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Mt Hood - South Side - Chain Reaction Fall

May 30, 2002

'Just a freak accident'

06/01/02, Oregonian

ERIC MORTENSON and HARRY ESTEVE

It was a misstep by two climbers high on Mount Hood -- rather than inexperience or faulty equipment -- that triggered the dramatic series of accidents that killed three and injured 12 Thursday, officials and witnesses say.

The last two climbers in a group of four slipped and fell, pulling their roped-together partners down with them and sliding into five others in two other climbing groups shortly before 9 a.m.

"They were coming down like missiles," said climber Chad Hashbarger, a nutritionist and physical trainer with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.

"It was just bodies flying everywhere," he said. "One by one, they were just hitting the end of the crevasse and dropping in."

Nine climbers slid as far as 250 feet into the bergschrund, a horizontal gash in the ice below the 11,240-foot summit.

William G. Ward, 49, and Richard T. Read, 48, both of Forest Grove, and John A. Biggs, 62, of Windsor, Calif., died in the pile of bodies.

Ward was a production manager at Hines Nurseries; Read was an archivist and curator of the Pacific University Museum; Biggs was a retired airline pilot.

The bodies of Biggs and Ward were brought down from the mountain about 11 p.m. Thursday. Read's body was retrieved about 11:30 a.m. Friday. It was the worst single climbing accident on Mount Hood since 1986, when nine died.

Six members of an Air Force Reserve helicopter rescue crew also were injured Thursday when their HH-60G Pave Hawk crashed and rolled 1,000 feet down the mountain while attempting to lift out an injured climber.

Four of the 12 injured climbers or rescuers remained hospitalized Friday. Dr. William Long, medical director for trauma services at Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center, where three of the injured were being treated, said he was surprised the injuries weren't more serious.

The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office will piece together what happened by talking with those involved, said Sgt. Nick Watt, who oversaw rescue efforts from the base camp at Timberline Lodge. But Watt said he does not expect to recommend any changes to the climbing protocol on the mountain or to assign blame.

"We're going to try to find out exactly what happened," Watt said. But thousands of people climb Mount Hood each year, he said, and accidents will continue to happen.

The Air Force has begun an inquiry into the crash of the Pave Hawk. The military also will take responsibility for removing the aircraft which could take weeks.

The helicopter pilot was hailed as a hero Friday because he managed to steer the craft away from paramedics and victims before smashing into the snow.

"We would probably have had far more casualties," Watt said. "In my estimation, it was a heroic act by the pilot."

The pilot, Grant Dysle, 34, of Scio, was treated for minor injuries and released.

No immediate answers Most people who were on the mountain Thursday said there did not appear to be an obvious answer for what went wrong.

According to official reports, Read and Ward, along with Hines Nurseries employees Harry Slutter, 43, of Centerport, N.Y., and Chris Kern, 40, of Long Island, N.Y., were ascending and roped together just below a narrow slope called "the Pearly Gates." It marks the beginning of the climb's steepest, most difficult pitch, the final 800 feet.

Two of those four climbers apparently lost their footing and fell, said Angie Blanchard, spokeswoman for the Clackamas sheriff. That caused the other two to fall, and all four began to slide downhill, picking up speed.

Climbers rope together for the very purpose of stopping such a fall. The idea is, if one member starts to slip and can't stop, the others can drag on the rope and "arrest" the slide, said Steve Rollins, of Portland Mountain Rescue.

"But there is the risk of a domino effect," he said.

The group of four, still tethered together, slammed into Biggs, who was climbing with his United Methodist minister, Thomas Hillman, also of Windsor, Calif. Biggs and Hillman were 30 to 50 feet below the first group.

Hillman told family members he frantically tried to dig into the snow with his ice ax and crampons, but the tangled mass of climbers picked up speed and collided with three members of a Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue group before spilling into the crevasse. Those three were about 300 feet below Biggs and Hillman and 20 feet above the bergschrund.

Biggs died in the fall, and Hillman suffered a broken back and neck, shoulder and head injuries.

