Local doctor and family watch it happen

Dr. James Pennington helps with rescue at last week's climbing accident

It was over in about five seconds, but it seemed to happen in slow motion.

Dr. Jim Pennington, his daughter Laurissa, 18, and son Luke, 15, watched in horror Thursday as a climber no more than 30 yards away from them near the summit of Mount Hood fell and triggered a chain reaction that ended in nine climbers falling into a crevasse. Three died in the accident.

“We watched the whole thing,” said Laurissa, a senior at Hood River Valley High School. “And then it was like this moment of silence. We were scared to death because we were way up there and we still had to go down it.”

The Penningtons had left from Timberline Lodge at 2 a.m. to climb Mount Hood and reached the summit at around 8 a.m. It was Jim Pennington’s fifth time to reach the summit of the 11,240-foot peak but the first time for Luke and Laurissa. The three shared the summit with some of the climbers who would soon be involved in the tragedy.

After snapping some photos, the trio began their descent.

“I remembered it being icier than normal on the slope just above the bergschrund,” Jim said. The bergschrund is a crevasse that forms when melting snow and ice pull away from the mountain’s snowfield each spring and is a well-known hazard to climbers on Mount Hood.

Jim made a crucial decision as he and his kids descended through the Pearly Gates, a narrow gap just below the summit. There are two options for negotiating the next part, the steep, treacherous spine known as the Hogsback: go virtually straight down it and over a snow bridge across the bergschrund, or head to the right and go around the bergschrund.

There were a couple of roped teams just below the Pearly Gates, so Jim instructed Luke to lead the way but to head to the right.

“As we were inching our way to the right we saw the top person start to fall,” Jim said. There were four climbers roped together. “I noticed two people in the roped team did a good job of getting in the self-arrest position.” But the falling climber hit a second climber, and the two then took out the last two in the party.

The four climbers careened down the Hogsback, hitting two other climbers roped together just below them. Those six hurtled 300 feet down the icy slope and slammed into a third group of roped-together climbers just above the bergschrund. All nine climbers were swept into the crevasse. Three died of their injuries from the fall.

The Penningtons paused only briefly.

“My dad just told us to take it really slow,” Laurissa recalled.

After watching the domino effect of three groups of roped-together climbers being swept helplessly away, Jim wondered to himself if he would be able to stop his group if one of his kids started to fall. But they made their way carefully down and got safely to the edge of the bergschrund where the mountain’s steep grade mellowed.

“I was very proud of both Luke and Laurissa,” Jim said. “They kept their heads and did a good job of being careful climbers.”

At the bergschrund, Jim unroped from Luke and Laurissa. They continued down to the lower part of the Hogsback to wait while Jim helped with the rescue efforts.

“I helped pull people out, did medical triage and just sat with the sicker patients,” said Jim, a family practice doctor.

After 3 hours, Jim climbed down to join Luke and Laurissa.

“The kids were getting low on water and I started getting concerned about that,” he said. The Penningtons then headed down to Timberline Lodge.

“The last thing we did,” Jim said, “was look up and see the helicopter pulling a climber out” of the crevasse. They didn’t know the Pave Hawk helicopter from the Air Force Reserve’s 304th Rescue Squadron had crashed until they reached the lodge.

“We were really shocked by that on top of everything else,” Jim said. The helicopter came to a rest not far from where Luke and Laurissa had been waiting for their dad.

Jim, whose experience Thursday marked the second time he’d helped out with a helicopter rescue after a mountain climbing accident, said it made him a “little more nervous about climbing.”

“The lesson for me is, you need to be careful who you’re roped to,” he said.

Laurissa said she plans to climb more mountains — though she may stay away from Mount Hood for a while.

“I just know now that I’m very cautious,” she said. “You can’t be too careful.”

Latest stories

Latest video:

Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See www.co.hood-river.or.us to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

Log in to comment

News from our Community Partners