Five years after Mount Rainier took his best friend, Scott Richards can finally tell the story without crying.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
“It’s still vivid,” Richards said. “I’m still sad.”
On May 15, 2004, Peter Cooley, an Ivy League-educated marketing director from Maine, tripped while scaling a steep spine known as Liberty Ridge on Rainier’s northwestern face.
His fall set in motion one of the most intensive rescue attempts the park has ever seen and a heroic effort by Richards to keep his friend alive. For two days rescuers battled nasty weather to get to the climbers while Richards waged a desperate fight to care for Cooley.
Today, as another Liberty Ridge climbing season winds down, the incident still resonates with those who tried to save Cooley.
People like Mike Gauthier, former leader of the park’s climbing program, and Ralph Bell, a former park sign-maker and crisis liaison specialist, are trained to stay emotionally detached during and after catastrophic incidents.
But they say that was impossible as this story played out with a frustrating waiting game, an exhilarating airlift rescue and a devastating letdown.
“What those guys went through, how Scott acted so heroically, that sticks with you,” Bell said. “… You just wish it had a better ending.”
Cooley and Richards were introduced at a Christmas party in the mid-1990s in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
“It was like falling in love,” Richards said.
Cooley had degrees from Yale and Stanford, and Richards worked at a paper mill.
“But our love for the mountains brought us together,” Scott said.
The men lived about a mile apart and climbed together in the White Mountains and ran road races.
When Richards was approaching his 40th birthday in 2001, the men decided to travel to Mount Rainier to climb its challenging Mowich Face.
For almost a week the pair climbed without seeing another soul, and in the process they became captivated by the beauty and challenge of Rainier.
So in 2004, this time looking for a way to celebrate Cooley’s approaching 40th birthday, the men decided to return to Rainier to climb Liberty Ridge.
Liberty Ridge is a classic route that lures about 200 climbers each year to the top of the 14,411-foot mountain. It’s also one of the most challenging ways up Rainier because of its 50-degree pitches and the risk of rock and ice fall, but Cooley and Richards had made tougher climbs.
After two days of climbing, the men woke up about 1 a.m. May 15, 2004, to start another push toward the summit. Richards led the way.
At about 12,300 feet as the men transitioned from one steep face to another, Cooley took the lead.
Richards sat on the ridge roped to Cooley. Richards compared his position to sitting on top of a roof with 45-degree slopes on either side. Not the most challenging place to be, but a place where climbers can be disproportionately punished for even little mistakes.
Cooley didn’t even make a mistake. He just got unlucky.
As he walked, he caught his crampon on his gaiter and fell forward.
Cooley slid away from Richards, gradually picking up speed until he fell over a 12-foot cliff and out of Richards’ sight. The rope went taut.
“I couldn’t see him,” Richards said. “I was screaming.”
But it wasn’t until he climbed down to his friend that he realized how dire their situation was. Richards had hit his head on a rock.
“Right at that moment it seemed like it just started to spit this snowish rain,” Richards said.
Cooley was aware but clearly had a serious head injury.
He needed immediate medical attention, but he was also in an unsafe position on a 50-degree slope on the Willis Wall side of Liberty Ridge.
Richards chipped a ledge in the icy slope below a rock outcropping he hoped would protect them from the Volkswagen-size chunks of ice that regularly tumble down the mountain.
Richards pitched his tent there, then carved a trough in the snow to gently lower his friend into the shelter.
Now that Cooley was in a safer spot, Richards pulled out his cell phone to call for help. In order to get a signal he had to climb out of the tent and back on the ridge.
The reception was horrible, but it was good enough.
Climbing program director Mike Gauthier had just returned from a climbing trip in Alaska when he got word of the incident.
He quickly launched a rescue plan that included sending some of his most experienced rangers – Charlie Borgh, David Gottlieb, Glenn Kessler and Chris Olson – to Liberty Ridge to attempt to reach Cooley and Richards. But getting to the climbers was going to take time.
And with the mountain cloaked in clouds, reaching the men by helicopter was out of the question.
“He had to tell me that I was pretty much on my own,” Richards said. “They couldn’t get to us.”
Ralph Bell was among the 50 park employees and volunteers called in to help with the rescue.
Bell’s primary responsibility at the park was to make signs, but he’s also trained to be a counselor for his peers and a liaison between the park and the families of people involved in incidents in the park.
“I called the families pretty quickly, but they already knew,” said Bell, who now works at California’s John Muir National Historic Site. “I told them what we were doing, and they were very appreciative.”
For two days Bell kept in almost constant contact with the families. He even set up rental cars for Pam Richards, Scott’s wife, and Cooley’s parents when they flew out to wait at Longmire.
“He did so much for us,” Scott Richards said. “He was really amazing.”
While to this day Richards is hailed as hero by the climbing rangers, he felt helpless.
“It was a nightmare,” Richards said. “My best friend was suffering.”
