Mt. Hood "Tragedy" - Is the Bourgeois Press Encouraging People To Believe In Wilderness Rescue Miracles?

The tragedy that unfolded this past week at Mt. Hood, Oregon has been covered extensively by the bourgeois press, in its own inimitable and interminable way. Much smoke and little light has been shed on the incident in which it appears that three "experienced" mountain climbers have lost their lives.

Little has been said about the wisdom of their decision to attempt to scale one of the tallest mountains in the Cascade Range during the worst time of the year for such an adventure. I realize that the families of the victims are holding out hope that their loved ones will be found to have survived the hellish conditions they encountered this week; I do not wish to add to their suffering by publishing this article. It is in the interest of preventing the loss of lives in the future that I present this piece, as my research into this tragedy has turned up some very interesting information regarding the quality of information available to the public regarding weather conditions in the region, and the facilities available to those who attempt to scale these very dangerous peaks.

The party of three "experienced" climbers ventured out on Dec. 6th. I was first of all somewhat surprised to see that these men were described as "experienced" climbers in the press, since they all hail from mountainless regions of the country: two were from Dallas and one from Brooklyn, New York City. I have no idea how many times a year they are able to climb mountains as treacherous as Mt. Hood, but I assume it's not something they get to do on a regular basis, like many residents of, say, Washington or Oregon states.

It has become chic in recent years for all kinds of amateurs to venture out to climb even the most difficult peaks, including Mt. Everest. Unfortunately, this is not a game that should be played by overconfident people who believe that rescues from these remote locations are as easy to obtain as ambulance service in a major city. Rescuers are faced with extremely dangerous tasks when it comes to the extraction of injured climbers, even under the best of conditions. And when I say best of conditions, I don't mean late December conditions at the 11,000-foot range in the Cascades.

Most of the fatalities that have occurred on Mt. Hood have in fact occurred under the "best conditions" during the peak tourist season, from May to September. This mountain remains covered in snow and ice even in July. Day-hikers during these "warm" conditions on the mountain can find themselves trapped in blizzard conditions in the middle of summer. The conditions during the past week were comparable to the worst weather conditions ever encountered on any mountain anywhere in the world - a blizzard, with 0 visibility and 162 KPH (100 MPH plus) winds. Any person facing wind chills of that level could be expected to freeze to death in a matter of hours, not days.

Reading the available literature on climbing Mt. Hood, on various websites of real experts in mountain climbing, such that available on the website of the Portland Mountain Rescue team ( http://www.pmru.org/links/climbing.html), one quickly comes to the realization that climbing Mt. Hood in the dead of winter is not the sort of thing an "experienced" climber would undertake lightly, if at all. Trying to assemble the type of information that these lost climbers might have had available about prospective weather conditions, the difficulty of climbing Mt. Hood in December, etc., reveals some stark realities about the quality of information available to these men. There is some good information available that they either never read or ignored, like the availability of emergency locator devices (called "Mt. Hood Locator Units" or "MLU"s at one outfitter) that they could have rented for as little as $6.00 a day, which would have pinpointed their location on the mountain to within a few feet. Apparently no one in their party felt such a device was worth the money; either that, or they were unaware that these devices existed and were readily available (See:  http://www.mountainshop.net/summerrentals.html). The decision not to carry an MLU is not a decision likely to have been made by an "experienced" mountaineer, though it is type of decision too often made by people who have an inflated sense of their own skills and abilities.

Were the locator units available for rental? My research shows that at least one outfitter does offer these rentals year-round. However, it is not their responsibility to monitor the units they rent out. In order for your "MLU" beacon to be received by prospective rescuers, you have to be reported missing to the local authorities, such as the Sheriff's office. Only then will they start to see if they can pick up the signal from your MLU.

