25 years ago . . . the OES tragedy on Mount Hood
Today marks 25 years since the worst climbing accident in all Mount Hood history: Nine dead, seven of them high school students from the Oregon Episcopal School. They’d been part of a team climbing the mountain for OES’ annual Basecamp Wilderness Education Program. The weather turned hellish, they didn’t turn around, the climb fell apart. Searchers found three bodies two days later; six more the next day in a snow cave buried under five feet of snow, but also, miraculously, two survivors.
For a number of reasons, I didn’t dwell too deeply on the OES disaster in On Mount Hood. I did touch on it, of course, and I also wrote briefly about its legacy on Mount Hood 25 years later for Portland Monthly this month. The latter story included an interview with Rocky Henderson, a well-known search-and-rescue volunteer whose very first mission ever with Portland Mountain Rescue was the OES climb.
“It was so frustrating,” Henderson told me of the search efforts. “When the weather finally cleared, we thought, ‘OK, now we’re definitely going to find them.’ But we didn’t. By then, there were no clues as to where they were. They had been completely obliterated by the storm.”
Something about climbing accidents intrigues people, myself included. And Mount Hood has had its share of them. But even though I was 12 and living in Ohio when it happened, there’s something singular about the OES accident. The scale of it, the what-ifs, the age of the victims. It’s heartbreaking. I read The Mountain Never Cries, a book by Ann Holaday, mother of Giles Thompson, one of the two OES survivors. I read all of the stories in the Oregonian from during and after the accident, the People magazine story, the piece in Backpacker, and on and on.
It is a sad but incredible story. One worth remembering, always.