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Mount Hood - experienced climbers rescued from snow cave

PMR Rescues 5 Climbers from High on Stormy Mt Hood
Sunday, January 12, 2003

Late Sunday afternoon, a 4-person team from Portland Mountain Rescue located and rescued a group of five stranded climbers in a snow cave high on stormy 11,239-foot Mount Hood.

The climbers, all from Portland-area climbing club The Mazamas, had set out on Saturday to climb a challenging West face route. However, the excursion took longer than expected and a strong storm descended on the mountain before the subjects could get down to safety. With darkness falling and heavy snow and high sustained winds creating blizzard conditions, the climbers were unable to find the proper route down the mountain. Rather than risking a nighttime descent or wandering into avalanche terrain, the subjects decided to dig a snow cave near 11,100 feet to ride out the storm. That evening, when some of the men became slightly hypothermic, the party decided to call 9-1-1 and request assistance.

The climbers were experienced mountaineers and carried three important safety devices - a cell phone to call for help, a GPS receiver to give the exact coordinates of their location and a Mountain Locator Unit (MLU) transmitter to provide a second means of locating the party.

PMR carries a MLU receiver and regularly trains in its use for locating climbers in trouble on Mount Hood.

MLU's are rental devices that are unique to Mount Hood. The program was started and is overseen by the Mountain Signal Memorial Fund based in Portland, Oregon.

After receiving the emergency call Saturday evening, the Clackamas County (OR) Sheriff mobilized a search and rescue (SAR) mission and contacted PMR and the Reach and Treat (RAT) team from American Medical Response. The two groups responded just after midnight on Sunday morning, but the SAR Coordinator decided that waiting for daylight was the best option. As a precaution, the SAR Coordinator also mobilized multiple SAR units from the area, including Corvallis Mountain Rescue, Eugene Mountain Rescue, Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue, the Hood River Crag Rats and the Washington County (OR) Sheriff's Office.

Just after 5:00 am, a Timberline Lodge Sno-Cat loaded with PMR and AMR rescuers left for the top of the ski area. From the staging area in the Palmer lift house at 8,540 feet, two PMR teams left for the upper reaches of the mountain. At first light, a 4-person "hasty" team left with minimal equipment to attempt to locate the subjects as quickly as possible. About 90 minutes later, a 6-person "support" team carrying technical rescue equipment and gear to battle hypothermia left for the mountain's crater, about 1,000 vertical feet below the summit. The AMR team remained behind with several PMR members waiting to learn if the subjects needed medical treatment.

The strong storm, which blew in Saturday afternoon, had deposited 1-2 feet of new snow over a sun-melted and rain-glazed base, making the upper mountain a recipe for avalanche. The 4-person PMR team, consisting of Rescue Leader Marty Johnson, Iain Morris, Mike Ochsner and Nick Pope, carefully assessed the snow conditions of the upper mountain and chose a safe route to the Hogsback ridge within Mount Hood's crater.

From the Hogsback, the PMR team used the climbers' GPS coordinates and the audible signal of their MLU transmitter to quickly locate the snow cave. The rescuers ascended through the Pearly Gates, near the summit, and West to the subjects' shelter.

Fortunately, the 5 stranded climbers were ambulatory and able to descend the standard climbing route with the help of the PMR hasty team. From there, the group carefully navigated the Hogsback Ridge to just East of Crater Rock and the waiting PMR support team. After energizing with some much needed food and liquids, the entire group of 15 people descended the 2,500 vertical feet to the Palmer lift house and a waiting Sno-Cat bound for the safety of Timberline Lodge.

Due to the relatively good health of the subjects, the third rescue team, composed of PMR rescuers and AMR paramedics, was able to turn back before they reached the scene. None of the subjects required hospitalization.

PMR would like to note that, though weather conditions were far from satisfactory, the climbers did exactly what they were supposed to do. When extreme winter weather caught them off guard, the subjects hunkered down in a snow cave and tried to wait out the weather. When the weather would not break and the subjects became concerned about their health, they called for help.

Additionally, the fact that they had a cell phone to communicate with the authorities and two means of locating their whereabouts - a GPS receiver and a MLU transmitter - significantly shortened the time needed to complete this difficult rescue.

Support Portland Mountain Rescue


Note: While these experienced climbers did "just the right thing by staying in one place and digging a snow cave", they still became hypothermic and in danger of loosing their lives. They had to call for a dangerous and expensive mountain rescue. We insist that "digging an emergency snow cave" be considered only as an extreme last resort and not as a safe fall back adventure.--Robert Speik, Webmeister 2003-2010





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