Mount Hood tops out at a benign 11,240 feet, less than half the height of Everest. It's an hour's drive from Portland and has no regulations as to how climbers negotiate routes on the popular south face. Up to 10,000 people flock there annually, and Hood's accessibility—"People can just drive up and start climbing," says firefighter and veteran climber Jeff Pierce—is a big reason it has claimed 31 lives in the past two decades. That toll includes the fatalities of last Thursday, when three climbers and a rescue helicopter met their end in a frightening sequence, much of which was broadcast live on TV.
The incident showed that often even experienced climbers can do little to help themselves. Pierce has summited Hood a dozen times, and he arranged last week's climb up the south face for five firefighting colleagues, one of whom, Cleve Joiner, brought his son, Cole, 14. Pierce, Cole and Jeremiah Moffitt were on the same rope, traversing a glacial crevasse when a rope party of four ahead of them lost its footing and began tumbling backward. Picking up speed, the climbers took out a party of two. "They were all tumbling, tangled up in one big ball," says Chad Hashbarger, who was in Pierce's group but had not begun to cross the crevasse.
Within seconds Pierce, Cole and Moffitt were swept into the crevasse along with the six others. All nine came to rest on or near a ledge about 15 feet below the surface. Pierce had a punctured left calf, Moffitt had a concussion and deep bruises, and Cole was unhurt Three others were killed: John Biggs of Windsor, Calif., and William Ward and Richard Read of Forest Grove, Ore. They had hit the lip of the crevasse, an unyielding ice wall, at high speed. Dennis Butler, also in Pierce's group, says, "You wouldn't drive a car as fast as they were going."
By the time rescue squads arrived, the survivors had made it out of the crevasse. Two of the injured were choppered away, and another helicopter was set to airlift Moffitt when it inexplicably lost power and tumbled 1,000 feet down the slope. Flight engineer Martin Mills was thrown from the copter, which rolled over him three times; he's in stable condition. Others in the chopper had minor injuries.
As happens after all climbing tragedies, people wonder what could have been done to avoid it. For Pierce and his party, the answer is, not much. "When you're in the backcountry, things outside your control happen," says Pierce. And when the back-country is as busy as Hood's, one party's problems can fast become another's.