INVOLUNTARY GLISSADE, FALL INTO A CREVASSE UNROPED— Washington, Forbidden Peak. About 2 p.m., Sunday, July 13, 1975, Steve Firebaugh (24), John Holland (31), Mary O’Coner (25), and Joe O’Coner (24) began a descent of Forbidden Peak after having successfully completed the Torment- Forbidden traverse. The party remained unroped after an initial 150-foot rappel down the east face and proceeded downward over steep and loose but technically easy third class terrain. Holland had descended this route twice before and the others accepted his general route directions while he dropped behind, coiling a rope. However, the directions were incorrect, leading to an eastward traverse too high on the face. Joe O’Coner was leading the descent and becoming involved in the more difficult off route climbing. The accident occurred when he made a precarious move using a loose block as a hand hold. The block dislodged and O’Coner tumbled down the face and out of sight. Firebaugh and Mary O’Coner rejoined Holland and the three waited for the assistance of a second party consisting of Dave Seman and Dan Caulfield who were completing an ascent of the direct east ridge.
Once joined, the two parties decided that everyone would return to the end of the climbing difficulties at an east ridge notch whereupon Firebaugh, Mary O’Coner and Caulfield would return to the cars to seek mountain rescue assistance. Holland and Seman would return to the east face to make a search during the remaining light. Owing to Seman’s more recent experience with the correct descent route, the return to the notch was accomplished expeditiously. Enroute the ice ax belonging to Joe O’Coner was found, as well as several blood stains, indicating that he had fallen at least 400 feet. Holland and Seman’s subsequent search of the lower east face proved fruitless and they returned to camp in Boston Basin.
On July 14 the search was resumed with the assistance of a rescue effort coordinated by Don Paine of the Skagit County Sheriffs Office. A helicopter from NAS Whidbey containing Firebaugh and a Skagit Valley Mountain Rescue team picked up Holland and Seman and proceeded to the Boston Glacier on the east side of the mountain. Unfortunately, the altitude and gross weight of the helicopter preventing landing the entire team. Nevertheless, Holland and Seman were deposited on the glacier about 600 vertical feet below the main bergshrund. They proceeded up the glacier and searched for two hours finding only the pack worn by Joe O’Coner. At this point it was decided that either the search would have to be greatly expanded (with descents into crevasses and bergshrunds choked with snow and ice blocks) or the effort would have to be abandoned. The certainty that O’Coner could not have survived the fall, logistical problems involving the rescue team and helicopter, the relatively unstable conditions of the main bergshrund, and the possibility of a rockfall in a large operation all dictated the latter course of action. The entire team was flown to the Marblemount Ranger Station. (Source: Skagit Mountain Rescue Unit, Inc.)
Analysis: Holland and Firebaugh were the most experienced members of the original team. Both were strong climbers and this expedition was well within their capabilities. Mary O’Coner was less experienced having climbed primarily on weekend trips over a period of two or three years. Still, in the company of the more experienced members, her background would normally be considered adequate for safely completing this climb. The experience of Joe O’Coner, however, was a different matter. His total background consisted of several weekend-type trips in the Cascades, and several sessions in the Leavenworth rock climbing areas. Throughout the climb his inexperience as a climber was evident in his relative slowness on the easy rock and snow.
Fatigue, being off route, and a loose block were the factors contributing most directly to O’Coner’s fall. But coping with these factors is precisely what experience permits. In retrospect, this accident bespeaks a breakdown in leadership, insofar as O’Coner was allowed to get ahead on ground that would have quickly been seen to be off route to the more experienced members of the party; insofar as accepting O’Coner’s word that he was “comfortable” on the terrain despite visual evidence that he had not been comfortable on similar terrain throughout the climb; and ultimately in planning and executing a climb of this
difficulty including a member with so little experience. (Source: Skagit Mountain Rescue Unit, Inc.)