Think Out Loud

New York Times investigation revives 50-year-old mountain climbing mystery with Oregon connections

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Dec. 18, 2023 7:11 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 19

In 1973, eight Americans — including four Oregonians — set out to climb the highest mountain in the Andes on an expedition organized by the Mazamas, a Portland mountaineering club. Two of those climbers never returned. The mysterious deaths of Janet Johnson and John Cooper caused a whirlwind of speculation in Argentina, which was never fully resolved. The cold case largely faded from public memory until Johnson’s camera was discovered in 2020, not far from where her body was found in 1975.


John Branch covered the camera’s discovery for The New York Times. We’ll talk with him about his investigation, which has revived this 50-year-old mystery.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In 1973, the famed Portland mountaineering club, the Mazamas, organized a climb of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Aconcagua in Argentina rises 6,960 meters or nearly 23,000 feet above sea level. Eight Americans, including four Oregonians, were on the expedition. Two of them never returned. The mysterious deaths of Janet Johnson and John Cooper caused a whirlwind of speculation, especially in Argentina, and while their bodies were eventually found, the mysteries were never fully resolved. But the sad saga largely faded from public memory until now.

The New York Times writer John Branch has made an award-winning career of focusing on the human toll of sports and outdoor adventure. His latest article explores the limits of what we know about what happened in January of 1973. It also reveals a fascinating new wrinkle: the camera of one of the climbers who died was found a few years ago, and miraculously, the film inside the camera was in good enough condition to yield pictures that were taken a half century ago. John Branch joins us to talk about all of this. Welcome to the show.

John Branch: Thank you, Dave. I’m glad to be here.

Miller: When did you first hear about this ill-fated expedition?

Branch: It goes back to 2020, right as COVID was taking over our world. I got a message from a climber and a photographer down in Argentina who works on Aconcagua. And on the Polish Glacier, which is the route that these folks had taken up near the top of Aconcagua, the glacier had revealed, among other things, a camera. And so one of the porters brought the camera down to the high camp and walked into a tent and said, “Hey, I found this camera,” and somebody said, “It looks like there’s a name on the bottom of that camera. What is that name?” And it was Janet Johnson, which instantly got the old guides there very worked up because they all knew the legend of Janet Johnson. And so it goes back to 2020.

Miller: And somebody called you because you had written about mountain disasters and avalanches before.

Branch: Yeah, the person who called me had read my work. I didn’t know who this person was that reached out to me and said, “I have a story that you might be interested in,” and basically explained it just as I explained it just there. And I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” We were delayed because of COVID – because we wanted to bring the film up, to get it properly developed at the best lab we could find, which happened to be in Canada. And, because of COVID, we couldn’t go retrieve the film. We didn’t want to just ship it –  worried about things like x-rays, and so on, and losing it. And so we put it on hold and literally put it on ice. That lab recommended that we hold the camera in the film in as much the same position as it was found. And my now friend – Pablo who called me – [stored it] in his freezer for close to two years until we could get the film and get it developed.

Miller: We’ll get to the expedition from 50 years ago in just a second. But is it fair to assume that the rediscovery of this camera was tied to climate change, the receding glacier?

Branch: Definitely. Yeah, that glacier is receding like most glaciers are. And it is, like a lot of other glaciers. We’ve seen stories around the world of things and [inaudible] emerging from the ice as it recedes from the glaciers.

Miller: So let’s turn to this expedition. What would it have been like to climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain – not just in the Andes, but in the Americas, in the Western Hemisphere – in the early 1970s?

Branch: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I was down there just a few months ago, and today Aconcagua is a hive during climbing season, which is starting right about now, down in the winter, or in their summer down there. There are two base camps. They have internet, and WiFi, and showers, and meal tents, and things like that. All sorts of people, hundreds of people on the mountain at any one time.

Back in 1973, none of that apparatus existed. These Americans might have been the only ones on the mountain entirely. It’s remote, it’s a difficult mountain. It’s, as you mentioned, about 23,000 feet – much higher than anything in the continental US, higher than anything else in the Western Hemisphere. And so this was quite an excursion for all these people involved. Most of the people had some international experience, but nobody had been this high before. Nobody had climbed, say, in the Himalayas. And so this was kind of a big excursion for each of these people.

Miller: It was organized by a Portland lawyer named Carmie Dafoe, who was a member of the Mazamas, as I mentioned. What was his plan?

Branch: His plan was to assemble a group to climb Aconcagua and to not do the normal route – which is still the normal route for most people that climb the mountain – but to go up to Polish Glacier. It’s named after an expedition back in the ‘60s. And at that time, in 1973, I think only five other expeditions had gone up to Polish Glacier, but he wanted to increase the level of difficulty a little bit. [He] put together a memo and said, “Anybody who’s interested in this, we need references, and your climbing resume, and $50.”