And that's not all. According to the people I asked at one outfitter, although they "weren't sure" how long the batteries would last once the pin is pulled on an MLU, activating the device, their "consensus" opinion was that it would run for "about 3 or 4 days". In the case of the climbers on Mt. Hood in the latest tragedy, that might not have helped them much even if they had these devices with them, since they were not reported missing until late on Dec. 10th. It is unlikely that if they had activated their MLUs say, on the 7th, that they would still be transmitting a signal on the 11th, which was the first day on which the weather had cleared to the point that rescue efforts could get under way ( http://www.pmru.org/pressroom/headlines/hood3missingClimbers121106.html). Even then, the conditions were so bad that rescue efforts had to be called off by mid-afternoon.

It's perhaps interesting to note that it was not until May 1, 2000 that then-president of the United States Bill Clinton issued an order to end the deliberate degradation of GPS signals being broadcast by US Defense Dept. satellites - by 2006! GPS signals were being deliberately degraded for "National Security" reasons, so that the "enemies of freedom" would not have the benefit of accurate navigational aids paid for by US taxpayer dollars. Here is an excerpt from this order:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

_______________________________________________________
For Immediate Release May 1, 2000

"STATEMENT BY THE PRESIDENT REGARDING THE UNITED STATES DECISION TO STOP DEGRADING GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM ACCURACY

"Today, I am pleased to announce that the United States will stop the intentional degradation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) signals available to the public beginning at midnight tonight. We call this degradation feature Selective Availability (SA). This will mean that civilian users of GPS will be able to pinpoint locations up to ten times more accurately than they do now. GPS is a dual-use, satellite-based system that provides accurate location and timing data to users worldwide. My March 1996 Presidential Decision Directive included in the goals for GPS to: encourage acceptance and integration of GPS into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide; and to encourage private sector investment in and use of U.S. GPS technologies and services. To meet these goals, I committed the U.S. to discontinuing the use of SA by 2006 with an annual assessment of its continued use beginning this year.

[...]

"My decision to discontinue SA was based upon a recommendation by the Secretary of Defense in coordination with the Departments of State, Transportation, Commerce, the Director of Central Intelligence, and other Executive Branch Departments and Agencies. They realized that worldwide transportation safety, scientific, and commercial interests could best be served by discontinuation of SA. Along with our commitment to enhance GPS for peaceful applications, my administration is committed to preserving fully the military utility of GPS. The decision to discontinue SA is coupled with our continuing efforts to upgrade the military utility of our systems that use GPS, and is supported by threat assessments which conclude that setting SA to zero at this time would have minimal impact on national security. Additionally, we have demonstrated the capability to selectively deny GPS signals on a regional basis when our national security is threatened. This regional approach to denying navigation services is consistent with the 1996 plan to discontinue the degradation of civil and commercial GPS service globally through the SA technique.

"Originally developed by the Department of Defense as a military system, GPS has become a global utility. It benefits users around the world in many different applications, including air, road, marine, and rail navigation, telecommunications, emergency response, oil exploration, mining, and many more. Civilian users will realize a dramatic improvement in GPS accuracy with the discontinuation of SA. For example, emergency teams responding to a cry for help can now determine what side of the highway they must respond to, thereby saving precious minutes."

(Source:  http://www.i-world.net/oma/news/gps.html)

Isn't it nice to know that GPS technology existed for decades but was not made available to the public in order to further the "war against Communism"?


Now, it is recommended to anyone who climbs any mountain at any time of the year that they leave notice with some friends, family members or the park service describing their date of departure, their planned route, and their planned time of return, so that if they are late in returning, rescue efforts can be launched immediately. The climbers on Mt. Hood in this latest case "started this climb Dec. 6, and left notes in their vehicle, at a ranger station and a warming hut explaining their route up and down the mountain and listing the equipment -- including food, fuel, waterproof sacks and shovels -- that they carried.

"December is not a typical climbing month on Mount Hood. The three men took on the north face rather than more popular south routes because it offers ice and terrain to train for more difficult mountains."

(Source: The Oregonian, "Body of Climber James is Tentatively Identified",  http://www.oregonlive.com/printer/printer.ssf?/base/news/1166417703306970.xml&coll=7&thispa ge=2)

Another fateful decision: taking on the more challenging north face route at a time of the year when one could expect conditions to deteriorate rapidly at any time.

