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Mt. Hood Climbing Has Seen Many Changes In 25 Years Since OES Tragedy

Twenty-five years ago Thursday, a trip to the summit of Mt. Hood went horribly wrong.

Mt.Hood from Timberline Lodge

Rob Manning / OPB

Nineteen students, parents, and staff from the Oregon Episcopal School intended to climb to the summit of the mountain and return home for dinner.

Instead, nine people — some as young as fifteen — died. It was one of the worst mountain-climbing disasters in U.S. history.

It altered how climbers think about their preparations. April Baer reports on what’s changed on Mt. Hood since then.

After all the investigations, after the grief that engulfed survivors and families of the OES climbers, a few certainties remain about the disaster.

One is that the group was not equipped for the hellish storm that overtook the mountain that day. Search teams reported visibility at less than three or four feet.

Even the hulking Snowcat vehicles deployed for the rescue had trouble.

Bill O’Brien: “We heard before there was a Cat that went up early and the windshield blew out.

Bill O’Brien was a young firefighter for the city of Albany back then. He’s since retired.

Also on the mountain for the search was Rocky Henderson. He’s one of the most experienced mountain rescue volunteers in Oregon, but in 1986 he was a brand new recruit for Portland Mountain Rescue.

Henderson hadn’t even been trained when he got the call to come help. He recalls the growing despair.

Rocky Henderson: “As the hours wore on in the second day, and the thing escalated, I remember coming back to base and sensing the anxiety on everyone’s faces. The sheriffs, the deputies, the media was there. It became more and more oppressive as the hours went on.”

Firefighter Bill O’Brien was there when searchers found the OES group buried under snow. O’Brien says everyone took note of the location.

Bill  O’Brien: “It turned out the helicopters were landing very close to the cave the whole time. Nobody realized that of course.”

The OES climbers had a compass, but they were without an altimeter. Then as now, that’s standard gear for climbing. Had a guide who went for help known the altimeter reading, it would have helped narrow the search considerably.

But at the time, Scott Russell felt even an altimeter wasn’t enough.

Scott Russell “There really wasn’t anything available for hiking and climbing that did what we wanted to do.”

In 1986, Russell was an engineer by training who helped his father run a family business driving Snowcats for various purposes, including rescues.

He also had kids at the Oregon Episcopal School. The disaster spurred Russell to form a foundation to develop something to help climbers in similar situations.

Scott Russell “The idea was to utilize the same type of equipment that is used for tracking animals.”

At the time, avalanche transceivers weren’t much use for long-range searches. Cell phones at the time were too big for climbers’ standard gear.

Russell’s foundation went looking for proposals, and tested several tracking units, on foot and on skies.

The winning design was  the Mount Hood Locator Unit, or MLU. No one monitors MLU signals 24 hours a day, but search teams can start listening for them in a matter of hours when climbers get lost.

They can lead rescuers to a climber’s location, and, unlike GPS units, they can also show search teams where people may be buried in the snow.

Scott Russell “We didn’t change the protocols in search and rescue. We just gave more equipment and resources to be able to find people.”

Russell and his allies faced many hurdles — including mountaineering groups that worried the MLUs would lull climbers into complacency. They also had to convince the legislature to pass a law shielding the foundation and rescuers from liability if the MLU malfunctioned. But today, MLUs are still available for $5 rental fee.

Portland Mountain Rescue recommends climbers consider MLUs and locator beacons as only part of their preparation. They say it’s no substitute for training and survival gear.

Rocky Henderson with Portland Mountain Rescue says he’s glad the MLUs are around. 

Rocky Henderson “”Climbers now will make statements that they take it because they don’t want to face the cameras later and say I was stupid and didn’t take it. We’ve built that expectation that it’s a good idea, that it’s a valuable piece of equipment.”   

Now, with hundreds of missions under his belt, Henderson remembers only about 3 or 4 incidents in which locators made a life or death difference. But that’s enough for him.

He says technology has changed in other ways, too. GPS units prevent climbers from getting lost in the first place. Cell phones — when they work — let rescuers guide lost hikers and skiers down in what Henderson calls a virtual search.

Rocky Henderson “In fact, Timberline now publishes the ski patrol’s phone number on all of their lift tickets.”

When rescue teams do have to go on the mountain, Henderson says basic search techniques are different.

Rocky Henderson “You can take an incident and by historical probabilities, you can say, ‘Seventy percent of people were found downhill from where they were last seen.’ So then you can concentrate more resources downhill, and make your plan accordingly.”

Bad things still happen all the time, even when hikers and climbers make the best decisions.  Cell batteries die, older phones without full GPS technology don’t always relay completely accurate signals.

It can take hours to muster the volunteers needed for a full-blown rescue mission. And always, weather is never to be taken lightly.

Henderson says hard experiences, like the OES disaster, have given him and other searchers experience that has paid off countless times in more successful missions.