Image: Andrew Waits

 

Just after sunrise on a bluebird August day in 1986, a chunk of ice fell near the top of Mount Baker. The jagged block, bigger than a school bus, separated from an ice cliff 40 feet high and 200 feet long. It tumbled down the flank of Baker, gathering soft snow and more ice—a river of mountain.  

The sound was a guttural rip, a crack of thunder that didn’t end for 20 seconds. After falling 600 feet, the white river reached a flatter section of the mountain and settled into a field, 30 new feet blanketing the glacier.

Twenty-eight years later, a mountain guide led his clients to the bottom of the Coleman Glacier, thousands of feet below. Something caught his eye, a sharp angle that shouldn’t exist on the ancient, smooth slab. His crampons crunching ice with each step, the guide walked over to a brilliant blue backpack half frozen into the glacier, half burped up by the mountain.  

It was definitely old, woven before the days of performance fabrics. Frayed rope was strewn nearby—plain beige like a cowboy lariat, not the multicolor cord sold today. Federal law says anything older than 50 years becomes an artifact that can’t be removed from a wilderness area, but this wasn’t quite that antique. Using the blunt end of his ice ax, the guide chopped the bag free.  

He turned his discovery in his hands and saw letters Sharpied across the top of the pack: S. RASCHICK.

 

1 royal blue backpack lid
2 REI tags
2 sections of blue and yellow cord 

 

WHEN THE TAN FORD LTD sedan pulled up to the Raschick house in Enumclaw in the early morning ​of August 1, 1986, it already held two young men and their outdoor gear. Behind the wheel was 21-year-old Kurt Petellin, just a few years removed from his days as a varsity lineman at Enumclaw High School. Back then he’d dated a cheerleader; now he had his ex’s blond little brother Tom in tow.

In the summer between college quarters, Kurt and his high school buddy Steve Raschick hatched a plan to hike the giant volcano that had towered over their backyards their whole lives, Mount Rainier. Had
they stormed the mountain with nothing but young men’s hubris, they would not have been the first—but they were conscientious young men who spent their teenage years in the Christian Young Life club. They trained. They prepared. 

Roping in 19-year-old Tom Waller, they began climbing Mount Si and Mount Pete on weekends for practice. Steve hiked in a classic ’80s tank top that showed off muscles earned through cycling and soccer, his Ray Bans and toothy grin straight out of the summer’s biggest hit, Top Gun. They snagged a business card from Summit Mountain Guides off a bulletin board at REI and hired the fledgling company to lead them up Mount Baker; they’d tackle Rainier the next weekend.
 

Tom, Steve, and Kurt on a training hike on Mount Si in 1986


Tom, a peacekeeping middle child with a penchant for poetry and soccer, didn’t even have boots, so he purchased a pair of Raichle Eigers, all leather and stiff as rock. Two days before the climb Steve arrived at the Waller house and told him to lace them up.

“We’re going river running,” said Steve, which turned out to be a brisk stroll through nearby Green River. The south King County waterway had just become famous as the dumping site for a local serial killer. Steve instructed Tom to wear the soaking boots until they dried around his feet, breaking them in.

At the Raschicks’ on Friday, when the time came to get on the road, Eunice Raschick grabbed the arm of her 21-year-old son, her youngest, her baby. She had a bad feeling, tried forbidding him to go. 

“Mom, I need to do this,” Steve said.
 

1 toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss kit
1 tube sunscreen
1 vial cologne

 

MRS. RASCHICK'S PREMONITION was easy to ignore once the big Ford hit I-5. The boys hand-cranked their windows down and discussed the usual: girls, climbing, where to stop for coffee.

Mount Baker, 85 miles northeast of Seattle and just south of the Canadian border, is the strong, silent
pinnacle in Washington’s spine of Cascades. The 10,781-foot peak is shaped sort of like Rainier but not as tall; it’s a volcano like St. Helens, but modern eruptions have merely been puffs and belches. Even the Lummi tribe sensed its somber nature, calling it Koma Kulshan, or “Great White Watcher.”

The glaciers on Mount Baker rival those on Rainier, and snows reach world-record heights. The most popular climbing route winds up from the Northwest corner and over two glaciers, the Coleman and the Deming. 

Ian Kraabel was waiting at the trailhead when Kurt, Steve, and Tom arrived. Ian, pronounced “yahn” thanks to his French roots, had started Summit Mountain Guides with a friend the summer before; he was home for good after four years in Minnesota at Carleton College, where in the absence of peaks he scaled campus buildings. His father, Paul, was a Seattle City Council member, but Ian wasn’t meant for a life behind a desk. 