The leaving of notes describing their route and estimated time of return is all perfectly fine and responsible. However, I have read some alarming reports (which "experienced" climbers of Mt. Hood are well informed of) about the utility of leaving this information with the Forest Service rangers. It appears that doing so might be as useful as leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the snow - because it is reported that oftentimes the rangers don't read the documents left for them by people hiking up Mt. Hood!

The US Forest Service webpage devoted to "Climbing Mt. Hood" was difficult for me to find when I searched for it earlier today. "File Unavailable" said the link I followed from one website. Once I was finally able to access the page, I found this information:

(Source: USDA Forest Service website "Climbing Mt. Hood",  http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/recreation/climbing/index.shtml)

"Climbing Mt. Hood

Climbing Home | Detailed Information | Climbing Conditions | Avalanche / Weather Info. | Email

"Mt Hood was first known to the Northwest Indians as Wy'East. Mt Hood's summit rises to 11,237 feet above sea level. Geologists agree that Wy'East , like all the Cascade volcanoes, may only be 'resting' from more active volcanic activity.

"As you ascend Mt Hood, you enter the Mt Hood Wilderness Area. The Mt Hood Wilderness, 47,100 acres protected under the Wilderness Act, is heavily visited, so please do your part to 'leave no trace' when visiting the area.

"Wilderness permits are required. These permits are free and self-issued at the Climbers' Registration in Timberline's Wy'East Day Lodge.

"Group size is limited to 12. Given the heavy use on Mt Hood, consider climbing mid-week to enhance your opportunity for solitude."

That's it. No warnings about the fact that 100 people have lost their lives climbing this mountain or anything like that. You have to navigate to another page, innocuously entitled "Detailed Climbing Information" to find out that hiking up Mt. Hood is not a cakewalk. There you will find the following information:

"Before starting out

* Be knowledgeable and practiced in mountaineering skills. Know how to use your equipment.
* Be in good physical condition
* Check the weather and avalanche forecasts and climbing condition web page.
* Plan your route. All routes are TECHNICAL CLIMBS. There are no hiking trails to the summit.
* Rent and wear a Mountain Locator Unit. If a seach is initiated, the activated unit can be used to pinpoint your exact location.
* Climb with a competent and experienced leader. Avoid climbing alone.
* Carry adequate clothing, food, water and equipment. (see list)
* Tell someone at home your destination, route, time due back and equipment you are taking. When you are overdue, that person should call 911.
* Fill out a wilderness permit and registration - In day lodge if starting at Timberline."

Again we see that if these "experienced" climbers in the latest incident had taken the time to read this, they would have been reminded about the MLUs.

At what time of year should a "knowledgable" person "practiced in mountaineering skills" attempt to climb Mt. Hood?

"When to Climb

"Time Of Year:

"Late spring and early summer are the most popular time of year to climb most routes. While hazards exist every month of the year, conditions during this window are typically better. During late summer and fall, rockfall is significant and nearly impossible to mitigate and the cravasses are more exposed. Winter months can have some outstanding climbing conditions, but storms are more common."

"Storms are more common"; yet the winter months offer "some outstanding climbing conditions". As well as some of the most rapidly changing and dangerous weather conditions on Earth. This is a positive encouragement to people to go ahead and climb Mt. Hood whenever the spirit moves them to do so. Not such great advice, as it turns out. I'll have more to say about the quality of the weather advisories available to the general public later.

We also have this list of equipment needed to safely climb Mt. Hood provided to us by the USDA Forest Service:

"What to wear / What to take

"This is a beginning list. Route selection and conditions may require more gear

* Waterproof, lug-soled climbing boots
* Synthetic or wool long underwear
* Synthetic or wool clothing layers
* Synthetic or wool socks, hat and mittens
* Glacier glasses with side shields
* Suncreen
* Wind/rain overmitts
* Pack
* Headlamp
* Mountain Locator Unit
* Avalanche transceiver
* Extra food
* Water
* Helmet
* Ice Axe
* Crampons
* Climbing Harness
* Extra clothing
* Ski goggles
* Climbing rope
* Shovel
* First Aid Kit
* Emergency Kit (whistle, space blanket, knife, lighter)
* Topographic map, compass and altimeter. GPS is nice but still bring your compass.
* Wilderness Permit (group leader)
* "Blue Bags"
* Small insulating ground pad
* Pickets and hardware"

