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Avalanche on Borah

By Michael Howard

As brothers we had been trying to find a better way to get to the start of the northwest
ridge and to the north face routes of Mount Borah. 

In December 1976 Vaughn and I climbed to the pass between Rock Creek and the west bowl. 
This bowl lays below you when you climb the southwest ridge route From this pass we 
climbed the North west ridge and then descended the west face into the bowl and out 
to the present parking lot. It was a cold but beautiful day. While climbing the ridge
we talked about using the same approach to drop into the North face bowl.

The next November we climbed over the pass and down into the bowl and up the original
north face route almost to the ridge before we were stormed off and retreated
out through Rock Creek.

The face was in good condition. We began immediate plans to return to complete the route
that we had almost completed.

We planned on leaving after Thanksgiving dinner and spend the night so we could get a good
start to complete the route and return home at a reasonable hour. My work would
not allow me the time on Friday so I had to back out at the last minute but
Vaughn wanted to go. 

He was going to go with Ken McCarthy but Ken had to back out too.

Vaughn talked to Guy Campbell, our youngest sisters husband, during Thanksgiving dinner 
about the planned trip and talked him into going up with him just to get out and maybe 
climb the mountain. Guy had never climbed anything but was willing to enjoy a trip into the
mountains.

They drove Guy’s old chevy pickup up to the start of the trail. In those days it was a
rough road that never came to a definite end until it met the draw coming down
off the slopes of the mountain. The truck was parked where the earthquake
escarpment cuts through the road today below the toilet.

Instead of hiking up the old standard route they crossed the draw that comes down the side 
of the road and climbed the foothills above the campground. These lead to a small ridge that
eventually ends at the mouth of the ravine that the creek forms coming out of
the west face bowl.

The next morning saw new snow and a storm. This year was a very dry one and the “Icicle”
had melted back along way and there had been very little moisture. This storm
put down close to 6-8 inches of snow over the next several days.

The day was spent trying to climb on the northwest ridge route that Von had climbed before.
There were hunters there that same day up at tree line looking for deer.

Friday night came with them not coming home and still no word from either of them.
They were prepared, so Mom and Dad did not get unduly alarmed when they did not
return that night or the next morning.

Saturday evening my Dad called and said that they had not returned and he was concerned.
He was making preparations to leave in the morning with people to look for
them. I was living in Blackfoot at the time. He was going to get someone to
check to see if his truck was parked at the trailhead and call me back.

Dad made contact with Lyman Dye, who gave the name of Morgan Haroldsen and Wylie Smith
as a contact that, could check the trailhead for their pickup. Some how it was
established that their pickup was still parked at the trailhead.

Late Saturday night Randy Whiting and myself left Blackfoot to begin our search
efforts because I worried they were hurt and would need immediate help and
could not rest until we had made some effort. We arrived a little after
midnight and it was a cold, clear, moon lit night.

We followed tracks the best that we could and it lead us to the area where their bodies
were eventually found but the moon light left and we lost the track so we
huddled together in the area until we had daylight to move in.

Looking back, if we had known more about avalanches and what to look for we may have
recognized the run out of debris from the avalanche because we had stopped
right below the accident site and did not know it.

We continued up to the saddle and up the northwest ridge looking for any evidence
of their travels.

Dad had got people from the area and from home to come look. These people were on various
parts of the mountain looking but thinking that the normal route would be where
they would be found.


About noon a person could be seen over on the southwest ridge motioning to us and trying to 
tell us something but we could not understand him. We decided that we should descend into 
the bowl and meet up with the others to find out what was going on.

When we got into the trees, we made contact with Morgan Haroldsen who was using
horses from his ranch in Chilly to look.

The Bonneville County Jeep Patrol was there as well as Sheriff Skinner, Lyman Dye and other 
friends.

It turns out that they thought we were Vaughn and Guy and they had located us. A T.V.
cameraman, Quincy Jensen, came running up to me asking questions about where I
had been and called me Vaughn. This bothered Quincy the rest of his life and
every time he would see me he would apologize.

Quincy had spent the last week of August with Vaughn, Lyman and others in the Sawtooths
making a film of a climb on Warbonnet Peak. During this trip Quincy became
quite fond of Vaughn. Vaughn and myself had been mistaken for each other
through high school, as Terry and I have even today.

