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On Sunday, March 6, two climbers fell while ascending the West Face of Mt. Hood. According to the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, Pradnya Mohite, 34, of Issaquah, Washington, died and Lei Wang, 50, of Renton, Washington, was critically injured.
The climbers had been in the Leuthold Couloir area when they fell about 200 feet. One of the climbers was able to call 911 using a phone and Garmin inReach device. Search and rescue efforts began that night and continued into Monday.
Stationed at Timberline Lodge, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Search & Rescue Coordinators were assisted by volunteer search teams from Portland Mountain Rescue, the Hood River Crag Rats, and Mountain Wave Emergency Communications.
“Mt. Hood is a dangerous mountain because it’s a volcano that sticks up about 6,000 feet above treeline,” said Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg to Climbing. Dr. Van Tilburg has served as a volunteer rescuer for Hood River Crag Rats for the past 22 years and medical director for Portland Mountain Rescue for the past three years “Mt. Hood is unlike other mountain ranges like the Rockies. It’s completely exposed to the weather and the elements with no buffer at all, and so the mountain is dangerous. The most common climbing route on the mountain, the South Side [Palmer Glacier], is relatively straightforward from a mountaineer’s standpoint. But almost all of the other routes on the mountain are technical.”
The Leuthold Couloir is a steep chute that crosses the Reid Glacier. It’s a popular, if not challenging feature.
Sunday night, one team attempted to cross the upper Reid Glacier and ascend the couloir, but, due to high winds and avalanche risk, were unsuccessful. By 11:40 p.m., another team came within 700 feet of the climbers, but they also had to turn back due to the conditions. Gusts were up to 70 miles per hour and rescuers sank into thigh-high snow.
On Monday, winds had subsided, but only slightly, with gusts up to 54 miles per hour. At least two natural-release avalanches occurred.
The rescue effort expanded to include members of AMR’s Reach and Treat Team, the 304th Rescue Squadron, the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, Corvallis Mountain Rescue, and the Oregon Army National Guard. In total, 32 rescuers were involved.
Improved visibility allowed a team of rescuers to summit Mt. Hood late Monday and then descend to the top of the couloir. Upon reaching the climbers, rescuers were not able to obtain vital signs from Mohite, while Wang was found in critical condition. Due to the conditions, the team evacuated only Wang, leaving Mohite’s body to be recovered in better conditions. The injured climber arrived at Timberline around 6:50 p.m. and was immediately taken to the local hospital. In total, the rescue effort lasted nearly 20 hours.
Climbing reached out to the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, however, further details of the accident are being withheld.
Generally speaking, Dr. Van Tilburg said most mountain rescue calls to Mt. Hood are due to climbing falls.
“Mt. Hood is pretty accessible,” he said. “It’s only an hour drive for two million people in the Portland metro area. I can tell you, from personal experience, it tends to get a lot of first-time alpine climbers, and Mt. Hood is not the place to be a first-time alpine climber. My recommendation is don’t be a first-time alpine climber on Mt. Hood; [instead you should] go guided.” The main guiding service, Dr. Van Tilburg said, for Mt. Hood is Timberline Mountain Guides.
All rescuers, including Dr. Van Tilburg, involved in this accident were volunteers, spending their own money and using their own gear to carry out the effort. Almost all mountain rescue services have sites that accept donations—consider donating to your local team.