(Source: USDA Forest Service, "Detailed Climbing Information",  http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/recreation/climbing/background.shtml)

That's quite a list - for EACH member of a climbing party to carry! In the summer! And "conditions may require more gear"! How much of this swag the unfortunate climbing party had decided to lug up the side of Mt. Hood on Dec. 6th may never be known for sure. Sherpa guides might be nice to bring along if you're going to try this climb in the dead of winter! As Frank Zappa once said: "A mountain is something... you don't want to fuck with!" Seriously!

Now we know our unfortunate "experienced" climbers had at least some of these items, because two ice axes and a rope were found abandoned in an empty snow cave by the rescue parties.

Let's get back to the question of the notices hikers are supposed to leave for the Forest Service's rangers, so the authorities will be able to launch a timely rescue effort once they check those notices and determine that someone is overdue.

First of all, you don't actually fill out a form describing your itinerary and estimated time of return and then give it to an actual ranger. You fill out the form and put it in a little mailbox of some kind. The only problem is, as I mentioned before in passing, just because you LEAVE such a note doesn't mean that anyone is going to actually READ it or anything!

According to the Oregon Mountaineering Association, registration of your route with the Forest Service is "optional. There is a climbers register in the WyEast day lodge foyer at Timberline on the South Side of the mountain. No other trailheads have climbing registers, just self-issue wilderness permits."

So it is entirely possible to get to a trailhead with your route information notice all neatly written out, only to find that there's no place to leave it for a ranger.

"If you register please remember to return to record that you are back ok. Many people don't do this and it makes it difficult to tell if somebody is really on the mountain or whether they went home."

This is important, as it's likely that a lot of people forget to report in before they leave the mountain, thereby creating a multitude of false alarms that the Forest Service employees must wade through... when they get around to it. Keep reading:

"Please be aware that the Forest Service does not always check registrations on a regular basis. If you are late returning it may not be discovered for several days. Early in the season (and even during high season at times) weeks worth of registration forms have been known to accumulate. Registering does not guarantee that anyone will discover you are overdue, nor does it guarantee a rescue will be initiated"!! (My emphasis).

Nowhere on the Forest Service website do we read about this little problem with these "self-registration notices"! I'll bet that a lot of people would be surprised to know this! But wait! There's more:

"Unfortunately climbing registrations have reportedly been the basis for privacy violations during rescue efforts. They have also shown up in Forest Service investigation files on people they dislike (whether they are for that person or for somebody suspected of having even a tenuous connection to them). Given these facts and poor monitoring of the forms it may be best to be sure that somebody you trust has all pertinent information such as your planned route, list of equipment and supplies, and time expected back as well as the amount of time your group is prepared to be out for. Count on this person to initiate a search/rescue effort directly with the county if necessary."

This would make a nice subject for an intrepid investigative journalist to follow up on! But not me; I'm just a dillettante muckraker donating some of the free time I have a surfeit of during this, my latest extended period of unemployment in our booming economy!

We are also reminded about the limitations of the MLUs:

"While a Mt Hood locator unit will help rescuers locate a party in poor weather it will not summons [sic] help. In addition to leaving your plans and preparations with a trusted party it is advised that parties carry some communications such as a cell phone or VHF radio."

(Source: Oregon Mountaineering Association website: "Oregon Climbing Routes - Mt. Hood General Information" at  http://www.i-world.net/oma/routes/hood/general-info.html)

What about the weather on Mt. Hood? Where can I as a prospective climber of Mt. Hood get up-to-the-minute weather information? No problem... it's right there on the USDA Fores... wait a minute. When did the USDA swallow up the Forest Service anyway? Oh that's for another article, by another writer.

OK. Back to the story. Weather Information is right here on the USDA Forest Service's website, under "Climbing Conditions"...(click)... oh, oh...


