Mayhem on the Mountain

  • Published
  • By David Haydter, as told to Tim Barela,
  • Air Force Survival Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)
A quiet stillness inside the snow cave we had dug made it feel eerily like a tomb. The cramped quarters had protected us from the unrelenting blizzard we'd faced that night, but I suddenly had the urge to be outside again. Maybe a little claustrophobia had taken hold of me. But I actually would describe the feeling as more of an impending doom.

I shook my head, as if to shed myself of the negative vibes. "Silly," I thought with a nervous half smile. Besides, if the storm still raged, we'd hear something wouldn't we?

I pawed at snow that had accumulated at the entrance of our hastily hollowed "hotel room." I dug, and I dug ... and I dug. More than two feet later my fist finally popped through the snow. I cleared enough icy powder to pop my head out of our shelter.

What I witnessed took my breath away. Poking my head out of the cave was like sticking it out of a car window while traveling 75 mph. The force of the roaring wind was so strong it blew the still falling snow horizontally.

It was a complete whiteout!

I sat back down in the cave, faced my friends, and said, "We're in trouble, boys."

A Bad Decision
It was February 1998, and I was a young senior airman. Three friends and I, all Air Force survival, evasion, resistance and escape instructors at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., decided we wanted to climb Mount Saint Helens, the famous volcano in Washington.

We filled out our leave forms for three days, and then sat through our mandatory safety briefing ... which went in one ear and promptly out the other.

We weren't trying to be defiant, but for nearly four years safety had been pounded into our heads. Of course, there was a good reason for it; each of us was in charge of anywhere from four to 10 aircrew members every time we went into the woods for six days straight. Every instructor's greatest fear was to have a student in their element get seriously injured in those austere conditions, especially if it looked as though the instructor could've prevented it.

At times, though, the "safety bombardment" that helped achieve a stellar mishap record seemed to be a little too much to bear.

We were too smart and paranoid to take any shortcuts with our students, but by the time our trip to Mount Saint Helens came along, we were ready to take a break from this rigid safety regimen and cut loose. We were all 20-something, which already made us feel bulletproof. But throw in that we were also extremely fit and trained wilderness survival experts, and we brimmed with confidence.

So with little fanfare -- or preparation -- we packed our gear and took off.

We arrived at the volcano around 4 a.m. and took a nap in the car until 7. The base of the mountain was right around 3,000 feet. It looked like there was about 5 feet of snow at base level. Good thing we all brought snowshoes. Snowmobilers, skiers, snow boarders and hikers filled the parking lot. No one we saw appeared to be climbing to the summit.

"Odd," I thought.

We began climbing at 7:30 a.m. It was slow going at times as we sank to our waists in snow, even with the snowshoes. We popped out of the tree line around 4,000 to 4,500 feet. That was the last we saw of any other people on the mountain.

At around 3 p.m., the wind started to pick up. No big deal. We figured that's bound to happen when you climb in altitude up a bald mountain. By 3:30 we were right around 6,500 feet, still nearly 2,000 feet from the summit. The wind had picked up quite a bit more, and snow fell steadily. Visibility? Well, let's just say that bats could see better than we could at that point.

Was this supposed to happen?

None of us bothered to check the weather before we left, so we had no idea what to expect.

The Snow Cave

At this point, we had two choices, either descend, which would be difficult to do in the severe weather, or stay there for the night.

Ultimately, we based our decision on one main thing: Ego. We didn't want to go back to Fairchild and have to tell people we failed to make the climb. So we decided to stay the night and finish the climb in the morning.

None of us had tents, but with the wind picking up the way it was, they wouldn't have been sufficient anyway.

We had to dig a snow cave, but how?

We could use our hands, but they were already freezing. I had lost one of my gloves along the way. Luckily, the same guy who gave me his pair of extra gloves also brought a fold-up shovel.

