Seven Students Die Climbing Mount Hood on School Field Trip
May 12, 1986
A climbing party from the Oregon Episcopal School set out from Timberline Lodge on the morning of May 12, 1986 to complete the school's required "wilderness experience" and climb to the summit. The party included fifteen students, one parent, two teachers, and two expert consultants. Within the first three hours of the climb, five students and one parent turned back due to altitude sickness and wetness. Three hours later, one of the consultants developed snow-blindness and also turned back. The rest of the group continued climbing, but decided to turn back when the weather worsened. While making their descent, the climbers were caught in a severe snowstorm and decided to dig out a cave for shelter until the storm passed. It took them two hours to dig the shelter since there was only one shovel (most of the party had to dig by hand), and the finished dugout was to small to hold all the climbers. Throughout the night, members of the group took turns in and out of the shelter.
The next morning two of the climbers - Molly Schula , a student (17 years old) and Ralph Summers, a professional mountaineer hiked down the mountain for 16 hours to get help.
"I told them we would keep walking until we found help or until we died," Summers said.
Molly Schula told reporters that the blizzard was so bad that "there was no distinction between the sky and the snow...I kept thinking I would never get home and see my mother again."
Three other climbers (students) also left the cave and attempted to hike down the mountain for help. They were found about half-way down the mountain by searchers in the morning of May 14 and airlifted to a Portland hospital. Doctors tried to warm them (their body temperatures were about 45 degrees Farenheit) and hoped that they would revive. All three students died later in the day.
On Thursday, May 15 rescuers finally located the snow cave where the last nine climbers were buried under four feet of snow. Miraculously, two of the students were still alive, Brinton Clark and Giles Thompson (both 16 years old). Brinton made a complete recovery and went home within two weeks. Giles recovered also, but lost both his legs which were severely damaged by frostbite.
Courtney Boatsman, one of the five students to turn back early on the mountain told reporters that clouds suddenly "started moving in really fast," and said that the accident was "just one of those things that happens." Climbing experts, however, said that a severe and extended storm had been forecast and that the group should have seen it coming. An employee at Timberline Lodge said he had warned the hikers to reschedule. The top of the mountain had been covered by clouds all day with temperatures in the low 30 (Farenheit) range and 30 mph winds.
Could the disaster have been avoided?
If the climbers on the Mount Hood hike had been aware that a severe storm was approaching, they could have made a decision to go on another day. Even after they had started climbing the mountain, they could have made the decision to turn back. The five students who returned to the lodge early in the day when they became ill, had no trouble descending the mountain.
Could the others have known that a storm was likely to occur while they were on the mountain?
Mountain and wilderness sports are highly popular in the Northwest. Many schools like the one in Oregon incorporate a wilderness experience into their regular curriculum.
How safe are such activities?
Should we rely on others to make life and death decisions for us?
It was a teacher on the Mount Hood climb who made the decision to continue to the summit after the storm began.
View a successful climbing of Mt. Hood