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.”