Jeff Pierce, a firefighter and the leader of the Tualatin Valley group, said Friday that a yell from climbers above him on the mountain grabbed his attention. Pierce, Cole Joiner and Jeremiah Moffitt tried to get out of the way, but were swept into the crevasse.

Moffitt, a 26-year-old firefighter, heard someone ahead of him yell "Fall." He immediately put his head down, lunged onto his chest and dug his axe into the snow. The second he lifted his head, he saw a body flying toward him and was struck unconscious.

The next thing he recalled was waking up in the crevasse with a severely bruised hand and a sore back.

In the crevasse were upper and lower ice shelves. Pierce said four of the climbers "pancaked" on top of one another on the lower shelf, while the other five landed on the upper shelf. Two of the dead were in the lower area, the third was on the upper shelf.

Pierce and others took about 30 minutes to set up a pulley system. Aided by people up top, they had all of the injured out within an hour. As the evacuation was under way, the Pave Hawk spun out of control and crashed.

Moffitt was on a litter, about to be lifted out, when the helicopter swerved and dropped. The crew released the tether attached to the litter, otherwise Moffitt likely would have been killed as the helicopter thrashed and rolled.

"I'm just very thankful I'm alive," Moffitt said. "I don't think many people do two near-death experiences in an hour."

The three climbers who died suffered "massive trauma," said Erick Gillmore, a paramedic with American Medical Response, who was dropped by helicopter to help remove the bodies. "It was a very hard fall."

Watt said a large chunk of ice, perhaps weighing 300 pounds, was found on one of the bodies.

Route often packed The climbers were following the most often used south route up the mountain. Although its not a terribly steep or difficult route, it does present a problem when groups of climbers start bunching up.

Adding to the congestion problem is the bergschrund, a deep crack in the snow that opens each spring as the snow begins to melt. The crevasse forces climbers to traverse an even narrower slope on their way to the summit.

Brian Lacey, who hiked down from Mount Hood on Friday after being told the climbing routes were closed, said the route where the accident occurred is considered one of the easiest on the mountain.

But Nevada climber Ed Lease, who was a professional guide on Mount Rainier for eight years, said too many people use Mount Hood's standard south route, including dangerously inexperienced and ill-equipped climbers.

Lease's three-man team took an alternate route to the summit Thursday because the standard route was blocked by a group that was climbing extremely slowly.

Lease's team reached the summit at 9 a.m. and descended by the standard route, hurrying down to the bergschrund to help when they realized that some people below them had fallen.

Lease disagreed with a number of climbers who described conditions as "perfect." Although some said it was sunny and breezy, with snow that was just soft enough to allow a good grip with boots and crampons, Lease said conditions were slick.

Lengthy inquiry expected Air Force officials said it could be six months before they complete an investigation of the crash and make the results public.

The vice commander of the 939th Rescue Wing of the Air Force Reserve is in charge of an interim safety board that has secured the site of the crash, preserving the scene for Air Force investigators who will eventually question "anybody who has ever touched the airplane." The officer, Col. Scott Nielson, said earlier reports that the civilian National Transportation Safety Board would conduct an investigation are incorrect.

He expects a team appointed from a roster of national experts will arrive within the next two days. Air Force reports are confidential. That internal report will be completed within 30 to 45 days, he said, and an abstract of that report that will leave out names and other details may not be available to the public for three to six months.

The 939th officers said it was too early to talk about how or when the downed helicopter would be lifted from the mountain. Members of the unit are guarding the site to keep the curious away .

Ryan Frank, Catherine Trevison, Pete Farrell and Robin Franzen of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.

From a Later Report:

"Two climbers died from a combination of crushing head, neck and chest injuries, and the third died from asphyxiation. All three appeared to be properly equipped, according to the state medical examiner."

"It appeared that Ward and Read died quickly from their injuries. The nature of Biggs injuries mean he may have been conscious for a short time before succumbing to the broken neck and chest fractures."

"Read died from a fracture at the base of his skull and crushing chest injuries. Biggs died of a broken neck and crushing chest injuries that included a torn left lung and fractures. Ward died of asphyxiation, which appears to have been the result of being crushed beneath a 300 lb block of ice or beneath other climbers who fell on top of him."

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