The Enumclaw trio handed over $175 in cash, inside a plastic baggie as instructed to keep the bills dry. Their guide had thick eyebrows and dark curls, shorter than even Tom. At five foot seven, Ian could (and did) share clothes with his girlfriend Ellen Anderson, also along for the trip. But he had the wiry strength of mountain men; he’d flex his biceps and crow, “Blue twisted steel!” (Pre-Zoolander, this was ’80s slang for the strongest material known to man.) 

The hike up to base camp was easy for five young adults. They set up camp above the tree line at the base of the Coleman glacier where snowfields separate patchy grass and dark rock. 

Ian led the three boys onto the glacier to teach them the basics of mountaineering: Self-arrest, dragging the sharp blade of the ice ax to stop during a slide. Setting a snow fluke, a flat anchor, in the ever-shifting snow. Crevasse rescue, the agonizingly slow method of escaping the deadly pits that make glaciers so dangerous. 

Tom spent his first night ever in a backcountry tent next to Steve, who read his Bible by headlamp. Training continued the next day under remarkably sunny skies. It topped 86 degrees down at the mountain’s base, not much cooler on the reflective glacier. The boys were in high spirits, pushing each other over to test their strength. Steve, the group’s shutterbug, used his Pentax’s timer to take a picture of the trio, then later snapped one of Tom’s back as he peed onto the snowfield. 
 

The boys pose at their Baker base camp the day before their summit push


Not everyone was roughing it—Steve was meticulous with his hygiene, having packed a two-piece toothbrush, a flosser, and a tiny tube of cologne. Off the mountain he was a ladies’ man, and even here he wasn’t about to get gamey.

Saturday night they slumbered before sunset; summit climbs are best begun in the middle of the cold night and finished before the heat of day can loosen ice and snow. When they woke just before 2am on Sunday, August 3, the sky was lit by the northern lights. Neon green bars of light stretched across blue and white bursts like fireworks. 

It was so beautiful that Ellen briefly reconsidered her plan to skip the summit climb. But she’d been atop the mountain only a week before. She kissed Ian and said she’d see him around two o’clock.

 

1 crampon cover
1 headlamp and battery pack
4 AA batteries

 

ROPE TEAMS GENERALLY begin with the strongest climber and end with the second strongest, or at least the heaviest—anchors on either end. Ian led the rope team, followed by Tom, then Steve, and ending with former football tackle Kurt. Oatmeal and hot cocoa warmed their nervous bellies and headlamps glowed like Christmas lights on a string, evenly spaced so the rope stayed taut. 

To the untrained eye, a snowfield and a glacier look like the same thing: white, big, sort of flat. But to a mountaineer they’re as different as sand and stone. Snowfields are, more or less, snowy puddles that have settled atop rock and earth. Slippery, yes, and deadly when snow releases into an avalanche.

Glaciers, on the other hand, are ancient slabs of ice creeping down a slope with such weight that they shape the earth beneath them, like incredibly heavy sponges making a forceful wipe of the mountainside. Mount Baker has 10 of them. Crevasses, or deep cracks, form when the ice sheet accordions over a bump or a gully, sometimes filling with snow and hard to spot. Ropes link climbers together like umbilical cords to catch anyone who tumbles inside; the vertical, icy walls of a crevasse are desperately hard to scale. 

The boys had trained on crevasses 20 feet deep. Now when he beamed his headlamp down the rifts he passed, Tom couldn’t see the bottom.

Shortly after the four boys geared up and started across the Coleman glacier, they passed another camp. Steve Sieberson, a lawyer leading a five-man crew of friends and family from Seattle, saw them march by as he ate breakfast in the dark.

As the sun rose on the other side of Baker, the boys shed their headlamps. Ian turned to his charges and made a suggestion: Rather than go up the long way, they could climb a steeper section under the Roman Nose—some call it the Roman Mustache. Not a common detour but not unheard of. It would shave, no pun intended, some time off their ascent; get them back to camp and on the road sooner. “You’ll get home before nightfall,” Tom remembers hearing. 

The decision was made, and the four-man team turned off the main Coleman-Deming route. 

Immediately progress slowed. With each step the boys punched through a thin layer of ice that covered softer snow below, dropping in as high as their knees. Steve was dense with cycling muscle, his legs thick and sinking deep. With his lighter body weight, Tom was relatively floating, but he could hear Steve grouse with frustration behind him. By 7am the sun was up and the top of the mountain, with its summit crater and steam vents puffing, was only about a thousand feet away.

