In May, 2002, the striking snow and rock cone of Oregon's Mount Hood, called the Mount Fuji of North America, made national headlines when an Air Force Reserve Pavehawk helicopter lost power, crashed and rolled 1,000 feet down the mountain during an attempted climbing rescue. Earlier that day, four climbers were descending from just below the mountain's 11,239-foot summit, passing near several rock towers known as the Pearly Gates. For unknown reasons, one of the team fell and pulled the other three off their feet. The four-man rope team slid down the mountain and collided with another two-man team. The tangled mass of six climbers then cheeswired another team of three off the slope. The nine climbers plunged into a bergschrund at 10,700 feet. Three climbers, two from the first group and one from the second group, were killed. Four others were critically injured. One crewman from the helicopter was also seriously injured when the helicopter rolled over him.
Since its first ascent in 1845 by Sam Barlow, Mount Hood has claimed some 130 climbers. The mountain, although seemingly benign with six ski areas, remains a serious outing. Severe weather, avalanches and crevasses pose dangerous challenges for the 40,000 climbers who attempt the peak each year.
This June, the tragedy of 2002 nearly repeated itself when three teams of climbers, stacked one over the other, fell near the Pearly Gates, on the mountain's most popular Hogback Route. Two of the teams were able to self-arrest, but the top team went out of control, ripping a protection picket and tools out of the 45-degree slope. They crashed into the lower teams, who just managed to hold on in self-arrest mode. The falling three climbers plunged 450 feet, luckily sliding to the right of the deadly bergschrund, ending up in a heap on the glacier. Of the 10 climbers involved, only two from the first team were seriously hurt. Aaron Dunlop, 31, of Newberg, Oregon, and Jeremy Hawkins, 32, of Tigard, Oregon were airlifted by an Army National Guard helicopter. Dunlop suffered a broken jaw and numerous cuts from the sharp ice; Hawkins broke his ankle and fractured vertebrae.
At the time of the accident, several dozen climbers - a low number for this time of year - were tacking their way up the mountain's easiest, most accessible and popular lines on the south face above the Timberline Lodge. Although the south face is skied, ascended by dogs and attempted by sneaker-clad tourists who claw at the slopes with their bare hands, it steepens near the upper section below the Pearly Gates and can be icy, which was the case this day. Rock and ice-fall also funnel down the chute between the Gates, creating an additional hazard. At least one team reported being pummeled by snow and ice chunks. Add in the logjam of climbers, the gaping bergschund at the terminus of the route's fall-line, and you have a recipe for disaster. Although the team placed protection, it was not adequate for the difficulty and danger of the situation, and moving together, roped up, was a mistake.
DON'T COUNT ON SELF-ARRESTING It is unrealistic to believe that you can self-arrest on any ice slope, even the most low-angle. Ice is nearly frictionless. It was nothing short of a miracle that two of the three teams were able to self-arrest - when you fall on an ice slope, you gain momentum nearly as quickly as if you are free falling through the air. After sliding more than just a few feet on ice, self-arresting is nearly impossible. Self-arresting is possible when you are climbing snow, but even then only on the lowest-angled slopes.
PLACE REAL PRO Many climbers, lulled into a false sense of security by low-angle slopes, rely on illusionary protection. They slap in the token picket, deadman or screw and move together, roped up. If you are going to bother with a rope, also bother with setting bomber running protection and on the steeper sections, stop and establish belays. If you can't get good protection or belay, unrope and solo. When you are unroped you at least understand the consequences of a fall, and if you do fall, you won't take your partners with you. If you or your partners aren't comfortable unroping, descend.
BEWARE CLIMBERS ABOVE YOU Consider climbers above you to be as hazardous as a looming serac. As we have seen, climbers falling above and then onto other teams can result in massive accidents. When you are on a broad slope, pick a line that keeps you out of the fall line of overhead climbers. Get up early and be first on the mountain and you can avoid the problem altogether.
DON'T GET SLOPPY When you are part of a roped team that's moving together, carefully make every boot and axe placement - it only takes one misstep to bring down the entire team.
DON'T CLIMB WITH NON CLIMBERS Showing your non-climbing friend the ropes on a mountainside might be a fun and cordial outing, but you could pay a steep price for being a good buddy. Only rope up with people who know how to rope up.