Mount Hood’s Deadliest Disaster
About an hour before midnight on Mother’s Day in 1986, a group of teenagers assembled at an Episcopal high school in Portland, Oregon, to embark on an expedition. Their goal was to summit Mount Hood, completing an adventure program that was required for all sophomores. What followed was a story of tragedy and loss that is commemorated annually at the institution it changed forever.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.”
It’s the second Wednesday of May in 2018, and more than 1,000 students, alumni, parents, and faculty affiliated with Oregon Episcopal School—a small private academy on a beautiful hilly campus in southwest Portland—have gathered at the base of a bell tower. Today is the 32nd annual Mount Hood Climb Service Day, and Melissa Robinson, the middle school chaplain, is offering a benediction.
“Holy God, we pray for those we love but see no longer,” she says. “May they inspire each of us to enter today with a generous heart, ready to serve and eager to love.”
After Robinson concludes, the Reverend Corbet Clark reads off nine names. Patrick McGinness. Tasha Amy. Marion Horwell. Susan McClave. Richard Haeder. Erik Sandvik. Tom Goman. Erin O’Leary. Alison Litzenberger. He pauses after each. A bell tolls.
About an hour before midnight on Sunday, May 11, 1986—Mother’s Day—15 students gathered on this campus to gear up for an outdoor expedition. Within 12 hours, by midmorning the following day, they hoped to be standing on the summit of Mount Hood—11,249 feet above sea level—at the geographic center of the Cascades volcanic arc.
Back then, Oregon Episcopal ran a program called Basecamp—an educational experience modeled on the principles of Outward Bound and a requirement for all tenth-graders, who were scheduled to make the Hood ascent in four separate groups. The idea was to help students grow by putting them in a challenging environment that required problem-solving and teamwork. As Kurt Hahn, Outward Bound’s founder, once put it, “The experience of helping a fellow man in danger, or even of training in a realistic manner to be ready to give this help, tends to change the balance of power in a youth’s inner life.”
And so in the months leading up to the spring of 1986, instructors had taught students the technical aspects of snow climbing: how to step-kick an ascent, how to plunge-step a descent, how to execute a sitting glissade, how to self-arrest during a fall, how to perform basic first aid in the field.
Like many other students before them, this group gathered up carabiners, seat harnesses, and Prusik slings. They grabbed crampons, a field stove, a sleeping bag, a large nylon tarp, and two first aid kits. Later, at Timberline Lodge, a rambling structure that serves a large ski area just west of the route they would take, they were issued ice axes and helmets. The team also carried compasses, a set of long wands that would be used to mark their path on the way up and down, and a sturdy shovel designed for digging through balky, ice-crusted snow.
Now, one by one, they climbed aboard a yellow school bus, carried their heavy gear down its narrow aisle, took their seats, and looked forward to the adventure ahead.
As the bus rumbled off on the 90-minute trip to Mount Hood, the trip’s leader—Thomas Goman, the school’s 42-year-old chaplain and an Episcopal priest—settled in up front. Also on board was Marion Horwell, the dean of residents and student affairs, a capable woman who had never climbed a mountain before but had come along to support her school. Only one parent was going: Sharon Spray, who accompanied her daughter, Hilary. The last two members of the party would join them at Timberline: Dee Zduniak, an Outward Bound instructor who was taking part in preparation to help lead the climb later that year, and Ralph Summers, a professional guide who, at 30, looked like somebody’s older brother.
Fifteen boys and girls, one mother, one priest, one administrator, two guides. Twenty people in all, nine of whom would die over the next four days. One of the girls who would perish, Tasha Amy, had limited vision in her only functioning eye but was determined to be on the expedition all the same. “She would have been just downright insulted if anyone had suggested she not climb the mountain,” one of her teachers later said.
For a few weeks that spring, the horrific story of this expedition was splashed all over the news, with coverage on local and network television, in papers ranging from the Oregonian to The New York Times to the Sydney Morning Herald, and in magazines such as Newsweek and People. But the news cycle moved on, and most of the reporting in the immediate aftermath couldn’t answer questions that would take time to sort out. What exactly went wrong up there, and why? And what might it all come to mean, as the survivors aged and had families of their own, and the school community tried in any way possible to recover? How does a school make amends and open up a conversation about healing, grieving, death, forgiveness, growth, and change?
Thirty-two years after the tragedy, we have information that wasn’t available back then: interviews with survivors and rescuers and parents, facts that emerged during a civil lawsuit, and the conclusion an investigation commissioned by the school in 1986, which was overseen by climbing legend Jed Williamson. (The following year, Williamson published a summary of the investigation in the American Alpine Club's Accidents in North American Mountaineering, which he edited at the time.) As a result, these questions can now be more thoroughly analyzed, if not definitively answered.
The Oregon Episcopal School Mount Hood climb remains, to this day, the second-deadliest alpine accident in North American history, behind a 1981 avalanche on Mount Rainier that killed 11. Seven of the nine Hood victims were teenagers, students at a well-intentioned school who followed the lead of adults they trusted.
