PORTLAND – John Thorton Jenkins plummeted out of control.
“He’s falling! He’s falling!” yelled other climbers near Mount Hood’s summit in northern Oregon.
It was 10:40 a.m. on a brilliant Sunday in early May. Jenkins had slipped above the Bergschrund, a crevasse near the summit.
His metal-pointed crampons clipped the snow, but he kept falling, his body rotating and rapidly gaining speed. There would be no “self-arrest,” the mountaineering technique climbers use to stop slides, typically by digging an ice ax pick into the surface.
After tumbling 600 feet, Jenkins finally came to a stop in a flatter area called Devils Kitchen.
Climber Jesse Cornett was the first to reach Jenkins and call 911 for help. Other rescuers converged quickly, including an emergency room doctor from Tacoma and other climbers with wilderness medicine training.
Then they waited and waited. A series of miscues and delays tested rescue operations on the state’s most popular climbing mountain that day. Months later, the people who stayed at Jenkins’ side remain troubled by his death when every minute mattered, questioning themselves as well as the emergency procedures in place.
In particular, they wonder why the initial 911 call didn’t trigger an immediate response and they wonder what took the helicopter so long to arrive.
It was 10:48 a.m. when Cornett reached Clackamas County 911. Other climbers were assessing the injured man – he was alert, able to talk, but had difficulty breathing.
“Hey, we’re on Mount Hood, just below Hogsback,” Cornett told the dispatcher, according to a recording The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained through a public records request. “Somebody just suffered a fall.”
Four hours later, the rescuers were still listening for the telltale thrum of helicopter blades and scanning the sky.
Five hours after he fell, Jenkins’ condition swiftly deteriorated.
And moments before the helicopter lowered a cable to lift a basket and hoist him aboard, he stopped breathing and died.
Clear skies, a weekend day, dozens of climbers and an icy approach at the top added up to a dangerous combination for the 11,239-foot peak on May 7.
Earlier that morning, Jenkins and his girlfriend, Shawna Lamoree, had begun their climb after sleeping overnight in a tent at 9,100 feet.
An estimated 10,000 people try to climb Mount Hood every year, a number that reflects its proximity to Portland and accessibility from a parking lot next to a picturesque lodge.
Some of the people who make the attempt have little climbing experience, possessing not even the most basic mountaineering equipment. The 32-year-old Jenkins wasn’t one of them.
His Facebook posts, and those of Lamoree, who declined requests to comment for this story, reflect a life spent often on peaks throughout the Cascades. Jenkins, who grew up in Kansas, lived in Mukilteo, Washington, for about a year but had recently moved to Seattle, also was a snowboarder.
Jenkins is believed to have climbed the Hogsback, a snow ridge that serves as the most-used path for climbers, then to the west of the Bergschrund crevasse. Around that, he then climbed in a traverse toward a south side entry point to the top called the Pearly Gates.
When he fell, witnesses said he slid across a snow bridge on the Bergschrund – and not into the gap. It’s unclear exactly why Jenkins fell.
Rescuers said Jenkins, who wore a climbing helmet, wasn’t using his ice ax. But friends said Jenkins was ascending with ski poles, one of which was equipped with an ice ax-like pick on the handle.
When he saw Jenkins fall, Cornett had paused to rest at the Hogsback. Within minutes, other climbers also came to Jenkins aid.
Andy Toyota, an Everett Mountain Rescue member who’d been climbing the mountain with his wife, took a leadership role. He directed people to break out their avalanche shovels and build a snow wall to block Jenkins from a whipping wind.
The group shoveled a more level surface where Jenkins could lie. And, at Toyota’s direction, they emptied their packs for anything to help Jenkins retain body heat, including a sleeping bag. Someone started a backpacking stove, heating water to pour into plastic bottles to place next to the patient.
In his 10:48 a.m. 911 call, Cornett told the dispatcher that Jenkins had been climbing, had fallen “several hundred feet” and was “busted up pretty bad … I don’t know if anything is broken … he went head over heels several times.”
The dispatcher transferred Cornett to a Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office community service officer – an employee who isn’t a sworn officer and doesn’t carry a weapon but helps the Sheriff’s Office in a variety of tasks. On this day, community service officer Connie Haider was fielding phone calls from Clackamas 911.
What was said next is in dispute.
Cornett insists he provided nearly identical information to Haider as he’d given to the dispatcher. But the phone call between Haider and Cornett wasn’t recorded.
Cornett said Haider told him to call Timberline Ski Patrol. Cornett said he was taken aback by the advice and emphasized again that it was a climbing accident, not skiing. He said Haider again said to call ski patrol.
Haider, through the Sheriff’s Office, said she interpreted Cornett’s statement about the location – “just above timberline” – to mean the fall happened just above the Timberline ski area, and that’s why she suggested he call Timberline Ski Patrol.
