USGS Cascade Pass
John Roper, Chris Marshall Roper, Gary Mellom
July 27, 1968
Except for Boston Peak, my memories of the “100 Highest Peaks in Washington State” are generally pleasant ones.
Over Labor Day weekend 1967, on the way out from a marathon 1½-day climb of Mount Olympus, king of the Olympic Mountains in Washington, my climbing buddies, Bruce Gibbs, Phil Dahl, and I were stumbling into the Hoh River Olympus Campground, still about 10 miles from the car when an attractive young woman came riding up on a donkey from the opposite direction.
"Hello," she smiled, "My name is Mary. Can you tell me the way to the city of David?"
Our reply was something profound, like, "Huh, what?" We continued on a few more paces to the campground and set down our packs to get a drink. Here we met another college-age woman who was wearing a “Mount Holyoke College” T-shirt.
My sister, Maurine, had been applying to colleges that summer, and Mount Holyoke was one of great interest to her, so I asked the woman how she liked it. She responded positively, in large part because her friend, Chris, who had "borrowed" the donkey from an older couple packing up the Hoh River, also went there.
We asked if the two were on their way to climb Mount Olympus. Joey admitted that she was from Massachusetts and wasn't even really much of a hiker, but that Chris, who lived in Seattle, had done the "High Altitude Traverse" in the North Cascades earlier that summer. My mountain ears perked up.
That “traverse” was coming to be known as the “Ptarmigan Traverse” after the name of a climbing club who did this wonderful, truly explorative 25-mile, above-timberline rugged trek in 1938 along the glaciated Cascade Crest, surviving on only raisins and oatmeal.
After a few minutes, Chris, the donkey-lady, came back and dismounted, as we talked with Joey. She was a very energetic, charming, athletic woman, with dark-brown, laughing eyes who filled us in on the details of this North Cascades traverse she'd been on. It was, as I'd suspected, the classic Ptarmigan Traverse, which she'd done from Cascade Pass south to the Suiattle River, except they had finished off-route on an awful two-day exit out Sulphur Creek.
This was quite an event in 1967, before the route turned into such a popular trek. I was impressed. Here was a good-looking, friendly, interesting, single woman, who was also a climber! My 23-year old juices were flowing.
We gabbed a bit more and both lamented that we hadn't run into each other earlier that summer, since both of us had taken the last couple months off to climb, and it was now September, and she would soon be returning to Massachusetts to finish her senior year at Mount Holyoke, and I'd be back for my fourth year of medical school at the UW.
She was due to fly back east on September 16, but was free for a climb the weekend before she left. I got her last name, Marshall, but forgot to get her number, and bounced happily down the remaining 10 miles to the car.
Back home, I fumbled through the phone book. There were tons of Marshalls in Seattle. I called way too many of them before finding Chris when her stepfather, Tom, answered.
We made arrangements to climb two great North Cascade peaks, Forbidden and Boston, the last weekend she would be in Washington. I was more than a little disappointed that she asked if she could invite a couple of her climbing buddies, Joanna Jenner and Bob Schneller along with us, but I agreed.
The three 20-year old friends and I (the oldster, at 23), drove out of Marblemount and up the long, dusty Cascade River Road that Friday afternoon and hiked in past the old Diamond Mine shacks to a camp in Boston Basin.
The summer of 1967 was one of the best ever, a sterling, sunny summer. I had climbed 25 peaks that year, including all the Washington volcanoes, Rainier, Baker, Glacier, Adams, and Saint Helens, as well as Olympus, Eldorado, Shuksan, Triumph, and Despair, so by September I was in as good of shape as I've ever been my entire life.
The week I'd been waiting for Chris to get out of the Olympics, a late summer storm blew in, dumping a foot-plus of snow on the higher peaks, which complicated our ascent of Forbidden. Although we had perfect weather again, the ledges across the NE Face were so potentially treacherous that we decided to do a level traverse clear over to the North Ridge.
It turned into a great climb on a great day on a great mountain. Life could not have been better as we rejoiced in our summit victory. We returned to camp on a mountain high.
The next morning Joanna announced that she'd had her fill of mountain adventure on Forbidden, and was going to spend the day in camp. The rest of us (Chris, Bob, and I) packed up early and made our way out of the forest onto the golden-red-brown, iron-stained boulder fields and polished slabs below the Boston Basin Glacier (now called Quien Sabe Glacier--Spanish for “Who Knows”-- an Austin Post word-play off Doubtful Lake, on the other side of the ridge).
We zigzagged through and around the crevasses, happy for the fresh snow-coating on the firm glacier, since we had voted to leave our crampons at home.
Arriving at the Boston-Sahale low point in full sun we squinted north along the red-colored rock rib crest to Boston, a huge brown, banana-shaped peak. It was clear that Boston was a rotten piece of rock, unlike the solid Forbidden. The 1961 Climbers Guide made only the cryptic comment that Boston was a "moderately difficult" climb up the east face for 350 vertical feet. What did “moderately difficult” mean, we wondered?
We clambered over the loose rock to the base of the 8894-foot, brown-red sugarloaf and started the ascent on its SE corner working right. I was in the lead with an old-fashioned goldline rope slung around my neck in a sash.
