The Incident on Baker

A Tragic Lesson in Mountaineering
24–25 May 1969

Warning: There are few pictures in this tragic account. Most other accounts have nice pictures and happy endings.

During the Summer of 1968, before I started graduate school at the University of Washington, room-mate Tom invited me on several hikes. This culminated in an overnight camping trip to an area near Glacier Peak, where we looked longingly at its snow-clad summit and resolved to climb it some day. I recall looking at the summit and thinking it looked like the inside of a freezer badly in need of defrosting. I also recall we had hiked well above the snow line and had a great deal of trouble finding our tracks to return to camp due to the maze of tracks left by us and other hikers. We were not properly equipped and trained for even this seemingly innocent venture into the wilderness and vowed to take more care in the future.

The University offered climbing courses and we wisely decided to get training before attempting the summit. We enrolled in the beginner's course in the Spring of 1969. In the course, I found the challenge of reaching a summit was certainly more interesting than hiking through the woods and was soon hooked. This was an amazing transformation — prior to this I had been a “couch potato” who had not participated in any sports and had grudgingly taken only the easiest required PE courses in high school and university. However, I was blessed with good lungs and strong legs.

The last session of the course involved climbing one of the major glaciated peaks; in our case, it was Mount Baker, a 10,781 foot peak in the northernmost Cascade Mountains of Washington. We took the Coleman-Deming route. It is rated Grade I or II (on a scale of I to VI), but Mount Baker's height, latitude and exposure to storms from the Pacific give it almost as much glacial ice as Mount Rainier and high potential for objective danger due to weather.

The climb was on a weekend at the end of May. We hiked in Saturday and set base camp low to get wind protection in the trees below the moraine. Still, we were setting up our tents on the snow. Sunday morning we got an early start and were soon heading up the Coleman Glacier. There were about 12 students and an instructor on the climb. The instructor put me at the head of a rope of three, purposely trusting me with two of the weaker climbers in the class. The weather looked ominous and we placed lots of bamboo wands with colored ribbon at top (known as 'flags’) along our route in case we had poor visibility on the return.

As we got to the col between Colfax Peak and the summit, we saw a cache of skis left by a party of four on their way up. We continued through the col onto the Deming Glacier and traversed toward the right where the slope was less steep. Trudging up the compact snow of the glacier, we saw a party of four (two men and two women, as we later found out). They were off to our left, too far away to speak to. According to what we had been learning in our course, they appeared to be ill prepared. They had no crampons or ice axes and were kicking steps into the compact snow with ski boots, using ski poles for balance. They were all on one rope that appeared to be too small to withstand a hard fall and arrest, as well as being too short for four persons. They did not appear to have much in the way of additional clothing or equipment.

Using our ice axes and crampons on the compact snow, we did not have to kick steps and climbed more quickly. We knew we were in a race with the weather and did not stop to rest. Soon they were far behind us.

At the summit, we saw the ominous clouds of a major storm racing toward us. The winds were picking up rapidly. We paused only briefly for pictures. I snapped a picture of Dave and we all headed down.

This picture looks west, away from the approaching storm. Mount Shuksan can be seen at the left of the frame.

The Descent

Normally, the rope leader goes first uphill and last downhill, but the two people on my rope were slow and continually arguing (they were father and son). I had countered this by keeping tension on the rope, almost dragging them up the mountain so they had to pay attention to keeping up rather than arguing with each other; I heard them complaining about me. Now faced with the need for a quick descent, I chose to ignore proper practice and go first downhill; in this way I would again make them focus on keeping up with me rather than getting into disputes. [I later learned the instructor concurred with my actions.]

As we began the descent of the Deming Glacier towards Colfax Peak I again spotted the party of four, still heading upward on the steepest portion of the slope, which eased into the gentle summit slopes. They were again too far away for easy communication. I was “leading” the last rope descending, making us the last to see them. My friend Dave was on one of the first rope teams descending and saw them shortly before I did. He recalls: “I remember seeing the four Canadians huddled together not far from us as we were descending. Apparently they were making the fatal decision to forge on to the summit.”

Soon the storm made itself felt. The wind was so intense it was difficult to stand up. The wind chill was making us cold and we made a quick stop to put on all the clothing remaining in our rucksacks, helping each other lest the clothing blow away. I took out my down jacket and put it on over my windbreaker; not an optimal configuration for warmth, but I did not want to chance losing the windbreaker by taking it off. With the additional bulk and surface area of clothing to catch the wind, one small woman in our class could not keep to her feet. She was placed on a rope between two of the largest men, who proceeded to literally fly her down the mountain like a kite; I don't think her feet touched the snow until we were below the Colfax Peak col. As Tom recalls: “I remember the hard surface of the glacier and the wind blowing ice particles down the slope as we climbed with our crampons for the first time on a glacier summit.”

