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From the Print Edition, September 2002
The Slipping Point
Disaster on Mount Hood
By Laurence Gonzales

May 30, 2002, was a perfect day on Mount Hood, until a single missed step by one climber set off a chain reaction that grew into the worst American climbing disaster in years. We examine what went wrong—and profile the heroes of Mount Hood.

Steve Boyer rode the Palmer chairlift, carrying his skis, poles, and an ice ax, on his way up Oregon's Mount Hood on Thursday morning, May 30. He reached the top of the lift at about 8:45. It was a beautiful day, hardly a cloud in the sky. There'd be a lot of climbers up there.

A small man with a gray-streaked beard and professor's spectacles, Boyer looks more like a high school math teacher than a mountaineer who has summitted Annapurna and attempted Everest and K2. An emergency room physician with a master's degree in geology, Boyer, 55, has been climbing Hood once a month for the past several years, photographing the glaciers and documenting the way they change over time.

The standard route up Mount Hood's south face takes most climbers from four to eight hours. Boyer holds the record of 1:32 from the lodge to the summit.

Just before nine o'clock, Boyer set down his ice ax and ski poles, lifted his digital camera, and shot a frame of the entire mountain. Then he zoomed in on the summit and caught the group of climbers below it. Near the top, the standard route follows an elegant ridge of snow known as the Hogsback, which is split about halfway up by a dramatic horizontal crevasse, or bergschrund.

Boyer made a mental note to go around to the right side of the crevasse on such a crowded day. That way he'd be out of the fall line if anyone slipped from above.

He dropped his gaze to the snow. It was unusually icy. "I don't generally put on my crampons until I reach the Hogsback," he says. "But that day, for the first time, I put them on below 9,000 feet [2,743 meters]." Moments later, Boyer looked up again at the summit. Though he didn't notice it at the time, the line of climbers he'd just seen had disappeared. The entire upper Hogsback was empty.

Tom Hillman and John Biggs had just come one mountain closer to their goal of climbing the highest point in each of the 50 states. The two men had met several years earlier at the Windsor Community United Methodist Church in Windsor, California, where Hillman, 45, is the co-pastor and Biggs, a 62-year-old retired airline pilot, was a parishioner. Soon they were taking frequent hiking and climbing trips together: Yosemite, the Sierras, Montana, Wyoming.

Like many climbers on Hood's standard route, they had started in the middle of the night with a snowcat ride to the top of the ski area. They made steady progress and reached the summit just before 8 a.m. "We could see Rainier and Saint Helens one way, and the Three Sisters the other," Hillman says.

Now they were headed down, connected to each other by 50 feet [15 meters] of rope. They were passing through the band of ice-encrusted rocks known as the Pearly Gates, the steepest part of the climb, when Biggs suddenly slipped. Without hesitating, he gripped his ice ax across his chest and rolled onto it, digging the pick into the icy snow to stop the fall. It was a perfect self-arrest. Gingerly he got back to his feet, and the two men started down the Hogsback ridge.

Just behind them was a party of four. Harry Slutter, a New York-based sales representative with the Hines Nursery, led the group. Next on the rope was his friend Chris Kern, an investigator for the New York appellate court. Slutter, 43, and Kern, 40, were frequent climbing partners and were particularly proud of their winter ascents of New Hampshire's Mount Washington.

Slutter's friend Bill Ward, 49, was last on the rope. Ward, an experienced mountaineer who had climbed Hood before, worked at the Hines Nursery branch in Forest Grove, Oregon, which Slutter often visited on business. The two men had known each other for five years, but this was their first climb together. Ward's friend Rick Read, from Forest Grove, was the only novice in the group.

Slutter's team had met up with Hillman and Biggs during the ascent, and the men had all snapped pictures of one another on the summit. They'd talked about meeting for lunch once they got down. "It was such a glorious morning," Slutter recalls. "We were joking around up there for half an hour."

By 8:45, Slutter's group had passed through the Pearly Gates and halted on a natural shelf just above the Hogsback, where they drove the shaft of an ice ax into the snow as an anchor. The first three climbers left the shelf one at a time, each belayed by those above, until they were stretched out down the narrow ridge like beads on a string.

The four men were each tied 35 feet [11 meters] apart on a nine-millimeter [0.35-inch] rope. Slutter, who was leading the descent, could see Biggs and Hillman just 50 feet [15 meters] below him. Ward was the last to leave; he pulled his anchor and started down. Now no one was attached to the mountain. But the rope still bound them together.

The team had gone only a few feet [approximately one meter] when Slutter looked over his right shoulder and saw something coming down the slope. Maybe it was Ward, at the top of the rope, or Read, who was next in line, but whoever had slipped would have had only a second or two to arrest his fall. In theory, when one member of a rope team falls, all the climbers throw themselves into the self-arrest position and collectively stop the plunge.

