Fall on Rock, Inadequate Equipment, Over-confident, Oregon, Mount Hood

Publication Year: 1986.


Oregon, Mount Hood

Around 0545 in June 1985, David Thomas (32) and Doug Sahlberg (27) were ascending Mt. Hood when Sahlberg lost his footing. The following is part of the account he wrote concerning the accident.

“My climbing partner, Dave Thomas, and I were on the West face of the mountain, on the Reid Glacier, just below an area known as Leuthold Couloir, a deep snow and ice filled gully that leads to the Northwest Ridge of the mountain, and eventually to the summit at 3450 meters.

“We had begun our climb from the Lodge at Timberline at midnight. We had planned to be off the upper portion of the mountain by early afternoon, and had roped up at the Illumination Rock Saddle and dropped onto the Reid Glacier about 0515. It was already very light and clear with a slight breeze.

“Up to this point, it had been a beautiful climb. There were hundreds of stars out and we had been treated earlier to a light show as a meteor or star had fallen across the sky before burning up.

“My boots had been uncomfortable throughout the climb, mainly because of their full shank and overall lack of “give.” They were designed more for use in ice climbing than general mountaineering. Because of this discomfort and the distraction that it caused, I vowed I’d never climb in them again. (I had made the same vow three years earlier on a climb up Mt. Baker.) At the time of the accident, I was having a considerable amount of difficulty ‘flat footing’ on the slope due to the lack of flexibility in the boot. I was able to get a grip on the slope only with the uphill side of my crampon points. I believe this was a contributing factor to the slip I took that would eventually lead to the accident.

“After dropping on to the Reid Glacier, we proceeded up a 35-45 degree slope, which consisted of a layer of consolidating snow about four centimeters deep over ice. The footing was very good, and at no time did I feel that we needed to place protection of any kind, as it seemed that a fall could be arrested without too much of a problem.

“We climbed about half an hour with Dave leading about 50 meters ahead and to the left of me. My concentration was not what it should have been because of the discomfort of my boots. Then it happened: I lost my footing and began to fall.

“I yelled, ‘Falling,’ to Dave and landed on the slope in the arrest position. I slid a bit but managed to slow myself down. Everything seemed fine until I looked up for Dave, but instead of his being above me arresting himself as I had expected, I was shocked to see him rocketing down the slope to my left on his back. It was like a dream. In an instant he was gone and I watched the slack in the rope that connected us whip by me. By this time, I had almost totally arrested my fall, and I braced myself for that moment when the rope would become taught. I tried to dig my ice ax in deeper, but I knew I would never hold us.

“In a split second, I was hurtling down the mountain with Dave. I was still in the arrest position, but could not get a grip on the slope. I tumbled a bit and found myself on my back, traveling head first down the mountain. I got back into the arrest position and again tried to get a grip on the snow and ice, but there was just no stopping us.

“Then as quickly as it had started, it was over. Everything was still and I just laid there on my back for a few seconds until I fully realized that we had stopped falling. I looked around me. Dave was off to my left and slightly above me, lying as I was, on his back, feet pointed downhill.

“I called his name and he replied. I asked him if he was all right. He said he had a broken leg. I rolled over on my stomach to look up the mountain, and I felt pain for the first time. Nothing excruciating, just overall aching. I also realized that my face was not normal. It felt swollen and my left eye was almost swollen shut. There was no pain in my face, however.

“I looked above us and saw the reason for our abrupt stop; we had fallen through an old avalanche path in which there was scattered debris (small snow blocks now turned to ice). The rope had caught on one of these blocks. Dave had fallen to the right of the block, and I to the left, allowing the block to anchor us once the rope became taut.”

The lengthy description of the rescue, which involved several people and eventually a helicopter evacuation of Thomas, who had a broken ankle, has been omitted for space considerations. (Source: Doug Sahlberg)


I’ve thought a lot about the accident since it happened, and I figure that the main reason it happened was that my partner and I were somewhat over-confident. I’ve always considered myself a cautious climber. I had been on similar terrain before and always felt that a slip could be easily arrested. I feel now that I’m just lucky to be around and to be able to learn from my mistakes. Not everyone gets a second chance. I will definitely be applying this newly gained knowledge in my future climbs. (Source: Doug Sahlberg)

(Editor’s Note: On this particular day, about 250 people were attempting to reach the summit. This is about an average number for this time of year. Warming temperatures contributed to unpredictable surface conditions and rocks thawing out of the ice.)

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