Richards chewed up aspirin and gave it to Cooley. He melted snow, then soaked a small towel so he could wring water into Cooley’s mouth. He gave his sleeping bag to Cooley and cradled his best friend in his arms.
And every couple of hours – until a helicopter was able to drop a radio on the second day – Richards put on his climbing gear and headed back up the ridge to call Gauthier.
“It was a sad situation,” Richards said. “I tried everything.”
Slowed by near-zero visibility, it took Borgh and Gottlieb 40 hours of climbing to get close enough to hear Richards’ distress whistle May 17.
But the weather was still not cooperative. Unless the clouds parted, the rangers were going to have set up an elaborate pulley system and slowly lower Cooley off the mountain. If all went well, they’d have Cooley to Madigan Army Medical Center in three days.
Back in Longmire the crowd of media had grown from the local paper and a couple of television stations to include correspondents from national media outlets.
“It just made the situation that much more intense,” Gauthier said.
Gauthier was explaining the pulley rescue plan to the media when he was called back into the control center. He finally got the break he needed. The clouds were parting. Gauthier called for an Oregon National Guard Chinook helicopter to move in.
The rescue played out on live TV.
As Cooley was lifted into the helicopter, a cheer erupted in the Longmire command center.
“There was clapping and tears,” Bell said. “It was a huge moment.”
Back on the mountain, Richards watched the helicopter fly away.
“There was a sense that he was with the professionals now,” Richards said. “I didn’t think he was out of the woods, but I didn’t think he was going to die.”
As the rescuers rejoiced, Bell got into the back of a park service vehicle with Cooley’s parents, Sam and Trig, for the ride to Madigan.
Bell doesn’t remember how far out of the park he was when his cell phone rang, but he remembers the sinking feeling he got when he answered.
At 60 mph on Highway 7, he had to tell the Cooleys that their son had died during the 15-minute helicopter ride.
Gauthier still remembers getting the word and then stepping outside where he saw climbing ranger Ted Cox smiling.
“He said, ‘Mike, you guys are heroes,’” Gauthier said. “I said, ‘Ted, I just found out he didn’t make it.’ I remember him slumping against the building and saying, ‘That’s just wrong.’
“It was devastating.”
When Gauthier radioed the news to the crews still on the mountain, he had to tell them in code so Richards wouldn’t hear.
Richards still had a tough descent down Liberty Ridge in front of him, and it was up to Gottlieb to determine if Richards could handle the news. He decided Richards should know.
“I’m glad they told me,” said Richards, who was airlifted off the mountain the next day. “At least there I was amongst climbers. They made me feel the best I could. And I had time to digest what had happened.”
When Richards returned home, he drove directly from the airport to Cooley’s house.
There, Allene Cooley and her children, Sarah, Alexander and Robert, gathered in a room.
“I told them how much he loved them,” Richards said. “I told them he never would have gone if he knew this was going to happen. And I told them he waged a hell of fight.”
The reaction surprised him.
“Allene just started thanking me,” Richards said. “She thanked me again and again.”
Allene even thanked Richards for “his steadfast devotion to Peter” in her husband’s obituary.
Cape Elizabeth is a small town of about 8,000 people and everybody knew what happened.
“It could have been even more difficult,” Richards said. “But Allene has been wonderful with me right from the get-go.”
Richards said he had to “get help because I had pretty bad survivor guilt.”
BACK TO WORK
It’s pretty tough to go back to the mundane task of making signs a day after helping a family deal with the worst day of their lives. But that’s exactly what Bell did.
“That’s when it started to hit me emotionally,” Bell said.
“When something gets drawn out like this you can’t help but make a connection,” Bell said. “The rule book gets thrown aside. You can’t just go home and put that away.”
Bell traveled to Maine to attend Cooley’s funeral and to run in a road race in Cooley’s honor. A year later he returned to Maine again to run the race once more and visit the family.
Gauthier, who left the park in January after 18 years for a fellowship in Washington, D.C., stays in contact with Richards. They talk each year on the anniversary of the accident.
He says he usually does well dealing with the tragedy he’s seen on Rainier, but Cooley’s death hit him harder than most.
As fate would have it, Liberty Ridge didn’t give Gauthier any time for an emotional recovery. Less than three weeks later, Auburn fire captain Jon Cahill died in a similar incident. Another two weeks later an avalanche killed Montana residents Luke Cassady and Ansel Viscaya.
All of the men Liberty Ridge killed in 2004 had the skills to handle the route – a fact that wasn’t lost on Richards.
“What happened to Peter was just a freak thing,” Richards said. “I can’t explain it. The mountain was just angry. Look how many people it took.”
NO MORE CLIMBING
Richards still visits Cooley’s grave once a week to talk.
His passion for the mountains didn’t die with his friend, but he’ll never climb again.
When one of his rescuers, Charlie Borgh, was killed by an avalanche in 2006 while climbing in the Canadian Rockies, Richards said it reinforced that quitting mountaineering was the right choice.
“It’s a decision that has to be,” Richards said. “I couldn’t bring any more pain to the people who love me.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497