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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.

HoodCover_smaller__45260.1400283502.1280.1280

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?


Climb Mount Hood with Ed Viesturs? Wow.

Sounds like a fantastic way to climb Mount Hood — and for a great cause. (Big City Mountaineers)


A writer, a photographer, a doctor, and two brewers set out to climb Mount Adams

It sounds like the setup for some kind of a joke, but it really was just the climbing hodgepodge we threw together on short notice for an early September run at the summit of one of the Cascade’s grandest peaks, Mount Adams. I’d gotten the invite from my friend, Tim, the photographer, while on my way to Mount Hood’s Cooper Spur with the kids, which itself has a stunning view of Adams to the north.

My initial, no-thought response had been There’s no way I can pull that off this week. But a few seconds later, my mind cleared itself of practicalities and turned toward the mountains.

While I consider myself an enthusiastic climber these days, I’m not the avid one I used to be for all kinds of grown-up reasons. Still, I love getting out into the big hills around here and, if at all possible, climbing to the top of at least one of them every year. Mount Hood, St. Helens, Adams, maybe throw in an occasional South or Middle Sister here and there. Something.

But by the first of September, with the school year just around the corner from Labor Day and with an annual summit attempt nowhere behind or in front of me, I’d pretty much come to grips that 2012 would likely go down without me having made it all the way up anything of real alpine worth. Sigh.

Tim’s call changed that, however, and just two days after returning from Cooper Spur, we were on our way up Adams’ classic South Spur.

Because it was mid-week of the first week of school, we essentially had the mountain to ourselves. Because it was early September in the Northwest, the weather was fantastic. And because Christian, one of  the brewers, has some close ties to Hopworks Urban Brewery, we had some ideal refreshments — naturally chilled — for camp at the Lunch Counter.

The next morning, bright and early, climbing conditions couldn’t have been sweeter. Cool enough to refresh at sunrise and keep the snowfield solid for crampons, bright, sunny, calm, and warm enough to make it feel like the height-of-summer day it was. A perfect time to be in the mountains.

Obligatory summit shot: the  doctor, the writer, the photographer, and the two brewers.

I’ve been in these summit shots on the 12,276-foot Mount Adams six times now, four after climbing the South Spur, two from the Mazama Glacier. The earlier images remind me of the initial thrill and bite of climbing; others capture trips where we watched paragliders soaring off the false summit or listened to a guitar and mandolin duo strumming from their campsite up top. This most recent one makes me glad that I got my head in the right place, that I worked late at night to make up for the lost time, and that we all got a real summit in for the year.


Happy Mother’s Day 2012!

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, 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 2012, 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.


Climbing Mount Hood — or not

Last year, when I signed up for the annual Lake Run 5K, I kind of positioned it as part of some training to get myself in shape for a possible climb of Mount Hood. It was just before the release of On Mount Hood, so a climb up the namesake mountain seemed in order.

But I never ended up getting around to it. No valid excuses, really. Sure, the weather last year was lame, I was busy with the family, the book, life. But if you want to climb Mount Hood, or any mountain, really, it’s usually more a matter of making it a priority, focusing on it, making it happen. I’ve climbed Mount Hood four times before, but I never made it happen last year.

This year’s not looking great, either. We have been doing some hiking, I’ve been running, and I again signed up to run the Lake Run. But climbing Hood, for me anyway, takes some more dedication, some stout training hikes like Dog Mountain and, the real test, Mount Defiance. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to focus like that this season, as much as I want to.

But it’s still early. The snow’s still deep up high on the mountain. There’s still a chance. There’s always still a chance.

View from the summit of Mount Hood, June 2010.


Climbing Hood — another time

As I’ve mentioned before, everyone around here seems to have their own connection to or story about Mount Hood.

I got to talking with Kim Cooper Findling, an Oregon writer and author of Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir and Day Trips from Portland, Oregon, the other day at a local book and author fair, and she shared one of hers with me. In a way, though, it wasn’t entirely hers, but that of Marion May, her grandmother, who climbed Mount Hood in 1938.

(All photos in this post courtesy of Kim Cooper Findling)

Kim said her grandmother, who was born and raised in Portland and lived most of her adult life in Forest Grove, was 28 when she made the haul to the summit of Mount Hood in a group led by her pastor. It was a time of old-school alpenstocks, wool clothing, fedoras, and fixed ropes running up Cooper Spur.

It was also back when a lookout cabin still crowned the summit of Hood. (That’s Marion at the far right, in profile.)

Kim said she’s not climbed the mountain herself. But she’s written about it a bit in her books, and she’s snowshoed high enough on it to be inspired to go the rest of the way someday:

I myself haven’t climbed. The closest was when my husband and I stayed at Timberline years ago. I, being not much of a skier, hauled a pair of snowshoes out to the flanks of the mountain and climbed straight up for a good long while before I got tired and it started to get dark. Even that small experience gave me a sense of the stillness, beauty, steepness, and peace of the mountain. I loved being alone in that stillness. I’ll have to work through my fear of exposure, but climbing Hood is definitely on my list. 

