by Abe Asher
A week from yesterday thirty years ago, May 12, 1986, fifteen OES students, two teachers, one parent, and two guides began to ascend Mount Hood in conditions that caused four other local schools to cancel climbs planned for that Sunday the night before.
In the end, a confluence of mistakes and misfortune cost nine people — seven students, and the two faculty members — their lives. In many ways, it remains remarkable that this school is still standing today.
But this story picks up not so much with the unconscionable details of the climb itself — the weather, the equipment and lack-thereof, who turned back and why, who didn’t and why, and the climbers’ brave fight for survival — but instead what happened afterwards.
It’s about OES’ recovery from what happened in May of 1986, a process that, with the disaster still echoing throughout the school in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, is still very much ongoing.
In the years immediately following the accident, OES abolished its entire outdoor program. But now, thirty years later, some are asking the question: Should OES climb Mt. Hood again?
Tna Meyerhoff, who has been at the school since and now serves as the coordinator of Winterim, said the idea of another Mt. Hood Climb has been broached before. “I know that at the twentieth, as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary, people talked about doing a memorial climb — and the heads of school both times said flat-out, ‘no way will we ever climb Mt. Hood.'”
The most serious attempt was made around the 20th anniversary of the event. The idea was a joint OES-Catlin Gabel climb, with Tom Handel and his Catlin counterpart Peter Green working on the potential trip.
Peter told me, “The idea was that it would be a potentially cooperative and positive way to work toward this common, albeit, emotionally challenging goal.”
“It’s possible,” he continued, “although I’m certainly no expert in this arena, that carefully and intentionally building positive connections between the students and the school with mountaineering and with Mt. Hood could help in the ongoing healing process.”
“The challenge was to make sure we honor the unspeakable loss of these students, the shining lights of their class, honor the ongoing pain of the families, faculty, staff and students of the school, while also beginning another chapter in the relationship OES has with Catlin and with the Oregon mountains.”
“In the end, we all agreed it was too much to ask of those holding the pain of the 1986 experience.”
Another climb didn’t happen ten years ago, but people both inside and outside of OES continue to explore the idea.
“I think it probably would be healthy for the school to do it again,” Tna said. “I just think that there are an awful lot of people whom it brings up so much trauma and so much pain that they would never want to see students climbing again under the flag of OES.”
For the families of the victims of the Mt. Hood Climb, not enough time has passed.
Said Head of School Mo Copeland, herself an mountaineer who has scaled Mt. Hood, “When I first took this job, it was the 25th anniversary, and in the back of my mind, I thought, it’s time to bring closure. But then I met the families. The parents of those kids are ten years older than I am. For them, 25 years is nothing. It’s like it happened yesterday.”
“I’d like to see it at some future date,” Mo told me. “I think it’d be a really healthy, good thing. But at this point, it’s still way too raw.”
Said Peter, “Should OES do another climb? Would doing so offer some amount of closure for the school, and perhaps begin a new chapter in relations between the school and Catlin and between the school and the mountains of Oregon? I think it is worth discussing.”
Peter, who is retiring from Catlin at the end of the year, noted that he’d be happy to be involved if OES decides to seriously explore the possibility of another climb again. The relationship on this issue between Catlin and OES has been a fruitful one — but not without its challenges.
“A year ago, Catlin climbed Mt. Hood. The same week. It was completely coincidental, but it really upset a lot of people,” Mo told me. Last week, Catlin’s student newspaper published a new account of the tragedy — co-written by OES senior Sara R. — over OES’ objections.
For the moment, at this school, protecting the families takes precedence over any possible catharsis for the institution as a whole — and many view a potential climb as an unnecessary risk to take.
“I think it’s great to bring light to this topic,” Mo said. “But my job is to protect these families. We have hurt them in the most dramatic way possible. There’s no need to make any of them relive that.”
“Putting the words OES and Mt. Hood together just brings it all back for them.”
Said Peter, “For those who went through this, and among those I include myself in my role as someone living in Portland in 1986 and who was leading teenagers on climbs of Mt. Hood, it is not possible to discuss this matter without remembering the faces of the missing students or seeing the dark helicopters hovering over the mountain for days on end.”
OES Upper School Head Jordan Elliott echoed those thoughts. “As a mountaineer, and someone who has climbed Mt. Hood before, I get the logic of it [another OES climb]. But what people don’t understand is the trauma it causes the families of the victims and survivors,” he said.
And that’s a trauma can only be fully understood by meeting and talking to the people who were most affected by what happened thirty years ago. Any publicity about the climb — from this article to more exploitative coverage — can cause pain in sharp ways.
The school will commemorate the anniversary, at does every year, with Mt. Hood Climb Service Day — a school-wide day of service that OES observes on the second Wednesday of May. It’s held as a show of gratitude for the greater Portland community’s support in the aftermath of the disaster in 1986.
In addition to the service day, a meeting of the Mount Hood Climb Observance Committee was held several weeks ago. If there ever does come a time when the school decides to climb Mt. Hood again, the call will be made at a similar meeting.
Some think that day will never come. When asked for her gut feeling, Tna paused — and then told me, “My guess is that OES will never climb Mt. Hood again.”