Both of my children attend Oregon Episcopal. Eight-year-old twins, they were on hand for Service Day in 2016, 2017, and 2018. For this reason and many others, I’ve long been haunted by the story of the climb’s lost students, kids so much like my own, so fragile and young.
On that night in May, Goman’s group left Timberline at around 3 A.M. and were met with temperatures that were comfortably above freezing. They were at 6,000 feet, close to the tree line, and there was calf-deep snow on the ground. As they got going on what would have been roughly a six-mile round trip, they moved quietly through a hushed kind of darkness broken by the muffled sound of their footsteps.
The ice-capped landscape of Mount Hood can be almost otherworldly in its beauty. Fumaroles—volcanic steam vents—are located all along the side of the mountain; when active, they send silvery plumes of mist into the air, giving moonlit nights a luminescent glow.
Most climbers follow a route up the south side, departing from the parking lot at Timberline Lodge, a WPA-built structure that was used to depict the haunted mountain hotel in The Shining. The first section of the 5,249-foot ascent skirts the eastern edge of the Timberline ski area. A well-known lift, the Palmer chair, parallels the climb’s path all the way up to 8,500 feet, where the route continues on to the top, taking climbers past well-known features like Crater Rock, the Hogsback—a huge mound of ice and snow at 10,500 feet—and two rock towers near the summit called the Pearly Gates.
The apparent simplicity of this line, coupled with the mountain’s majestic beauty, has made Mount Hood both alluring and dangerous. In the past century, more than 120 people have died on it, a total in the fatality range of North American peaks like Denali and Mount Washington.
There are several clear risks: avalanches, falls, crevasses, weather that can turn nasty in minutes. Because of the dangers, it’s important to have a good leader on every expedition, someone who can make the pragmatic decision to change plans when necessary. During many Oregon Episcopal climbs before the May 1986 attempt, that person had been Tom Goman.
Goman was affectionately known to students as “Ferder” Tom, from the abbreviations of “father” and “doctor.” (He was both a priest and a Ph.D.)
Fifteen boys and girls, one mother, one priest, one administrator, two guides. Twenty people in all, nine of whom would die over the next four days.
“The kids adored him,” recalls Jim Thompson, who in 1986 was assistant to the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. “His popularity was astounding. And, of course, he had the reputation of being the brain on campus.”
Born in Corvallis, Goman had a divinity degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Claremont. He was already a seasoned mountaineer when, in 1978, he took a job at Oregon Episcopal, where he taught philosophy, ethics, and math. His scholarly work covered a range of topics, including the nature of human sacrifice in Hindu scriptures. Throughout his work, Goman was preoccupied with the twin ideas of responsibility and sacrifice; many kinds of sacrifice, he once wrote, produce “the mystic purification of our Self.”
Joel Schalit, a student who would go on to become a writer and editor, was a 19-year-old senior in 1986 and a member of Goman’s advanced climbing team, a group that did extra training to help shepherd less experienced climbers. He was close with Goman and had stayed overnight a few times with Goman and his wife at their home.
“Tom was a father to me,” Schalit has written on an online magazine. “But as I got to know him better, I began to sense that he was seriously troubled.”
Leading up to the Hood climb, Schalit observed a streak of recklessness in his character. He has written about the story of one particular expedition under Goman’s leadership, which happened on a rocky outcropping above Oregon’s Sandy River. “Once we reached the summit, our instructions were to anchor a rappelling line by tying it to a tree,” he wrote. “Then we were supposed to practice belaying one another from atop the precipice.”
The students were nervous and hesitant to proceed. To show that the maneuver was in fact possible, Goman proceeded to demonstrate. As Schalit described it, he “took off his helmet, screamed out, ‘On belay?,’ and took a swan dive off the cliff. … As I looked out over the ledge, Tom’s body banged sharply against the jagged walls. … This routine was repeated eight more times, and by the end of it Tom was covered in blood. … We were all extremely shaken.”
The forecast for Mount Hood on the afternoon of May 12 was grim. News organizations and weather services had predicted a multi-day storm, with vicious winds and heavy marine moisture surging in. Goman assessed the conditions and decided the climb could be completed safely anyway, before the worst of the weather hit.
Matt Zaffino, now the chief meteorologist for KGW, Portland’s NBC affiliate, was a young weatherman in 1986, based in Medford, Oregon. He says any Mount Hood veteran should have known that a big storm can turn the peak into a death zone without warning. “When a storm like this hits, it hits fast,” he says. “You’re not just dealing with something that’s heading from point A to point B. Things are actually developing over your mountain.”
As dawn approached, the conditions and visibility were still fairly mild. But a few people began to have second thoughts about pushing on.
The first to head down were Hilary and Sharon Spray. Hilary, who’s now a musician, had a stomach ache and didn’t feel fit enough to complete the climb, though she was urged to keep going. “I was the first person to turn back,” she says. “I did experience pressure from the leaders to continue. Tom Goman pressured the kids. We all assumed he knew what was best. I knew that what was best for me was to turn around and leave.”
