by Sara Reed & Rueben Schafir
Editors’ Note: This article was written in conjunction with a co-author, Sara Reed OES ’16. The authors ask that this topic be discussed with the utmost respect and care, and that readers remember that while this accident is a story of the past for some, it is still a living reality for the friends and family members of those who died on Mt. Hood in May 1986.
In the early morning of Monday, May 12, 1986, 19 climbers trudged through the darkness up the frozen crust of Mt. Hood. In the five days that followed, nine of those climbers would succumb to the biting cold, and lose their lives on the slopes of the windblown mountain.
Climbers ascend the slopes of Mount Hood year-round. Despite standing at a modest 11,240 feet tall, Mt. Hood frequently claims the lives of one or more of the many climbers headed for its summit (see here for OregonLive’s list of all deaths on Mt. Hood since 1883). The Oregon Episcopal School tragedy of 1986 was the most devastating and influential of such accidents. On May 11, the excited group of 19 OES students, teachers, and parents (as well as one professional guide), packed in the basement of the school.
“The overall feeling was ‘you have to get out there, you have to try,’” reflected Lorca Smetana, one of the surviving climbers. Smetana was 17 at the time.
The group left Timberline Lodge early on the morning of Monday, May 12, climbing towards the summit. When they arrived at the Hogsback, the snowy ridge linking Crater Rock and the last stretch to the summit, six students, including Smetana, and one parent had turned back due to altitude sickness or exhaustion. The remaining 13 climbers continued on for the final summit push.
By the time the remaining climbers had partially ascended the Hogsback, they too were forced to turn back due to a rapidly encroaching weather system, which had begun enveloping the flanks of the mountain, taking the group by surprise. As they fought low-visibility and 60 mile-per- hour winds, the climbers began to suffer from pre-hypothermic symptoms. The group struggled to return to Timberline Lodge.
Aware that the fall line (the direction that one would fall if they slipped and began to slide) from Crater Rock would lead the group west of Timberline Lodge and over the deadly cliffs at the Mississippi Head, the group followed a southeasterly compass reading. As rescuers would later learn, the group overcompensated and made their way too far east, to the White River Glacier, where, entirely unaware of their location, nightfall forced them to build a snow cave.
The following day, Tuesday, May 13, student Molly Schula and professional guide Ralph Summers left the cave to summon help. Still in whiteout conditions, Summers and Schula unknowingly navigated their way down the White River Glacier and ended up at Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort, where they were transported back to Timberline Lodge.
Before sunrise on Wednesday, May 14, a break in the weather finally allowed rescuers from Search And Rescue and Portland Mountain Rescue to continue scouring the upper reaches of the mountain. The frozen bodies of three students were quickly found just over the western rim of the White River Canyon, at the base of the White River Glacier.
Rescuers hunted for the snow cave by foot and helicopter throughout the day of Thursday, May 15. Navigating through the knee-deep snow, rescuers used probes to search for the missing climbers.
Twenty minutes before the set turnaround time, searchers felt what they were looking for. They began to dig, and quickly found backpacks and poles. Further down, buried and piled on top of each other, they discovered the remaining eight climbers, still inside the snow cave. Helicopters arrived to airlift the climbers off the mountain.
Once in the parking lot, medical personnel tried to warm the climbers and give them intravenous fluids. Several climbers were was so cold that medics were unable to insert an IV. The core temperature of 15-year- old Giles Thompson was 71º at the time of rescue.
Of the 13 climbers that attempted to reach the summit, only four (including Summers and Schula, who hiked out Tuesday morning) survived. Brinton Clark and Thompson were found alive in the snow cave. Clark would fully recover; Thompson would lose both of his legs to frostbite.
Smetana stayed at Timberline Lodge for several days to wait for news, and recalls being woken up when the other climbers had been found, to “find someone sitting next to my bed waiting for me, and then they told me.”
In the weeks following the accident, OES and the Northwest community mourned the loss of the climbers and began the recovery process.
“It wasn’t business as usual at all,” reflected Smetana. “There was a lot of anger. And there was a lot of bitterness and there was hurt. There were a few people who responded with vicious blame.” However, she noted that this was not at all a universal feeling.
“Overall, what we ended up with was an astonishing experience of community, and love, and caring, and caretaking within our community and from the entire city of Portland who reached out to us, and from across the country and across the world. And that’s what I came away with over time. It wasn’t about finding answers and then punishing.”
The Catlin Gabel School joined the national community and came to OES’ aid– the schools formed “a special bond.”
