November 10th, 2004 Taylor Clark | Special Section Stories
 

THE SURVIVOR

Giles Thompson, Mount Hood disaster victim

     
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In 1986, Giles Thompson joined the Oregon Episcopal School's ill-fated expedition to Mount Hood. It turned into the biggest climbing disaster in the state's history.
IMAGE: KEVIN P. CASEY
They set out hours before dawn, 13 hikers cutting through the darkness toward the summit of Mount Hood. It was May 12, 1986--the day after Mother's Day.

Ten of them were sophomores at Southwest Portland's private Oregon Episcopal School--where the climb was a rite of passage. Two teachers and a guide led the way. They planned on making it up all 11,235 feet of Hood in time to catch the day's sunrise. They only made 11,135.

A freak spring blizzard paralyzed the climbers, the snow creating a white blanket the climbers couldn't see out of. Amazingly, the teachers pressed the kids on well into the storm, saying it was good experience, a character builder. Two people--the 30-year-old guide and a senior student--turned around and tried to find help. Barely 100 feet from the summit, the rest dug themselves a shelter in the snow and waited.

The storm didn't let up. For three days, the climbers piled on top of one another inside the makeshift ice cave. Body heat made the cave melt from the inside; hypothermia drove them mad.

Giles Thompson, then 16, can only remember fragments of his experience in the cave.

"After a couple of nights up there, I was unconscious," Thompson says. "I don't recall if I thought I was going to die. I just remember it being completely unreal. I don't remember it occurring to me."

Searchers discovered the cave late on May 14. Three climbers, trapped outside the cave, had already been found dead on the slopes. Eight remained inside the cave, barely alive, so frozen that paramedics couldn't get intravenous lines under their skin. Rescuers found that one climber's body temperature was just 39 degrees.

By midnight, only two remained alive: Thompson and 16-year-old sophomore Brinton Clark. Doctors speculated that the two survived because they dressed warmly and laid on top of one another in the ice cave.

Nine others were dead. It was the biggest climbing disaster in Oregon history.

Brinton Clark spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from nerve damage. After her discharge, Clark returned to OES and went on to Stanford, where she graduated with a degree in human biology. Later she served in the Peace Corps in Ghana and went to medical school. Now 34, she lives in San Francisco and recently completed her medical residency in internal medicine. She and her husband, whom she met in Ghana, had their first child--a boy--last month.

Giles Thompson, also 34, had a tougher time moving on; as he says, the "tire tracks" from the accident are still all over his body.

Doctors amputated both of his legs, one above the knee and one below. His heart was unstable, and docs had to remove muscle tissue in parts of his body.

"I got pretty messed up," Thompson says. "I only have one knee now, so that makes it more interesting for me. Thank God I have one knee, though."

Thompson now lives in Seattle and is a full-time master artisan (i.e. special-effects guy) at the city's ACT theater. He says he was "kind of half-ass" about dealing with his loss until he got divorced a few years ago.

"I wasn't dealing with the reality of the loss," he says. "I was just coping. But when I was divorced, that kind of personal tragedy really makes you look at yourself."

Now, he says his two sons, 7 and 10 years old, make him realize the enormity of what other parents must have gone through while their kids were stranded on the mountain. Though he's never spoken about the experience with Brinton Clark--"It was too hard, too eerie," Thompson says--he has no trouble talking about the accident now.

"I definitely do talk about it now at length with friends, and especially kids," Thompson says. "I wear shorts, and if you're missing both your legs, it's pretty hard to ignore that."

Thompson doesn't fear the mountain; in fact, he decided to attend college in Colorado Springs, Colo., so he could have easy access to skiing. But still, he hasn't been able to bring himself to read his mother's book of diary entries about the accident, The Mountain Never Cries.

"It's very difficult to read," he says. "Someday, I'll get to it."


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Intro | Tonya's Mob: Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly & Shawn Eckardt | The Crusader: Gordon Shadburne | The Meteor: Billy Ray Bates | Satan's Pilgrim: Rex Diabolos Church | The Firebrand: Ron Herndon | The Bad Boy: Frank Peters | The Broken Halo: Michael Stoops | The Crack Mother: Anita Nichols | The Veejay: Kennedy | The Girl from Electra: Treva Throneberry | The Perfect Victim: Azalea Cooley | The Grappler: Dutch Savage | Wonder Boy: Pat Gillis | The Ex-Files: Marcia & Steve Moskowitz | The Witness: Dave Mazzella | The Prankster: Igor Vamos | The Intern: Monica Lewinsky | The Runaways: Diane Walden & Peter | Top Cop: Mark Kroeker | Sprawl Kitten: Kate Schiele | Authority Figure: Rocky Balada | The Hulk: Dry Dock 4 | The Candidate: Gail Shibley | The Super: Ben Canada | The Organ Grinder: Dr. William J. Brady | Pillars of the Community: The Lovejoy Columns | The Survivor: Giles Thompson | The Contender: Andy Minsker | Space Invader: The Phantom Dialer | The Red Menace: Ma Anand Sheela

 
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