“The winds at the top of the Palmer chair lift were 103 miles per hour,” says Mark Kelsey, a Mount Hood search and rescue veteran. Winds of 103 qualify as a Category 2 hurricane.
During media coverage of the climb’s tenth anniversary, Sharon talked about a moment she never forgot: the sight of the other climbers walking away, heading upward, the sounds of their movement growing fainter with each passing step.
At Silcox Hut, a warming station at 7,000 feet, two more students wavered. Lorca Smetana, suffering from cramps, told Goman she was in pain and asked him if he needed her to stay. He didn’t. From Silcox, the route down is easy to follow, even in foul weather. Smetana returned to the lodge with another climber, Courtney Boatsman.
Two more climbers turned back after that. At around 11:30 A.M., Dee Zduniak, suffering from mild snow blindness, decided she needed to head down, too. She left, by herself, and retraced the path to the base, whittling the group to 13.
On Sunday, May 18, three days after the group was finally found, Ralph Summers—the guide and a survivor—wrote a statement for the Clackamas County sheriff. In his account, which is one of the only first-person written records of the climb from someone who was there, Summers said that bad weather descended suddenly, in the two-hour period after Zduniak’s departure.
Goman thought the group could still summit and get down, however, so they pushed and pushed. As the weather worsened, Summers began to question whether they should turn around. They didn’t.
Finally, at roughly 2 P.M., with everyone above 11,000 feet and winds blowing hard, Summers was able to convince Goman to change his mind. Summers had gone ahead alone, 30 or 40 feet, and seen that the conditions were simply too precarious.
“When the distance between us increased to the limit of visibility, I decided to go back to the group,” Summers wrote. “I told Tom that I thought we should get out of there. … I told him to go to the front of the group and make sure they stayed in our tracks.”
But by then it was too late. The storm, howling in from the Pacific, had arrived.
Even in the deteriorating weather, there was a direct path down the mountain—in theory, at least.
But nothing that day was normal or linear. The first complicating factor emerged when 15-year-old Patrick McGinness—the youngest climber—started struggling in the cold. A sweet, respectful boy with a dimpled smile and a lean runner’s body, McGinness lacked insulating fat. Around 3:30 P.M., his speech slurred. He staggered and toppled over, wanting only to go to sleep.
At this point, the group had descended several hundred feet and were clustered just below the Hogsback. On a clear day, the climbers would have been easy to see from Timberline Lodge—black dots on Hood’s bright surface. But visibility was now between 20 and 30 feet.
Conditions like this can induce vertigo. It’s impossible to differentiate ground from sky, and when you take a step, you don’t know where your foot will land.
Given all that, what happened next was nothing less than heroic, illustrating the best of the Basecamp ideals. The students huddled around McGinness, placing him in the group’s only sleeping bag. Susan McClave, a senior and an experienced climber, took off her jacket and boots and crawled inside to warm him up. This action cost her just a few fractions of a degree of body heat, but they were fractions she’d never recover.
While this was going on, Summers fumbled with the controls of his field stove, igniting the burner and boiling water, into which he dissolved two lemon drops. He gave the container to an athletic 15-year-old named Giles Thompson. Summers took McGinness’s temperature, and then McGinness drank 12 precious ounces of hot, sugary carbohydrates.
The rewarming process helped, but it ate up time. Roughly an hour passed before the group got going again, led now by Summers and McClave, who stepped into a leadership role when leadership was most urgently needed. According to Summers’s statement, Goman overcorrected the course to avoid a canyon, setting a compass to a heading that was 20 degrees off course and passing it to her near the front of the line.
It’s also possible that Goman was having cognitive problems by this point. “We can only speculate,” said the American Alpine Club's summary of Williamson's investigation, “that there was the strong possibility that fatigue and the cold were affecting him adversely at a much earlier state than others in the group had become aware.”
Whatever the reason, the climbers were moving almost directly sideways, across the face of the mountain, instead of down. As they proceeded, Summers noticed a crack in the snow and grew worried: he thought they might be crossing an area called White River Glacier.
Under any circumstances, crossing a glacier is dangerous, because its crevasses are not always visible. In a blizzard, blowing snow undergoes a process called mechanical hardening, meaning it can accumulate in caps—or bridges—over empty space. These bridges can collapse when you step on them.
Summers’s post-climb statement describes what he did next. (The emphasis is his.) “I reminded the group to FOLLOW MY FOOTSTEPS,” he wrote, “and DO NOT STEP ON THE CRACK.”
By this point, visibility was less than ten feet, and winds were getting stronger. After leading the group past the crack, Summers moved ahead. Before long, he felt his foot go over an edge abruptly. Then he saw another crevasse, which looked to be 30 feet deep. It was around 7 p.m.
“Considering the late hour,” Summers wrote, “and the fact that we had one student that could not walk unassisted, and not knowing our exact location, and finding ourselves on a glacier with at least one large crevasse, I considered it was our best option to dig in. … I started digging a snow cave.”
They weren’t on the glacier but were near its edge, at an altitude of 8,200 feet.