The people of the Valley opened their homes and lives to us that night. It was cold and
clear all night as I lay in bed wondering where they were at and if they were
suffering.


The next day was spent in the search base camp helping organize the search effort and 
trying to help each group understand what Vaughn and Guy were like and what they might 
have done on the mountain.

We had people from ISU outdoor program led by Ron Watters, H Hilbert, Boise, Custer
County. Lyman directed the climbing effort on the mountain and a person from
Bonneville County Jeep patrol directed the search on the lower parts.

The next day we had a National Guard helicopter out of Boise show up to help in the
search. It had been held up because people were worried about the cost to the
county. A previous search had cost the taxpayers of Custer a large sum of money
and put the Sheriff in hot water with his electors. He was hesitant to commit
to anything until it was sure who would pay for things. It was outside of
Bonneville County so they were there only as friends and to help but could not
call in any aid.

A lesson we learned from this experience was that there were a lot more resources available
than we knew and the helicopter could have been there a lot faster if we would
have just called. They volunteered their services just for the training it
would give them. If they weren’t doing this they would have been creating their
own rescue scenario.

Eventually we had two helicopters on the mountain with one coming out of Mountain Home Air
Force Base. They were a real aid in getting people to parts of the mountain. 

We needed to know if they had made it to the top of the mountain and figured they would 
sign the summit register if they had.

Climbers from ISU were dropped at the saddle before the final summit and climbed to the
summit looking. There was no entry in the summit log that indicated that they
had made the summit.


The helicopters also dropped conduit to the ISU students who were probing avalanche debris 
below the north side of what is called the Icicle. Some of them had established a base camp 
in the bowl. It was a stormy, cold day with more snowfall.

The second day of the search they found Vaughn and Guy’s camp that they had spent Thursday 
night in. The tent was folded up and the sleeping bags stuff ready for their return and 
leaving to go home. This was a low time, as we now knew that we were probably looking for
bodies now.

Sometime in this week that blends together a young bloodhound was brought in to try and 
track them. It was amazing how well this dog did. There had been people all over the lower parts
of the mountain but this dog followed their tracks quite well. Because people
in charge were convinced that they would not have went up toward the northwest
ridge. The dog leading them in that direction was discounted as being off the
scent.

This week blends into one long day but there was a lot of activity and a lot of great
people who gave of them to help our families. We made several life long
friends.

After spending the better part of the week looking and hoping, it was determined that
we had done all we could so the search was called off until further evidence or
the snow left the higher elevations.

Mid December Steve Spencer, Randy Whiting, Terry Howard and myself, with the
support of Wylie Smith and Mom & Dad in a airplane flown by Phil Jordan,
made a effort to climb the complete north west ridge route. If it was not for
the fact of why we were there, it was one of the best climbing trips that I
have been on.

The mountain had been covered with rime the night before and was completely white
with very little rock even showing on the entire mountain. There was feathering
in the rime with some that looked like a mound of cauliflower. It was very cold
but we were able to crampon up some very vertical slopes. Steve Spencer took
some really good pictures that day. 

Mom and Dad followed our progress by flyovers several times during the day. It was good 
for Mom to be able to see the mountain and to see that we were doing all that was humanly 
possible to find out what had happened. 

People kept eye on the mountain for us but most of the winter was spent trying to put 
our lives back to normal but also knowing that we had a incomplete family each time we 
got together. We came to know that it is a lot easier to deal with the known as bad as 
it may seem than to deal with the unknown.

I made forays to the mountain by myself in May and June and other people looked when they 
were in the area.

The first part of August Quincy got KID-TV to rent a helicopter to support a search effort
 that he would report on.

Our family and friends spent several days on the mountain looking the mountain over and 
using metal detectors to search snow patches that might hold a person or equipment. The
main area of this search was in the snow off from chicken out ridge on the north side. 

It was an interesting time. The
helicopter flew me to the saddle on the south side of the summit block and
promptly quit. The pilot only had a shirt and oxford shoes on and we were
beginning to think that the bird was going to be a permanent fixture on the
mountain.

My Father and I searched the area
above where they found the bodies and actually set just above where the bodies
were and talked about what we were doing wrong and what more we could do to
bring this to closure.

