It takes approximately five hours of continuous hiking across the Palmer Snowfield to get to the Hogsback from Timberline Lodge on the south side of Oregon’s Mount Hood. At 3 a.m. on the morning of Monday, December 30, Walla Walla University engineering students Grant Hartman and Xander Culver began the hike.
They had slept the previous night in Hartman’s car in the parking lot at Timberline in order to get an early start toward summitting the 11,250-foot mountain. This was Hartman’s first attempt at the summit; Culver was the more experienced climber on this particular mountain, having summited Mount Hood once before. They would soon discover that higher plans than their own were in play that day.
Mountaineers have a habit of naming sections of popular climbs. On Mount Hood, nicknames like the Hogsback, Pearly Gates, and Devil’s Kitchen serve at least two purposes: first, as graphic descriptions of specific geographic characteristics, and second, as verbal shorthand when discussing the climb with other climbers. Devil’s Kitchen would otherwise be known as “the fumarole above Triangle Moraine where dirt, ice, and rock form a bulge on the mountainside.” Devil’s Kitchen is shorter and, in some ways, more apropos.
By 8:19 that morning, Culver had reached a flat spot at the lower end of the Hogsback, and was about 10 minutes ahead of Hartman. The Hogsback is a ridge at just over 10,000 feet that climbers maneuver before the final push to the summit. Culver stopped to wait for Hartman and to prepare for the rest of the climb.
“This is a nice place to sit before going for the final summit push,” said Culver. “If you don’t already have your crampons on and your ice axe out, you get those out, because the last little bit is where it starts to get steep.”
Fall from the Pearly Gates
Most of the roughly 10,000 climbers who attempt to summit Mount Hood each year do so in spring. Winter weather conditions can be more challenging, and for that reason winter climbers will often take the first-ascent route from the 1800s known as the Old Chute. On this particular December day the sky was clear. Culver and Hartman had talked with other climbers descending the mountain that morning who said the Old Chute was in good condition. That was the route they decided to take instead of the steeper route over the Pearly Gates.
“The Pearly Gates at this time of year has an ice step, which is a near vertical cliff of ice,” said Culver. “I never got a good view of it that day, so I don’t know how tall it was, but from talking to other climbers it sounded like it wasn’t that big, maybe 20 to 50 feet high.”
From his rest spot on the Hogsback, Culver drank some water, ate some snacks, and was gearing up for the more difficult and technical part of the climb ahead while he waited for Hartman. He’d been there about five minutes when a swift movement on the mountain caught his attention. Someone was sliding out of the couloir in the distance to the right at roughly 30 to 40 miles per hour. A climber from a group ahead had fallen from the Pearly Gates and was plummeting down the side of the mountain.
“I stood up, and there were a couple of people standing on the Hogsback next to me who were shouting ‘Arrest! Arrest!’” said Culver.
“Self-arrest is basically using your axe and digging it into the ice and snow to slow yourself down,” said Hartman, who explains that fellow climbers yell reminders when someone is falling because sometimes in a moment of panic beginners don’t have the instinct to remember how to stop their fall.
The climber fell more than 500 feet and came to a stop at Devil’s Kitchen, a few hundred feet below Culver’s location on the Hogsback.
“We shouted down to him, ‘Are you okay?’ We shouted a few times and weren’t really getting an answer,” said Culver. “He kind of groaned a couple of times, and we all got ready to jump into action.”
Hartman was about 100 feet above and to the left of Devil’s Kitchen when he looked over and saw the climber falling. During high school Hartman did four years of search and rescue with the Linn County Sheriff’s Office out of Albany, Oregon, when he was a student at Livingstone Adventist Academy. “That’s where I really gained a passion for helping people in times of need,” he said. Hartman is director of ASWWU Outdoors, the WWU student-led outdoor program, and is a Wilderness First Responder certified by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). This intense 10-day wilderness first-aid training prepares participants to respond to high-risk scenarios like the one he and Culver found themselves in.
Hartman’s training kicked into gear, and he began to assess the situation and the conditions on the mountain. “I immediately saw an old avalanche slide above where he fell from and where people were sort of running across the slope toward him,” said Hartman. “This was a place that typically has slides, so that was one of the things I had to consider for sure. But the snow looked pretty stable, and I didn’t think there was risk for another one, so I cautiously made my way across the slope toward him. I prayed as I was walking across that slope—prayed for the patient’s safety, for everybody else’s safety, and for God’s guidance.”
