Survival story: An avalanche nearly killed Amy Horne two years ago; Now, she’s climbed back
Amy Horne has a story. It is a story she will carry the rest of her life, one that can be recounted and used in hard times, because it is a story of survival.
It begins on a rare, sunny day on Oregon’s Mt. Hood two years ago and ends in Truckee on June 5.
On May 31, 1998, Amy Horne was one of four people on Mt. Hood’s West Crater Rim Route caught in a deadly avalanche. The climbers were participating in their graduation climb for the Mazamas, the nation’s third oldest mountaineering club, based in Portland.
With only seconds to react, Horne and three others were swept away by a 300-foot wide barrage of snow two feet deep. The slide, which began at nearly 10,600 feet, carried the roped climbing team 1,250 feet down West Crater, through Hot Rocks, over a 50-foot drop and into a gully between Crater Rock and Hawkins Cliff.
“I heard a rifle shot,” said Horne, reflecting on the incident from her home in Truckee. “Teammates Ethan and Matt were ahead of me and Ethan’s head looked up, so I looked up, and I saw the snow coming down.”
Horne said that she tried to run but she was roped in and tired. She was wearing a pack and crampons so movement came slowly.
“I heard someone yell ‘run,'” said Horne, “and then Ethan said to get in self arrest position. I tried, but as the snow came over my head I realized I wasn’t anchored to anything. The snow was moving and I was moving with it. I got rid of my ice axe, and I remember thinking, ‘This is how I could die.'”
Brian Pheil of Tacoma, Wash., witnessed the slide.
“I saw four people flying through the air like balsa wood,” said Pheil. “I can play it back in my mind in slow motion. One guy went straight out in the air until the rope went taut, then fell. I saw the force of that thing and it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying. There will be pictures in my mind for the rest of my life of people being thrown into the air.”
Horne said the slide was fast at first, then slowed, and when the rope became taut it sped up again. That, said Horne, is most likely when the force of the slide broke the rope between she and Tom McGlinn, and when her hip shattered.
Climbing leader Ethan Van Matre, a veteran mountaineer, was guiding the graduation climb. He was one of the four caught in the slide, but he was not roped to the others.
As the slide came to a stop, Van Matre was able to scramble to the surface. He then descended the slide path looking for the roped team.
“I was hurt and cold, and I had no idea how long it would be before help came,” said Horne. “That was the hardest time – just lying there.
But I knew if I panicked it wouldn’t help. I tried to slow my breathing down. The sense of time was so distorted.”
Van Matre found two partially buried climbers. Matt Pennewell, 28, was buried to his waist and Horne was buried with only her head and arms above the snow. Both were injured, but it was not determined until later how severe their injuries were.
“I had no idea how hurt I was when Ethan found me. He asked me where I was hurt and I told him my lower back and left knee.
Shock is a wonderful thing in situations like that,” said Horne.
The force of the slide severed the rope, and Tom McGlinn, 39, the third member of the Mazamas team, was still missing.
Other climbing parties on the mountain witnessed the event, and alerted a United States Forest Service climbing ranger on patrol, who happened to be climbing with a member of Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR).
PMR soon arrived along with two Timberline Ski Area snowcats hauling gear, additional personnel, and an avalanche dog and handler.
Because none of the climbers were wearing avalanche transceivers, a probe line was established.
Roughly an hour following the incident searchers discovered Tom McGlinn’s body lying face down with his head up-slope. According to reports “it was readily apparent that death resulted not from suffocation but from significant injuries suffered in the fall.”
Amy Horne and Matt Pennewell were transported by snowcat to Timberline Lodge and then to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in Portland. Pennewell escaped with only a fractured ankle, but Horne, who was listed in critical condition, suffered a crushed pelvis, a fractured tibia/fibula in her leg, and an assortment of severe internal injuries including a throat injury which resulted in a tracheotomy.
Horne survived, but avalanche experts assert that considering the size of the slide and the extent of her injuries, she was very fortunate.
On Labor Day 1998, three months following the avalanche, Amy Horne moved to Truckee to start a new job with the Sierra Business Council.
