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Three Mountaineers killed by rock-fall in North Cascades

Three climbers killed in North Cascades

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Monday, July 11, 2005

MARBLEMOUNT, Wash. -- Rescuers used helicopters Monday to evacuate three climbers from the scene of rock falls that killed three other members of their party, North Cascades National Park officials said.

One of those evacuated, a man, was being treated for head injuries. The other two were uninjured, park officials said.

The six-member party was climbing Sunday in the area of Sharkfin Tower, about 20 miles east of Marblemount, park spokesman Tim Manns said.

He identified two of the dead as Mark Harrison of Bellevue and Jo Backus of Tacoma. Manns identified the uninjured climbers as Michael Hannam of Olympia and Janel Fox of Seattle. Their ages were not immediately available.

The names of the third climber killed and of the injured climber also were not immediately available. Manns said the injured man was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, passing in and out of consciousness during the night.

Early reports indicated that he "seemed to be doing all right," Manns said. "It was a long, difficult night to make it through, and he did."

Hannam and Fox did not require medical treatment, and were with National Park Service officials at their Marblemount office, he said.

The climbers were on a trip organized by The Mountaineers group for a climbing class, Seattle director Steve Costie said. The deaths were "the worst disaster ever" for the organization, which has chapters across Washington and conducts yearlong training sessions for new members.

"We don't take it lightly. These people are in it like apprentices and they work their way up," Costie said. "You can't do it overnight, so we take a lot of time with them."

The climbers were descending from Sharkfin Tower on Sunday afternoon when Backus, the group leader and one of three instructors on the climb, was injured in a rock fall.

The team had moved her to a different area to provide aid when they were struck by a second, larger rock fall, Manns said. Two climbers apparently died in the second rockfall, and a third died during the night, he said.

Rangers learned of the accident from other climbers who reported it using a cell phone.

A guide from Alpine Ascents International assisted the Mountaineers party after the accident, program director Gordon Janow said. That guide, Pat Timson, sent the two climbers he was with down to base camp and returned to help.

Timson spent the night at the scene, and was in contact with his wife, another Alpine Ascents guide, by cell phone, Janow said.

"Our guides are all basically wilderness first responders, so we sent the climbers down and sent the guide back up there," Janow said.

Rain overnight hindered additional rescue efforts, but rangers were able to send a helicopter to the site after daybreak, Manns said. Climbing rangers remained on the scene to help evacuate the three bodies, Manns said.

Sharkfin Tower's elevation is 8,120 feet. It is located along a ridge of peaks in the Boston Basin area, 90 miles northeast of Seattle. Manns said it's a popular climbing destination in the park.



Group leader had special way of dealing with climbing's dangers

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

SEATTLE -- After 41 years of marriage, Jim and Jo Backus had a special way of facing the dangers of mountain climbing, Jo's other love.

"We'd say to each other, 'Everybody dies sooner or later'," Jim Backus said Monday, "but if it's sooner, you'd better be doing something you really, really love."

Backus and their three grown children, Dean, Sara and Emily, are now dealing with the reality of that approach following Jo's death Sunday in rockfalls in North Cascades National Park.

In addition to team leader Backus, two other climbers were killed when a refrigerator-sized boulder struck the party: Mark Harrison, 35, of Bellevue, and John Augenstein, 42, of Seattle. Three others survived the ordeal.

"I usually worried about broken legs and things like that, nothing like this," Jim Backus said. "But climbing was her love, her passion.

Jo Backus, 61, of University Place, was a former president of The Mountaineers' Tacoma chapter. A passionate volunteer, she is going to "leave the biggest hole" in the community, said fellow member Helen Engle, secretary for the Tacoma branch.

"She gave of herself everywhere she went. She had so many great ideas and got people to do stuff that they might not otherwise have done," Engle said.

Martha Scoville, a board member of the Tacoma group, said she and Backus spent Friday working on a Habitat for Humanity housing project.

"She's really a leader in anything she does. We broke off into little teams, and she was in there organizing people. She was among the last to leave," Scoville said. "She and I were checking to make sure things were done. That's the way she was, very thorough, very conscientious."

Backus, a registered nurse, worked at Tacoma General Hospital as a lactation nurse and at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital as an on-call staff nurse for nearly 25 years.

The deaths Sunday were the "the worst disaster ever" for the century-old, Seattle-based Mountaineers climbing and outdoor-recreation club, which organized the trip, said executive director Steve Costie.

Backus's first climbing feat was to reach the top of Mount Rainier in 1986. Since then, she has summited nearly 200 peaks throughout the West. She was a member of the Tacoma Mountaineers for 19 years and the chapter's first female president in 1993.

Jim Backus describes himself as a stay-at-home dad when it came to mountaineering.

Rainier became an obsession for Jo, he said.

Driving on Interstate 5 past the Tacoma Dome, "You can look up and see Mount Rainier. That's what did it for her. She looked at the mountain and just decided she wanted to climb it," he said. "That was 200 mountains ago."


Note: Risk is a part of traditional mountaineering and risks can only be mitigated in part, even by the most experienced climbers.   --Webmeister Speik





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