In the early hours of Tuesday, May 13, Mark Kelsey’s phone rang: there was trouble on Mount Hood, involving student climbers who were due back and hadn’t been seen. Within a few hours, he headed out to join other members of a group called Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR). They showed up at the base of Mount Hood, in the middle of the storm, carrying their gear in a blue and white Suburban that practically dragged its muffler on the pavement as it moved along. The PMR team reached Timberline at 5:21 A.M. In records of the search operation kept by the Clackamas County sheriff’s office, Kelsey is listed as the second member of what became Rescue Team 1.
A tall, athletic man with a shaved head, Kelsey, now 68, has a tattoo on his left forearm: inky black numbers and letters—N45°22’25”, W121°41’45”—that are the longitude and latitude coordinates for the summit of Mount Hood, a place he describes as “pretty much my temple.”
Kelsey spent 17 years as a PMR volunteer. He estimates that he’s summited Hood at least 460 times, and he says the weather on May 13, 1986, remains the worst he’s ever seen while on a search. “In my whole climbing career, I never got frostbite except for that day,” he says. “The first day of the rescue, the winds at the top of the Palmer chair lift were 103 miles per hour.”
Winds of 103 qualify as a Category 2 hurricane. It was immediately clear that the rescuers, just by stepping outside in the maelstrom, would be risking their lives.
“You can’t even stand up in 100-mile-per-hour winds,” says Matt Zaffino, the KGW meteorologist and a climber who has summited Mount Hood twice. “If you do move, you can’t even see where you’re going. With blowing snow, you have zero visibility. Those are really, really dangerous conditions.”
Four feet of snow had accumulated in 24 hours. The mouth of the cave was effectively sealed. Three students were outside; eight people were in—buried now, deep under the snow.
The rescuers, both men and women, came out anyway: the sheriff’s log records a wave of arrivals. First was PMR, at 5:21. At 8:53 came the ground crew from the 304th recovery squadron, a unit of Air Force pararescuers. Throughout the morning other teams arrived, with some people bringing Tucker Sno-Cats—big, bulky all-terrain vehicles that weighed more than two tons each. The sheriff’s office established a staging area and sent searchers out into the weather.
They found nothing. They had no idea, after all, where to look, since the whiteout meant helicopters couldn’t fly. Searching through the worst of the storm—covering a vast, snow-blown area—the volunteers struggled to see or hear anything. The wind howled. Snow piled up. Visibility, for parts of the day, was less than an arm’s length. David McClure, the base operations chief for PMR, told a reporter at the time that “the severity of this storm was certainly one of the worst this mountain has ever encountered.”
“People don’t understand the brutality of it,” says Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for the Oregonian who was among the first people to arrive at Timberline that day. “I remember one guy staggering into the staging area looking like the abominable snowman.”
During the initial day of searching, the winds were strong enough that they flipped over a Sno-Cat; after it was put back upright, a window popped out. And still the volunteers went out.
During a storm emergency, a snow cave can be a lifesaving shelter. After an exhausting day, Ralph Summers managed to dig one—with Goman’s assistance—in about an hour. When it was finished, the cave had floor space measuring roughly six feet by eight feet and was four feet high inside.
The students and adults got on their hands and knees and crawled into the compact space two at a time, passing through a three-foot entrance that would have run slightly uphill. They wedged their bodies through. Legs crossed over legs, arms jammed into the snow.
It quickly became clear that the cave was too small. It was big enough for six, but they were trying to fit in 13. It was claustrophobic inside, and the walls soon began to thaw from body heat. Snowmelt accumulated in a slushy trough on the cave floor; anybody in the middle ended up in a shallow pool of ice water. Terrified, the students struggled to breathe. “Everyone was panicking about air,” one of the survivors later said.
The students set up a rotation—they would take turns sitting outside in the gale-force winds. Goman, already shaking with cold, spent part of that first night outside the cave, fully exposed. “I remember him screaming,” Thompson told Hallman in 1996, in a tenth anniversary story for the Oregonian. “I remember that sound.”
As was true for the others, Thompson’s position inside the cave probably changed over the next three days, but he would end up near the entrance. Together with other students, he struggled to keep the cave mouth open. At some point during the night, the wind outside the cave entrance sucked away both the shovel and the sleeping bag. Without the shovel, the students had to try to keep the entrance clear with an ice ax and by moving in and out of the cave.
By first light on Tuesday morning, the situation had become untenable. As Hallman recounted in 1996, Summers asked Goman to count to ten and he was unable to. So Summers decided he had to leave, to try and get down and find rescuers. “The only chance to keep alive and to get help for the group was to strike out and keep walking,” he said in his statement.
Summers asked if anyone wanted to go with him. Molly Schula, one of the advanced climbers, volunteered. They got started and vanished into the whiteout.
As they descended, glissading down a steep slope, Schula saw the shovel—a critical piece of equipment for keeping the entrance open—lying on the snow. But if they’d turned around and taken it back up the hill, they might very well have died. Instead they trudged forward, step by step, still going in the wrong direction. A few hours later, by 9:50 A.M., they’d made it to the lodge of Mount Hood Meadows, a ski resort roughly two miles east of Timberline. They’d veered badly off course, but they’d somehow lucked into a different facility and were saved.