The theory did not work on Mount Hood that morning. Recent rains had left a glare of ice over wet snow, making it easy to fall, hard to stop. Within seconds, Ward and Read shot past Kern. Kern desperately tried to self-arrest, but the rope went taut with such force that he was yanked clear of the mountain. He flew through the air, then hit the snow with a sickening crunch.

Slutter was last in line. "I was looking at my ice ax. My chest was on top of it, and my hand was over it," he says. "Then I remember watching it ripping through the ice like it was a Slush Puppy. And I was ripped from the mountain."

It took only a second for the top team to catch up with the two Californians, 50 feet [15 meters] below. They struck Biggs "like a billiard ball," Hillman recalls, sending him tumbling into the air. Hillman dove to arrest himself, but a moment later he, too, was being dragged down the mountain, the pick of his ax leaving a ragged line through the soft ice.

Get the full story—and a diagram of the disaster—in the September 2002 issue of Adventure.

Subscribe to Adventure today and Save 62 percent off the cover price!

Adventure Online Extra
Interview With a Mount Hood Hero

Rescue commander Steve Rollins offers an inside look at saving lives at altitude.



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Travel Guide Online: Portland, Oregon
Find out when to go, how to get there, what to see, and how to visit. Includes two detailed driving tours near and around Mount Hood.

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Being the Boatman
Adventure on the Ganges
By Charles Graeber

It was an ad hoc journey of enlightenment: Sail, row, and drag a skiff 160 miles [257 kilometers] up India's holiest river, the Ganges. The locals said the trip was impossible, very simple, safe, dangerous. It was unnecessary, stupid, an inspired spiritual quest commissioned by Lord Siva himself.

Modern travel can be disorienting. Strapped between tray tables in a 747, the body moves easily, zipping world to world at the speed of sound. But your soul, your sense of where you are—that travels more slowly, arriving days or even weeks later, like misrouted luggage. The result is a feeling familiar to habitual travelers: not quite here, not quite home.

So here's where I find myself when my soul finally catches up to my body: I am sunburned and barefoot and trudging along an Indian riverbank of mud and sand and human remains. This shoreline is at once sewer, sink, and cemetery for the surrounding villagers, and my tired legs are caked to the thigh in indeterminate river yuck.

I hike up my loincloth and pull, staggering with the weight. The bamboo yoke across my chest is connected to 50 feet [15 meters] of nylon cord, which in turn is connected to the wooden skiff that has been my kitchen, bed, and conveyance for the past four days. These days have seemed to last forever.

The beach stretches to the horizon, and it is my task to walk it. Sometimes the towline snags on a water buffalo. Sometimes I sink to my thighs in mud. And sometimes the distance yields a dot, which in time becomes a man soaping himself in the current.

As I approach, he freezes—toothbrush stick in mouth, suds in hair—and stares in raw amazement. His eyes do the talking: Who are you? And what in the world are you doing here? These are good questions, but I don't have the language to explain.

Instead, I smile, wish him good day, and continue. The full answer, like lost luggage or a steamer-class soul, is coming to me slowly. When you're a boatman on the River Ganges, there is plenty of time to consider everything.

It started six years ago, on my first trip to India. The plan was for two months of solo adventure—but I was rarely solo. There were thousands of us, all there to do our India thing, and all, it seemed, carrying the same guidebooks.

We were at the Monkey Temple and the Taj Mahal, lounging on the right beaches in Goa and trekking with the recommended outfitters in Manali. I thought I'd lost them in Kashmir—the civil war and all—but then, in my final week, there we all were again in Varanasi, tanned and dusty in our loose cotton clothes, and packed like penguins along the world's most holy natural feature, the Ganges.

On the map, India is shaped something like a heart, and veined diagonally across its middle is one of the most fascinating thin blue lines in the world. From its icy origin in a Himalayan glacier to its delta in the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is the spiritual lifeblood of India, a river of heaven with 108 names.

To the devout, it is Himacalendra-tanaya—Daughter of the Lord of the Himalayas. It is Dear to Siva, and Liberator of the 60,000 Sons of Sagara. It is Melodious. It is Ocean-Flowing, and Lucky. It is White, and Happy, and Colorless. It Carries Away Fear, Brings Happiness, Destroys Illusion. And always it is Ramya—it is Beautiful.

For a Hindu, it is at once a physical and a metaphysical destination. To die on its banks brings release from the tiresome chain of death and rebirth; to bathe in its waters is to be touched by God.

But I was a foreigner and a tourist, crouching in a little wooden skiff for my half-hour glimpse of pilgrims and funerals while my boatman worked the oars with hands as tough as talons. Like his father and all his fathers before him, this man knew the river, not as a must-see in a tourist guidebook but as a flowing, living product of time, like music.

While I snapped photos of the sunset, the boatman scanned the roiling current with eyes wizened by lifetimes of river sun. This was the way to see India. Forget sightseeing; next time I wanted to be the boatman.

