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Code 1244: The 1986 Mount Hood Tragedy — An Interview with author Ric Conrad

It’s one of the worst and most heartbreaking climbing accidents ever to happen on Mount Hood.

May 1986. Nine people dead, two adults and seven students from Oregon Episcopal School, a private Portland prep school. All of them had been a part of a climb of Mount Hood through the school’s Basecamp Wilderness Education Program.

A storm descended on the mountain. Some members of the climbing party turned back. Others didn’t and were pinned by the weather, forced to cram into a snow cave for shelter. When rescuers finally found the buried cave three days later, only two students were left alive.

Barry Wright Collection 2

One of four Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters involved in the OES search and rescue mission on May 15, 1986 — the day searchers finally found a buried snow cave and two survivors. Courtesy Ric Conrad/Wright Collection.

It’s a painful story that’s been told in a few different formats over the years, largely in newspaper and magazine stories. A synopsis of it is in On Mount Hood, but no one’s ever attempted to retell the entire story as a standalone book.

Until now.

Portland-area author Ric Conrad, who also wrote Mount Hood: Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers 1930-1942, spent the past four-plus years researching the OES tragedy with his wife, Sheri, poring over records and conducting close to 40 interviews to retrace the dramatic events that unfolded on the flanks of Mount Hood over four days in May 1986.

His new book about the disaster, Code 1244: The 1986 Mount Hood Tragedy, is an exhaustive and gripping dive into the OES disaster: what happened, who was involved, the mistakes that were made and how searchers managed to find a miracle of sorts just as their mission was on the verge of being called off for good. It’s also got new information and never-before-published photographs of the fateful climb and the rescue effort that ensued.

Interior Photos

Some of the photos inside Conrad’s new book. Courtesy Ric Conrad.

Conrad was kind enough to keep interested parties apprised of the progress of his work, from its initial days through its publication earlier this month. He was also up for what I’m going to call an exclusive interview about the book. (We did a similar one back in 2015 for the Wy’east Climbers book.)

Enjoy that here, and then pick up a copy of Code 1244 if you’re someone who wants to know just how the OES tragedy on Mount Hood unfolded.

What motivated you to write about what’s considered one of the saddest and most memorable tragedies on Mount Hood? If anyone has a touch of gray in their hair, we remember the tragedy, yet scores of questions continued to linger in the halls of our regional climbing clubs. The family members of the missing climbers also had their questions and concerns. There were mysteries here that I wanted solved, answers that could benefit others. The fact that the search and rescue (SAR) volunteers were aging also had to be taken into consideration. If I waited too long to begin this project, the leaders of this large operation might not be around to share their stories. The timing just seemed to be right. 

This story has been told and retold over the years, but never like this. What are some of the biggest revelations or new pieces of information that came from your research and that appeared in the book? For family and friends of the missing climbers, the two biggest questions were: Why did it take so long to locate the snow cave and why was there so much confusion on Wednesday morning? I believe I was able to provide answers to both of those important queries. 

I was able to outline the perfect storm of miscommunication that occurred on Wednesday morning, May 14, 1986. Equipment malfunctions, two different handwritten logs being kept at the same time, and Air Force military protocols — which prevented certain messages from being transmitted over an open radio channel — all contributed to the agonizing confusion among family members.  

The book clearly explains why it took so long to locate the snow cave. Throughout Tuesday morning, SAR workers were exploring the route the missing climbers had taken during their ascent. A consultant then hiked out of the blizzard and advised authorities that the missing party was holed up in a snow cave — on a completely different glacier. Even though multiple search teams tried in vain to reach the glacier through the storm, they were unable to even see the terrain clearly until the following morning. As the missing climbers didn’t have an altimeter with them, it was anyone’s guess as to what elevation the snow cave had been constructed. Members of the public had no idea how much terrain the searchers had to cover. Differences in snow probing techniques — coarse versus fine—additionally factored into minor delays, which all added up to additional hours spent on the mountain. 

Was it hard, 33 years after the tragedy, to find and interview the people who were involved in it? Surprisingly, no. I began by interviewing the three members of Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) who are still serving their organization. They were able to provide me with the contact information of other key rescue personnel, and it sort of snowballed from there. From the families of the missing climbers’ perspective, it began with Frank McGinness, whose son was on the climbing team. Frank put us in touch with a former student at OES, who put us in touch with another member of the climbing team. That man put us in touch with yet another climber and, again, our network of contacts expanded, until my wife and I had interviewed thirty-seven people. 

Who were some of the personalities that stuck out most as you were compiling interviews?  Barry Wright certainly stands out. He was co-chief for PMR at the time. After our first recorded interview, he handed me a duffle bag, filled with primary source material. “I’ve been waiting for you for thirty years,” he remarked. It was an incredible compliment, but also a charge — provide an accurate version of events. I took that responsibility seriously. 

Interviewing Barry Wright

Author Ric Conrad (right) with Barry Wright, a search and rescue volunteer with Portland Mountain Rescue who was involved in the search for the OES climbers in 1986. Courtesy Ric Conrad.

Were some folks reluctant to talk? Naturally. For some family members, the tragedy might as well have taken place yesterday, and we certainly understood that. We respected their privacy. Having said that, one father was overjoyed to assist, stating that “No one is talking about my boy anymore. I want him to be remembered.”

Did you try to talk to Brinton Clark, Giles Thompson or Ralph Summers (three of the survivors of the tragedy)? Yes, all three. Dr. Clark gave a brief interview in 1996, but to my knowledge, she has declined to be interviewed ever since. We learned from Thompson’s mother that he declined to be interviewed. We tracked down Summers and mailed him a packet of information and a request for an interview. We never heard back from him but respect his privacy — his right to keep his memories to himself. 

Similarly, did you reach out to OES? If so, what was their response to you writing this book? The current headmaster of OES took my wife and I out to lunch, where we had a very frank and open conversation about the topic. I wanted to assure her that I had no agenda here. This was a search and rescue book and, now that it’s published, I am confident I have allayed any fears or reservations the school might have had. I think Tom Stringfield, of Portland Mountain Rescue, says it best. “The death of children is a difficult subject, and the author strikes a good, delicate balance between sensitivity and objectivity.”

Do you feel like you included everything in this book that you could, or did you have to leave a lot out? Oh, this book could have easily ballooned to 800 pages or more. The interviews were so interesting, we could have kept on going, but where do you draw the line? We felt we did a great job of what I call targeted interviewing. We tried to interview at least one member of each of the SAR teams, to obtain a feeling of what it was like to be in their boots, on their specific mission.

Kelsey Collection

Ed Hall and Mark Kelsey on the summit of Mount Hood. The longtime climbing partners were later involved in the OES search and rescue mission.   Courtesy Ric Conrad/Kelsey Collection.

Can you talk a little about your approach to writing and your style? This book reads very much like a detailed police or incident report; curious if you thought about taking any other approaches and why you ended up going with this one?  I started writing this book as if it was current day, and the witnesses were recalling their experiences. I was jumping back and forth, so many times between these two timelines —2014 and 1986 — that the writing became jumbled and difficult to understand. My wife suggested I try narrative nonfiction, and it was clearly great advice. With narrative non-fiction, as you read the book, it “is” 1986. Everything is in the present tense. I think that style makes it easier for the reader to follow the rescue and recovery operation. 

How did you land on the title? (I know what the code is, but curious about how you ended up with that as the title)?  I kept coming back to the fact that there were two logs being kept in real time. Deputies from the sheriff’s department were maintaining one, while PMR handled the other. Without giving away too much of the story, I always found it amazing that at least one deputy recorded in his log the awful truth of what had been discovered. Somehow, that information was not relayed to PMR leaders who were only a few feet away. That Wednesday morning was the epitome of madness and confusion, and Code 1244 just seemed to encapsulate the entire tragic affair. 

I know you know the mountain really well. Have you climbed it yourself? Oh, sure, but after reaching the summit three or four times, you recognize it’s just an incredibly small slice of real estate.  The mountain has so much more to offer. You begin to branch out and explore all manner of pockets of terrain: Langille Crags, Illumination Rock, Paradise Park, Cooper Spur, Mississippi Head, the Timberline Trail, etc.  

What do you think is the legacy or lesson of the ’86 tragedy, if there is one? I think the lesson learned was that even teenagers are simply too young to speak up for themselves and turn around when they feel they should. In 1986, the kids followed their designated leader who — probably suffering from the onset of hypothermia — kept moving the team higher and ever higher. 

What else do you want people to take away from this book? Although people will learn a lot about the search and rescue efforts by reading my book, we can’t overlook the incredible efforts demonstrated by the children themselves. Susan McClave, for example, shared her body heat with a fellow teen suffering from hypothermia. She also held the compass and led the team down from the upper reaches of Triangle Moraine. She barked orders inside the snow cave, ensuring people continued to shift their body positions in order to maintain circulation in their limbs. That’s a seventeen-year-old girl we’re talking about. Incredible presence of mind and strength of will. These kids deserve to be remembered. 

Front Cover

Courtesy Ric Conrad

 


Meeting some mountaineering royalty

There was a chance that Stacy Allison, the first American woman to climb Mt. Everest, wasn’t going to make it to the kickoff event for this year’s Climb for Clean Air program last night. She was on her way back from Denver, and the timing of it all made it a little uncertain.

But she made it — in time to catch some pics from a Hood slideshow even — and added another notch to the list of pretty incredible people that we’ve met over the years.