Upon reaching the cache of skis at 9,000 feet, we started to worry about the party of four behind us. We waited a short time as the weather continued to deteriorate. After a little debate we decided further delay in the deteriorating weather would endanger us, that they should be on their way down by now, and they should quickly overtake us once they donned their skis. We had been collecting our flags; the summit was getting socked in but the skis were at a very prominent landmark still visible from the descent route and visibility down the remainder of the route was good. We continued collecting the flags as we descended.

Around the 7,000 foot level we began to wonder why the skiers had not overtaken us. The weather was continuing to deteriorate. We were fatigued from climbing for over 10 hours, gaining nearly 6,000 vertical feet of elevation and descending 4,000 feet in biting wind and cold. These factors, coupled with our lack of experience, lack of rescue training, lack of rescue equipment, and the time of day gave us doubts about trying to ascend and investigate. Furthermore, the conditioning and competence of our party varied widely. Our instructor's first responsibility was to keep all of his party of novices together and get them back to base camp safely. Given these considerations, we were quite happy to agree to continue our descent.

Back at the base camp, I found someone who seemed to be associated with the party of four and told him his friends must be in trouble. Assuming this person would inform the proper authorities, we broke camp, hiked out and drove home.


Tuesday evening I spotted a small article in the newspaper: Four Sought on Mount Baker * . My heart sank. I followed the story as it unfolded over the following days. The weather was so bad a search party was not able to get up the mountain until Wednesday (28 May 1969) ** . The frozen bodies were found near the skis.

Based on the article and my first-hand observations, it appears one of the party fell and pulled the other party members with them. At least one was injured in the fall and it is likely all were enervated. Perhaps they were near the skis when they fell or tried to make their way to the skis after the fall. They must have sheltered from the wind and cold by huddling as a group, eventually perishing from exposure.

The bad weather continued and the bodies were left for another week before it was safe to retrieve them.

We had a “graduation” party for the climbing class while this story was unfolding. No-one else in the class seemed to know of the situation and my observation that the missing four were the people we had all seen put a real damper on the occasion.

I have already mentioned the four skiers were ill-equipped for the summit they were climbing; with crampons, descending the compact snow would have been faster and less dangerous; with ice axes, a fall could have been arrested (by properly trained persons); with two ropes of two, one fall would not pull down the entire party; with snow shovels or ice axes and additional clothing they could have prepared a shelter. And, with better weather sense, they would have turned back. In fact, one might ask why we continued to the summit knowing bad weather was so imminent. I think we all suffered from summit fever.

The front-page newspaper article refers to the party of four as “climbers” while the “hiker from Seattle” was undoubtedly me. The terms should have been reversed, given our apparent relative training and equipment. The article says the four were descending the mountain at the time we last saw them, which is not the case. Perhaps the person I reported to had clung to my statement “they should be down by now.” Had we seen them descending we would have been able to see them from the cache of skis and likely would have witnessed the fall; in that case we would have gone to help them. Finally, the article says the party may have been caught in the fringe of an avalanche; this seems highly unlikely, given the compact nature of the snow at the time we were climbing. It is possible an avalanche of snow that fell in the storm occurred after the accident. Other details related in this account are based on my interpretation of later newspaper articles.

It was certainly a tragic final lesson for our beginner course to be part of, and it impacted the decision making of all the students for years afterwards. In the following years I did a great deal of climbing, but I never returned to climb Mount Baker — even when my duties as an assistant instructor required me to.

A few years later and 2,000 miles away, I mentioned this incident to someone. It turned out this person was a friend of the unfortunate foursome. They were medical students from the University of British Columbia and their deaths were mourned by the entire school. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of defending myself (and my comrades) for our actions.

An incident like this raises questions in one's mind, even over 40 years later. Should we have waited longer for them at the skis? Did they even find the skis (apparently they were close), and were any of them intact enough physically and mentally to use skis? Should we have turned back when we realized there must be problems? Could we have helped them without endangering ourselves? And, most haunting of all, did they have some last hope we might return for them?

Ultimately, I have to believe our decision the weather was closing in rapidly and we were too fatigued, ill trained and ill equipped to deal with the (possible) situation was correct and our own survival would have been in serious jeopardy had we tried to do anything.

* I scanned these from the Seattle Times articles I saved.
** The Times was an afternoon paper and reported news from the morning of the same day.

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