Many thanks, Kim, for sharing both your grandmother’s photos and your stories of Mount Hood.


Climbing Mount Hood

There’s nothing like it.

Standing on top of or even just high up on a mountain as grand and as beautiful as Mount Hood can be a truly amazing experience.

Summit ridge of Mount Hood. Photo by Trin Yuthasastrakosol

Climbing Oregon’s tallest peak, which an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attempt to do every year, can also be exhausting, unnerving, dangerous, and even deadly.

Two of my favorite chapters in On Mount Hood explore the world of climbing on Mount Hood. It’s a subject that has fascinated me since the day I first saw the mountain back in 1997.

Tonight, (March 29, 2012),Oregon Public Broadcasting’s show Oregon Field Guide takes its own look at climbing the mountain in an episode called “Mount Hood: Climbing Oregon’s Highest Peak.” It airs at 8:30 p.m. and again at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 1. It will also be online in the not-too-distant future. Judging by these short videos here, it should be a great show for any and all fans of the mountain.


Camping lesson

The Mount Hood National Forest was host to one hell of a party a few weeks ago.

We’d pitched our tent in a favorite area out near the rushing Sandy River, a place we’ve spent many a night over the past few years. The specific spot that we usually favor was already taken when we rolled up, but no worries. There were a few other options nearby, and the one we landed in boasted a nice view of the mountain through the trees and more shade than the old faithful spot.

This place has been great to us ever since we stumbled on it a few years ago. Because it’s not a campground, but instead a handful of dispersed sites, it’s relatively free of the crowds that flock to the more developed areas. And though you don’t have to hike in to get to it, it’s got a measure of serenity and beauty that almost hints at wilderness. Plus, the river’s just a short jaunt away.

Once we had our camp on in the late afternoon hours, the cars started rolling by. First one. Then another. And another. A Jeep with four young guys in it. A pickup truck rumbling with bass. A little sedan that had no business on such a rough road weighted down with folks.

The party, in the site a couple down from us, kicked off as the first cars pulled up. A car door would slam, some loud greetings would exchange, and then the beverages would crack open. I know how it works. I’ve been to my fair share of those, especially back in the pre-21 days. This was one of those.

It raged throughout the night, as the sun set, the mountain faded, the stars shone. Loud laughter, obnoxious machismo, breaking glass. Because we were a few sites away — and because we remembered what we had been like at that age — it wasn’t so bad. Just different than our normal escapes up there. Louder, mainly. And surprisingly, we just about outlasted the rowdies. By the time we retired from our own quiet campfire, it was pretty close to silent throughout the woods.

The next morning, the same cars we’d watched roll in the night before rolled back out in the early morning sun. My five-year-old daughter and I took a walk down the dusty road to survey the damage. And that’s when I changed from a slightly annoyed but somewhat understanding neighbor into an incredibly disappointed and perturbed curmudgeon. There was trash along the road, broken glass in the bushes. A pair of pants with who knows what on them sat crumpled up under a tree. Toilet paper streamed from the manzanita, camping chairs lay broken and bent on the ground, and the last car to leave loaded up the fire pit with trash, set it ablaze and drove away.

It was not pretty.

It needed to be cleaned up. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew we’d probably be back up for another weekend sometime this summer. I also knew that the Forest Service  had been tolerating these unregulated sites, but that they were beginning to rethink that approach. Posted on all the sites in the area, for the first time since we’d camped there three or four years ago, were some unfortunate signs.

After mulling it over at breakfast and not being able to leave it alone, my daughter and I grabbed some plastic bags, headed back over to the trashed site, and cleaned it up. Five garbage bags, two wrecked camping chairs and a couple bucks worth of returnables later, it looked hospitable again. Probably still needed a good rain before I’d pitch my tent there again, but it was on its way.

I’d like to think that when I was that age, I would have been a little more conscientious about the things I did and didn’t do, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have. Back then, a lot of it was about having new fun and, sometimes, not holding onto any evidence. I understand that. But years later, my perspective has swung over to the other, more adult and responsible side; the side that cannot fathom how anyone could leave a campsite just a few hundred yards away from the Sandy River and with a lovely view of Mount Hood in such littered disarray.

Who knows how many more scenes like that the Forest Service will have to walk up on before they do actually close those beautiful sites to everyone. I consider myself lucky to have found a place like this, to be able to enjoy an escape like this.

It’s easy to take these places for granted. It’s best not to.


Another climbing anniversary

In recognition of the 11th ninth year since one of Mount Hood’s most memorable and tragic climbing accidents, which happened on May 30, 2002, I was going to offer up another short excerpt from On Mount Hood.

The passage would have come from a chapter I call Accident that looks at the tragedies that have unfolded on and around Mount Hood, from the very first time a climber met his maker on the mountain — it was a Portland grocer named Frederic Kirn, who in 1896 was swept off Cooper Spur by a rockslide — to a trio of climbers who tried to sneak in a climb up the Reid Glacier Headwall during a brief weather window in December 2009. In between, the chapter touches on everything from the Mount Hood Triangle and the OES tragedy to a freak accident in the volcanic vents high up on the mountain and a tragic slip that cost a married couple their lives. When the latter happened, I was a few hundred feet below the summit on my very first climb of Hood ever.

