Skip to comments.Survivor of '76: If we made it, they can too
Posted on 12/15/2006 5:17:05 AM PST by randita
Survivor of '76: If we made it, they can too
Three teens walked out after 13 days in a snow cave on Mount Hood
Friday, December 15, 2006
MARK LARABEE The Oregonian
It's been almost 31 years since Randy Knapp and two high school friends emerged from their 13th night in a wet, cold snow cave on Mount Hood, where they held onto hope through prayers and struggled to survive while a snowstorm raged outside.
As the years passed, Knapp, 48, a finish carpenter and part-time pastor who lives in Medford, refused requests for interviews. But Thursday, as headlines detailed the unfolding drama of another Mount Hood climbing party in trouble, the father of two said he wanted to give the climbers' families some hope.
"Ten days into it, I could hear the helicopter up there searching, and that gave us hope," he said. "I wouldn't write these guys off. They're experienced mountain climbers, and I wouldn't give up hope. They can make it."
Knapp should know. He was 18 when the party that included Matt Meacham and Gary Schneider, both 16, set off on New Year's Eve 1975 for a summit climb from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood's south side.
The three friends from Walla Walla High School were well prepared, with 10 days' rations, down coats and sleeping bags, crampons, rope, ice axes and a stove.
Knapp and Schneider, whose father taught mountaineering at Walla Walla College, already were seasoned climbers. They had summited Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens (pre-eruption), as well as several peaks in the Wallowas. Meacham was on his first mountain climb, Knapp said.
They spent their first night on Hood with the mice at Silcox Hut -- it was windy and a little stormy -- and the second in a snow cave below the summit at Illumination Saddle. Things were looking good. The next day they tried to summit via the Reid Glacier, but the steep slope was icy, so they turned around and decided to do the standard route the next day.
"That's when the weather closed in on us, and that's when all the trouble began," Knapp said. "It started snowing heavily and we were in a whiteout. Visibility was 30 feet. We could see nothing, kind of like it is now."
The group spent a second night in their snow cave at the saddle. When they woke up they quickly gave up on a summit attempt because of the weather. They decided to descend and go rock climbing in The Dalles. They packed up, roped together and started down. But Knapp said he forgot his map in the car. They tried to find their way by memory and quickly got lost.
By mistake they headed into the White River Canyon, between Timberline and Mt. Hood Meadows, where Schneider and Knapp fell into crevasses but were able to rescue themselves. They realized they were off route, and then they overcorrected and headed west of Timberline, toward Zigzag Canyon, a common mistake.
They were getting nowhere. So at about 7,600 feet, they dug a tent platform and built a wall to protect the tent from snowdrifts and wind, which Knapp estimated at 40 mph. It was a miserable fourth night.
"We had to back up against the corners of the tent to keep it from blowing down," he said. "Snow kept coming in on us, and we had to keep digging out to keep the tent from collapsing."
They realized that a snow cave was their only hope of survival. On their fifth day, hunkered down on a 50-degree slope somewhere below Illumination Rock, they dug their final cave and lived in it for 13 nights.
Knapp credits their faith with seeing them through. They took turns reading the Bible. It provided a sense of calm, he said.
"To this day I can remember verses that were important to us," he said. "We read in Psalms over and over how David would get in jams, and he would ask God to save him. And he would. That gave us a tremendous amount of hope."
They were never afraid, but they were always cold. Ironically, the trouble was that it was too warm, just above freezing, so the inside of the cave was dripping wet and their clothes got wet and never dried out, he said.
"If it had been 20-below zero, we would have been fine," Knapp said. "We were prepared for extreme temperatures, but we didn't have waterproof gear."
The slush provided them with a source of water when the fuel for the stove ran out. They would bottle it and let their body heat melt it. Each drank about a quart a day, so they were still dehydrated when they finally were rescued. On day 10 of the expedition, their food ran out. For the last week they survived on a mush of Jell-O pudding powder and pancake mix, a couple of teaspoons each.
The cold kept them awake, and they slept about four hours a night. Each day they would clear snow from the opening of the cave, check the weather and crawl back inside. By the time they left the cave, it had snowed so much that the entrance tunnel was 40 feet long, and there was 15 feet of snow on top of them.
Knapp said they continually watched their altimeter, which works off a barometer and signaled when weather was coming in. On the last night, high pressure moved in and Knapp said he dug out the opening.
"When I broke through I saw darkness instead of snow," he said. "I could see night. We could see lights in the valley."
They contemplated leaving right then but had no flashlights. Instead, they decided to get up early.
On Jan. 16, 1976, the trio left the cave just before daybreak. They climbed 500 feet up to a ridgeline and headed south toward the Palmer Glacier. About 100 feet above them they saw a search party that included Schneider's father. The searchers had been out for 12 days and were about to give up.
A Sno-Cat picked them up and took them to Timberline Lodge. According to newspaper reports, Meacham had mild frostbite on his toes and fingers, and Knapp had mild frostbite on his toes. On the ride down, Knapp noticed skiers on the chairlifts. A National Guard helicopter airlifted them to Willamette Falls Hospital in Oregon City. Each had lost about 30 pounds, Knapp said.
While he was missing, Knapp said his family was glued to the evening news. The reports continually speculated that the boys would not survive. "It was a source of tremendous strain on my family to listen to the negativity coming out of some of the press, not all of it," Knapp said.
He and his buddies went back and climbed Mount Hood the next year. Wary of publicity, they used false names in the climber's register, Knapp said. The three have since lost touch. Schneider and Meacham could not be reached for this story.
Knapp hopes the families of the men still missing on Mount Hood do not give up.
"I've been in constant prayer for these guys to give them some courage," he said. "I know they can make it. It's possible to survive this."
Researcher Lynne Palombo contributed to this story. Mark Larabee: 503-294-7664; firstname.lastname@example.org
Call me in the spring?
A dollar says they were Boy Scouts.
Two dollars says that one of them now goes by the name of Jack Bauer.
There is some good information about the current search here:
I linked to a page in the thread in which a poster explains mountain climbing to novices like me.
I've spent nights in snow caves, and if you have the right gear, it's no problem. I actually like it! But then, I'm known for carrying every piece of gear available. Flashlights, 2 stoves, Gortex Bivy bag and gortex sleep system rated to -40F, Gortex tent, MRE's , etc. Big mistake, is people get ready to go, and say, "I'll never need this", and leave something behind. Yeah, leaving your 2nd bottle of fuel, 2nd heat source, etc etc, saves a few pounds, but if you're stuck above the treeline, you'll suddenly wish you hadn't lightened your load.
Those Chinook helicopters are unbelieveablely loud. Today being nice and clear, and no sign of movement, I don't take as a good sign. This is also when the 2 $40 high volume smoke grenades I carry are priceless. It's also why my pack weighs 80 lbs.
My prayers with their families.
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