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Bad Weather, Exceeding Abilities, and Avalanche Conditions—Oregon, Mt. Hood

BAD WEATHER, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, AND AVALANCHE CONDITIONS—Oregon, Mt. Hood. Gary Schneider (16) of Weston, and Randy Knapp (19) and Matt Meacham (16) both of Walla Walla, Washington, who survived 17 days in snowcaves on Mt. Hood, came within 20 feet of being swept over Mississippi Head, a 600-foot drop. So far as could be determined, their movements were as follows:

Wednesday, December 31, 1975, the three teen-agers left Walla Walla in the Schneider family car about 2 a.m. At 11 a.m. they ran out of gasoline about a half-mile below the lodge. They left the car, which didn’t have tire chains anyway, and hiked up to the lodge, carrying 50-pound packs, including a mountain tent and two pairs of small snowshoes.

That night they reached Silcox Hut at the 7000-foot level. Schneider broke an ice ax trying to pry his way into the building. They finally dug down to a window and rappelled on climbing ropes down to the shelter room.

Thursday, January 1, 1976 dawned bright and clear. The trio climbed to Illumination Saddle at about the 9000-foot level and dug a snowcave, which was found by a search party a few days later.

Friday, January 2, the trio said that they roped up and headed west onto Reid Glacier. They encountered hip-deep snow on the far side of the glacier. Knapp said that he wanted to climb the Hour Glass route at the head of the glacier, but, facing his first ice falls, was afraid to go on; Schneider had lost one of his crampons, so they turned back to Illumination Saddle for the night. The weather was “fair.”

Saturday, January 3, the mountain was wrapped in a howling storm that was to last 13 days. But the boys decided to “do some rock climbing.” Knapp blames himself for failing to take a compass bearing, but said that he thought he knew the terrain well enough.

Heading east toward White River Canyon, Knapp fell into a “hole” that he thought was a crevasse. Meacham tumbled after him, followed by Schneider. They then roped up and decided to. climb back out of what they thought was White River Canyon.

Schneider was leading, with Knapp and Meacham close behind when a slab avalanche let loose.

Schneider immediately assumed the arrest position to protect the other two boys. The snow swooshed past them, and they heard it cascading over a steep cliff below them. They were in a whiteout at the time, but later got a glimpse of the cliff. Young Schneider credits God with saving them from sure death.

“We didn’t know what direction to go,” Gary said, “so I talked to God and asked Him to give us a sign. Then came the avalanche and we took that as a sign that we should climb out of there.”

They then dug a snowcave at the 7800-foot level about a quarter of a mile east of Mississippi Head and some 700 feet above it where they spent the next 11 days.

Gary told his father that there they were saved by another miracle. The boys had started out with a small stove for melting snow for water and heating their food. They had two pint bottles of extra fuel.

“At the end of the fourth or fifth day the stove was empty. We turned it upside down and not a drop of fuel ran out. For the next four days we had to melt snow in plastic bottles which we held under our armpits for body heat. Then about the ninth day [about January 8], we decided to try the stove just to be doing something. To our surprise, when we pumped it up, it lighted up. For the next four days we used that empty stove to melt about a gallon of water from snow. It was a miracle, God was watching over us.”

(Source: The Oregonian, January 19, 1976. Further edited by J. Williamson.)

Analysis: These young men have been called “experienced climbers.” Actually they have had just enough experience to make them dangerously overconfident. They did a lot of things right, however. They all had wool clothing, some better than others. They had good boots and double sleeping bags. Knapp had a $300 Australian bag. Schneider had a fiber-filled bag with a down bag inside.

The snowcaves they built were just the right size and design. There was no sign of dripping from the roof and no ice had formed to spoil the insulating qualities of the snow.

Nevertheless, all their sleeping bags were wet. Most of the time they spent in the snowcave their feet were soaked. Schneider said he spent day and night wriggling his toes vigorously. Knapp and Meacham kidded him about the squishing sound, but his feet never suffered frostbite.

They made some major mistakes. First they should never have attempted to circle the mountain at this time of year. The snow conditions are unsafe and so is the weather. If I had known that was their plan I would have stopped them. Second, they should never have left their snowcave on Illumination Saddle. Third, they should have marked their route with wands (markers) so they could return to that cave—which we found a couple of days later, empty. Fourth, they should not have ventured into a whiteout without first roping up. If that had been a real ice crevasse, they could have lost someone, maybe all of them, since they were not roped up. Fifth, they should never have tried to navigate without a compass in a storm like that. (Source: Gary Schneider Sr., from a report in The Oregonian, January 19, 1976.)