It was decided to make one last major effort the last week of August and then we would 
have to just do our own thing and hope that someone stumbled across more evidence or 
bodies August 26th 1977 at 12:00 pm a group of searchers from the Butte County Jeep Patrol
 were climbing a ridge that was north west of where the bodies were laying and one of their
group caught a glimpse of something red straight across the canyon from him
below a black out cropping of rock. They descended their ridge and climbed up
to the outcropping to investigate.

Vaughn’s body was pushed underneath this out cropping of rock that was about 15 feet high 
but concave at the bottom. From the air you could not see him because the over hang covered him
from on top and it was on the side of a ravine that run the full length of the
face above.


Vaughn was dressed in a red parka with the hood done up around his face. He lay face down 
with his feet up hill, the backpack still on his back, with the ice axe underneath him. 
He had lost one of his mittens, which was laying about 50 feet above his position.

Standing at that position and looking down the ravine it was hard to tell that Guy’s body 
lay over the top of a large boulder that lay in the bottom of the same ravine some 50 to 75 feet
below.

Guy had on an old air force coat with the big fur around the outside of the hood and the 
hood had been tied up around his head which had a stocking cap on under it. He was wearing 
Levis, with long under wear underneath them. There were black ski gloves on his hands.

Guy’s body lay in the open in the ravine but his clothes had faded to almost completely match 
the rock colors that it lay in and this contributed to not being able to see him until you were
right up on top of him.

Kent, Steve and I looked around and set next to the bodies and talked about what we figured 
happened while we waited for the Sheriff to come so he could release the bodies to be moved. The
others waited above us probably thinking that we were out of our minds.

When the Sheriff arrived his first impression was that they both had fallen off the small 
cliff that Vaughn was laying under and died from the fall. They were not roped together and a fall
from the cliff would be hard to prove lethal to two people at the same time. He
took pictures of the scene and came to the conclusion that they had been caught
in some kind of snow slide but that was as far as it went.

We cut the pack straps on Vaughn's pack and then placed his body in a body bag and placed it on 
a stretcher. We needed to move the bodies to the ridge where the search party had first spotted
the red jacket. This was the closest area where the helicopter could set down
and pick up the litter.

When placing Guy’s body in the body bag I observed that his body was laying over his ice axe, 
which had been bent and broken at the very end of the spike. The spike was wedged in between two
rocks and then the spike never moved but the rest of the axe was bent over
under Guy’s body bending and breaking the wood just above the spike

My conclusions of the event were that they were descending in a storm from somewhere on the 
face above. It was cold and windy so they were bundled up tight with their parka hood protecting
their faces from the wind and blowing snow. As they descended they came into
the ravine at some point and it was filling with snow and was wind blown and
packed so it was easier going than on the talus slopes they were coming down.
They continued down this ravine using their axes like a walking stick for
balance and to steady themselves as they went over obstacles.

Above them the new wind blown snow accumulated to the point that it finally had to release. The 
avalanche moved very swiftly down the face and concentrated in the ravine. The wind was the
first to hit them and Vaughn was coming down last. He fell face first with his
axe still in his left hand and slid down the snow as the snow behind the wind
buried him. Guy had just placed his axe ahead of him to give him a place to
balance himself while he stepped down and over a 2 ft. high step that was
formed by a boulder laying in the bottom of the ravine. Just as he place the
axe a wall of snow hit him from behind. This forced his body down and forward
over his axe and the boulder he was going to step over. He never moved from
that point.

The bodies were packed to the ridge. This was really hard work and took some time. It made me 
appreciate what it took to move people in remote locations that were alive and you had to be
careful.

Nine months had passed since they had gone into the mountains. It was a real growing time for 
us as a family and me as an individual. A lot of soul searching went on.

The reasons for climbing were approached from many angles trying to justify the reasons for 
doing these things. We were criticized for putting our parents through such a trial for
such a worthless endeavor. We should be content to fish, hunt and snow machine
so that they did not have to worry about us.

The biggest mistake we made was not educating ourselves to winter travel and hope to recognize 
and avoid avalanche terrain. The rest was just other people’s opinion.

Later one of these people almost lost a son in a snow machine break down to hypothermia but was 
good enough to recognize that he had spoken out of place and apologized.

I hope that this will help clear up a few of the myths that have grown up around this event.