Crucial emergency response
Falls on Mount Hood aren’t unheard of. In 2017 a climber who fell from just below Pearly Gates and ended up in Devil’s Kitchen died after more than five hours on the mountain before a rescue helicopter could evacuate him.
By the time Hartman reached the patient, Culver and three others who had seen the fall from the Hogsback were at the scene. Culver, who is an ASWWU Outdoors trip leader and a graduate of Sacramento Adventist Academy, had completed a two-day course in Wilderness First Aid training also from NOLS. As a result, he and Hartman had a similar understanding of patient assessment protocol, terminology, and first-aid response.
“He was groaning. We were talking to him. He was definitely in pain,” said Hartman. “Nobody was holding his head at that time, and in my training that’s the first thing you learn to do is hold the person’s head. Even if you don’t know if there’s any risk of spinal cord or brain injury, you hold the head until you can rule that out.
“The most important thing from the training that you learn is how to react under stress and under pressure. That’s super crucial,” said Hartman, who quickly assessed the situation and the need for someone to take charge and start giving people and the patient tasks to do. “That can really help ease the stress in the scenario.”
“We started getting him warm. I did a patient assessment and tried to see what else might be hurt on him. We found out he had a hurt leg, and we knew the leg was the biggest thing,” said Hartman.
The response team went into action. Using what they had learned at NOLS, Hartman and Culver were able to stabilize the patient’s head and spine and roll him to get sleeping pads and clothing between him and the snow. “He was getting really cold and shivering really hard. Everybody pulled their big puffy jackets out of their backpacks and donated them to the cause,” said Culver.
“We made a nice toasty bundle called a hypo-wrap to prevent hypothermia and that also works well for shock,” said Hartman. “While I was doing the patient assessment, it was really nice to have Xander there because we have training from the same organization, so we have very similar ways of thought. While I was doing the assessment, I had Xander write down all the information about vital signs and medical history so we could work together to get it correct.”
The group had cell service, and someone called 911. For the next four hours they regularly provided patient vital signs—pulse rate, skin color, skin temperature—to the search and rescue team and emergency medical technicians who were deciding how best to respond to the call for help.
The sun was cresting the edge of the mountain around the time Hartman and Culver first arrived at the scene. They estimated it was around 29 degrees as they worked, but with the sun shining on the snow, it felt more like 35 or 40. Culver made hot cocoa and did what he could to help keep the rescue team warm and comfortable. As they waited and the snow field warmed in the sunlight, a few falling chunks of snow and ice frequently reminded the group of climbers that they were working on an avalanche slope.
‘In the right place at the right time’
The professional rescue crew ultimately decided to hike to the site rather than helicopter in. The first member of the search and rescue team showed up about four hours after the fall, and the entire EMT crew arrived about an hour after that. From then it took three hours to evacuate the patient down the mountain. After the rescue crew took over care of the patient, Hartman and Culver descended the mountain together without having made the summit. By the time they reached the parking lot at Timberline, the rescue team was there as well after transporting the patient down with a snowcat.
Culver and Hartman are both grateful they had the training they needed in order to help. “It’s a good feeling when you’re there and you know God put you there in the right place at the right time,” said Hartman. “The other people who responded didn’t even have basic wellness first aid training, so even my simple training ended up being quite valuable. If the two of us hadn’t been there, the situation could have been much different.”
Through their work with ASWWU Outdoors, Hartman and Culver are staunch advocates for getting outdoors and enjoying nature. “It’s how I connect with God in one of the most powerful ways. A lot can be learned in the outdoors. It’s something I think everyone should have the opportunity to experience. Even normal, everyday stresses can become easier to handle because of tools you learn in the outdoors,” said Culver. Hartman calls his work with ASWWU Outdoors “the most fulfilling job I’ve had so far.”
Hartman stayed in the parking lot for an hour while the EMT crew got the patient situated in the ambulance. That evening Hartman and Culver joined a somewhat surreal Christmas party at Culver’s family’s house in Portland. They hadn’t made it to the summit that day, but “the safety of those around us always takes precedence over getting to the summit,” said Hartman. “The mountain is always going to be there. It’s not going anywhere,” said Culver. “We’ll just have to go back and do it again.”