What none of them knew until they were 14 ft. from the summit was that they would climb right out of spring into the shattering 60-m.p.h. gusts of one of those demonic snowstorms that have helped claim the lives of at least 50 climbers on Mount Hood since the turn of the century. Overwhelmed suddenly by the fury of snow, the bitterness of the wind and the blindness of a near zero-visibility whiteout, the climbers came to a desperate, shivering halt. In a frantic effort to save themselves, they crammed their bodies, sardine close, into a small snow cave.
The world below knew none of this until the next day, when the professional guide, Ralph Summers, 30, and experienced Student Climber Molly Schula, 17, struggled back down the trail to tell the awful news. That touched off one of the biggest U.S. mountain-search rescue operations ever. Local, state and federal searchers fanned up the mountain.
They first brought back three bodies found at about 8,300 ft., encased in ice, too cold to be revived. Rescuers speculated that the three had left those in the cave and met death in their descent. The snow cave? Searchers probed the ice crust where Summers thought it was but found no sign of the eight climbers still missing.
As Wednesday and Thursday crept by, U.S. Air Force Reserve helicopters and high-tech detection gear were committed to the hunt. An infrared body-heat detector was issued to a ground crew, and a night-vision camera was fixed to the nose of one civilian chopper. Yet nothing seemed to help. Anguished parents and friends tried to take comfort from seasoned mountain watchers like Lieut. Don Vickars of the Clackamas County sheriff's office. Said Vickars: "We had a case in 1975 where three kids survived through a storm in a snow cave for 14 days."
The party from Oregon Episcopal was not to be that lucky. Just before the search was called off Thursday, an Air Force sergeant happened onto a backpack at the 8,300-ft. level. There searchers located the remaining climbers, by then buried three days under deep snow. They swiftly airlifted all eight to Portland hospitals. Doctors revived two students. The six others were dead. The tragedy was Mount Hood's worst.
Even before the bodies had been brought down, kinfolk and friends of the victims began the inevitable grim second-guessing. Why had the climbers been so ill equipped? Why had the school not known that weather forecasts had prompted two experienced climbing clubs to call off ascents the previous day? Wayne Litzenberger, who lost his 15-year-old daughter Alison, gave voice to typical reflections. "I would have expected they would have had wands to leave on the ground. That they would have had a radio. Why the hell didn't they have at least one of those things along?"
There would be no consoling answers to such questions--and no answers at all from soaring, indifferent Mount Hood.