(Source:  http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/recreation/climbing/conditions.shtml)

Hmmm. Not good. Does that mean that the climbing conditions are just not available or does it mean: "You're kidding, right? You're gonna climb Mt. Hood in December? No f**king way!"?

Let's try "Avalanche/Weather Info." the next link over...

Ah, that's better! A whole slew of websites to visit! Pick one, two... any of 24 links!

(Source:  http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/recreation/winter/weather.shtml).

OK so there's weather information available, and plenty of it; in fact, there may even be too much of it!

Just for the sheer thrill of it I looked up an archived weather report from Dec. 7th, the day after our "experienced" mountain climbers set off on their ill-fated journey into oblivion. What kind of weather information might they have had available to them on the 6th?

The website I checked only went back to the 7th. I really don't think it matters though, because it appears that, initially, the conditions on Mt. Hood on the 6th and 7th were about as good as it probably ever gets on that mountain in December. In fact you might say the conditions were extraordinarily good, and may have convinced the climbing party to undertake a hastily organized expedition in order to take advantage of some unseasonably mild weather that occurred at least from the 7th until about the 9th. The following weather report is quite long, and tedious, but I'll reprint it here in full so you can savor the writing style of a weather forecaster who should be writing those tags that come on pillows and such. I mean, I read a LOT of weather reports, being something of a severe weather fan, and this guy's style is as dry and dull as a Christian rock concert. It's culled from the archives of the "USDA Forest Service Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center" website, so I guess it would be a logical place to look for a weather and conditions forecast for Mt. Hood. Remember, this forecast was issued the day after the ill-fated climbing party had set off for the summit of Mt. Hood. The forecast can be found here:
(Source:  http://www.nwac.us/products/archive/SABNW.10)

MOUNTAIN WEATHER FORECAST FOR THE OLYMPICS, WASHINGTON
CASCADES AND MT HOOD AREA
NORTHWEST WEATHER AND AVALANCHE CENTER, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
130 PM PST THU DEC 7 2006

 http://www.nwac.us/products/archive/SABNW.10

NWAC Program administered by:
USDA-Forest Service
with cooperative funding and support from:
Washington State Department of Transportation
National Weather Service
National Park Service
Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission
Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association
Friends of the Avalanche Center
and other private organizations.

This forecast is prepared primarily for federal, state and
private snow safety programs in Washington and Northern
Oregon.

WAZ513-518-519-019-042-501-502-ORZ011-081700-

&&

WEATHER SYNOPSIS FOR THURSDAY AND FRIDAY

The upper ridge of high pressure that has been in the area
over the past two days has moved east of Washington and
Oregon Thursday afternoon. This is opening the door to
increasing south to southwest flow from an offshore upper
trough that lies well offshore. A split upper flow directs
two branches of the trough offshore with the stronger
southern branch mainly expected to affect the Sierra’s of
California over the next several days. The much weaker
northern portion will gradually move over the Pacific
Northwest beginning later Friday. A disturbance in the
northern branch is moving northward over the Queen Charlotte
Islands Thursday afternoon and causing increasing high
clouds over the Pacific Northwest, especially the Olympics
and northwest Washington Cascades. Freezing levels remain
very high Thursday afternoon with many higher elevation
mountain weather stations reporting temperatures into the
40’s. A strong temperature inversion exists under the high
pressure with cold air near the surface east of the crest
and through the passes, with quite warm temperatures at
higher elevations. A moderate easterly pressure gradient
across the Cascades is maintaining easterly upslope surface
winds and clouds along the east slopes and over the passes
Thursday afternoon. As the trough off California moves
eastward more high clouds should spread over the forecast
area Thursday night and into Friday under a gradually
increasing south to southwest flow aloft. The weak northern
portion of the trough should begin to affect the area with a
chance of a little light precipitation later Friday and
Friday night, mainly over the Olympics and possibly the
northwest Washington Cascades however any amounts received
should be light. Freezing levels also gradually lower Friday
as the trough approaches.