The 11 remaining climbers continued to lose ground, and the storm didn’t ease.
Inside, they waited, vacillating between hope and despair. The air was cold and damp. It must have been painful to breathe. And the cave opening was getting smaller as new snow kept coming in. “Simply stated,” the American Alpine Club’s summary said, “events for the next two days … involved a prolonged and valiant attempt on the part of the students to maintain the cave.”
The historical record—which includes dozens of news articles from 1986 and the years following—doesn’t provide a completely detailed picture of what transpired inside the cave during the worst hours, and perhaps that’s for the best. In a real sense, this was a sanctified space, and it should be respected as the place where four children and two adults died.
At one point—most likely on Tuesday night, the group’s second in the elements—Alison Litzenberger gathered her courage and went outside. The blizzard was still raging. The cave’s entrance was nearly sealed shut. But she was small; someone her size could still fit through it, clearing an air passage if the group was lucky. She moved into the maelstrom.
Both Erin O’Leary and Erik Sandvik followed her. Thompson has said that he remembers Sandvik trying to get back inside and trying to help him do so. But Sandvik couldn’t get more than a single boot back through the entrance.
Four feet of snow had accumulated in 24 hours, and at this point the mouth of the cave was effectively sealed. Three students were outside; eight people were in—buried now, deep under the snow.
The weather cleared on early Wednesday morning. Around 2 A.M., Mark Kelsey’s team rode in a Sno-Cat from Mount Hood Meadows up the side of the mountain. “They set us right on the nose of the glacier,” he says.
Exposed to the elements, whipped by the last gusts of the storm, Kelsey’s group sheltered in place for hours. After sunrise, at 5:45, they noticed two black dots on the flank of an area called White River Canyon.
They went over to investigate. What Kelsey saw next has never left him: two bodies, apparently lifeless, lying on the snow. “They were in the fetal position, one right above the other, the two at the bottom of the hill,” he says. “Not in a position like they’d fallen, but in a position where they’d curled to stay warm.” It was Alison Litzenberger and Erin O’Leary. Their body temperatures were in the forties.
Around this time, not far away, a different set of rescuers spotted a third body, that of Erik Sandvik. After trying fruitlessly to get back in through the opening of the cave, Sandvik had simply fallen on the snow. He was located almost directly on top of the rest of his friends.
Kelsey was his team’s navigator, responsible for the radio. So he called for a helicopter to come and collect the victims. He also looked at the positioning of the bodies and saw a clear fall line between them.
“We started probing up toward the third individual,” he says. They began moving steadily toward the location of the cave. “We were about 150 feet away, I think, with the avalanche probes.”
Back at the operations base, a helicopter from the 304th recovery squadron took off and headed up to where the students had been found. Though all three were probably dead already, for a lengthy period of time both law enforcement officials and members of the media had the mistaken impression that they might be alive.
Kelsey believes this happened because the helicopter radioed to base personnel that they should prepare warm oxygen—a standard treatment for hypothermia victims—generating a horrific false hope that circulated among the parents. But whether the misunderstanding really occurred for this reason is unclear.
The confusion was certainly real, though. In the sheriff’s radio log, a deputy named Dave Kennell records the initial mistake. “0554,” Kennell wrote. “Found Survivors.” Later, an officer named Gene Hanners described this period in the sheriff’s official search and rescue report.
“At 6:00 A.M., the command post was notified by the 304th Parajumpers that they had found three ‘survivors,’ ” he wrote. He told a deputy “to inform the parents of the lost climbers that they had found three survivors, however their condition was not known at the time.”
Hanners was unable to get an update on the climbers for close to three agonizing hours—when he finally met a 304th helicopter in a parking lot. “A PJ ran to us and told us that they had two ‘deltas’ for us,” he stated in the report. “His crew unloaded two bodies and placed them on the ground in front of us. I informed the PJ that I thought the climbers were alive and he reported that all three were dead.” The two deputies removed the gear from the cargo bed of a Toyota pickup and drove the bodies away.
Back on the mountain, Kelsey’s team was pulled off its line. The search was redirected after Summers went up in a helicopter to pinpoint the location of the cave, but reports differ on where he thought it was. Kelsey thinks he and his team must have been very close to the cave when they were moved, and that they may have been only a few feet away. “It was a perfect storm of mistakes,” he says.
Even 32 years later, Kelsey is overcome with emotion when he describes returning to the base at the end of that day’s search. “Listen, I’m going to tell you something… and I’m going to try and do this.” He pauses. “Because I still remember getting off that helicopter. And all of the parents start moving in toward us. Just these faces of hope. Of desperation… ‘Give us something, please.’ And to have to not say anything… That was tough. Because those people wanted…”
His voice trails away, and he shakes his head. “You just wanted to tell them, hold them, do something. But we weren’t allowed to. There was a procedure for that.”
