Step by Step, a Routine Hike Up Mount Hood Turns into a Nightmare That Kills Nine

UPDATED 06/02/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

By Sunday afternoon the Weather Service was predicting snow down to 4,000 feet in the Cascades. Alarmed, Richard Haeder, 15, called the Rev. Thomas Goman to ask whether the climb up Mount Hood was still on. Yes, said Reverend Goman, 41, one of four adults who were to accompany the group of 15 Portland teenagers up the south face of the highest mountain in Oregon. If the weather should get bad, Richard's parents remember the Episcopal priest saying, the group would head to the warm lodge down below.

Richard was reassured by Reverend Goman. A favorite teacher who taught everything from chemistry to ethics and chess at the exclusive Oregon Episcopal School, "Father Tom" was the voice of experience: He had scaled the 11,245-foot peak 17 times. The climb would be led by Ralph Summers, 30, a wiry, bearded and bespectacled mountaineer who had worked with Outward Bound. Apart from the uncertain weather, there was little that seemed menacing about Mount Hood. Next to Japan's Mount Fuji, it was the world's most frequently ascended peak. It had been conquered over the years by blind people, by a 5-year-old and at least once by a woman in high heels. The fact that Mount Hood could also be murderous—at least 60 people had died on its slopes—seemed inconceivable that spring afternoon.

According to his father, young Richard Haeder, who liked playing the piano and building model airplanes, "would rather not have gone on the trip, but he didn't feel he had a choice in the matter." There was peer pressure to make the climb—the ascent of Mount Hood was a rite of passage at the K-through-12 school, which was proud of its four-year required outdoor program called "Basecamp." In their first two years the kids learned the rudiments of survival—how to conserve energy on the mountain and how to use climbing equipment. Most of those on the current trip were sophomores like Richie Haeder, for whom the climb sort of served as the year's final exam. On the big day, Father Tom made sure that each youngster wore three pairs of socks and layers of clothing and that the group had its complement of crampons, axes and sandwiches. No one brought overnight gear, however, not even lightweight insulating blankets. No one, apparently, had heard that at least four other groups from Portland had canceled their expeditions in the preceding three days because of the weather reports. At 11:30 p.m. Sunday, the O.E.S. kids boarded a bus for the one-hour trip to their starting point, the massive Timberline Lodge, 6,000 feet up the mountain.

Led by Summers and Reverend Goman, the party started off crisply at 2 a.m.—the usual starting time for a day trip up the south face. To get credit for Basecamp, sophomores had only to mount 500 feet before descending. Less than an hour into the climb, the group ran into a strong, 15-minute snow flurry, and several decided that 500 feet was enough. Fifteen-year-old Courtney Boatsman had a creepy feeling this was not where she belonged—"like a voice saying, 'Go down,' " she later told a reporter. She fought against it, but soon her friend Lorca Fitschen, 17, had become nauseous, and Father Goman asked Courtney to take Lorca back to the lodge. Hilary Spray, 15, and her mother, Sharon, had already turned back. "Hilary," Sharon says she told her daughter, "this climb is not worth your life." Several hours later the four females were joined by John Whitson, 15, a victim of altitude sickness, and Michael Garrett, 16, who accompanied him down the mountain. Father Goman told them the climbing party would be back at the lodge by 6 p.m. The kids fooled around the lodge area, watched TV and scanned the mountain for signs of their schoolmates.

Then, about 4 p.m., estimates David McClure, who coordinated the search by Portland Mountain Rescue, "things went to hell." Mountaineer Summers said later that he felt the group was within 100 feet of the summit when they finally turned back. There was no way to tell for sure. "Sneaker clouds" from the west face had suddenly whipped around to shroud the entire top of the mountain. Winds ripped the air at 60 mph. The windchill factor dropped to 50 degrees below zero. Visibility was one foot. It began to snow. Within minutes the day-trippers were trapped in an utter whiteout.