“The tragedy brought our two schools together, and all rivalries disappeared,” remembered Roberto Villa, Upper School Spanish teacher at Catlin Gabel. “I was impressed at the sensitivity and deep respect that was generated at Catlin Gabel and all the students felt very close with the OES community.”
Robert Medley, the former Catlin Gabel Theater Director, remembered the joint Catlin-OES “Coffee House” event that was held several weeks after the accident. The evening, which lasted from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m., was filled poetry and music written by Catlin Gabel students and dedicated to the victims of the tragedy.
“This event was so impactful not only on the OES community but on our community as well,” remarked Medley. “[The relationship] it led to was also remarkable.”
“There really wasn’t anyone in the Upper School who wasn’t directly touched,” Medley said of the 36 graduates in the Catlin Gabel Class of ’86.
Following the accident, there was a great deal of speculation about the decisions that the climb leader, Father Tom Goman, had made. Goman was an experienced climber who had reached the summit of Mt. Hood several times before the accident and was known as a leader who did not hesitate to turn his group around.
Smetana described Goman’s attitude as a good one, saying that it was not, “I’m going to get all the sophomores onto the summit.”
“There was no question that the decisions he was making on that mountain were already compromised by cold.”
In 1990, one parent brought a lawsuit against the school. During the trial, the choices made by Goman and Summers were heavily questioned. However, as Smetana put it, “there was no one mistake. There were twelve mistakes probably … no one of which would have killed people.”
The tragedy left a deep and permanent mark on the school. OES had once hosted a thriving outdoor program, with regular climbs on Mt. Hood every year. The year after the accident, the outdoor program was virtually non-existent. Today, OES students no longer engage in mountaineering trips on Mt. Hood through the school.
“The school has used this as a lesson going forward — the outdoor program has completely changed,” said a current student, who chose to remain anonymous.
The OES 1986 accident is considered to be one of the worst accidents in U.S. mountaineering history. It not only had a lasting effect on the Portland area, but created lasting change within community nationwide.
Altimeters, which the group was not carrying, are now regarded as necessary mountaineering tools. Had the group been carrying one, Summers and Schula could have narrowed the search area by providing an altitude at which to look.
Smetana, still a climber today, and someone who now works with communities that experienced tragedy as an organizational consultant, pointed out that “the toolbox I started collecting then is the one I actively maintain.” She noted that professionals in her field refer to the accident as one of the most pivotal ever in terms of the way that mountaineering is approached.
Both in 1986, as well as today, OES is faced with the challenge of helping people move forward and honoring those who died. In the 30 years that have passed, OES remembers the tragedy in the form of an annual service project.
“We want to give back because of the help and support we received at the time,” said the anonymous student. “That’s where the service day comes from.”
Students, faculty, alumni, and dedicated community members gather to remember, honor, and celebrate the lives of the students and faculty involved in the accident. The breadth of support the school received stretched far beyond just the borders of its campus. Portland Mountain Rescue, Seattle Mountain Rescue, the 304 th Air Force Rescue and Recovery Squadron, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s department, and other local groups immediately came to the school’s aid in 1986. In addition to honoring those lost on the climb, OES provides opportunities for service work on the anniversary in order to give back to the community that supported them thirty years ago.
The OES administration has the delicate task of finding, as the Reverend C. Phillip Craig Jr. said in an article in OES Magazine, “a thoughtful manner by which to annually observe and appropriately remember the Mount Hood Climb tragedy.”
“The overall attitude is very solemn but hopeful that good can come out of such a tragedy,” said the anonymous student. “There’s also a feeling of gratitude to the community.” Smetana said that OES had a fine line to walk between moving on and remembering, and thoughtfully reflected that they were successful.
“They had a line to walk, they walked it, and they walked it well.”
She added that she has felt “deeply cared for and loved all through the whole process.”
After thirty years, OES has slowly established a scaled-down, yet thriving outdoor program. The tradition of an outdoor initiation for rising sophomores has been reimagined and is carried out as a four-day backpacking trip at the opening of the school year.
The story of the Mt. Hood Climb is not something that is spoken of in the hallways of OES. The primary reminder that it ever happened is the annual service day. The Mt. Hood tragedy continues to live on, and though it does not define OES, it informs the nature of the school.
In contrast to what the school’s response to the accidents has shown, Smetana still believes that young people should climb. “Do everything you can to protect yourself for your own sake and the sake of everybody else, which means that you give yourself all the skills that you can and you make smart decisions and you go with a really good team of people you can trust.”
As Smetana stated, everyone on Mt. Hood in May of 1986 has done their best “in many, many different ways to build life since then. And it is still far from over for us.”