As the four cut diagonally up the Roman Wall, Ian directed his rope team to use the French Step he’d taught, placing their feet flat on the steep slope to engage all the crampon points and using their ice axes for balance. 

Farther down the mountain, Steve Sieberson and his team could see the line of climbers, now moving up a section he didn’t plan to approach. 

“Are those people safe?” asked 17-year-old Jeff Bauma. Sieberson couldn’t say for sure; it had been warm, and warmth on the mountain meant unstable snow.

It could have been the toasty July that melted just enough ice, in just the right place, that loosened a chunk of the Roman Wall. It could have been a small earthquake that shook the mountain just enough. Whatever it was, the American Alpine Club’s log would later call it “normal glacial movement.” 

The ice cliff crumbled.

Ian, out front, turned around. Tom saw his face first, blank, before he spotted the soaring white masses behind him.

They tried to run. Kurt got all of three steps in before the ground below him gave way. While skiers can sometimes outrace an avalanche using the right combination of speed and luck, they were on foot only 60 feet below the ice. The chunks loosened the plane of snow when they hit, and all four climbers were quickly swept into the flow. Kurt was yanked by the rope attached to his harness, first sliding on his stomach and then popping above the snow and riding down in a seated position.

Sieberson felt and heard the avalanche before he saw it. “I could see these four black dots tumbling down,” he remembers. “We were close enough you could make out arms and legs flying around.” What he saw wasn’t powder falling like sand in an hourglass, not a classic avalanche. It was “concrete filled with very big hunks of ice.” He saw the great white mass flow through a narrow chute, then spill around a less steep area 500 feet below where it had begun. It was all over in about 20 seconds.

 

1 snow fluke
1 blue mitten
2 lengths of 9mm spiral-twisted rope, ends frayed

 

TOM WAS SITTING DOWN. Buried in the snow up to his waist, his torso was leaning on his ice ax, tethered to him in a tangle of rope. He felt utterly erased. No pain, just blankness. 

When he finally opened his eyes he saw only blue sky. The mountain was silent and blood colored the snow around him. He opened his mouth and the first words to emerge were “Jesus loves me. This I know because the Bible tells me so.” He repeated the lyrics he’d learned in Sunday School. “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

But then his memory came rushing back and he remembered that he was on the mountain. He remembered Kurt and Steve. He screamed their names, hurting his own ears. 

As soon as he saw the avalanche, Sieberson knew that he had to break up his own team. He and the other experienced climber in his party roped together and took off at a sprint, or the closest they could come to it in crampons on mushy snow.

They reached Tom 20 minutes later, his face a hamburger of bloody flesh. His clothes were torn like he’d tackled a bramble that fought back. They followed the ropes that led uphill, one to Ian and one to Steve. Both disappeared into the lumpy ice. They saw a hat and a glove, but nothing more.

Uphill from Tom the snow had flowed down into a crevasse that cut across the bottom of the Roman Wall, like dirt being swept into a dustpan. Only there was so much that some of it—including Tom—surfed right over the crevasse to settle on the other side. 

The crevasse was less than 10 feet wide but more than 70 feet deep, partially filled at an angle with debris. Sieberson heard a voice below and peered down to see Kurt, 30 feet beneath them, perched on top of the mound. He’d dug himself out and secured his pack to the wall of the crevasse with ice screws to keep it from falling further; he even had the presence of mind to put on more clothing. As with Tom, the rope that connected him to the other climbers disappeared into the white piles, immovable. Kurt’s adrenaline-fueled survival instincts lasted only until Sieberson’s face peeked over the edge of the crevasse.

“It’s funny how in one moment I was almost superhuman and in an instant almost helpless,” he says. To free Tom from his rope-and-ice-ax straitjacket and drag Kurt to the surface, the rest of the ropes that linked them to Ian and Steve would have to be severed. 

The site soon crowded with more than a dozen people: the rest of Sieberson’s party, plus a Vancouver search and rescue team that happened to be training on the mountain. Armed helpfully with a radio, they alerted Canadian authorities who in turn called Whatcom County Search and Rescue. Word came that a helicopter was being dispatched from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, one of the Whidbey Angels—an SH-3 Air King that can reach the tricky elevations on Mount Baker. 

A half dozen men pulled Kurt out of the crevasse without pulleys in a move known as a direct haul. He and Tom, whose temperature read a hypothermic 92, were laid in sleeping bags, and rescuers climbed in to keep them warm. 

