0430 on May 23. They summited about 0800 via the 2,000 foot, 50-degree snow slope that capped the 4,500-foot route above their tent. On the descent, one of the Cardons slipped just below the summit and they tumbled roped together more than 2,000 feet down the mountain to their deaths.

Analysis:

The Cooper Spur Route below the summit of Mt. Hood is notoriously dangerous, having caused the deaths of at least 13 climbers preceding the Cardons.

The Oregon Mountaineering Association's route description states, "Particular caution should be taken on descent, and some climbers arrange a shuttle
so that they may descend the standard route." Oregon High, a Climbing Guide by Jeff Thomas states, "Do not descend Cooper Spur... during periods of hot weather, as the snow becomes excessively soft..." The Summit Guide to the Gas cade v)lcanoes by Jeff Smoot states, "It is quite steep and exposed. Falls from this route are common and often fatal..."

A spring heat wave and the strong morning sun had dangerously softened the snow on the Cooper Spur Route on this day. Joren Bass and his partner had
ascended the route at the same time as the Cardons. Bass decided to descend an alternate, safer route. "We were kind of surprised that they were going back down that way.

An eye witness reported that he was certain that both climbers were wearing crampons. Therefore it is probable that snow was balling up in them. One rescue team member said that Carey Cardon was found with his crampons on, while Tena was not so found. A professional climbing guide named Charles Hsieh rendered this opinion: "There were no gross errors in judgment." However, the facts suggest otherwise.

(Sources: Robert Speik, Jed Williamson, and The Oregonian, May 25)

From The Oregonian:

An unsettled snowpack may have been a factor in the death of a man and woman, authorities say

By Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian

Two climbers who reached the summit of Mount Hood died Sunday shortly after starting their descent, falling about 1,500 feet along the mountain's northeast face.

The bodies of the man and woman had not been recovered by early Sunday evening and their names had not been released. Rescuers said that they were unsure what caused the fall but that an unsettled snowpack may have been a factor.

A climber on the summit used a cell phone to call the Hood River County sheriffs office at 8:33 am to report the fall.

An experienced Portland climber, Steve Boyer, skied down from the summit to the bodies, which were near the 9,100-foot level of the 11,240-foot mountain.

"We wanted to get to them as soon as we could to see if they were treatable. But they had clearly expired. They ended up within 10 feet of each other. They were still roped together," Boyer said. "It turns out the snow was better for skiing than for climbing."

Boyer, joined by U.S. Forest Service Ranger Glen Kessler, moved the two bodies another 300 feet down to a less-exposed shelf at the top of Eliot Glacier, about 8,800 feet up the mountain, said Craig McCurdy of the Hood River Crag Rats rescue team.

The man and woman had climbed up the Cooper Spur route on the northeast side the night before after pitching their orange tent below. They reached the summit about 8 a.m., stayed about five minutes and then began their descent, apparently aware of the softening snow conditions. It was about 40 degrees on the mountaintop on a cloudless, warm day with a faint breeze, said Peter Green, who was leading a Mazamas club teen-age mountain-climbing trip and reached the summit about the same time.

The two climbers were only about 10 minutes into their descent when the accident occurred. Some climbers on the summit heard them scream, Boyer said.

"We were sitting and eating at the top when I heard a bunch of people talking loudly and looking over the north edge," Green said. "Then suddenly they yelled, 'Anybody know anything about rescue?' "

Several people tried to call 911 via cell phones and were frustrated when they could not get a line. Others attempted to lower climbers along the north face to determine whether the fallen climbers were alive.

"It was somber on top," Green said, estimating there were about 30 climbers on the summit by 8:15 a.m. "We all felt very helpless."

A 10-member rescue team composed of the Portland Mountain Rescue Unit and the Hood River Crag Rats headed up the mountain along Cooper Spur about 3:30 p.m. to retrieve the bodies. Hauling skis, crampons, ice axes and ropes, they decided to camp overnight and wait until about 4 am. today to allow temperatures to drop and the snowpack to harden before skiing up to reach the bodies.

"Due to the weather conditions we decided to wait to bring them out until it was cooler, and we could have a little better footing," McCurdy said.

The unusually warm weather made for slushy, unstable conditions that could have contributed to the fall, McCurdy said.

"Snow was very soft on the north side even as early as 8. The sun was right on it," Green said. As a result, most of Sunday's climbers, including Green and his group, were scaling the south slope.

An advisory from the Mount Hood Information Center alerted climbers Sunday that the mountain's southern paths were satisfactory but that all other routes might be unstable because of widely varying spring weather conditions. The advisory suggested climbers descend very early in the morning to minimize exposure to falling ice and unstable snow.

Jeff Pricher, a dispatcher with the sheriff's office, said officials did not know whether the pair were belaying down. Some climbers said it appeared the male climber was below the woman climber and slipped. Then they both slid over a large abutment, or rock, called Eliot headwall. Officials were unable to confirm that account.

"Numerous attempts were made by people at the top to try to go down and reach them," Pricher "But the conditions were bad. The snow was getting soft, and it was starting to ball up."

The arrival of spring usually heralds a spate of serious climbing accidents on Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest and most popular mountain.

About 10,000 people trek up the mountain every year.

In most cases, climbers are rescued, but many are not so fortunate.

In September 1997, a climber fell 1,500 feet to his death while scaling the Cooper Spur route, the same path taken by the climbers killed Sunday.

The man, an experienced climber, was at the 10,000-foot level when he lost his grip and slid or ice, snow and rocks through area called Chisolm trail.

Cooper Spur is known among climbers as a popular but steep technical climb, prone to avalanches and unstable snow.

It offers a direct route to the summit up a steep ridge, taking about six hours. But its last 2,000 feet slope 50 degrees, making for an especially perilous descent. Some climbers take Cooper Spur up, then take another way down.

"From the summit, when you step over the north side, it's very steep. Itís unnerving to even look over at that side," Green said.

Boyer said the deceased male climber still had crampons on; the woman did not. Crampons in soft snow would be more of a hindrance than a help.

"On descent, crampons will ball up with snow and basically become worthless and act like skis when the snow is so soft," McCurdy said.

In July 1994, four climbers roped together fell at the 10,000-foot level when coming down the Cooper Spur route. Two died in the 700-foot fall.

The last fatal accident on Mount Hood was almost a year ago, on a different route up the mountain. Last May 31, a climber died and three others were injured. They were members of a Mazamas club climbing class who were caught in an avalanche on the West Crater Rim route.

Other Cooper Spur Accidents:

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