People started to sign up, many of them part of Mazamas or with ties to Mazamas, you know, friends of friends. And so eventually, the group settled in at seven, and at the last minute – about two months before the expedition – they added an eighth and final member. And that was Johnson, who was a schoolteacher in Denver, but also maybe the most experienced of all the climbers, and she was recommended by a couple of Carmie’s friends in Denver. She joined the expedition.

Miller: You included a note basically saying, “I was a little bit apprehensive about putting this group together because I didn’t want ‘finks’?” I didn’t write it down, but was that his word he used?

Branch: Yeah. He was a little bit nervous –

Miller: What did he mean? What were his concerns as he was organizing the trip?

Branch: I think, like anybody – I mean, this is kind of an interesting era when you go back to 1973. It’s kind of the dawn of what we see today with the commercial outfitters where you pay a tour group basically to help get you to the top of the mountain. And so people will come from far and wide and maybe those people don’t know each other. And this was sort of like that. He was assembling a group of people that either knew each other somewhat or had connections through various friends or references, but they didn’t all know each other. And so he wanted to make sure that those eight people got along well – not only were they qualified, but they could somehow get along, and so that the relationships between them would be strong enough to sustain during a very difficult expedition, potentially difficult expedition.


So when he writes that memo, he just wants to make sure we’re all on the same page here. They did some preliminary hikes that fall around the Northwest, some weekend hikes to get to know each other. Unfortunately, the two people who died were not part of those two hikes. But he was trying to make sure that there was some sort of cohesiveness as much as he could before they went off to Argentina

Miller: We’ll get to that, what others saw in terms of cohesiveness or a lack of it, in just a bit. But what did you learn about the two climbers who died, Janet Johnson and John Cooper, but Janet Johnson first?

Branch: Janet Johnson was a woman born and raised in Minneapolis, adopted and had a sister then who was adopted a few years later. And that sister is still alive, lives in Oregon City. Janet grew up in Minneapolis, and went to college, and sometime during her college years, her mother found out that she was gay and tried to cure her, in her mother’s words, of her homosexuality by sending her to a hospital in St. Paul. According to Janet’s sister, that certainly changed the dynamics of the relationship between the mother and daughter, and Janet then left for Colorado. She was always outdoorsy, and she left for Colorado and finished her education there, ended up getting a doctorate in education and became a schoolteacher, and she would spend her nights in meetings with the Colorado Mountain Club and her weekends in the Rockies climbing.

She became only the 82nd person to climb all the fourteeners in Colorado – there’s 50-some of them – and I think the 17th or 18th woman. So she was a pioneer in some respects and a closeted gay person who was, in her sister’s estimation, trying to prove to her mother that she could not only attain the highest levels of education, but could also attain the highest levels of mountaineering.

Miller: What about John Cooper?

Branch: John Cooper is interesting because he provides, I think, a really interesting timestamp to this moment in our history. He was a guy from a small town in Kansas, went to the University of Oklahoma, his father worked in the oil fields, and then joined the Coast Guard, worked summers during college actually as a hotshot firefighter in Idaho and Montana, was very much an adventurer kind of guy. And in the mid ‘60s [Cooper] takes a job with NASA as they are embarking on their Apollo program. About a month before this whole group leaves the United States to go to Argentina, in January of 1973 – a month before that, in December, is when Apollo 17 is on the moon. It’s when Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt are walking the moon; they’re still the last men and last humans I believe to have been on the moon. John Cooper was in mission control, and he worked for the group that oversaw the lunar vehicles. And you can actually find tape online of him talking, and you could hear him talk in this kind of air, the Oklahoman kind of cadence, this draw that he had.

So he really, in my mind, is kind of the timestamp, because when you think about the Apollo program and then this happened just on eve. He was wearing his hiking boots to work during the Apollo 17 mission to break them in for this upcoming trip to Aconcagua.

Miller: You spoke to a reporter who covered the expedition as it was setting off 50 years ago. What was his sense of this group?

Branch: Yeah, Rafael Moran ended up being a prize-winning journalist in Argentina and an international correspondent. But at the time, he was a young reporter for Los Andes, which was and is the main newspaper in Mendoza. And Mendoza is kind of the beautiful city at the foot of the Andes, where people who go to Aconcagua, depart from. And so he goes to the hotel to meet these Americans, and he’s fascinated by these Americans. One, because not a lot of people are climbing up in Aconcagua, but he doesn’t write about all the expeditions. He writes about this one because they’re American, there’s a woman, there’s a man from NASA, and they want to do the Polish Glacier which is a more difficult route. And he thought this would just be an interesting story.

So he goes to Hotel Nutibara where all the people are staying in Mendoza and meets them. And his recollection is that he instantly felt like these people are not taking this seriously enough. They seem to be a little in over their head. They don’t seem to understand just how difficult Aconcagua is, and they also just don’t seem to get along that well. They don’t seem to know each other very well. So he tells the photographer that he’s with, “Hey, make sure you take their pictures today. I want pictures of each one of them, because I have a feeling, I have an inkling they’re not all coming back.” And sure enough, two weeks later, those pictures appear in the paper as the expedition collapses and two people die.