Weak low level easterly flow may also cause some light snow
flurries along the east slopes as the cool air lifts along
the east side of the Cascade range. Otherwise higher
elevation sites should be under filtered sunshine with
gradually increasing high clouds as the offshore trough
approaches.

&&

WEATHER FORECAST FOR THURSDAY AND FRIDAY

* OLYMPICS-
Widespread high clouds and mild temperatures Thursday
afternoon and night. Increasing clouds Friday with a
chance of light rain. Cloudy Friday afternoon and night
with periods of light rain or snow.

* WASHINGTON CASCADES NEAR AND WEST OF THE CREST-
High clouds Thursday afternoon and night and warm at
higher elevations, but cooler and partly to mostly cloudy
lower terrain near the passes. Mostly cloudy Friday with
increasing high clouds. Mostly cloudy Friday night with a
chance of a little light rain or snow at times.

* CASCADE PASSES, INCLUDING STEVENS, SNOQUALMIE AND WHITE
PASSES-
Mostly cloudy and cool Thursday afternoon and night with
a continuing chance of local freezing fog or a few
flurries below about 5000 feet, otherwise mostly fair
higher elevations and continued relatively warm. Mostly
cloudy Friday with increasing high clouds higher
elevations and a chance of light snow lower elevations.
Mostly cloudy Friday night with a chance of a little
light rain, snow or local freezing rain at times.

* EAST SLOPES WASHINGTON CASCADES-
Lower elevations: cool and mostly cloudy Thursday
afternoon through Friday night with a chance of local
freezing fog or a few flurries.
Higher elevations: Variable high clouds and warm above
about 5000 feet Thursday afternoon through early Friday.
Increasing high clouds later Friday and Friday night with
a chance of a little light rain or snow.

* MT HOOD AREA-
High clouds Thursday afternoon and night and warm at
higher elevations, but much cooler and partly to mostly
cloudy lower terrain. Mostly cloudy Friday with
increasing high clouds. Mostly cloudy Friday night with a
chance of a little light rain or snow at times.

&&

FREEZING LEVELS-CASCADE MTNS
8500 ft N, 10,000 ft S Thursday afternoon through early
Friday, except freezing levels at the surface Cascade
passes and east slopes

SNOW LEVELS-CASCADE MTNS
6500 ft N and C, 8000 ft S Friday afternoon
5500 ft N, 6500 ft S Friday night, except snow levels at
the surface Cascade passes and east slopes


FREEZING LEVELS-OLYMPIC MTNS
9000 ft Thursday afternoon
8500 ft Thursday night

SNOW LEVELS-OLYMPIC MTNS
6500 ft early Friday
5500 ft Friday afternoon
4500 ft Friday night

Cascade Snow/Freezing Levels refer to the northern Washington Cascades
(N) through Mt Hood area (S). Central Washington Cascade snow levels
(typically near Snoqualmie Pass) are normally midway between indicated N
and S levels. Note that surface snow/freezing levels are common near
the passes during easterly pass flow and may result in multiple
snow/freezing levels.

&&

24 HOUR FORECAST OF PRECIPITATION IN INCHES OF WATER
EQUIVALENT ENDING AT 4AM
FRI SAT

* HURRICANE RIDGE 0 LT .25

* MT BAKER 0 0
* WASHINGTON PASS 0 0
* STEVENS PASS 0 0
* SNOQUALMIE PASS 0 0
* MISSION RIDGE 0 0
* CRYSTAL MTN 0 0
* PARADISE 0 0
* WHITE PASS 0 0
* MT HOOD 0 LT .10

&&

WINDS IN MILES PER HOUR (MPH)

* CASCADE PASS LEVEL WINDS
E 10-20 Thursday afternoon through Friday night

* FREE WINDS AT 5000 FT
S-SW 15-30 Cascades, S 25-40 Olympics Thursday afternoon
and night
S-SW 25-35 Cascades, S-SW 30-40 Olympics early Friday
S-SW 15-25 late Friday

* FREE WINDS AT 9000 FT
SW 25-40 Thursday afternoon
SW 30-45 Thursday night and early Friday
SW 25-40 late Friday