Both the Sheriff’s Office and Cornett, a novice climber who once ran for Portland City Council, agree that the call ended with Cornett saying he’d call back if Sheriff’s Office assistance was needed. Cornett, however, said he was flummoxed by the unhelpful response and laced his goodbye with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“So, I’m at 10,500 feet,” Cornett said, “… Googling Timberline Ski Patrol to find their number.”
He didn’t find it. Instead, Cornett located the Timberline Lodge main number, called it and was transferred to ski area guest services. He described the situation again. The person who answered said they would help and, a few minutes later, someone from ski patrol called Cornett.
“At this point, we’re 20 minutes into it,” recalled Cornett, who, three months after, is still frustrated that his first phone call didn’t launch the Sheriff’s Office rescue.
At 11:25 a.m., Timberline Ski Patrol Director Brett Wesson called 911 to report the climbing accident – 37 minutes after Cornett’s first call.
The Sheriff’s Office’s description of events differs from Cornett’s.
In a statement issued to The Oregonian/OregonLive, the Sheriff’s Office said Cornett told Haider that the Sheriff’s Office help wasn’t needed, that 10 climbers were at the scene and they “thought they could all help get him out.”
The statement also noted that Portland Mountain Rescue members were on the mountain when Jenkins fell.
That information, however, wasn’t relayed to Cornett, he said.
Portland Mountain Rescue members, the elite first responders for injuries and falls, were on the mountain at that time because the all-volunteer organization places a “Ready Team” at Mount Hood during prime climbing season – April to June weekends. The idea is to have a corps that can react rapidly if needed, rather than be summoned from their homes.
“Rocky, this could be a busy day,” Reuben Dohrendorf said.
Dohrendorf, the Ready Team leader on May 7, clicked into his backcountry skis near the base of the Magic Mile chairlift at Timberline Lodge. Rocky Henderson, who’s been with the organization three decades, did the same.
The lift whisked them to 8,500 feet – near the middle of Palmer Glacier but well below the summit. Off the lift, they strapped climbing skins to the bottoms of their skis and separately began the long, slow slide up the mountain.
Dohrendorf knew the combination of perfect weather, hard snow and ice conditions could result in an accident.
At 11:10 a.m., 22 minutes after the first call for help, Henderson learned of the fall. He had paused on his way up the mountain to chat with descending climbers, who told him. It was the first he or anyone on the four-member Ready Team had heard of it.
Henderson arrived at Jenkins’ side about a half-hour later. He found about 10 people helping the fallen climber, including Dr. Allister Stone.
Stone, of Northwest Emergency Physicians in Tacoma, had summited with his two teenage children and a family friend and they were descending on the Hogsback when he saw Jenkins fall.
Toward the end of the plunge “there were blocks of snow that he was hitting,” Stone said. “He’d bounce, spin, hit again. He hit like a pinball.”
It took Stone about five minutes to reach Jenkins. Shortly after he arrived, Jenkins twice sat up and lay back down.
“He was very coherent,” Stone said. “He just said he’d been banged around. He did say he had some trouble breathing.”
Jenkins also told the physician his back hurt. High on a mountain without any medical tools, Stone “did his exam as best as I could.”
He found abrasions on Jenkins’ knuckles but none on his back or hip, not even bruising.
Henderson recalls, and his notes reflect, telling Wesson, the ski patrol director, in an 11:37 a.m. phone call to be sure to request a helicopter.
But Wesson had already called 911 minutes before he talked to Henderson. In that call, Wesson doesn’t mention a helicopter. Like Cornett, 911 transferred him to Haider. And like Cornett, that conversation wasn’t recorded. Wesson, through a Timberline Lodge spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Henderson recalls contacting a search and rescue deputy to find out the status of the helicopter, assuming one had already been requested.
Realizing the problem, Henderson asked for a helicopter. By that time, it was 12:11 p.m., Sheriff’s Office records show.
Deputy Scott Meyers, who oversaw the Sheriff’s Office operation that day, contacted the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, the agency that acts as the gatekeeper on assigning helicopters in rescues. More often than not, the Oregon Army National Guard in Salem is summoned, as it was in this case.
At 12:29 p.m., agency director Scott Lucas called the National Guard to put the helicopter rescue in motion. Jenkins had been lying on the mountain nearly two hours. He continued to tell the doctor that he was having trouble breathing.
About 20 minutes later, the National Guard pilot contacted the Sheriff’s Office to get latitude and longitude coordinates for Jenkins’ location.
Jenkins continued to rest, though uncomfortably, with two wilderness first responders periodically checking his vital signs.
“The whole time he’d been complaining about being short of breath,” Stone said. “It just increased.”
Stone was concerned about several potential internal injuries, none of which he could treat on a remote glacier.
“I felt very frustrated,” he said. “I didn’t have access to what I would have had if we had this patient in the ER department.”