Mount Hood to a Little Kid

Somebody once said something to me about the classic mountain shape of Mount Hood that I thought summed it up perfectly; so perfectly, in fact, that I put it in the book:

If you ask a little kid to draw a mountain, he will draw Mount Hood. Every time. 

Madeline reinforced that idea to me when she showed me what she had drawn at school this week. Granted, she’s got both Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson here, but the gist is the same.

Madeline HoodEven better to me, someone who’s written and writes a lot about Mount Hood, is the back of the sheet and Madeline’s own little take of a day on the mountain.

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Mount Hood Climber’s Guide

Back in 2010 when I was researching On Mount Hood, one of the scores of people I connected with was a high tech professional, climber and Mount Hood fan named Bill Mullee. I’d been referred to him because he was working on a climber’s guide to Mount Hood at the same time I was working on my book. Unlike On Mount Hood, Bill’s book was to be a climber’s guide to the mountain, complete with pictures, routes, and write-ups from some veteran climbers, including Fred Beckey, the renowned alpinist who, along with Leo Scheiblehner, was the first to climb Hood’s notorious Yocum Ridge.

Bill and I talked back then and a few more times over the ensuing years about the mountain, our books and what was to come. Each time we spoke, he was that much closer to having his book come to fruition. And now, it’s truly coming to be.

Bill landed a publisher with the Colorado-based Sharp End Publishing, and in June it will release Mt. Hood: A Climber’s Guide.

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Here’s the write-up about the book from the publisher’s site:

The unsurpassed beauty of Mt Hood awaits. Drawing on the vast experiences of over three dozen veteran Hood mountaineers, Mt Hood: A Climber’s Guide provides in-depth, firsthand descriptions of the mountain’s many routes. Contributors, such as the venerable Fred Beckey, write about weather, objective dangers, and how to stay safe and succeed. Routes are clearly illustrated on exceptional aerial photos, while stunning scenic and action images will inspire visitors and regulars alike.

The guide is likely to fill a long-standing need for some great, up-to-date information about all the different routes up Mount Hood. Nicholas Dodge’s classic A Climbing Guide to Oregon, which has a 12-page chapter dedicated to Hood, was published in 1975 — and, it seems, only in 1975. (Actually, Seattle climber Wayne Wallace, who’s in On Mount Hood and who also contributed to Mullee’s book, tells me that Dodge’s book was also published in hardback in 1968.) And Jeff Thomas’ great Oregon High: A Climbing Guide to Nine Cascade Volcanoes, first appeared in 1991 but has been hard to come by in recent times.

Mt. Hood: A Climber’s Guide is now available for preorder, which includes a free two-year subscription to the ebook version, for $23.05. For anyone looking to explore Hood’s upper reaches, it’s destined to be a classic.

Stay tuned for more about the book and any events related to its release.

 

 


Happy Mother’s Day 2014

It’s Mother’s Day, and every year on Mother’s Day, I not only remember to call and send my love to my mom in Ohio, but I also think about a particular Cascade mountain. Not Mount Hood (though we’ll probably be skiing up there and celebrating Amy today!) but St. Helens, which lies about 60 miles northwest of Hood.

There’s an incredible tradition that happens every year on Mount St. Helens on Mother’s Day. Amy and I have been part of it twice during our time in the Northwest, and I have to say, it’s one of the most unique ways to express appreciation for the mother in your life that I’ve ever come across.

In honor of Mother’s Day 2014, here’s a column I wrote about that tradition back on May 18, 2002, when I was honing my chops as a reporter and photographer for the Canby Herald newspaper.

Enjoy, and Happy Mother’s Day.

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and in honor of my wonderful mother, I sent a card, made the ritual phone call, and donned a blue and green tie-dyed dress for a climb to the top of Mount St. Helens.

Indeed, it was not your average Mother’s Day tribute.

But like all of those faithful sons and daughters who either bought Mom a bouquet or made her breakfast in bed on Sunday, I was not alone in my gesture of appreciation.

For one, my fiancée, Amy, was with me on the mountain. She, too, paid homage to her wonderful mother  — my soon-to-be mother-in-law  — by wearing a dress for the long slog up the Pacific Northwest’s most infamous volcano. (By the way, St. Helens, also known as Loowit, blew its top exactly 22 years ago today.) I reluctantly concede that Amy’s dress, with its purple, blue and pink floral patterns, was much more flattering on her than mine was on me.

And then there were the literally hundreds of other climbers who made their way up and down the mountain on Sunday. The majority of them were bedecked in dresses, skirts and gowns similar to those no doubt on display at Mother’s Day brunches — or weddings, proms, square dances or Scottish caber tosses — across the country.

On our way up and down, we saw polka dots and stripes, flowers and paisleys. There were miniskirts, bridesmaid dresses, kilts, and old schoolmarm frocks. We also noticed costume pearls, a hot-pink feather boa, and at least one blonde wig.