Turning back, the youngsters were forced to "post hole," stepping high to plant their boots in fresh snow above their knees. One of the boys began to succumb to hypothermia, and the group—in what may have been a fatal gesture—stopped to warm him up for an hour. "People were shaking and shivering," Molly Schula, a 17-year-old senior who had scaled the peak six times, later told Oregonian reporter Sura Rubenstein. "When the boy's temperature stayed down, we decided to dig in." It took two hours to scoop out a snow cave some six feet long and four feet deep. Into that tiny pocket the 13 climbers crawled, arranging themselves with the hypothermic boy roughly in the middle, where he might benefit from the collective body heat. Unfortunately, the heat also melted the cave floor, which turned to slush beneath them. "It was like sardines," Summers later said. "We couldn't stand up and had to go outside periodically for fresh air."

By the next morning, with no letup in one of the worst spring blizzards in memory, it was clear to Summers that he had to go for help. He asked for a volunteer to go with him and "Molly popped right out of the cave," he later said. "I told them we would keep walking until we found help or died." Summers had a compass but no altimeter. Feeling their way down, the pair somehow wound up at Mount Hood Meadows, a ski resort three miles southeast of the cave and two miles east of the lodge. It was now 9 a.m. Tuesday, 31 hours since the group set out from the Timberline Lodge.

The search for the 13 climbers had already begun. Two Sno-Cats with four-man crews started up. They were followed later by helicopter teams, but in each case the would-be rescuers quickly found their own lives threatened. It took two men just to close the Sno-Cat door against the wind. The rescuers found nothing.

Wednesday the weather improved, and choppers, guided by Summers, went up again. That morning the bodies of Erin O'Leary, Alison Litzen-berger and Eric Sandvik, all 15, were found frozen in the snow and rushed to Portland's Emanuel Hospital. Doctors managed to start Eric's heart and keep it beating for nearly four hours; the others never revived. Finally, on Thursday afternoon, a line of 23 men led by Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. R.A. Harder, returned to search the area, each man sticking a 12-foot probe into the snow. Tech. Sgt. Charles Ek of the 304th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron hit a backpack. Minutes later, Tech. Sgt. Joel Kasprzak heard voices coming from the snow. "Hey, somebody's talking to me!" he yelled.

The cave was buried under five feet of snow, and the eight bodies were tangled and jammed into the tiny shelter. Brinton Clark, 15, was above and behind the group, and Giles Thompson, 16, was above and behind her. Their eyes were open and they were moaning. Their hearts were beating only 30 and 40 times a minute and their body temperatures were later found to be 70 and 71 degrees. They were the only ones who seemed to be alive, but all were removed swiftly. Seven men were needed to carry each climber over 700 feet of snow to a helicopter. Just after 7 p.m. Giles and Brinton were headed for Portland after 89 hours on the mountain. Giles's legs had to be amputated above the ankles, but both youngsters were given a good chance of recovering. Neither Susan McClave, 17, nor Patrick Mcginness, 15, showed vital signs on arrival at University Hospital. Teacher Marion Horwell, 39, died at St. Vincent Hospital, and Tasha Amy, 15, at Emanuel Hospital. Richard Haeder and the Reverend Goman were connected to heart-lung machines at Good Samaritan Hospital. But it was too late. Richard died at 10:53 p.m. and Father Tom died 12 minutes later.

"I am heartbroken," says lawyer Richard Haeder Sr., Richie's father. He blames the school for the biggest tragedy in Mount Hood history. He says the kids were sent onto the mountain without adequate equipment. "It could have been avoided," he says. "Aren't nine lives worth an altimeter or the price of a radio?"

The children and their teachers have had their funerals now. The weather has cleared, and Mount Hood, which many mountaineers consider one of the world's loveliest peaks, dazzles brilliantly against the sky. From below, on a warm spring day, it almost looks as if you could reach out and touch it.

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