In a single month between June 26 and July 25, four people died of trauma in Glacier National Park. Although the death of one man remains under federal investigation as a possible crime, the others perished in falls. Their deaths offer a sobering reminder of the perils involved in off-trail exploration.
Charles Fred Huseman, 64, of Packwood, Wash., died June 26 while hiking the Highline Trail, which was closed at the time due to snow hazards. He slipped while crossing a snowfield in the Rim Rock area about one mile west of Logan Pass, then fell 100 feet and landed on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, witnesses told park rangers.
On July 9, Cesar Flores, Jr., 21, of Davie, Fla., died while climbing Apikuni Mountain, north of Many Glacier Hotel. He was climbing with three other climbers when he apparently lost his balance near the edge of a cliff and fell roughly 1,000 feet, according to the initial investigation and witness reports.
Flores’ climbing companions could not see or reach the man and retreated, reporting the incident to park dispatch from the Many Glacier Entrance Station.
A helicopter and specialized short-haul rescue team from Parks Canada helped park rangers recover Flores’ body in the northeast area of the park.
Flores was an employee of the park’s concessioner, Glacier Park Inc., and worked at the Many Glacier Hotel, a few miles south of Apikuni Mountain. The other three climbers were Flores’ co-workers.
Cody Lee Johnson, 25, was last seen at his Kalispell home on July 7, when he reportedly left with unidentified friends in a dark-colored passenger car. His body was recovered below the Sun Road at The Loop on July 12, and the suspicious circumstances prompted an investigation by the FBI.
Most recently, 21-year-old Matthew Needham fell 60 feet to his death while climbing Grinnell Point near Many Glacier on July 25.
Needham, of Simi Valley, Calif., was climbing the mountain with two other climbers, all of them seasonal employees of Glacier Park, Inc. working at the Many Glacier Hotel.
Of the leading causes of death in Glacier National Park, drowning ranks first, but climbing fatalities are not far behind, and are much more common than bear attacks – the main source of trepidation for most visitors.
The allure of Glacier Park’s peaks captivates experienced and novice climbers alike, and the risks associated with scrambling in the park cannot be overlooked.
“Climbing deaths are not uncommon. If you look at the statistics of deaths it’s fairly low, but falls are certainly one of the elements of risk that you accept whenever you go off trail,” Cris Coughlin, owner at Glacier Guides, said. “Climbing in Glacier and getting on top of peaks requires a lot of route finding. There are several books out there that show various routes but it is easy to get confused. And because it is sedimentary rock for the most part, the rock is crumbly and unstable. All of those elements can contribute to an accident.”
Blake Passmore, author of the illustrated guidebook series “Climb Glacier National Park,” said inexperienced climbers often underestimate the difficulty level and the amount of time that bagging a given peak requires.
“It almost always takes longer and is more difficult than you think it is,” Passmore, whose books are geared toward climbers of all abilities, said. “Going up is optional. Coming down is not. A lot of these people who fall get so driven and think that they have to succeed that they get in over their head.”
The geology of Glacier Park is also a significant factor, he said. Its dramatic exposures of Precambrian age Belt series sedimentary rock makes technical climbing difficult and unpopular, while scrambling up mountains requires extreme vigilance and caution.
“The rock in Glacier is constantly changing. The mountains are in a state of decomposition all of the time, so climbers need to make sure they are checking every hold to make sure it’s solid.”
Eric Gabriel, Glacier National Park’s chief of ranger activities and an avid climber, said the most obvious caveats are often the most pertinent for climbers.
“One of the things we always preach is being prepared with the essentials for your outing. Be prepared for the unexpected,” he said. “All those generic but important points that we talk about aren’t a mystery, but you’d be surprised how often that plays a role in accidents.”
Oftentimes, dire circumstances are born of small, seemingly insignificant lapses in judgment, he said.
“I’ve been involved in search and rescue for decades now and something you see time and time again in fatalities and serious accidents is a series of benign errors that when taken into totality lead to catastrophe,” Gabriel said. “The little things matter.”
Gabriel said Search and Rescue agencies, including the National Park Service, rely on data sets to assess levels of risk and urgency when responding to an emergency, and age is one set of criteria.
“When you look at national data, young males between the ages of 18 and 21 are a particularly high-risk group,” Gabriel said. “They will push on when others might not.”
Jennifer Lutman, a spokeswoman for Glacier Park, said climbing, scrambling and peak bagging are recognized as activities inside the park but are not recommended.
“We do not encourage mountain climbing in Glacier, but those people who engage in it need knowledge of the area. They should start small and know their stamina and ability,” she said.
While Glacier is not a destination for technical climbing, it is a mecca for mountaineering because of its fantastic peaks. Climbing in Glacier is a remarkable way to see the park, but only if climbers explore within their abilities.
“It’s about personally evaluating each risk that is presented, then managing it, mitigating it, or going home,” Gabriel said.
For information about hiking in the park and trail status, visit http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/hikingthetrails.htm or contact the park at 406-888-7800.
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