WORDS: Ethan Stone
We called it the Blue Room, and it seemed like everyone on the snowfield had been there at least once. It appeared frequently on Instagram and Facebook feeds throughout the summer. Right off the eastern edge of the snowfield, it was easy to access, but sheltered from the ski area by a rock ridge—a perfect place for a safety meeting or a quick escape from the snowfield, trading the crowded slopes for a walk-in visit to the middle of a glacier.
The Blue Room is one of the many crevasses in the White River Glacier to the east of Palmer Snowfield. The glacier is easily accessible from the ski area, although the ski area boundary on that side is technically closed, and it’s long tempted Timberline’s adventurous summer clientele with visions of death-defying crevasse gaps and other glacial terrain features.
In mid-August, a photo of Tommy Ellingson jumping another crevasse in White River was named “Extreme Photo of the Week” by National Geographic. I was there for the jump session, and it was one of the sketchier things I’ve ever experienced. The jump was built on the edge of an overhang that could have sheared off at any time into the gaping crevasse below. The landing on the far side of the chasm was actually the roof of an A-frame snow cave with just as much likelihood of collapse.
We shot the jump for a few straight airs and got the hell out of there. The mountain had been lenient with us. I went home, bought an ice axe, and resolved to stay away from crevasses.
On Saturday, August 3rd, a group of snowboarders ventured onto the White River glacier intending to build a gap and shoot photos and video. The spot that they had scoped earlier had more crevasses opening up in the landing, so they hiked around, looking for other features, and stopped at the Blue Room to take a look inside.
Inside the crevasse on that hot Saturday afternoon, the glacier’s silence would have been broken only by the sound of dripping water. The bowed walls of the Blue Room, impassively carrying their weight, probably glistened white and blue in the light from a hole in the ceiling overhead.
The entryway to the Blue Room collapsed just as the group was leaving, completely burying Colin Backowski, 25, a coach at High Cascade Snowboard Camp, and partially burying two others who were deeper in the crevasse.
Unable to help their friends due to the threat of additional collapse, the rest of the group was forced to watch on as one of the buried individuals dug himself and then his partner out, then began trying to reach Backowski.
The glacial ice would have spurned any blow from an avalanche shovel, but they tried anyway. When rescue crews arrived, they used chainsaws to cut through almost 10 feet of the collapsed snow before reaching Backowski, who had been killed instantly, the next morning.
“All six of us were in it a minute before it collapsed,” said one member of the party. “It could have been a lot worse.”
A week later, the summer death toll on Mt. Hood rose to three when Sebastien Kinasiewicz, a Polish military officer visiting the Northwest for training at a Columbia Gorge drone manufacturer, fell some 1,500 feet while attempting to summit the mountain on August 12. Search-and-rescue responders who located Kinasiewicz’s body speculate that he fell from the summit off the north face of the mountain.
Easy accessibility can trick you into a false sense of safety, and this is perhaps Mt. Hood’s most fatal characteristic. The summit and the glaciers beckon to us within grasping distance, like mirages promising fun and adventure. But upon arrival, we find high-alpine threats and high-alpine consequences.
Backowski, Kinasciewicz, and Kinley Adams (who died climbing on June 22) were just three of thousands who tested the limits of the mountain this summer. We can’t be sure why they died—whether by misstep, misjudgment, or plain old ‘wrong place, wrong time’—but their passing reminds us to always treat the mountain with the utmost respect, whether on the summit or a few hundred feet out of bounds.