What Makes One Mountain More Deadly Than Another? A Look at Mount Adams and Mount Hood


YAKIMA —  Just 60 miles separate Mount Adams from Mount Hood, but the two volcanoes are worlds apart when it comes to deadly accidents.

There have been two deaths on Mount Adams in the past five years, but Mount Hood has claimed seven times that many in the same period. The most recent was last week when a climber was killed in a fall after reaching Mount Hood’s 11,240-foot summit.

Simply put, Mount Hood requires more climbing skills than the relatively easy route most climbers take up Mount Adams.

Relative is the operative word. Climbers on both mountains need to know their limitations.

“Take your time to do your research on the mountain,” said Justin Ewer, wilderness manager for the Forest Service’s Mount Adams Ranger District.

Mount Hood is a dominant part of Portland’s skyline. It’s only a 90-minute drive from the city to the trailheads and that draws in climbers, said Mark Morford, a rescue team leader with Portland Mountain Rescue.

But it is by no means an easy climb. According to the U.S. Forest Service, all routes to the summit require technical mountain-climbing skills. Morford said climbers on Mount Hood should anchor themselves to the slopes as they head to the summit or return.

On Tuesday, 35-year-old Miha Sumi of Portland fell 1,000 feet as a storm approached the mountain, and three other members of his party were stranded. Officials described the group as having “mid-level experience” and the proper equipment.

“There’s no minimum qualification to do it,” said Sgt. Brian Jensen, spokesman for the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department. “There’s a bunch of warning signs in here but if someone says, ‘Hey, I’m on vacation in Oregon and I’ve never climbed a mountain before and I want to climb Mount Hood,’ there’s nothing keeping them from doing it.”

Morford has seen cases in which a climbing party roped itself together the same way people do when traversing glaciers. While the party were connected to each other, they were not hooked into an anchor embedded in the rock face.

Without the anchor, whole parties have fallen after one person fell, dragging the others down with him. He recalled an instance where one climber fell, and took out his own party and a second group of climbers who were similarly roped without anchors.

Since 2012, 14 people have died in accidents on Mount Hood — more than 130 since records have been kept. One of the deadliest incidents was in 1986, when seven students and two teachers on a school trip froze to death when they were caught in a storm while trying to reach the summit.

By contrast, there have been two deaths on Mount Adams since 2012. The most recent was in 2016, when a 60-year-old hiker died in a fall.

Ewer said Mount Adams’ southern slope is considered a largely non-technical climb, requiring only crampons and an ice ax.

While it is not exactly a stroll in the park, the ascent is easy enough that in the 1960s, the Yakima Chamber of Commerce organized annual mass climbs with 400 to 500 people. Those ended in the 1970s, because the large crowds were not compatible with the area’s designation as a wilderness, Ewer said.

When there are problems on Mount Adams, they fall into a couple categories. People get lost as they come off the mountain, taking wrong turns and winding up by snow chutes were they are prone to falls or being hit by falling rocks, according to Ewer and Sgt. Randy Briscoe of Yakima County Sheriff Office’s Search and Rescue Team.

Another problem is people sliding down snow packed-slopes while wearing crampons. While it’s a quick way to get down the mountain, Ewer said the crampon can easily catch on a rock or loose snow and send the climber dangerously tumbling.

Some people underestimate how much time a climb requires and are reported missing when they don’t return home on schedule.

A climber can make a round trip in a full day, but Ewer said many break the trip into two days, spending the night at a spot known as the Lunch Counter before making the push for the summit.

There are no requirements at either mountain for people to demonstrate skills needed to climb. They are only required to obtain wilderness permits if they are going to the summits.

While Adams does not have the dangers that Hood has, Ewer and Morford say climbers should respect the mountain and make sure they are prepared physically to make the climbs.

In Alaska, climbers attempting to scale Denali, North America’s tallest mountain at 20,310 feet, must register at least 60 days in advance and attend an orientation that lasts one to two hours, said National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri in Talkeetna, Alaska.

Veteran climbers such as Scott Schoenborn don’t take an ascent lightly.

On Tuesday, as he descended Mount Hood, he ran into the companions of the man who fell to his death.

Schoenborn, 53, always fills out the information forms at Timberline Lodge before departing, even if they aren’t mandatory, he said.

“Mount Hood’s killed a lot of people and when I take new climbers up, the first thing I do is I tell them to go to Wikipedia on ‘deaths on Mount Hood’ and start reading so that they know it’s a serious mountain and to take it seriously,” he said, as he rested with his ice ax still strapped to his back.

Schoenborn added: “You need to be trained (and) you need to go with someone who’s experienced.”