But the highlight of Accident, for me anyway, is a story about something that happened eleven nine years ago today. It involved several different climbing teams, a renowned Portland physician climber, a U.S. Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter, and a pararescue jumper named Andrew Canfield.

But rather than share an excerpt from the book here, I instead decided to embed an unbelievable video that captures a dramatic part of the story.

The rest is in the book.


Other mountain books

Though I’m biased toward one particular mountain and one particular book, the alpine canon is full of adventurous, inspiring, heartbreaking, and possibly even life-changing works. There are also a lot of lemons in there too. But in this post, we’ll focus on just a few of the better ones, a few of my favorites.

Art Davidson’s classic account of the first winter ascent of Denali.

 Another memorable recounting of a first, this one of the first successful climb of a treacherous wall on the Eiger in Switzerland known as the White Spider.

 A must-read for anyone who wants to know anything and everything about Washington’s Mount Rainier.

 This one probably needs no explanation.


PRC number 4

In addition to climbing on Mount Hood, there is also climbing to be done all around Mount Hood — and all around the greater Portland area. The best guidebook for all of that kind of climbing — from Bulo Point and French’s Dome to Rocky Butte and Beacon Rock — has long been Tim Olson’s Portland Rock Climbs.

My copy dates from 2001 and is nicely dog-eared and tattered from a good three- or -four-year stint of regular rock climbing back in the days before kiddos. These days, that book sits on the shelf more than I’d like, but it’s still there, and I still pull it out every now and then.

For those who are still able to hit the Portland-area rock hard, however, Olson has just released the 4th edition of Portland Rock Climbs.

Portland Rock Climbs

Updated and revised, the new volume covers all the classic climbing spots around Portland, the Gorge and Mount Hood. The new version also includes information on places like Ozone out on the Washington side of the Gorge and also a little write-up of Beacon Rock giant Jim Opdycke by yours truly.

Pick up a copy at Tim’s web site or at one of the retail locations he’s got listed there.


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.


Jack Grauer

One of the reasons that I decided to write a book about Mount Hood was because, surprisingly, there really aren’t that many books out there about the mountain.

There are plenty of coffee table picture books and hiking guidebooks, a few great ones on Timberline Lodge, but not many narratives or even history books. The one narrative I could find, Wy’East: The Mountain, was written by journalist Fred McNeil — the name behind beautiful McNeil Point on Hood’s west face —  back in 1937. It is a good read and touches on many different aspects of the mountain. But so much has happened since it was first published and even since it was revised in 1991 that it’s definitely a look at the mountain from another time.

The other prominent book in the story of Mount Hood is a giant volume of mountain information, tales, data, photos, and minutiae compiled, written, and published by a man named Jack Grauer. It’s called Mount Hood: A Complete History.

When I first started researching my book, I bought a copy of McNeil’s book and then two of Grauer’s, one from its original publication in 1975, and then a brand new edition, published in January 2010. The amount of information in his 420-page book is staggering. It includes everything from early pioneer history and climbing stories to detailed biographies of some of the important characters on the mountain and long lists of members of various search and rescue organizations. Unlike my book, Grauer’s is more encyclopedia or reference manual than narrative, but it is an essential volume for anyone who really wants to know about Mount Hood.

The deeper I got into my research, the more I consulted Grauer’s book and the more I heard his name mentioned. Everyone I talked to seem to bring up Jack Grauer. So I finally decided that I simply had to meet him and talk about his book and his own experiences with the mountain.

We met at Home Town Buffet in southeast Portland last summer, and for a couple hours over salad and baked chicken and mashed potatoes, we talked about Mount Hood. Charming and sharp at 89 years old, Grauer told me how he’d first fallen for the Cascades after a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He started climbing in Seattle, then made his first climb of Mount Hood in 1947. By the time he stopped climbing the mountain for good in 1994, he’d hit the top 227 times.

Trained in journalism, Grauer told me he’d taken on his Mount Hood book in the early 1970s simply because nobody else had. The information in his book, the information behind the mountain, is important, he said, and it needed to be compiled and preserved.

Since its first publication in 1975, Mount Hood: A Complete History has gone through numerous revisions and editions. The one I bought in January of 2010 was the eighth edition, but Grauer continually prints new ones to keep up-to-date and to correct past errors. My version was printed on January 18, 2010. As of our meeting last summer, he was still printing them and binding them himself at his home in Vancouver.

At the end of our lunch, I thanked Grauer, shook his hand, and headed out. I felt glad that I’d gotten the chance to sit down and talk with someone who seemed to have such a true reverence for Mount Hood, someone who felt it was important to write about the mountain and share its story with other people. I felt like I’d talked with one of the mountain’s most important advocates. And I had.