&&

EXTENDED WEATHER SYNOPSIS FOR SATURDAY THROUGH MONDAY
Several waves of energy should move inland mainly south of
the area towards California as an upper trough of low
pressure approaches the west coast Saturday and Sunday. The
northern portion of the trough should gradually move across
the area later Saturday into Sunday to produce periods of
light precipitation at gradually lowering freezing levels. A
stronger more consolidated flow aloft is expected to develop
offshore by early Monday. This should be accompanied by a
stronger surface low pressure area and strong frontal
system. This frontal system should move across the forecast
area during the day Monday. Very strong wind and moderate to
heavy precipitation are expected late Monday and Monday
night. Initially, freezing levels should rise through Monday
afternoon and lower significantly behind the front late
Monday night.

EXTENDED FORECAST FOR SATURDAY THROUGH MONDAY
Occasional light rain or snow showers Saturday through
Sunday with the greatest shower activity likely late
Saturday and early Sunday. Increasing rain or snow early
Monday. Rain or snow becoming moderate to heavy late Monday
and Monday night.

* SNOW LEVELS
3-5000 ft N and S Saturday and Sunday
2-4000 ft N and S early Monday
3-5000 ft N, 6-8000 ft S late Monday, except snow levels
at the surface Cascade passes and east slopes Saturday
through early Monday, rising to free air levels late
Monday night.

NWAC weather data and forecasts are also available by calling
206-526-6677 for Washington, 503-808-2400 for the Mt Hood
area, or by visiting our Web site at www.nwac.us.

Kramer/Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center

$$

**************************

Well I warned you that it was long and tedious! This guy could give a totem pole to sleep. I guess it never occurred to this forecaster that people's LIVES depend on these forecasts, and that they should be written in plain English so that they can be understood by people who don't have a PhD in Meteorology!

Most written weather reports (even the "technical forecast discussions") are not so devoid of clearly elucidated meteorological information as this one is, thank god. Despite the fact that I do not possess a PhD in Meteorology (or anything like it), I can glean from this rather opaque document that there was a temperature inversion in the area of Mt. Hood on Dec. 7th that had the temperatures near the summit in the 40s during the day and that it was colder on lower elevations. These unusually mild conditions were supposed to persist through Thursday and Friday. Then things get murky. "A little light precipitation" might occur late on Friday. A careful and patient reader might see that winds at the 9000 foot level were going to be steady and somewhere in the 25-45 MPH range. That results in wind chill temperatures well below freezing (29-26 degrees wind chill temp. based on a basic temperature reading of 40 degrees). Add to this perhaps a freezing drizzle, well it's not exactly Miami Beach.

The extended forecast is where I take exception to this report, because it gives absolutely no indication as to the kind of absolutely vicious weather that was about to descend on the Pacific Northwest that week, in which winds of 100 miles an hour were reported, along with heavy snowfall. Perhaps this is not the forecaster's fault, after all. The storms that were about to lash the Pacific Northwest, spoken of now as having been "memorable" and even "historic" were on Dec.7th still far out in the Pacific. His vague ramblings about "several waves of energy" about to move inland sounds more like a new-age message from a spirit guide than a weather forecast. He asserts that a "trough" was to pass through the area. "A stronger more consolidated flow aloft is expected to develop offshore by early Monday." This reads like it just came into the National Weather Service's office on the horn of a unicorn prancing on a moonbeam. It's only in the last sentence of this long, rambling exercise in tedium that we learn that "Very strong wind and moderate to heavy precipitation are expected late Monday and Monday night. Initially, freezing levels should rise through Monday afternoon and lower significantly behind the front late Monday night." In fact, the conditions had become so bad by Sunday, the 10th, that the climbers had already sought refuge in a snow cave; and Kelly James, the climber who was found dead yesterday, had called his family on his cell phone to tell them that he and his friends were in trouble and that his companions had started to descend the mountain in an effort to get help. It was the last time that anyone would hear his voice.

***

So, what can we learn from this sad episode? Quite a bit, really. Mainly that it is unfortunate to take an inflated opinion of one's own survival skills with oneself into the wilderness. Also that it is not a good idea to count on the Forest Service for a timely rescue, because they aren't necessarily even going to read the itinerary you give them before you ascend a mountain here in Freedom's land. Budget cuts in the Forest Service mean not enough rangers to read unimportant things like your hiking itinerary, especially during the off-season.

We see that taking a Mountain Locator Unit is a very, very good idea if you're going to hike in wilderness areas. And that rescue teams can't rescue you if they don't know where you are, or if the weather is bad - in other words, the worse the conditions get, the less likely you are to be rescued in a timely manner, when every minute's delay can mean the difference between life and death. You don't just call for help with your cell phone and expect them to send a helicopter right after you.

We see that weather reports, like weather conditions themselves, are sometimes difficult to gauge and are subject to error. Conditions change with very little notice, especially in extreme environments like the tops of 11,000-foot mountains. Weather forecasts are not necessarily written with you in mind; in this case it probably never occurred to the forecaster who wrote that forecast on Dec. 7th that anyone would be foolish enough to try to climb to the summit of Mt. Hood in mid-December.

We see, also, that it is wise to stay in one place and not wander all over a big area looking for help. This past month 4 people have lost their lives partly because they chose, first of all, to do something ill-advised and dangerous, and partly because once they ran into trouble, instead of staying put, they set off to try to get to help. In the case in November, a family got lost in a blizzard after trying to take a "shortcut" through the mountains in their car. The wife and a child stayed with the car and were rescued. The husband set out to get help and died of exposure. If all three climbers had stayed in their snow caves, they'd have been found already, dead or alive. If they had brought radios or even cell phones they might have been able to find out that rescuers were on the way, and so they would have stayed put. If they'd brought MLUs they would have been relatively easy to find.

Obviously, it would be nice if it was required for all climbers of mountains like Mt. Hood to carry MLUs, not merely suggested. It would also be nice if it was required not only that those attempting to make such hazardous ascents be made to submit their itinerary to a real live human being (and to report back to that same office at the end of their trek) but that someone at the park service be given the responsibility for reading every single itinerary that is submitted. The false confidence engendered by the current system of handling these reports can cost people their lives.

But really, what reforms can be put into place to keep foolish people from doing foolish things like trying to climb an 11,000-foot-plus mountain in the dead of winter? It makes me sick to see the many news reports talk about this all-too-preventable tragedy as if it was some kind of surprising discovery that it's not easy to rescue people from the top of a mountain in the middle of December. We see the relatives of the lost climbers crying and thanking the rescue crews for their heroic efforts to save their loved ones. Well, rescue crews have fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, and children who love them, too. Why should the rescue teams risk their lives to save stupid-ass people who seem to think nothing of the possibility that, if they do get stuck 10,000 feet up the side of a mountain during a blizzard in December, human beings are going to be forced to gamble with their own lives to save the sorry asses of a trio of imbeciles?

It's one thing to have to ascend a mountain during the normal climbing season to save someone who was injured by a falling chunk of ice while hiking on a marked trail in the summer. That's an accident. This was no accident - it was a combination of hubris and thoughtlessness that proved fatal for these three "experienced" fools. I hope that none of the rescue crew members end up losing their lives trying to rescue three people who didn't stop to think about the value of the lives of the heroes who would be called in to save them if their junket went terribly wrong. I'd like to think that there's a point at which we can just say: "Hey, if you go out there and try to climb Mt. Hood in the dead of winter, boy, you're on your own. We are not going to come after you if you get yourself in a tight spot, so don't even bother to call"! Why not just set a date, say Nov. 1st, after which there will be no more alpine rescues available? Perhaps that would be more likely to cause people to reflect on the wisdom of embarking on such a patently stupid adventure as these men unfortunately set out to attempt: it might just save some lives. Giving not-so-clever people the impression that calling for a rescue from the top of a mountain in January is as easy as calling Domino's for a pizza delivery is bound to encourage more misadventures like this one.

And so we learn once again (why are some of us so stubborn?) that "a mountain is something you don't want to fuck with" - especially in the middle of the winter, no matter how "experienced" you think you are.