Expedition Turns Deadly on Oregon’s Mt. Hood

Mount Hood
North America, United States, Oregon, View of Mount Hood. (Photo by: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images) JTB Photo/Contributor/Getty Images

Early Tuesday morning, Oregon’s Mt. Hood, which rests just 100 miles east of Portland, OR, quickly turned dangerous for two groups of climbers who were stranded near the peak after conditions on the mountain became too risky to navigate. One person who fell while climbing it has been pronounced dead, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office reported on Twitter.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s department received an emergency call on Tuesday morning, requesting a rescue mission for a climber who fell and slid 700 feet down the south rim crater of the mountain, near the peak. Shortly after, another climbing party also requested rescue—increasing the total of stranded climbers on the mountain up to seven and creating a wild scramble for mountain search and rescue teams to evacuate the mountain.

It was confirmed that both rescues were separate climbing parties in need of aid. The first party, comprised of four climbers, were on the Hogsback route on the south side of the mountain attempting to summit when one climber (who’s name has not yet been released) slipped and fell, sliding 700 feet down the mountain into the south rim crater. The party had one cell phone and was able to make the 911 call.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s department then dispatched a request for rescue to the Portland Mountain Rescue team, a certified volunteer search and rescue non-profit that has been conducting rescue operations on Mt. Hood since 1977. A black hawk helicopter was dispatched to the mountain to make the rescue and was able to evacuate the climbing group in less than four hours from the time of the accident—a fast rescue, considering most mountain rescues take eight hours or more to complete due to the extreme terrain, poor conditions, and lengthy approaches in the backcountry. But sadly, the climber who fell was pronounced dead upon arrival to the Emanuel Medical Center in Portland.

“I can say that they were being cautious, but this accident goosed everybody,” says Mark Morford, public information officer and rescue leader at Portland Mountain Rescue

While dispatching the emergency rescue attempt, the sheriff’s department received a second call from the second climbing group. “The other climbers were very uncomfortable with the climbing conditions and were waiting for the sun to come out and warm up the ice,” says Mark Morford, the public information officer and rescue leader at Portland Mountain Rescue. “They requested assistance but were all ambulatory and able to descend the mountain on their own power.”

But how could so many climbers be endangered all at once, especially when the sun was out and conditions were clear? Clear conditions don’t always mean safe conditions, Morford explains. “The weather has been so nice and clear lately, and when there’s clear weather on the mountain, more people are going to attempt winter ascents,” he says. “But in this particular situation, we had a cold snap blow through, and over the last five days, the solar melting from the sun and the cold temperatures re-freezing everything have made conditions dangerous.”

The cycle of solar melt and freezing temperatures at high altitudes creates rhime ice, which is basically freezing fog that creates a rough, frozen surface atop stable ice and snowpack. In these conditions, it’s imperative that climbers use anchors and ropes in case of a fall. According to Morford, neither climbing party was equipped with anchors or ropes.

“Looking at the conditions and the climbers who were involved, I can say that they were being cautious, but this accident goosed everybody,” Morford says. “The conditions were very difficult climbing conditions—super hard, brittle surfaces that are easy to trip on and next to impossible to stop yourself if you do.”

Morford reports that in the past 10 years, PMR has had no more than one rescue in the south crater rim on the upper peak of Mt. Hood. But due to increased interest in backcountry skiing and winter climbing, the increased number of people on the mountain in January and February increases the chances of a winter-weather accident.

“Increased winter access on Hood has been a development in the past five years—it used to be really unusual to have people on the mountain during these months,” he says. “In May and June, it’s pretty crowded, so more and more people want to climb in the off season. Now, there could be up to 200 people on the upper mountain on a day like today. The popularity of backcountry skiing has increased winter traffic on the mountain, and it’s a wonderful ski from up there, but it’s difficult. And you have to be ready for that.”

Morford suggests that anyone wanting to take to the backcountry during the winter months understands in advance what the conditions are of the terrain they’ll be in, to avoid accidents and dangerous conditions. “Always check climbers blogs, Facebook pages, and only go out in firm snow conditions. Set anchors and use ropes to avoid a tragic fall,” he says. “Half of our mission is public education and public safety. When you’re injured in the backcountry, it takes a long time for us to get you off the mountain. That’s a big deal, and you need to be able to survive and take care of yourself and your party through the night should you need a rescue.”