Three Climbers Lost in White River Canyon
Sunday, February 18, 2007

At 12:30pm on Sunday, February 18, 2007 the Clackamas County Sheriff paged Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) to assist in the search for three missing climbers.  The subjects had been part of a larger group of eight when the three and their dog fell down a steep slope into the White River Canyon.  White-out conditions and high winds prevailed at the time.  The five subjects that did not fall called for help with a cell phone and were able to provide GPS coordinates of their location.  Both subject parties had Mountain Locator Units (MLUs) and both parties activated them.  MLUs, a technology used exclusively on Mount Hood, send out a locating signal but do not send any alerting signal to initiate a search.

Mt. Hood from the south
Mt Hood from the south

A small team of four PMR personnel and four emergency medical technicians from American Medical Response (AMR) made their way to the group of five subjects by 5pm. These subjects had dug a snow cave at the 8200 foot level, close to the edge of the White River Canyon. Two members of the AMR team accompanied these subjects back to Timberline Lodge.

The remaining members of the rescue team descended about 450 feet into the White River Canyon but were unable to locate the fallen climbers. Nightfall and worsening avalanche hazard and weather conditions (including wind gusts over 70mph) forced the team to retreat.

Meanwhile, a team of rescuers from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 304th Rescue Squadron attempted to reach the subjects by climbing up from the White River Bridge on Highway 35. This team reached an elevation of 6300 feet on the west rim of the canyon and was forced to bivouac for the night. Another team of volunteer rescuers, the Crag Rats, from Hood River, Oregon ascended to the 7000 foot level on Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area to take a MLU bearing and help pinpoint the fallen party. A volunteer group known as Mountain Wave assisted everyone with communications. Volunteer teams from Eugene Mountain Rescue and Corvallis Mountain Rescue arrived to assist as well as Deschutes County Sheriff’s SAR members and Hood River County Sheriff Department.

At first light, PMR fielded a new team that rendezvoused with the team that had bivouacked at 6300 feet. The PMR team then descended into and proceeded up the White River Canyon and located the three subjects and their dog with the MLU. Contact with the missing climbers was made at 10:30am. The subjects were wet and cold and in a very windy, exposed location at 7400 feet elevation. After the initial fall, the subjects had traveled down slope for approximately 40 minutes before huddling together with their dog near a boulder. They also made use of two sleeping bags and a small tarp for protection against the elements. The rescuers gave the three food, water and additional clothing prior to leading them down the White River Canyon toward Highway 35. Approximately one mile before reaching the highway, they were met by a snow cat and all were delivered safely to White River Sno-park around 4:00 PM on Monday.

High winds and whiteout conditions make alpine navigation very difficult. It is important for any party to consider that even using tools like a compass or GPS may be quite difficult in severe weather. Predicted changes in the weather should be given weighty consideration when contemplating an alpine adventure.