Miller: When did things start to go wrong?

Branch: Well, pretty quickly. They go and they get dropped off at the trailhead basically. And it’s a two-day – actually today they take three days, but they tried to do it in two days – hike up to base camp. And base camp is at about 15,500 feet. So you’re already higher than any place in the continental US. On the way to base camp, one of the members of the expedition is already not feeling well – is already feeling the effects of high altitude. As they start moving up to Camp 1 and start doing the kind of yo-yo movement of their gear up to Camp 1 and back to Base Camp, then up to Camp 2 and back to Camp 1, the youngest member of the party falls ill from high altitude sickness and he stays in Base Camp. Very quickly – I mean, they’re trying to do this all in about seven to 10 days, and within the first few days, they have now gotten down three men.

Then as they get up to Camp 3, which is at the base of the Polish Glacier, they’re about to embark on a summit attempt and another person gets sick, and the guide takes that person down. So now four of the eight Americans are back at Base Camp, and the guide from Argentina is back at Base Camp. And now you have four Americans who are deciding that, “Hey, despite all that, we’re gonna keep going.” And that’s when things really went wrong.

Miller: That included two of the Oregonians, Bill Zeller and Arnold McMillen. They were the last ones to see John Cooper and Janet Johnson alive. What did they say happened?

Branch: So the story that they told – and most of it we can verify, and going back to old diaries and their reports when they first came down the mountain and from witnesses – the four of them went up the Polish Glacier. They got a slow start. They had hoped to make the summit and be back all in one day. Instead, they spent the night on the glacier, and they dug a snow cave. The next morning, John Cooper, the NASA engineer says, “I’ve had enough, I’m going down.” They said, “He seemed like he was in reasonable shape, he understood where camp was, he knew the way to get down, and so we let him go by himself.” Obviously, a fatal mistake as it turned out and something that probably wouldn’t happen today.

So the three of them – Janet Johnson, Bill Zeller, and Arnold McMillen – decided then, on day two of the summit push, continue upward. Again, it’s slow going, and they get up to the summit ridge, a couple of 100 vertical feet from the summit, and it’s now night-time. At some point, McMillen and Zeller said they turned around and Janet Johnson wasn’t there; and they aborted their summit attempt to go find her, and they find her in the snow, and they say that she is laying in the snow saying, “Just let me die here.” Well, they decided then to come on down and try to bring her down, and their recollections are clouded: one, in that they contradict each other in some small ways, but also, they both later admit they were really hallucinating. One of them was seeing construction trucks up on the summit, for example, that obviously were not there; they were hearing voices of people that were not there.

But they came down in the night and then split up, and one of them, Arnold McMillen, decides to go down to camp alone to see if they can get some help and to set up camp. And Bill Zeller then helps Janet Johnson down according to their account, and they take a hard fall on the glacier. And when Bill Zeller stands up and brushes himself off, he goes back up to check on Janet, and on the way back up, he finds John Cooper sitting there dead, frozen to death in his estimation. And he goes up and checks on Janet and says, “She seems to be fine,” and he leaves her there and goes down to camp. They both fall asleep in that high camp overnight, and the next morning come on down.

Miller: Eventually – because we’re running out of time here – Janet Johnson’s body was found in 1975, John Cooper’s was recovered later that year. Whatever came from various investigations?

Branch: Well, what’s interesting is that when these men came down, there were questions immediately about what happened, because four people come up and two people come down. The newspapers were certainly on top of it from the get-go, especially in Argentina. The reports in the United States were really wrong and not on top of it there; there was talk of avalanches and a bad storm that didn’t exist. But in Argentina, a judge was assigned to the case in case there was foul play. The State Department gets involved, the embassy there in Buenos Aires gets involved, and they say, “Hey, this case has to stay open until it’s investigated, because you have to be able to rule out foul play.” That whole notion of foul play really ignited, I think, a lot of speculation in Argentina, and enough speculation that these people were followed basically for the few days before they left Argentina until they got on the plane.

And once they got back to the United States, the story pretty much disappeared. You know, the idea that there might have been foul play, that this was anything besides a mountain accident, never really made it to the United States. Although, the people involved in this did hold – the Mazamas held a secret meeting to say, “We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to understand what happened, because there’s a lot of rumors and innuendo and miscommunication. Let’s get the story straight.” And so they held a meeting and then basically released internally, “Here’s the version of events as near as we can tell what happened.” And that became the version of events that was told in the United States. But meanwhile, back in Argentina, controversy was swirling about what really might have happened.

Miller: And now we have the photos from half a century ago that don’t really shed real light on what happened but give us an eerie picture of what it looked like just hours before the catastrophes. John Branch, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Branch: Thank you, Dave, very much.

Miller: John Branch is a reporter for The New York Times.

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