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Portland Mountain Rescue joined and then coordinated a massive rescue effort on Oregon’s Mount Hood on May 30 after nine climbers fell into the Bergschrund crevasse and a helicopter crashed during the subsequent rescue mission.
The nine climbers were swept into a 50-foot wide and 20-foot deep crevasse, known as the Bergschrund, early in the morning. Three of the victims were killed and four more were critically injured.
At 1:52 PM, in the midst of the rescue mission, a Pave Hawk helicopter from the 304th Rescue Squadron of the Air Force Reserve Command’s 939th Rescue Wing crashed while attempting to airlift one of the critically injured climbers. The chopper lost lift, dipped to the Southwest, impacted nose first into the mountain and rolled eight times down into the mountain’s crater. The accident injured the five crewmembers on board at the time – one seriously – but, amazingly, no one was killed. The cause of the helicopter accident is still under investigation.
Many believe that the strong skills of the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) pilot saved the many rescuers standing directly below the helicopter, as he skillfully flew the Pave Hawk down and away from the crevasse. During the chopper’s barrel rolls into the crater, the pilot and co-pilot remained strapped in and basically uninjured. However, the helicopter ejected and rolled over at least two crewmembers, injuring them but miraculously not killing them. The soft snow no doubt cushioned the men as the massive aircraft moved over them.
Two local television station helicopters captured the horrific incident live and the footage was broadcast worldwide for many days. Multiple satellite TV trucks assembled in the Timberline Lodge parking lot at Mount Hood and several victims and rescuers were interviewed in the days following May 30th. PMR’s Steve Rollins, the rescue leader that day, granted countless interviews and Rollins and PMR’s Matt Weaver appeared on ABC News Nightline the day after the tragedy. National magazines, such as National Geographic Adventure, Climbing and People, featured stories on the incident, including PMR photos from the scene.
The climbing accident happened just before 9:00 AM, when snow conditions on the upper portion of 11,239-foot mountain were still firm and relatively icy. The exact cause of the fall may never be known, but it appears that a member of a 4-person climbing party fell during their descent somewhere near the Pearly Gates (about 11,000 feet) and began sliding rapidly down the mountain. All four climbers in the rope team were pulled down and began rapidly sliding toward two other climbing parties.
The four people knocked a two-person party off their feet and the six person mass struck the last person in an ascending 3-person rope team. Ultimately, all nine people from the three rope teams were swept into the Bergschrund crevasse at an elevation of 10,700 feet. Three of the climbers – two from the first group and one from the second group – sustained fatal injuries. Four more were critically injured and two others were relatively unhurt.
At 8:58 am, a nearby climber, who happened to be a local firefighter and the father of one of the uninjured victims, made a 9-1-1 call to the Clackamas County Sheriff. The Sheriff immediately called in PMR, as well as American Medical Response (AMR) and the military. Helicopters from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 304th Rescue Squadron and the Oregon National Guard’s 1042nd Air Ambulance Unit responded to the mountain and participated in the multiple airlifts.
Just after the accident, several nearby climbers helped to haul the surviving victims out of the icy crevasse. Fortunately, several of the impromptu rescuers were firefighters or doctors, so the injured received excellent initial care prior to the arrival of mountain rescue professionals.
Five members of the AMR Reach and Treat (RAT) team were the first organized team on scene and began administering medical care to the injured climbers. A member of the Mount Hood Pro Ski Patrol joined the rescue shortly thereafter. At 1:15 PM, a 5-person “hasty” team from Portland Mountain Rescue reached the accident site, just after the Oregon National Guard air lifted the most critically injured survivor. The PMR team stationed two rescuers at the bottom of the Hogsback with one of the critically injured victims and three at the edge of the Bergschrund with the remaining patients. Amazingly, the climber at the bottom of the Hogsback helped to extricate other victims from the crevasse before descending 300 vertical feet and succumbing to shock from his injuries.
About 1:30 PM, the Oregon National Guard evacuated a second victim from the edge of the crevasse. About 20 minutes later, the Air Force Reserve Command’s Pave Hawk helicopter flew in to air lift the third critical patient, but disaster struck. Fortunately, just before the helicopter began to lose altitude, an Air Force crewman cut the winch cable attached to the rescue litter, avoiding injury to the rescuers and further injury to the victim as the helicopter went down.
Immediately following the crash, PMR’s Steve Rollins took control of the on scene incident command and quickly brought order to a chaotic situation. PMR rescuers, AMR RAT team paramedics and several others assessed the injured helicopter crewmembers. After stabilizing the five new victims, the rescuers went back to work on preparing the two remaining critically injured climbers for helicopter evacuation.
At 3:25 PM, with the first Pave Hawk unavailable, an Oregon National Guard helicopter air lifted the injured climber at the bottom of the Hogsback. A short time later, another National Guard chopper extricated the final patient, a Portland-area firefighter, from the edge of the Bergschrund.
Though one of the injured Air Force reservists was skied off the mountain, the most seriously injured pararescue jumper (PJ) required an airlift. Around 4:00 PM, a second AFRC Pave Hawk landed its wheels on the bottom portion of the Hogsback to evacuate the PJ. PMR and AMR rescue workers hot loaded the patient directly into the side of the helicopter and the aircraft flew off without incident.
By 4:30 PM, all survivors had been evacuated or descended from the mountain, so the PMR team, bolstered by the arrival of 13 more rescuers, began recovery efforts on the three deceased climbers still inside the Bergschrund. PMR specializes in technical rescues, such as crevasse extraction, and two of the three victims were brought off the mountain late that evening. Darkness prevented the removal of the third fatally injured climber until the following day, so the highly trained 304th Rescue Squadron performed that recovery the following day.
USDA Forest Service officials closed the upper portion of Mount Hood for a week in order to investigate the crash scene and allow the removal of the Pave Hawk wreckage. About a week after the crash, the Air Force Reserve Command brought in a dual rotor Chinook helicopter from Pendleton, Oregon to air lift the Pave Hawk from the mountain crater. The Chinook can easily operate at altitudes well above Mount Hood’s 11,239-foot summit.
This was one of the worst climbing accidents and one of the largest rescue efforts in the history of the peak. It was also the first time a helicopter has crashed during a mission there.
Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest peak, is the second most climbed mountain in the world, next to Japan’s Mount Fuji. An estimated 10,000 people per year register to scale the peak (though some do climb without registering). Unfortunately, Mount Hood does have a history of deaths and injuries, with over 100 killed on its slopes in the past 100 years. The peak is accessible from a short 90 minute drive from Portland and many novice climbers attempt climbs during the May and June “busy season”. Though most of the climbers involved on May 30th were veteran climbers, lack of experience, along with other factors like improper training and poor equipment are common causes of mountaineering accidents.
Mount Hood has many crevassed glaciers and can be quite hazardous, despite the high volume of successful climbs each year.