Armed with the one shovel, we began a makeshift assembly line. One person would shovel as hard as he could for five minutes; two others would gather the snow that was shoveled out and push it away from the entrance. The fourth person would rest. Then we'd rotate jobs.

At one point, white waxy spots formed on two of my fingers. ... I had mild frostbite. I skipped the next rotation and kept my hands between my legs until they warmed up.

We continued this process for nearly two hours, until we had dug the cave big enough for all four of us and our equipment. Because we only had one shovel, we were exposed to the elements a lot longer than we should have been.

By the time we finished digging the cave, we were exhausted and a full-fledged blizzard raged outside.

Inside the shelter, we set up our sleeping bags and discussed our situation. We only had enough food to last the night, so we all agreed we had to finish the climb the next day no matter what conditions faced us on the mountainside.

A Whiteout
At 7 the next morning, we woke up from a restless, uncomfortable night of sleep. The calmness in the cave buffered us from the mayhem taking place outside its walls. Not until I dug through more than two feet of snow that had covered our entrance that night and stuck my head out of the shelter did we realize what a predicament we were still facing.

Mother Nature had served us up a complete whiteout.

We dressed, packed up our gear and discussed what to do next.

Knowing it's impossible to climb in those conditions, we finally relented and reluctantly admitted there was no way to reach the summit. So we stayed in the cave a couple more hours in the hope that the storm would subside some. And we made plans to descend.

When we finally climbed out of our temporary lodging, we realized Mother Nature wasn't in an accommodating mood. With the wind howling like a pack of hungry wolves, we couldn't decipher words unless we were within a foot of each other yelling at the top of our lungs. We couldn't see each other unless we were within 3 feet, and even then the person next to you appeared more as a ghostly outline.

As if we didn't have enough to overcome, the violent wind blew straight uphill. None of us had goggles, because the ill-prepared rarely do have the things they need. If we kept our eyes open, stinging snow pelted them. Even when we tried putting our hands over our eyes and looking through the cracks between our fingers, the snow still honed in on our eyeballs.

I swung my pack up to put it on, and, almost comically, the wind blew me over. I'd be lying if I didn't admit how nervous I was. I no longer felt invulnerable.

Blindly Down the Mountain
Once we put on our snowshoes, we began walking downhill with our eyes shut. We only opened them now and then to get accountability for everybody and to avoid hazards in the terrain.

A short time into the descent, one of my climbing partners grabbed my shoulder, roughly jerking me back a step. Irritated, I opened my eyes and asked him what he wanted. He kicked snow and pointed down. The snow disappeared.

I had nearly walked off a cliff!

I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck. The guy who saved me was the same one who brought the shovel and lent me the gloves. I was beginning to think he also might carry a halo, because he was sure turning out to be my guardian angel.

We went around the cliff and continued to descend. About an hour later, we saw our first tree. This sight made us all feel like little kids opening our first Christmas presents. We huddled up and released tension with war whoops and hollers of relief and joy.

We continued down and hit the timberline about an hour later. By the time we entered the forest, we were at a low enough altitude that the storm had died down some. A little further down, we realized we were lost. Our "beeline" down had obviously drifted to the left or right.

Fortunately, one of the guys had a compass and had taken a heading on the way up. We took the reciprocal heading and found that our path had drifted to the left. We turned right about 30 degrees and continued downhill. An hour or so later, we hit a snowmobile trail and followed it to the parking lot.

We made it.

A Lucky Lesson
We were fortunate. Our experience and physical conditioning, along with the preparation of one person and a fair amount of luck, helped us overcome our bad decisions.

For me, this "little adventure" served as a wakeup call. It reinforced why Air Force leaders put so much emphasis on preparation and cultivating a safety culture. And it showed that the Air Force survival school didn't get its incredible safety record by accident.

Even before this experience, I never would've taken shortcuts that risked the safety of my students. But now, I'll never take shortcuts with myself. The mayhem on the mountain cured me of that.