Amy making her way up St. Helens on Mother’s Day 2002. 

Lest the reader be mislead, these garments were worn, in most cases, over the standard climbing ensemble. Under the sunshine and blue skies of last Sunday, that included stiff boots, synthetic pants and shirts, backpacks, sunglasses, and the most essential of accessories, the ice axe.

There were, of course, those fellow climbers who were unaware of the fashion protocol of the day. One bewildered alpinist heaved up to us just below the summit, a perplexed look on his face.

“Can you explain something to me?” he asked. “What’s with all the dresses?”

We smiled between gulps of water and wished him a happy Mother’s Day.

Rumors abound as to the origin of the Mount Saint Helens Mother’s Day tradition. Perhaps it began with the Bergfreunde Ski Club, a Portland-based ski club formed in 1966 to promote skiing and other recreational activities. I called these “mountain friends,” but they weren’t sure if their club had formally come up with the dress idea or not.

I next tried the Mazamas, one of the larger and more well- known mountaineering groups in the Northwest. Their club, the name of which is Nahuatl for mountain goat, has been associated with the local mountaineering scene since July 19, 1894. It was on that date that prospective members of the club first convened on the summit of Mount Hood.

“It may have just been one of those spontaneous things that caught on,” one club member said of the Mother’s Day tradition. “Who really started it, I don’t know.”

There’s also the Ptarmigans, another climbing club that has been exploring the Cascades since the mid 1960s. Mike Dianich, a member and longtime mountaineer who has climbed Saint Helens 22 times as of Sunday, said other than the local climbing clubs, he didn’t know who may have slipped into the first Mother’s Day dress on Mount Saint Helens.

But if the origin of the tradition remains a mystery, the reasoning behind it is a bit more definitive. Simply put, those who climb the 8,300-foot volcano in a dress on Mother’s Day are honoring their moms, thanking them for all they have done over the years.

It is also a gesture of obeisance from those sons and daughters who live far away from their mothers; from those who, like me, cannot express their gratitude in person every year on Mother’s Day.

So this year, as Amy and I plodded more than 5,000 feet up the flanks of St. Helens in our dresses, I thought of my mother and how she has helped me become who I am; how she has shared her kindness with me and given so much of herself  — all so that I can enjoy the life that I do.

And when we got to the top of the mountain, with Spirit Lake down below and Mount Rainier and Mount Hood floating in the distance, I looked east toward Ohio, and waved to my mom.


Fred Beckey Returns to Mount Hood (sort of)

If you’re at all familiar with Northwest climbing, the name Fred Beckey likely rings a bell. And if you know of Fred Beckey, then you also probably know that his list of first ascents across the mountains and crags of the Northwest is among the longest out there. (This interview from climbing.com says he’s got more than anyone in the world.)

That should come as no surprise, really. Not only because Beckey is renowned for his  prolific and active climbing career, but because he’s now 91 — and he’s still climbing.

One of his most notable first ascents on Mount Hood was the dreaded Yocum Ridge, which he climbed with partner Leo Scheiblehner in April 1959. Yocum, named for climbing guide and Government Camp hotel and resort developer Oliver Yocum, is the prominent, serrated ridge that runs pretty much right down the middle of the mountain’s west face. In the photo below, by Zigzag-based photographer Robert Brownscombe, Yocum is the ridge just left of center.

Photo by Robert Brownscombe

In his book, Challenge of the North Cascades, Beckey describes the climbing as “easy in some places,” “delicate and exposed” in others, and in still others “it was unpleasantly difficult and dangerous.” He talks of climbing his way up a 30-foot section of vertical ice where “the wrong slash of the ice ax might have brought the whole chimney down.” On another section, he could see daylight “through the frost feathers 2 feet under the veneer surface.” Summing it up, he calls it “a nightmare of ice problems instead of a route to the summit.”

Beckey returns to Mount Hood in February, in a way. The seasoned mountaineer will give a presentation about some of his climbing adventures over the past 60 years in the Visual Arts Theatre at Mount Hood Community College. The event will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27. It is free and open to the public, though guests are asked to bring food or cash donations to support Barney’s Pantry, a student-run food bank on the campus.

This should be a great show. I saw him give one back in 2003; actually recruited him to put it on for the annual banquet of the Ptarmigans, a mountaineering club that wound down a few years ago. I’d also hoped to get an interview with the notoriously gruff climber, who’s also known for not being into interviews, a touch hard of hearing and somewhat of a casanova. All those traits were in full force that night out at Edgefield 11 years ago, and while he didn’t seem to have many words for me, he had no problem chatting up the young married lady sitting next to him.

Even so, his presentation was great. Back then I felt lucky that I got to see him when he was still climbing at 80. I’m hoping to catch him again at 91 because, you know, you figure he’ll have to stop climbing at some point. Right?