Three Climbers Fall from Coalman Headwall
January 31, 2015
January 31, 2015 was a beautiful clear day on Mt. Hood and many climbers headed for the summit. Portland Mountain Rescue fielded two ready teams that day. The first team left Timberline Lodge at 6:30 a.m. headed for the summit. The second team left the lodge area around 9:00 a.m. for training lower on the mountain.
Around 10:30 that morning, the first team was in the upper crater area. One member was descending from the summit, while the other three were on the Hogsback doing outreach with a dozen or more climbers resting there. High on the Coalman Headwall, someone yelled “falling!” and the team witnessed a couple sliding together from the Mazama Chute. One had fallen and slid into their partner; then the rope pulled the second down. Apparently, the rope was not anchored. As they fell roped together, the couple narrowly missed the one rescuer and a couple of other climbers. They slid and tumbled 450 to 500 feet to the bottom of the crater near Hot Rocks.
The PMR members on the Hogsback, together with several other climbers, rushed to their aid. Both climbers were conscious but appeared to be critically injured. PMR assessed their injuries and set about stabilizing the situation, by warming them and attending to their injuries. The first PMR team contacted the team lower on the mountain and requested them to alert the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and to retrieve litters, medical supplies, ropes and other gear from the PMR cache to package and transport the patients. Fortuitously, two more PMR members who were on a personal climb also arrived at the scene and helped care for the patients.
Patient care was immediately complicated by their location, which was the bottom of the funnel-shaped crater where ice and rock fall concentrate. As the sun warmed the cliffs at the top of the headwall, debris whizzed into the area creating a serious hazard. PMR asked volunteer climbers to form a wall above the patients. Using their packs as shields, a dozen or more volunteers deflected ice and rocks away from the patients and rescuers attending them. They kept up this vigil for six hours.
Approximately an hour after the couple fell, a third climber fell from a similar location high on the headwall in full view of all the rescuers. Apparently, he was having trouble with one crampon and lost his footing. This subject attempted to self-arrest and did initially slow his acceleration down the headwall. However, he lost purchase with the axe and picked up speed. He tumbled and slid down the headwall in the general direction of the first two patients. Near the bottom of the crater, he flew into the air and landed in a fumarole that had melted a large hole in the snow.
Members of the PMR team and several volunteer climbers quickly set up a rope system at the mouth of the fumarole and belayed a rescuer into the hole. He found the subject conscious and able to assist with his own extraction. The rescuer fitted a harness to the patient and the team above helped both patient and rescuer back to the surface. This patient was bruised and scraped but ambulatory.
PMR provided food, water and warming; after some rest, the patient believed he could walk down with assistance. One PMR rescuer and the patient’s climbing partner assisted him to the Hogsback. The patient was kept on a roped belay from the Hogsback around Crater Rock. He walked from there to the top of the Palmer lift where a Timberline snow cat picked him up and transported him to medics at Timberline Lodge.
Meanwhile, the deputy in charge of the mission called for additional resources. Ultimately, a total of 18 PMR members responded to Timberline, along with five rescuers from Crag Rats and three from Timberline Pro Ski Patrol, all of whom carried gear up the mountain. AMR’s Reach and Treat Team also responded and assumed responsibility for medical care at the scene around 3:00 p.m. Mountain Wave provided communications support, which was sometimes challenging from the location of the patients in the crater.
The deputy requested a helicopter evacuation from the Army National Guard. Due to uncertainty about whether the helicopter would be able to hoist the patients from the Hot Rocks area, PMR moved them to a known landing zone on the other side of the Hogsback in Devils Kitchen. The patients were packaged in litters with full-body vacuum splints. The patients in the litters were raised by rope bely and attendants to the top of the Hogsback and then lowered from there down to Devils Kitchen. Around 4:00 p.m. the helicopter arrived, and the patients were loaded aboard for transport to Emanuel Hospital in Portland.
Rescuers repacked their gear and headed down the mountain, mostly in the dark. All team were out of the field around 6:30 p.m.
This mission with its two dramatic falls witnessed by many climbers is a harsh reminder that Mt. Hood is a serious climb even on a nice day with relatively good climbing conditions. PMR urges climbers to make sure they have the requisite climbing skills or are guided by a qualified guide who can ensure their safety. When climbing steep terrain roped together, climbers should either be setting adequate protection to hold a fall or using a belay (boot-axe or better); otherwise a falling climber can easily pull off their entire rope team. The majority of climbing accidents occur on the descent when climbers are fatigued; good crampon technique is also a bit less instinctive on the descent. When roped on the descent, the strongest climber most competent to hold a fall should go last, and there should be no slack in the rope.
This mission drew considerable media coverage. Here are some highlights:
KGW report with focus on Army Nation Guard:
KOIN report with interview of Erik Broms:
Good Morning America piece with interview of volunteer rescuer: