In 1986, Steve Raschick, 21, Kurt Petellin, 21,Tom Waller, 19, followed Ian Kraabel, a 23-year-old mountain guide who was at the beginning of his career, up the trails of Mount Baker. It was August and the season had already been a tragic one for hikers in America. In May, seven students and two faculty members from the Oregon Episcopal School died of hypothermia on Mt. Hood.
As the group of men moved up the glacier under the spectacular views of the mountain they didn't think about the past tragedy. The were focused on their ascent and their summit, completely unaware that they would be about to experience their own tragedy.
At almost 9,000 feet the team took a break. Kraabel, the mountain guide suggested a different route to the standard Coleman-Demin one. A route known as the Roman Moustache, or simply the Moustache, a steep snow ramp that cut up the mountain face between Roman Nose and Pumice Ridge.
"It'll be faster" he said. "We'll get up to top more quickly and then we'll be down earlier."
The three men Kraabel were leading that day only had three days experience, mainly focusing on glacier travel and crevasse rescue. The Moustache is certainly not a beginner route, its an intermediate route and depending on the time of year and the exact line, ranges from 40 to 55 degrees steep. The American Alpine Institute guides it at a ratio of one guide to two climbers and only with people who have ice-climbing experience.
The team finished their break and started making their way up the initial ramp on the Moustache. As the terrain started getting steeper the team stayed in glacier travel mode instead of transitioning into pitched climbing. Additionally, both Petellin and Raschick were having problems staying on the snows surface making the travel a slow and exhausting endeavour.
Then suddenly, there was a loud crack.
“I looked up,” Tom Waller said. “I saw ice coming down above Ian, and that’s when the sky fell.”
Looking up ahead they saw a serac high above the route carve off, dropping refrigerator-sized blocks of ice into the snow above them triggering a massive avalanche. A mix of broken ice and wet snow hit the team like a white wall, blowing them off the side of the steep slope.
Then there was silence.
Waller awoke and saw blood, he had a punctured lung and was coughing up blood. As best as he could he started calling for his friends but was getting no response. Little did he know he had been lucky and was thrown over a crevasse. Kraabel, Raschick and Petellin had all been washed into it.
Roughly 20 minutes after the avalance had hit, another team of four hikers arrived and started giving aid to Waller. The also began looking for the other men, hoping to find more survivors.
Kurt Petellin, who was washed into the crevasse, found himself hanging upside down, one foot pinned in the debris. He used his snow fluke (a device used as an anchor) to dig his legs out. “I had to dig my left foot out all the way to the top of the crampons to free it.” Petellin placed an ice screw, clipped himself to it and began to yell for his friends. “I was calling for Tom, Steve and Ian, and letting them know that I was going to dig them out.” He continued heroically to fight for his friends until the rescue party extracted him.
Neither Ian Kraabel, nor Steve Raschick were so lucky. They were gone. Buried in the crevasse.
At the same time a Vancouver Search and Rescue Unit was training on the mountain. They became aware of what had happened and immediately requested the support of a Navy helicopter to assist with the extraction. Both Waller and Pettelin were air lifted off the mountain and extracted to the local hospital for treatment.
It wasn't until a few weeks later that the bodies of Kraabel and Raschick were discovered. The late summer melt had ate away at the snow and ice and revealed their bodies. It was determined that both had died instantly and did not suffocate, which was some solace to the survivors.
Ian Kraabel had made some mistakes and those mistakes cost both him and Raschick their lives. But it’s hard to blame him.
In 1986 there were very few resources available for a young new guide to get trained in the United States. Most established guide services were doing all of their training internally. Modern avalanche training almost didn’t exist, and the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) was still in its infancy. It would be almost a decade before the AMGA national guide-training program would come online.
The backback that was recently discovered was still on the back of Steve Raschick. Who was wearing it when the avalanche struck at nearly 9,000 feet on Mt. Baker. Twenty-nine years later the pack surfaced at 5,200 feet. The pack had travelled nearly 4,000 feet down the mountain side, possibly under the ice the whole time. A mountain guide who was leading his clients to the bottom of the Coleman Glacier, thousands of feet below had something catch his eye, a sharp angle that shouldn’t exist on the ancient, smooth slab. His crampons crunching ice with each step, the guide walked over to a brilliant blue backpack half frozen into the glacier, half burped up by the mountain. He turned his discovery in his hands and saw letters written across the top of the pack: S. RASCHICK.
Raschick's knapsack, which sat dormant for so many years, contained gear you’d expect a climber to carry: Rope. A headlamp. Mittens. A camera and film. Other items—a vial of cologne, the crumpled remains of a bible—were more intimate.
Raschick's family didn't want the pack or its contents, so Waits returned them to Waller. He developed the film recovered from the pack and plans to create an art piece from some of the gear, but he means to leave the bag at Raschick's grave. “I was happy to have it back with Tom," Waits says. "He was the person who needed to have it."
(Images courtesy of Tom Waller and Andrew Waits)