By the end of the mission, volunteers would log 5,874 hours on the mountain. They’d come from alpine rescue groups all over Oregon and Washington—Corvallis Mountain Rescue, the Hood River Crag Rats, Alpine Ambulance, the Mazamas, Seattle Mountain Rescue. There were numerous firemen and law-enforcement officers, and volunteers from the Forest Service, the Mount Hood Snowmobile Club, the American Red Cross, and German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State.
Wednesday passed with no further developments. The weather finally cleared, but the damage was done. All sign of the climbers had been erased. “It was like the mountain had been wiped with a trowel,” a rescuer told me.
One person, a master sergeant named Richard Harder, firmly believed that it was still possible to find the climbers, and he had a hunch about where they were. Harder was a member of the 304th, which—together with a private company, Hillsboro Helicopters—flew 58 sorties that week, ferrying gear and rescuers up and down the mountain at altitudes as high as 9,200 feet. A tall, handsome service veteran, Harder had earned the nickname Bagger because his first 24 missions with the 304th had, unfortunately, ended without any live rescues.
According to a United Press International story published at the time, Bagger “was sure the search team was too high on the mountain and was wasting valuable time.” With David McClure on board, he jumped into the Huey and, at 8,200 feet, leaned through his side hatch and threw out a flare to mark where he thought the cave was. He radioed that this was where he believed the search should concentrate.
That met with resistance. “10:33. The Bagger put smoke down in area of probable search. Field OL feels that they’ve covered marked area thoroughly,” the radio log notes.
Later that afternoon, Bagger finally organized a group of searchers—among them Summers—and set up what was called a fine probe line. Starting at 8,500 feet, working about three feet apart, the rescuers moved slowly down the slope, pushing ten-foot avalanche poles into the snow. It was a last, desperate measure, and it worked. At 5:38 P.M.—just 22 minutes before the scheduled end of that day’s search—a 304th sergeant named Charlie Ek hit something solid. Frantically, everyone started digging.
Pierre Bustanoby of the Seattle Mountain Rescue Council describes the moment when the cave was located. “One of the PJs stuck his head down, smelled the void, and said it had a bad smell. This immediately told us we were on target, and moments later we heard moaning coming from the main cave.”
From inside the tiny space, lying just beneath Giles Thompson in the entrance, a student named Brinton Clark was visible. She was semiconscious and moaning. Admissions data at a hospital in Portland recorded her core temperature at 74.12.
Patrick McGinness’s core temperature was measured at 54 degrees. The other climbers’ temperatures were as low as 37.4. Clark and Thompson both survived, and one can only guess as to why.
Asked by Oregonian reporters why Thompson came through, a cardiac surgeon, Duane Bietz, said, “He had pretty good equipment on—a good pair of rubber pants, a good pair of wool pants.”
Helicopters rushed the victims into the city. At nearly every Portland-area medical institution—Emmanuel, Providence, Good Samaritan, St. Vincent, and Oregon Health and Sciences University—doctors did everything they could, with little success.
“You have to understand what a heroic effort this was,” says one physiologist. “These medical procedures demand massive resources. A single hospital rarely has the capacity to treat more than a few of these patients.”
Parent Richard Haeder Sr. emerged as the school’s most vocal critic. He called the expedition a “death march” and Basecamp a “disastrous killing program.”
During the first moments of Thompson’s treatment at Providence, he went into cardiac arrest. The surgeons opened his chest and massaged his heart by hand, triggering the resumption of its usual rhythm.
That May, June, and July, doctors fought valiantly to keep Thompson alive, but they couldn’t save his legs. During this period, Giles’s older brother, Ross—a senior at Oregon Episcopal—sat once in the little hospital room and at other times in the stairwell of the ICU and practiced scales on a classical guitar. His music would become, in an explicit sense, a form of healing.
“It’s all about vibration,” Ross says today. “I use a lot of minor keys. It’s great for the brain.” He offered the music as a kind of gift; it floated out toward his brother and the phalanx of doctors who’d installed themselves in his room.
In the wake of the disaster, predictably, inquiries and offers came flooding in from writers, publishers, and Hollywood. Some individuals—and even the school itself—cooperated with the basic needs of journalists working on deadline, but they shut the door on tabloids and movie deals.
“To profit from the pain of grieving families, the sadness of a school, and even the relief of other families is abhorrent,” said a statement issued by the Oregon Episcopal School. Mariann Koop, the school’s spokeswoman at the time, elaborated. “It’s repulsive. Our answer to all of them is no, period.”
One project briefly got traction, then stalled. Portland Mountain Rescue began working with Charles Fries, a veteran television producer who was known for a TV series called The Amazing Spider-Man. Months after news of a potential movie deal broke, in September 1986, some of the families who’d lost loved ones composed a written pact. “Acceptance of fees, royalties or other payments by either families, the school or any other organization is inappropriate,” it said. This was a nonbinding, self-policed prohibition. But the idea behind it—that telling your story might be destructive—lingered for many years.
There’s never been a movie about what happened. The only book that emerged was The Mountain Never Cries, a memoir written by Giles Thompson’s mother, Ann Holaday, in which she lamented the hunger for recrimination that seemed to preoccupy some people in the tragedy’s aftermath.
