In North America, roughly 60 people die in mountaineering and back country accidents each year. But the question still remains in most of your minds, how dangerous is mountaineering? What are the chances of being hurt or killed? According to a report quoted in the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering, experts, who base their results on fatality statistics, were asked to rank the risks of dying from various activities and technologies. Mountain climbing came in 29th, behind such activities as operating a power mower, school football, using contraceptives, police work, pimpin' hos, and surgery.
Still, it is the opinion of many professionals and volunteer rescue organizations that most accidents in North America are the result of ignorance, impulsiveness, and irresponsibility. People who educate themselves as to the potential hazards, equip themselves accordingly, and act responsibly, rarely have difficulty. A thorough discussion of safety can be found in the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. You can find this at Mountain Ventures, of course.
The most challenging aspect of climbing mountains anywhere in the world is the speed at which the weather changes. Many climbers do not plan for poor weather and are caught ill-prepared. As a result, the number-one factor in mountaineering accidents is hypothermia. This is especially true in the Pacific Northwest, because temperatures often hover between 28 and 40 degrees and precipitation is usually cold rain or wet snow. Ironically, many of Oregon’s worst accidents occur when bad weather catches a party on low angle slopes such as the gentle South Side of Mount Hood (our route). This so-called “easy” route has trapped uncounted climbers, and killed more individuals than any other climb on the mountain. One recent calamity, where nine members of the Oregon Episcopal School died in May of 1986, is the worst but by no means an only example. Similar tragedies have occurred on the South Side in 1927, 1938, and 1969.
The upshot is that we must plan for the worst. Wear wool or fleece and take a waterproof jacket and pants. Carry a map, compass, watch, and consider carrying an altimeter. I’d like for everyone to have an altimeter and know how to use it but it isn’t required. You can use these tools to gauge your progress and know whether it is time to turn around. If you have a non-GPS altimeter, it can give you warning of bad weather. I can teach you how to read for that. Most of all, be prepared for an emergency (luckily we have Doc) because you never know what the mountain is going to throw our way.
Except for Mount Washington, avoid climbing rock when you can. All Cascade rock is volcanic and most of it is bad. It is so terrifying that it is often treated as a joke amount the local mountaineers. Comments such as, “slag heap,” “this whole mountain was swept out of a cow barn,” “can’t someone staple these rocks down” and, “how long will it last” are common in the old summit registers. The all-time winner is the following one-liner by Nick Dodge, written in the Broken Top register after he climbed a route on the North Side of the mountain. “We are sure what we climbed was buried last year and will be gone next year.” Outward Bound instructors, who, while teaching in the Three Sisters, became familiar with the nature of the rock, came up with the term “Oregon Death Tours” to label a group of some of the more hideous climbs.
Nevertheless, back to safety, standing underneath exposed rock is as
dangerous as climbing on it, as the following incident illustrates.
The climb was Cooper Spur (not a route we’re taking).
The climber, Lige Coalman. The
time was September 1917.
He was startled by a roar above him that sounded as if the top
of the mountain had broken loose. He
jerked off his glasses… and looked up to see what was happening. A large segment of a 200-foot ledge had broken loose 2000
feet above. It came hurtling down.
There was no protection; no place to run.
The whole mass disintegrated into fragments that leaped high, bounced
sideways, or came straight forward like cannon balls.
There were stones varying from the size of walnuts to boulders weighing
more than a ton. It did not seem
possible that any living thing could survive.
Lige committed himself to his Maker and prayed.
Lige Coalman miraculously survived! Although an extreme example, his story illustrates why you should wear a helmet on even the easiest routes.
Because volcanic rock is so unstable, you must climb when it is buried by snow or frozen in place. Unfortunately for us, this won’t be the case since we’re climbing in mid-Summer. For future reference, May and June have the best combination of stable weather, low freezing level, and snow cover. Fall and Winter produce the sweetest waterfall ice imaginable! Although the weather is almost universally good in July, August, and sometimes September, the mountains are bare of snow, and the freezing level fluctuates rapidly. Avoid climbing in Summer unless you plan to do one of the lower angle routes or your route follows a ridgeline. This is exactly what we’re doing, by the way. No matter what time of year it is, avoid climbing in late afternoon. Start early and finish early. Early starts mean easier, more efficient walking, climbing with less rock fall, and earlier, safer descents on firmer snow. Early starts also allow more time to resolve problems and conduct rescues.
Oregon glaciers are small, but size is no measure of danger. We’ll be very careful when we have to cross a glacier and we’ll probably be roping up every time.
80 to 90 percent of all avalanches occur during or within 24 hours after a storm. We must be wary of the 10 to 20 percent, which are triggered long after the storm has passed. Generally these occur on slopes of 25 to 45 degrees (our route up North Sister), on the leeward side of a ridge where large cornices and drifts form. All are notorious for falling on climbers.
A rare but deadly hazard in Oregon is lightning. The summit of Mount Jefferson has seen 1 lightning-strike death in recent time, and Mount Thielson is often called the lightning rod of Oregon. An abundance of fulgurite (rock fused by lightning) on top of both pinnacles proves that strikes are common. There have also been close calls on Mount Hood and Three Sisters.
In addition to many forces for which we have no control, one danger in our total control still exists. AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) often occurs above 8,000 feet, and is a frequent problem for Cascade peak climbers who go from sea level (sound like us?) to summit too quickly.
Finally, it has been observed that accidents occur over and over in the same places. Take extra care when descending Mount Hood, or traversing the West Side snowfield under Prouty Pinnacle on North Sister. These areas have seen a high percentage of fatalities.
That's pretty much all I have to say. Welcome aboard this fantastic voyage of verticality. Please remember that in case of a water landing, your seat can be used as a floatation device. Here's a gear list and here's one you can print out. If you have any questions at all whether they're related to this trip or not, email me.
last updated: 04/13/2001