The route started easily enough but quickly became abruptly steep, and after a few steps up the wall I was stymied--the next solid handhold was not to be found, and I'd gone farther than I was comfortable backtracking. I stuck there pulling out this handhold and that, trying to muster courage, throwing the detached hunks of rock off to the side. My knees and voice shaking, I finally announced to Bob and Chris that “This route won't go,” and wondered to myself if there was some way they could help me.
Already impatient with my impasse, they had explored another route farther left with more success.
"Do you want the rope?" I offered, not sure how I was going to get it to them.
Schneller was above me, but out of sight.
"No thanks," he replied, "this way is going OK."
In a nervous move, I slid my weight down in a foot-Braille search for the next lower boothold. There was none there, so I returned the weight to the tenuous but known toehold it had left.
Out of my earshot, as I was concerned and frozen to the rotten wall, Chris let Bob know, “I'm glad John's luggin' that rope along, because there's no way I'm downclimbing this piece of crap.”
Bob continued smoothly up with Chris duplicating his moves.
I had just found an escape from my knee-wobbling predicament, and was gathering again my cool when a cascade of brown rock started crashing all around me. I heard it in time to lie out as thin as I could against Boston's side. After a very scary long time, the noisy rock barrage went silent as dust filled the local air.
Chris yelled something unrecognizable to me from above. Thinking that it was a question as to whether I'd been hit with the rock, I yelled up, "I'm all right. You missed me. Be careful! Please!"
Chris yelled another couple unintelligible words and repeated them. I backed down a few more steps and leaned out from the wall to listen again. The shout came again, and this time was understood. The words made me shake: "Schneller fell!"
In that volley of rocks that shot over my head was Bob's body. I backed up farther so I could see Chris. She was facing out, crabbing down the steep rusty face in full sun. She refused an offer to wait for a belay or rappel, and with impressive deftness, made it down safely over a pitch she thought she could only rappel.
Once down to me, she related that Bob was about 15-vertical feet from the summit when he grabbed a huge rock, maybe 1-by-2-by-2-feet, solid-looking--she saw it--that came out as he hefted back to climb over it. He fell, clutching the rock between his chest and belly.
“Oh…No!,“ they both said, she said, nearly simultaneously.
Schneller was not to be found on the sunny, east side of the mountain as we circled down clockwise toward Sahale. We arrived at the col that separates Boston from Sahale in just a few minutes. Here a 300-foot snow couloir shot steeply west and straight down to the Boston Basin (Who Knows?) Glacier.
Just a few feet down from the crest in this couloir was an impact crater, then a two-foot wide groove in the snow, bloodied red. We startled. We stopped. We looked at each other in silence. This was Bob's mark.
The groove twisted down and out of the sunlight into the shade and out of sight to the right. Certain that he had slipped all the way down to the glacier, 300 feet below, we kicked a few steps down the groove to confirm our suspicions. We were obligated to determine his fate.
Instead of seeing the groove end in a final fall to the glacier below, in just about 75 feet, we discovered his motionless body at rest before the last plunge.
Chris stayed above watching, while I worked my way down to Bob. His hard hat was still on. Maybe there was a chance. He was lying face down on the steep shadowed snow gully with his right leg broken below the knee and flopped completely back on itself so that his foot was on his thigh.
I kicked solid steps down to him and rolled him over, and felt a nauseating chill when I saw an unrecognizable puffy blue face with fragments of teeth on his cheeks. He was not breathing, and there was no heartbeat to be heard when I put an ear to his chest.
"He's dead, Chris. I'm sorry," I pronounced with all the authority, and all the finality that a young doctor-to-be could muster.
Afraid that he might slip out of the groove before the recovery, I picked Bob's body up to move it into the moat next to the rock wall he'd fallen from. As I lifted his body, his head flopped backward so suddenly I thought it would fall off, the neck was so fragile. His cervical spine was powder, I realized. It scared me more than a real doctor should be scared.
Chris and I kicked steps back up to the crest between the Stehekin and Cascade Rivers, then turned south, deciding to go back over Sahale Peak, rather than down the hard snow of the Boston Basin Glacier.
When we got back to Joanna and told her the news, she thought we were joking for just an instant, but our faces quickly confirmed the truth. We drove down to Marblemount to report the accident to the Chief Forest Service Ranger. He was concerned and professional as we filled out the details of the accident report. I agreed to meet a recovery party the next morning at the Ranger Station.
Chris went back to Mount Holyoke the next day. And the day after the recovery, I went back to med school for my final year.
Chris and I thought we fell in love that weekend, or sometime over the next three months of weekly letters. She came back to Seattle over Christmas break from college, and I proposed to her on New Years Eve, after only being in each other's physical presence for 17 days. Looking back, I don't recommend it, nor would she, I'm sure.
We were married the day I graduated from medical school in 1968, and the two of us returned that summer to Boston Peak with Gary Mellom, an old school chum and climbing buddy of mine from Newhalem, our hometown. That day we said a final good-by to Bob in the summit register. We won't be going back to Boston Peak ever again.
The marriage to Chris was as fragile as that rotten Boston rock, and didn't last.
Another climbing buddy of mine, Russ Kroeker, nearly lost his life in 1978 on a headlong tumble down a hard snow gully on the opposite side of the mountain that claimed Bob's life.
At nearly 9000 feet, Boston is one of Washington's 100 highest peaks, so it has become a necessary goal for the state's peak baggers. But no one comes back from Boston with a good word to say about it.