“Even at that critical time, all they wanted to hear was the emotional side and whom did I blame,” she wrote of the TV and newspaper reporters who covered the search. “They wanted me to point fingers—at whomever, at whatever. The school, the system, anything.”
A more important question remained: what to do about what had happened.
At graduation ceremonies in June 1986, Oregon Episcopal administrators chose to honor all the climb’s participants, including Susan McClave. She was cited for her leadership on the mountain, and she collected four posthumous awards, including the Alumni Award, an accolade given to the senior who most exemplified “academic accomplishment, demonstrated leadership, and loyalty.” Her ashes would later be interred on campus.
The school then commissioned an official inquest, convening a panel of climbing and hypothermia experts, including a well-known Oregon doctor named Cameron Bangs. The report, which was published in July 1986 in the Oregonian, assigned blame primarily to Goman, who failed to turn back in bad weather, striving beyond the point of common sense to get the students to the top. Parents reacted with a mix of anger, criticism, and understanding.
Susan McClave’s father, Donald, was notably reserved. “Hopefully we can get on with our lives,” he told the Associated Press. Later in the article, he added: “We will never know, any of us, for sure why [Goman] climbed as long as he did. But he was a fine man who never would have endangered his own life, let alone anyone else’s.”
Families of the seven students who died were offered settlements by the school’s insurer. The McGinness family took a different path, filing a wrongful-death lawsuit in September 1986. Fifteen months later, on December 7, 1987, Cecil Drinkward, the chairman of the Oregon Episcopal School board, filed an affidavit in Multnomah County Circuit Court, begging for the lawsuit to be postponed.
“This is now our Senior Class,” he wrote of the students who had been tenth-graders in 1986. “To hold what I am sure will be a well-publicized trial in the last three months of their senior year will require those students to relive the trauma again at a time when they should be allowed to have the normal teenage experiences which come with high school graduation.”
The judge ultimately scheduled the trial’s opening statements for late June in 1988, just after graduation. Forty-eight hours before the first court date, the opposing parties were able to negotiate a settlement.
One family persisted, however. In a two-year period after the climb, Richard Haeder Sr. had emerged as the school’s most vocal critic. He called the expedition a “death march” and Basecamp a “disastrous killing program.” He and his wife, Judith, demanded $2.76 million in damages, claiming negligence on the part of the school and guide Ralph Summers.
During one deposition, Judith Haeder had a tense exchange with an attorney named Mark Wagner, a Vietnam veteran who was representing the school. He asked about her and her husband’s motivations for bringing the lawsuit and whether she was being overprotective of her kids.
“I don’t think I’m overprotective, but I think I’m more cautious,” she said. “I think I’m—have you ever lost a son?”
“I’ve never sued anybody for $3 million. That’s not the question.”
“Well, anyway, if you had, you would know—”
“Well, I’ve lost more people than you would ever know in Vietnam.”
“That’s not the same.”
The jury found Summers not liable and found Oregon Episcopal negligent, awarding the Haeders a smaller amount—$500,000—than they had sought.
After the trial, Summers moved away from Portland. He rarely spoke to the media. He earned a master’s degree in social work, and spent over two decades as a mental-health manager for the State of Oregon. Today he lives in White Salmon, Washington, a small town of 2,500 located on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River. It’s a place known regionally for its breathtaking view of Mount Hood.
Master Sergeant Richard Harder died of a heart attack in 1996, at 44. His grave, at Willamette National Cemetery, in Portland, displays his name and rank, the two wars in which he served, and then—on either side of the Air Force crest—the words Our Hero. The Bagger.
As the years went by, survivors and families of the deceased found different ways to interpret and understand the disaster on Mount Hood.
Like other teenagers involved in or touched by the tragedy, Brinton Clark built her life around trying to heal others. After graduating from Oregon Episcopal, she went to Stanford, then spent two years in Ghana with the Peace Corps. She returned to attend medical school in San Francisco. In 2005, she became an internist and teaching doctor in Portland.
(Clark declined to speak on the record about the events of 1986, as did officials from Oregon Episcopal School.)
Lorca Smetana, who left the climb before the storm hit, became a human-resilience counselor and teaches at Montana State University. “It’s been my work ever since Mount Hood to somehow claim joy along with the pain,” she says. “Returning always to compassion, to resilience, arriving at peace by repairing, adapting, doing the work. And I will be remembered now more for joy and compassion than for tragedy.”
Starting in 1988, Christine McClave, Susan’s mother, trained to be a volunteer facilitator at a small nonprofit called the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families. At the time of her arrival, the center was housed in a tiny rented house on the campus of Warner Pacific University.
“She was a pillar of our community,” says Donna Schuurman, the center’s former CEO and executive director. “She did it all.” Last spring, the day before the center honored her three decades of work, McClave suffered an aneurysm that later took her life.
Over the past three decades, places like the Dougy Center have been trying to transform the way grief is treated, to break our culture’s deep social prohibitions about discussing death. “Society has this idea that grief goes away or eventually you recover,” Schuurman says. “But grief doesn’t go away. Period. It changes your life forever, and you have to accommodate to a new reality.”