At 3:11 p.m., 4 1/2 hours after Jenkins fell, the National Guard helicopter arrived and, for at least four minutes, tried to land. It was a delicate task, as the pilot had to be careful not to hit the snow with a rotor blade.
Instead, a National Guard medic with a portable basket hopped out of the HH-60M Black Hawk helicopter when it got low enough to the ground before it rose and hovered over the scene.
The medic joined Henderson and Dohrendorf, intending to prepare Jenkins for a lift in the basket to the helicopter. Not needed for this part of the rescue, Stone, the physician, had moved about 40 feet away.
But Jenkins’ condition, almost simultaneous to the helicopter’s arrival, worsened dramatically.
“I can’t breathe,” he said. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
Rescuers worked quickly to secure Jenkins into the basket.
“We were doing everything to reassure him,” said Dohrendorf, “telling him to be strong. Trying to keep him calm.”
Then Jenkins stopped breathing. He had no pulse.
Dohrendorf yelled for Stone.
Stone immediately began cardiopulmonary chest compressions. When he tired, Henderson took over. They continued for about five minutes.
A cable raised the basket and Jenkins to the helicopter. The medic followed.
At 3:48 p.m., 37 minutes after arriving at Mount Hood, the helicopter began the 15-minute flight to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland where John Thorton Jenkins was officially pronounced dead. The Clackamas County medical examiner said he died of “blunt force trauma.”
The doctor and the two Portland Mountain Rescue volunteers with Jenkins until the end won’t say he would have survived with a faster evacuation.
All agree, though, it would have helped his chances.
“It did feel like it took longer than you would expect for that helicopter to arrive,” Stone said. “I get it that they’re far away. I wish there was some way to have a faster response. It sounds like it was as fast as they can go.”
Said Dohrendorf: “Even if he had been transported while still alive how would it have played out once he hit the ER? I don’t know.”
The experience was a first for Henderson, whose inaugural Portland Mountain Rescue mission was the recovery of bodies from the 1986 Oregon Episcopal School climbing disaster. There have been other body recovery missions over the years, but until now he had never had a patient die while in his care.
“We can all agree medical science for a long time has talked about the golden hour – that people can survive that first hour and then things really go downhill,” Henderson said. “If we had gotten him to the hospital sooner his odds of survival would have been markedly better.”
As it does with every mission, Portland Mountain Rescue reviewed its performance. It found possible areas for improvement: Talks have begun with the U.S. Forest Service about storing a cache of rescue tools near Crater Rock, at about 10,500 feet – just as the National Park Service does near heavily traveled routes on Mount Rainier.
These storage sites typically include climbing ropes, a litter to load a patient for air transport and a sled to ski a patient for treatment and possible hospital transport lower on the mountain. The cache would place essential equipment close to an area where climbers often fall, rather than having to lug the cumbersome and heavy tools up the mountain every time a call for help comes in.
And discussions continue about helicopter rescue. In the future, Dohrendorf said, first responders hope to have a more precise timeframe for a helicopter’s arrival when one is requested.
That would mean improved communication among emergency workers to figure out the best evacuation plan, Henderson said. Portland Mountain Rescue climbers were prepared to resort to a ground evacuation for Jenkins, he noted, but it wasn’t deemed necessary because a helicopter was on the way.
For its part, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office believes the rescue operation “actually went really smoothly,” said search and rescue Sgt. Sean Collinson.
“Once we realized what we had going on,” Collinson said, “things got going really quickly.”
However, he said, the conversation between Haider and Cornett offered the opportunity to improve training for community service officers in obtaining more precise search and rescue information.
Ultimately, the deployment of the Oregon Army National Guard helicopter couldn’t have been any faster, said Lucas, the Oregon Emergency Management search and rescue coordinator.
As it turned out, the pilot and co-pilot for the craft were at Salem Municipal Airport on their day off. As a result, the helicopter took off close to its two-hour target time after receiving a call for help, and beginning the half-hour flight to Mount Hood.
Henderson and others said that while they value the National Guard’s help in wilderness search and rescue, they wonder if the state sometimes has better options.
Last summer, on June 12, Henderson said a rescue helicopter from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island arrived at the mountain and efficiently plucked two stranded climbers off a treacherous perch.
But Lucas said the National Guard nearly always is the better option. It’s closer – in distance and working relationship, he said.
And he doubts a helicopter from Whidbey Island could have responded any faster May 7, based on the 3 1/2-response time to the rescue last June. That’s about an hour longer than the National Guard response May 7, he said.
Dohrendorf joined Portland Mountain Rescue in 2001, three years after he began climbing recreationally, because “I want to help others.”
Whatever search and rescue improvements result from the effort to save Jenkins, Dohrendorf isn’t likely to soon forget his experience.
“It’s not something you just get over, he said. “In the end, there’s a lot of emotional burden. It comes with a lot of emotional cost. We weren’t successful.”
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