The Incident on Baker
A Tragic Lesson in Mountaineering
24–25 May 1969
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
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
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
who had not participated in any sports and had grudgingly taken only the
easiest required PE courses in high school and university.
I was blessed with good lungs and strong legs.
The last session of the course involved climbing one of the major
in our case,
a 10,781 foot peak in the northernmost Cascade Mountains of Washington.
We took the
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
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.
we were setting up our tents on the snow.
Sunday morning we got an early start and were soon heading up the
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
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
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.
can be seen at the left of the frame.
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.
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.
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
At least one was injured in the fall and it is likely all were
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
We had a
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;
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.
with better weather sense,
they would have turned back.
one might ask why
continued to the summit knowing bad weather was so imminent.
I think we all suffered from
refers to the party of four as
“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.
the article says the party may have been caught in the fringe of an
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
and it impacted the decision making of all the students for years
In the following years I did a great deal of climbing,
but I never returned to climb Mount Baker —
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?
most haunting of all,
did they have some last hope we might return for them?
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
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.