Mar Goman—Tom’s widow—agrees. “At the time, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever survive. I never thought my life would be good again. But I now see grief as a transformative part of living.”
Goman believes she was able to heal from the events of 1986, ultimately, because of the love of her current partner, Virginia. “My sexuality caused a schism with the church,” she says. “But I feel like I have been loved, unconditionally, twice in my life. Once, by Tom, for 18 years. And now a second time, for 30 years, by a woman. Both of these loves are an immense gift. But one came out of a great and tragic loss.”
“It was difficult to go back,” Ross Thompson says of returning to Oregon Episcopal for Service Day. “I had so much anger, so much rage. But, going back, I expressed my anger.”
This echoes what Amy Horwell—the daughter of former dean Marion Horwell—believes. In 1986, she was just 12, and her mom was raising her alone. There could be no larger disruption, no more significant trauma, than a loss like this.
“I very much believe that trauma is not something to ‘get over’ but needs integrating into one’s sense of self and worldview,” Horwell told me in an e-mail she sent from Southend-on-Sea, England, where she works as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma.
Horwell moved to England to live with her father after her mother’s death. Reflecting on her own path since then, she was unequivocal. “I think my experience of traumatic loss hugely influenced and informed my professional development, my choice of career, my identity as a psychologist and psychotherapist,” she writes. “Of course, the loss of my mother was not an event that occurred in isolation, and it had significant repercussions in terms of subsequent losses.”
She continued, “It made me realize just how much loss historically has been a part of my life and how much it has defined my identity—and I wanted to do something with that.”
It's later in the morning on Mount Hood Climb Service Day, and kids in first through fifth grade from the Lower School have gathered in the chapel. Phillip Craig, the school’s chaplain, stands in front of the altar.
Service Day is about listening, remembering, and doing. In an hour, my son and daughter will depart for the Oregon Food Bank. Each second-grader, on this morning, will prepare 41 pounds of food for distribution in the Portland area.
First, however, the students listen to Craig explain the meaning of their day of service. He stands near the front row, holding a wireless microphone in one hand.
“We do take a chance … every single year before Mount Hood Climb Service Day, to remember the story of the Mount Hood climb,” he says softly. “When we’re finished with the story, we’re going to ring a bell. And I’d like to invite you, for just a minute, to sit in silence, and to think about what we might learn from this story that we hear, each and every year. And after that we’ll sing a song.”
“A story can be like a candle, shining in the dark,” he continues. “It can light up a path in front of us, so we know where to go. It can help us search out the truth. It can light up the faces of all those around us. And it can remind us that we are never alone. Today, we are going to hear a story that is part of our OES family story. Some of you may have heard it before, some might be hearing it for the very first time, but it is a story we hear each year. And it happened over 30 years ago. And it is true.”
Earlier that day there was another service, held in a small chapel that’s tucked behind the main altar of the church. Giles Thompson was there. He arrived just as the mass began and sat beside his brother in the last of the four rows. The service was short and simple, a remembrance of the victims.
As we knelt for communion, I noticed the ease with which Thompson, who has worked for years as a theater technician in Seattle, lowered himself to the padded railing. His prosthetic legs, a bright and intricate metalwork, were visible beneath the hem of his cargo shorts.
Afterward, he was mobbed by eighth-graders. They stood around him in a tight cluster, wanting to talk to him, wanting to hear his account of the climb and the things he’d endured. Later, he would speak to those same students—with his brother—telling them what the tragedy meant at the time and what it means today.
“It’s raw,” Ross Thompson told me later. “It was difficult to go back. I had so much anger, so much rage. But, going back, I expressed my anger. Father Craig was deeply helpful. He was able to listen to us.”
Over the past 32 years, there has never been another Oregon Episcopal–sponsored student expedition to climb Mount Hood. Before its inquest, the school suspended the Basecamp program.
As the years passed, one student from the school—Patrick Lamb—remained particularly haunted by the climb. In the spring of 1986, Lamb was a sophomore at Oregon Episcopal; he’d trained all year with the climbing group. Two days before the trip, he sprained his ankle playing soccer and wasn’t able to go.
In 1999, Lamb returned to Mount Hood. He took a string of Tibetan prayer flags and a short invocation written on a laminated piece of paper, and he left both items at the summit. “Leaving a prayer for eternal healing and acceptance of what we cannot understand,” the text read, “for all those impacted by the OES climb of Mt. Hood May of 1986.” Lamb is aware that his loss—though deep—was not commensurate with the loss of a child or a sibling or a parent or a spouse. But his grief was enormous.
“I’ve cried limitless tears,” he says. “And I think it’s really interesting that I’m able to talk about it now. You know, you’d think that just because you get older it’s going to dim, or that you could get over it. I disagree. I think it stays right in front of you until you deal with it. I mean, if you don’t face it—don’t look right at it—well, then you’ll never be at peace.”
Pauls Toutonghi has written for The New Yorker, Granta, and other publications. He teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland.