News Columns & Blogs

Sudden tragedy: 75 years ago, a massive avalanche on Mount Baker killed six WWU climbers

The morning of July 24, 1939, searchers, left to right, Ray Bright, Chet Ullin, William Parke and Don Blackman, survey the lower portion of the avalanche on Mount Baker that killed six people the day before. The victims were members of an annual climb organized by  Western Washington College of Education.
The morning of July 24, 1939, searchers, left to right, Ray Bright, Chet Ullin, William Parke and Don Blackman, survey the lower portion of the avalanche on Mount Baker that killed six people the day before. The victims were members of an annual climb organized by Western Washington College of Education. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The weather on Mount Baker was warm and clear 75 years ago, much like the recent glorious sunshine that has bathed Whatcom County.

It was July 22, 1939, a Saturday.

Early that morning, before dawn, 25 members of a climbing party roused themselves at Kulshan Cabin and began their long, slow walk toward the summit. They all had climbing experience, some more than others. Their guides, Chet Ullin and Don Coss, led the way.

"They had good leadership," said John Miles, a retired Western Washington University professor who has climbed Baker many times and who wrote "Koma Kulshan, The Story of Mt. Baker."

The climbers that day all had ties to Western Washington College of Education, now WWU. They were students and graduates, teachers, administrators and guest faculty.

Their climb, a Western tradition, was the 22nd summer college outing to Baker. Over those years, some 1,200 people had faced Baker's snowfields, glaciers and crevasses without serious incident.

Their route to the southwest face was typical; up Coleman Glacier to a saddle, then climb the upper part of Deming Glacier to the Roman Wall and on to the summit.

A storm had dumped fresh snow high on the peak days before, but didn't seem a problem.

"The snow felt of the same density as it always has at this point, which has a southwest exposure and lies in the sun all day," Ullin told The Bellingham Herald in 1989.

By 1:30 p.m., the group was near the top of Deming Glacier, perhaps 15 minutes from the summit. Coss and Ullin stamped footholds in the snow. Behind them, the others walked in a long line bent along three switchbacks. Looking up, the guides could see steam rising and could smell sulfur from the summit crater.

Then, the snow below their feet broke free.

"Just a little swish. Then the avalanche struck," W.C. Muenscher, a botany professor from Cornell University who was a guest at Western, told The Herald a few days later. "I tried to brace myself with my alpine stock and was swept off my feet, bowled over like a tenpin."

Fifty years later, Ullin described that first moment.

"There was no sound in the movement of the snow. It was a movement as silent as the death it was to bring," he told The Herald. "The snow began to murmur and the murmur increased into a roar."

The avalanche began at the foot of the Roman Wall and quickly gained speed, width and depth.

"We were like a tablecloth on a 45-degree table, and we were the dishes," Ullin recalled.

As wide as a football field, the avalanche roared a half-mile down the glacier, shoving snow over two ice cliffs and into a crevasse 70 feet deep.

"I was buried in the snow for about 200 feet of the wild slide down the mountain," Muenscher told the Herald. "The worst of it was over in about five minutes."

All 25 climbers were trapped in the slide.

"They watched some of the victims rolling around in the snow, bobbing up and down, first being under, then on top, as though they were pieces of driftwood being carried over rapids," wrote William Parke, the Glacier District forest ranger who organized the rescue effort.

DESPERATE SEARCH

Once the avalanche stopped, the climbers gathered out of harm's way while Coss, Ullin and two of the climbers began searching for seven missing colleagues. But with the afternoon waning and conditions still treacherous, the survivors soon returned to Kulshan Cabin.

One of the climbers, Rex Rolle, and Evelyn Rupert, a Western teacher who had stayed behind, hurried to the Glacier Ranger Station some 10 miles away. About 8 p.m. they rang the doorbell at Parke's home at the station.

"We have an accident to report!" one of them frantically told him.

Parke quickly rounded up supplies, other rangers and volunteers and headed back to the cabin, reaching it by 3 a.m. Sunday. With a few hours of sleep and some hot bacon and coffee in their bellies, they headed toward the disaster site at 5:30 a.m. and began scouring the slide area even as the hot sun weakened the snow and burned their skin.

Miraculously, they found a woman climber alive, clinging to edge of a chute between two ice falls near the middle of the slide.

Then searchers found Alice James under three feet of snow on a bench below a 100-foot-high ice fall. She was limp but warm, so they gave her artificial respiration for an hour and half, to no avail.

James, a 22-year-old from Arlington, had been a student at Western for four years. The president of Edens Hall that summer, she planned to graduate in August and teach in Stanwood.

In a disturbing incident, two newsreel photographers at the scene the next day staged a fake rescue, with one of their wives posing as a victim dug out of the snow. Parke, fearing that viewers would think the photos showed James, lobbied to have the photos withheld. He didn't succeed.

Later that first day, searchers also found the body of Julius Dornblut, 70 feet down in a crevasse beyond the bench where James' body had been found.

Dornblut, 29, hailed from Bellingham and was the editor of Western's campus newspaper before he graduated in 1935. A teacher in Edmonds school district, he had returned to Western that summer to advise the campus paper and to serve as its editor and business manager.

No other bodies were found. The four other victims are still on the slopes of Baker, likely in the crevasse at the end of the slide.

With six people dead, it remains the worst climbing disaster on Mount Baker, and was the worst in Washington state at the time.

LOOKING BACK

From today's perspective, John Miles said it's safer to have climbers reach the summit of Baker by early morning so they can be off the snow by mid-day, before the sun weakens the surface too much.

Climbing groups should be smaller, too, he said, while recognizing that large-scale outings were popular during the early years of mountain climbing.

Knowledge about snow and avalanches is much more advanced. Now, climbers concerned about possible avalanches would dig a snow pit to study the layers of snow and ice below the surface before deciding whether to continue, Miles said.

But despite improved equipment and knowledge, climbers today are still hurt and killed in avalanches.

"We still have these major accidents," Miles said. "It's still one of those act-of-God kind of circumstances."

CAMPUS MARKER

A memorial honoring the six people killed in the July 22, 1939, avalanche on Mount Baker is located on Western Washington University campus, just north of Old Main.

The rock for the memorial came from Baker. The brass plaque was made by the father of victim Maynard Howat.

Also listed are victims Julius Dornblut, Vene Fisher, Alice James, Beulah Lindberg and Hope Weitman.

Below their names are the words: "You will be forever climbing upward now."

Those words appear in a memorial poem written by campus librarian Charles E. Butler. Here is Butler's poem:

"Now you will be forever young:

Now you will never grow old in a silence, knowing the early music sung.

For you there will never be the slow breaking

Of the early dream, the abandoned undertaking,

The fine plans forgotten and put aside ............

There will be none of this for you now: you were young when you died.

You will never listen now for music finished:

For you the songs ends on the high note, unfaltering, undiminished.

And you will be forever climbing upward now, the long splendid climb:

Weariness can never hold you back, nor the world, nor Time.

Goodbye: the dream endures.

You be young forever; the heights will be forever yours."

Courtesy: Special Collections Heritage Resources, Western Libraries.

  Comments