Well-known Bellingham climber dies in fall on North Cascades peak

Sue Bennett of Bellingham is shown in an undated climbing trip.
Sue Bennett of Bellingham is shown in an undated climbing trip. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A well-known and highly experienced Bellingham climber died Saturday afternoon after falling into a crevasse while descending Forbidden Peak, one of the North Cascades’ most spectacular and treacherous rock faces.

Susan Bennett, 61, was with a group of four climbers who reached the 8,816-foot summit on Saturday. They were rappelling on their descent from the difficult West Ridge when Bennett fell several hundred feet, according to a statement from the North Cascades National Park Service Complex.

All members of the climbing group were from Western Washington, said Denise Shultz, public information officer for the North Cascades National Park. A helicopter crew planned to retrieve Bennett’s body Monday from a 30-foot crevasse on Forbidden Glacier, but a “priority incident” on Mount Rainier delayed the recovery operation until at least Tuesday, she said.

It’s very rugged. It’s very steep.

Denise Shultz, North Cascades National Park

Bennett’s friend Mary Latta, ACT! coordinator at the Whatcom Family YMCA, said Bennett was being mourned by staff and members at the Y and throughout the region. Bennett was well-known for inspiring and encouraging female climbers and for promoting the sport of rock climbing to all.

Latta said Bennett taught rope-certification classes and volunteered to teach and belay climbers during the Y’s family-oriented climbing hours. The Y has 65-foot and 30-foot indoor walls and a bouldering section.

“She set routes, taught top rope and novice climbers,” Latta said. “She was hugely committed to encouraging everyone to try climbing in a safe and supportive atmosphere.”

Bennett was a dental hygienist at Galbraith Mountain Dentistry. She lived in Bellingham since 1978, after moving from Southern California, and had been married for 28 years, according to her biography at the dentist’s website.

“She was just a really cool person,” Latta said. “It’s a big hole in our community. It’s just such a shock. She’s one of the last people I would’ve expected this to happen to.”

Bennett was was on the board of The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based climbing organization. She represented the Bellingham Mountaineers club and was honored this year as its volunteer of the year for 2016, said Bill Ashby, director of operations at The Mountaineers.

She was a veteran and “highly experienced” climber who loved the adventure of mountaineering, Ashby said. He said Forbidden Peak is a “spectacular” objective for those who love the North Cascades.

“The views are outstanding. The challenge of that particular objective exceeds your expectations,” Ashby said.

A helicopter rescue team from Mount Rainier National Park was sent after Bennett fell Saturday, but the crew saw no signs of life.

“It’s very rugged. It’s very steep,” Shultz said.

The views are outstanding. The challenge of that particular objective exceeds your expectations.

Bill Ashby, The Mountaineers

Meanwhile, the Bellingham Mountaineers Club posted a notice of Bennett’s death on its Facebook page.

A blog entry at SummitPost.org describes Forbidden Peak “as a great obelisk of rock, a classic horn created by the merging of several glacial cirques,” forming an amphitheater-like valley.

Forbidden Peak is east of Marblemount along Highway 20, off Cascade River Road, and can be seen by hikers from the Cascade Pass trail. The West Ridge is listed in the guide book “50 Classic Climbs in North America.”

Mountaineers call it beautiful and dangerous.

“There is no easy way off Forbidden Peak,” blogger Josh Lewis of Lynnwood writes at Summit Post, quoting “Selected Climbs in the Cascades” mountaineering guide book. “It’s true. Many of us have felt that sense of uneasiness on the summit of Forbidden that goes with having completed only half the climb.”

July is peak climbing season in the North Cascades, according to MountainProject.org.

Schultz said the last climbing-related death was in 2015, when a Bellingham man was killed by a falling rock at Fisher Peak.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty