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William N. Parke - Report on 1939 Mt Baker Avalanche Rescue Work
This report was written by the former district forest ranger in charge of the rescue effort following the July 1939 avalanche on Mt Baker, which claimed the lives of six Western Washington College students.

Section 1: Report on the Rescue Work

p. 1: Around 8 p.m. on the evening of Saturday, July 22, 1939, a young man and woman visited the author at his residence at the Glacier Ranger Station to report an accident. There had been an avalanche on Mt Baker and several of their party were missing. They included Alice James, Hope Weitman, Beulah Lindberg, Maynard Howatt, Vene Fisher, and Julius Dornblut.

The author immediately began organizing a search party. Men began gathering equipment. A portable radio would be used to send messages to George Dawson at the Church Mountain lookout for relaying to the Glacier Ranger Station (p. 3). Leaving after dark with ten other men, the author hiked to Kulshan Cabin, arriving at 3 a.m. Don Coss and Chet Ullin, guides of the college party, reported that they had recovered Alice James' body and searched the entire slide path following the accident. They didn't believe any of the others missing could have survived.

p. 4: According to Coss and Ullin, the 25 members of the climbing party were climbing in a zig-zag formation up the final steep slope of Roman Wall at around 1:30 p.m. when the accident occurred. The author writes:

All of a sudden there was a swishing sound and a fine layer of loose snow began to sluff off the steep slope, gaining in thickness as it continued. The party was at the upper end of the sliding snow and before they knew it the members found themselves all sliding with it as though they were standing on a moving carpet. Some of them lost their balance right away and a shout went out from one of the guides to "Dig in." This they did only to find that when they sank their alpenstocks and ice axes into the moving snow, the force of the slide bent them over from the firm snow underneath as though they were blades of grass. Some swam, some crawled, but all of them were down then up again, all fighting to move upwards so the sliding snow would all finally pass underneath them. It was almost a case of every person for himself, but in some instances, the men lent helping hands to female companions wherever possible. Some of those that survived, and were in a position to make observations, stated that they watched some of the victims rolling around in the snow, bobbing up and down, first being under, then on top, as though they were pieces of driftwood being carried over rapids.
Following the slide, the surviving members gathered near the Black Butte saddle while Coss, Ullin and another man frantically searched the slide path. They found Elizabeth Beers alive, clinging to a chute near the middle of the slide. They found the body of Alice James but could not revive her.

p. 5: During the first day of the organized rescue effort (Sunday, July 23), the body of Julius Dornblut, Jr. was found in a large crevasse at the bottom of the slide. Dornblut would be the last of the victims to be found. The other four victims were never located. The author writes (p. 6):

Aside from these lurking dangers it was a harrowing experience to be working in a snow and ice field looking for dead bodies. Every thrust of a bamboo probing pole, an ice axe, or an alpenstock or every jab of a shovel might strike some part of a human body. We all were anxious to find the bodies and so end the search and yet we all experienced an inward feeling of fear of what we might see when we found one.
During the first day of the search, several newsreel photographers arrived at Kulshan Cabin. They were C. L. Edwards of Paramount News, Chalmer D. Sinkey and his wife, of Movietone News, and Charles Perryman of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

p. 7: The second day's search party included 15 men. The newsreel photographers requested to accompany the search party, but only Perryman made it to the avalanche site. No more victims were found that day, but the author discovered that photographers Sinkey and Edwards "had taken a bunch of faked rescue pictures, some using Mrs. Sinkey as a fake body being dug out of the snow." Since only one girl's body had been recovered, it would tend to lead everyone to believe that Mrs. Sinkey was Miss James. This was likely to be very upsetting to Miss James' relatives and friends. The author attempted to intercept these pictures, but was unsuccessful.

Rangers Bill Butler, Jack Broadbent, and guide Bruce Smith arrived at Kulshan Cabin from Mt Rainier National Park that day. The father and brother of Hope Weitman also arrived, requesting permission to accompany the search party. The Weitmans "arrived with low oxfords, light weight overalls, and, generally speaking, were ill-attired for mountain climbing." The rescuers furnished them with sufficient clothing to make the trip.

p. 8: On the third day of the search, a hired 10-man crew arrived under the leadership of Max Eckenberg, "the most competent mountaineer in the Forest Service organization on Mount Baker."

p. 9: During the fourth and fifth days of searching, a few articles of clothing and equipment were found, but nothing more.

p. 10: During the sixth day of the search (Friday, July 28), equipment and supplies were packed to a camp at the Black Butte saddle. This camp was occupied until Friday, August 4. Eckenberg and his crew continued the search during that week, digging during the cooler morning hours and laying off during the heat of the day when danger from slides and crevasse openings became more pronounced. After the saddle camp was abandoned, the major search effort was called off and smaller parties of volunteers returned later in the summer when conditions were favorable. No more victims were ever found.

p. 14: Mrs. Ella Higginson, Bellingham's noted writer and poet, wrote in the aftermath of the accident:


Of all beautiful burial places on this lovely earth, if I might choose my own, my choice would surely be to lie in the depths of a crevasse, covered with perpetual snow; and with my name invisibly etched by God upon a majestic mountain for an enduring moment.

Think of the sunrises and sunsets; think of the moonlight on those silvery snopes; think how large and brilliant are the stars that keep ceaseless watch over those silent places.

Through the ages to be identified with one of the most beautiful mountains known; to lie there forever, on the silver crest of the world, close to God--my brothers, do you know anything lovelier after death than this would be?

Section 2: Radio Messages

This section contains the full text of the radio messages sent each day during the search effort. On p. 6 of this section, the author writes that the avalanche piled snow to depths of 50 feet. On p. 7, he writes that the main slide was about 1/2 mile long and about five chains wide, covering approximately 20 acres.

Section 4: Photographs

This section contains 12 black & white photographs of the avalanche site and rescue efforts.

The report also includes two maps of the Mt Baker region and a memorandum by the author discussing how the Forest Service might reduce the frequency and/or consequences of mountaineering accidents in the future.

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Last Updated: Sun, Feb 03, 2013 8:02:11 AM