After spending three months in a wheelchair Horne had convalesced to crutches, and was walking again.
Over the next year she would recover, although pain in her hip and left leg remain even today. The scar from her tracheotomy is barely visible, and occasionally Horne will brush her fingers over the mark, rapt in thought.
The psychological trauma, Horne explained, was another question.
“When I was in a wheelchair for six weeks I saw ‘Everest’ at the IMAX because it had avalanches,” Horne said. “I wanted to see how I would react. I wanted to test myself to see if trauma still resided in my psyche.”
Horne explained that when the image of a slide swept over the camera she had to close her eyes. The sound took her back to the slide and she recalls being inside the sound.
Horne, who has a doctorate in forestry, questioned the mechanics of avalanche science and the logic that led to her climbing Mt. Hood on a day when avalanche risk was considered high. Her curiosity became an investigation, and examining the nature of her fear objectively, Horne realized, would be the only way to overcome it. The process would also culminate in facing her fear, and, she said, it was soon clear that she would have to return to Mt. Hood and finish the climb.
In the fall of 1999 Horne enrolled in Sierra Community College’s avalanche safety course. Dick Penniman, the instructor, recalls Horne as an exceptional student.
“She was on top of the material from day one – a straight ‘A’ student,” said Penniman.
The semester-long course included five field days and 13 one-hour evening classes. On one occasion, Horne brought the medical hardware that was used to repair her hip, images from her recovery, and reports from the Mt. Hood avalanche for a class demonstration.
“It certainly got their [the students’] attention,” said Penniman.
Through the class, Horne realized that her climbing team did not cause the avalanche. The winter of 1998, and May in particular, was one of the wettest months in Oregon’s history. Heavy snow which consolidated in the afternoon sun, a previous climbing party, or both factors may have led to the avalanche. Regardless, the forecast for avalanche activity was high. Horne realized that there were many reasons not to be on the mountain that day.
The process of recovery was under way.
“One of the things I noticed about myself is that if I learn more about what I’m afraid of I become less afraid. When I took Penniman’s class it helped,” said Horne.
Horne also kept in close contact with many of the members of the Mazamas climbing team who were on the mountain the day of the accident.
The parents of Tom McGlinn filed a claim against the Mazamas club, and Horne felt it drove a wedge between the survivors of the slide and the victim’s family.
“They thought they were the only ones that were hurt,” Horne said.
No one involved in the accident will be the same, explained Horne. Half of the members of the climbing team no longer live in Oregon, and Tom’s fiancee, an Asian immigrant, was forced to move back to Japan.
The suit between the McGlinn family and the Mazamas was settled eventually, and the result, in part, produced a review process that is now used to assess the safety of mountaineering clubs around the nation.
“A year following the accident I sent Tom’s family a letter and some flowers,” Horne said. “I tried to explain some things that would help them understand the situation – things that I thought would make them feel better. It took them a year to respond, but they sent me a note saying that they read the letter several times and appreciated the fact that I was reaching out to them.”
“The healing process is slow,” Horne continued, “and there are choices.”
Two years following the accident, Horne returned to Mt. Hood in late May 2000. Rocky Henderson, a team leader with Portland Mountain Rescue who was present during Horne’s rescue, along with four other members of PMR, accompanied her.
John Young, the snowcat driver who transported Horne off the mountain in 1998, made arrangements to transport the climbers to the top of Palmer chairlift.
“I never intend to get caught in an avalanche again,” Horne said. “When you’re out there you need to know how to not to get caught, not how to survive an avalanche. I still have a lot to learn.”
The group was just short of the summit when Henderson received word over his radio that a woman who had reached the summit only an hour earlier fell off the north side and died.
“When I heard that a woman had fallen off the summit and died I thought ‘my god how ironic. The cycle is beginning again…’ I feel like an incredibly fortunate person. People can learn from what I’ve gone through.”
The team paused after learning of the accident, and Horne was asked if she wished to continue climbing. It was an important moment. The team continued, and after two years of recovery Amy Horne finally reached the summit of Mt. Hood, a survivor.
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