Get the full story in the September 2002 issue of Adventure.

Subscribe to Adventure today and Save 62 percent off the cover price!

Adventure Online Extra
Photos, Interview From This Assignment

Writer Charles Graeber shares travel tips and more insights from his voyage on the epic Ganges.



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India Facts, Flags, and More
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Accompanied by National geographic Experts, see the Taj Mahal at dawn, ride open-air vehicles into national parks, and more.

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Lost in the Arctic
By Lawrence Millman

Our island is two miles [3.2 kilometers] long and half a mile [0.8 kilometer] wide. Apparently, no one knows it exists. It looks like we'll be here until my two Inuit friends can fix our broken outboard. Can they do it? "Immaqa," one says. "Perhaps." And he laughs.

The boat's motor had been making curious burbling noises all morning, as if there were a newborn trapped inside it. Then the engine died. My Inuit guides Qungujuq and Zacharias bent over the outboard, trying to figure out what was wrong. Meanwhile, we started drifting southeast.

"Motor very kaput," Qungujuq announced, as if this weren't already obvious. "Must take it apart." It was also obvious that there wasn't any room on the overloaded boat to take apart a wristwatch, much less an 85-horsepower Yamaha outboard.

I confess I wasn't in a particularly jovial frame of mind about our situation, since I knew how unforgiving the Arctic can be. The Inuit have many tales of people going off in boats and disappearing; years later their bones turn up on some distant beach. We continued to drift southeast for the next few hours as Qungujuq examined various motor parts.

"Qikiqtaq!" Zacharias shouted. An island.

He pointed to a small patch of land about five miles [8 kilometers] away, then grabbed our lone oar and began paddling toward it. After a while, Qungujuq took over for him, and then I took over for Qungujuq.

I paddled until my arms were ready to fall off, then passed the oar to Zacharias, who was at least five years older than me but much stronger. He paddled the rest of the way, neatly parrying the ice floes that guarded the island. At last a wave thrust the boat onto the gravelly shore with a resounding crunch. The Arctic had granted us a reprieve, of sorts.

In the Canadian North, ice is the final arbiter of human affairs. A few days before washing up on an unknown island, I was biding my time in Sanirajak, an Inuit community on the Melville Peninsula. From there, I planned to travel across Foxe Basin to Prince Charles Island, an uninhabited chunk of land almost as large as Connecticut.

It wasn't officially documented until 1948, when a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot taking aerial photographs noticed an unknown landmass in one of his pictures. And even though the low-lying, icebound island has now been charted, it has never been fully explored. But Foxe Basin turned out to be choked with sea ice, so I was stuck in Sanirajak, waiting for a gale to come along and whisk the ice away.

Sanirajak isn't the sort of place where most people would want to spend more than a few hours—maybe not even more than a few minutes. Imagine Appalachia crossbred with a Gypsy encampment, then struck by an earthquake. Imagine residential landscaping that consists of discarded snowmobile treads, fuel drums, cast-off Pampers, bottles, slops, and animal bones. The town's chief attraction, or, perhaps, its chief distraction, is a several-hundred-year-old whale carcass whose odor is still pungent enough to upset the nostrils. I couldn't wait to exchange Sanirajak for the wilds of Foxe Basin.

Each morning, Qungujuq would study the ice with the seriousness of a scholar gazing at a palimpsest, then come to my tent and say, "Nagga." ("Not today.") Then he would join me for coffee. He got his caffeine fix by sticking the grounds directly into his mouth like a wad of tobacco, thus avoiding the bland intercession of water.

Sometimes Qungujuq would bring along his father, a barrel-chested elder whose face resembled the contour lines on a topo map. Like a number of other people I'd met in Sanirajak, the old man, Sivulliq, knew only one expression in English: "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"

Some years ago, the town's Hudson's Bay Company trader would perform the occasional interment and, instead of reciting a proper burial service, would solemnly intone Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din." The poem's famous line had entered the local vernacular as a sort of vaguely reverential sentiment, although no one had the slightest idea what it meant.

Sivulliq said there were Tunit on Prince Charles Island, and he warned me to be very careful: They would attempt to unravel my intestines—a popular Tunit form of entertainment—if I gave them the opportunity. According to archaeologists, the Tunit, or Dorset people, died out before A.D. 1300.

Yet if there was one place in the Arctic where a small band of them might have survived, I figured, that place would be Prince Charles Island. Another thing Sivulliq told me: The weather on Prince Charles Island is awful, and thus it's very easy to get marooned there.

Finally, one morning Qungujuq awakened me by shouting "Tuavi! ['Hurry up!']. Ice blown away by big wind." Groggily, I lifted the tent flap and at once saw open water where the night before there had been only an uncompromising sheet of ice.

Get the full story in the September 2002 issue of Adventure.

Subscribe to Adventure today and Save 62 percent off the cover price!



Related Web Sites

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