The growing crowd continued to look for the other two climbers, even lowering into the crevasse, but all they found was a harness, the nylon webbing frayed and ripped to pieces. They heard the sound of rotors within a few hours, TV station helicopters arriving overhead. The sky was clear above the huddle of rescuers in the primary colors of ’80s outdoor fashion—red, blue, yellow, like spilled Skittles on the snow.

An hour later, the rescue helicopter arrived to load Tom and Kurt.
 

Rescuers attend to survivors below the avalanche site

 

1 Gideon New Testament Bible
1 Pentax camera

 

“I THOUGHT, HE WAS SUCH A TOUGH BASTARD, he’ll come out,” says Brett Kraabel, willing his older brother Ian to surface. Summoned by phone calls and radio reports of an avalanche on Baker, the families of the four boys had made their way up to Bellingham. Halfway up the mountain, Ellen Anderson had a bad dream inside her tent and woke up with a start; she peered up at the strange-looking snow patch on the mountain and tried to convince herself it wasn’t anything to worry about. Hours later, descending climbers would fill her in.

As the sunny Sunday stretched on, searchers from Whatcom County Mountain Rescue and a team from Chilliwack, BC, could find no evidence of Ian Kraabel and Steve Raschick. Dogs sniffed beneath the dense new layer that frosted the bottom of the Roman Wall. Reporters gathered around the command center at the route’s trailhead, peppering the families with questions. Brett considered throwing a few rocks at the scrum.

At St. Luke’s Hospital in Bellingham, Tom’s hamburger face, broken ribs, and collapsed lung would mean five days in the hospital covered in moleskin to minimize scarring. That week, he remembers, “I cried and cried and cried.”

Kurt, on the other hand, was treated for a dislocated shoulder and released by 9:30pm. Within a few days he’d appear on the Today show. 

As the missing son of a city councilman, Ian got the bulk of the press attention, his route choice generally defended in The Seattle Times by Forest Service rangers and American Alpine Club climbers, despite the revelation that he didn’t hold a guide permit for Mount Baker. Tom turned down $2,500 from the National Enquirer, fearing they wanted a “guy rescued by aliens, carried over crevasse” kind of story.

The weeks that followed meant memorial services for Ian and Steve, both without bodies to bury. At home, Kurt struggled with guilt; somehow he’d surfed the top of the avalanche, not the bottom. Not like Steve, who he couldn’t dig out. “I left him behind,” he says. “I failed him. I entered a dark time of my life.” He had dreams of a rockslide, one that came uphill at him, not down. 

Kurt returned to chemistry studies at Mid-America Nazarene College in Kansas only to come back a month after the avalanche. A climber on Baker had peered into an ever-shifting crevasse and spotted an elbow protruding from the ice—the bodies had been found.

Kurt’s mother took him to a private viewing at the funeral home to see his friend. As an RN, she knew what signs of suffocation looked like, and Steve’s body—so well preserved in the ice that had engulfed him—showed none of them. Steve and Ian were found together, 60 feet in the crevasse, with head injuries that made it clear both had died instantly.

“I knew that I could now move on,” Kurt says. His faith was as strong as ever, and he followed college with dental school, eventually setting up a practice in Idaho.

Tom arrived home in Enumclaw on the weekend they’d planned to climb Rainier, a chest tube still protruding from his battered body. Physically he recovered quickly—he was, after all, a sporty 19-year-old—and he headed to classes at Green River Community College in the fall. He reached out to Eunice and Elmer Raschick, eager to lighten their grief over Steve. The parents, older than his own by at least a decade, politely rebuffed him. 

“Tom would have been a son to them if they let him,” Tom’s mother remembers. The Raschick family, however, would find their closure in faith.

Ian’s name appears on the American Avalanche Association’s Memorial List of lost professionals, until recently one of only two climbing guides—the other is famed Everest climber Willi Unsoeld, who died in a similar accident on Mount Rainier in 1979. An icefall accident on Mount Rainier last May added two Seattle-area guides to the list, Matthew Hegeman and Eitan Green.

A year after the avalanche, Steve Sieberson called Tom and Kurt with an idea: He’d lead them up the Coleman-Deming route of Mount Baker himself. With a KING 5 crew in tow, they revisited the site where the slide had exhausted itself. Then they continued to Baker’s summit.

 

1 roll exposed Kodak 35mm film
1 roll exposed Kits 35mm film 

 

NEARLY 30 YEARS LATER, in the summer of 2014, mountain guide Jeremy Devine took his discovery back to camp. Inside the backpack were various artifacts frozen in chunks of ice, many clearly battered by decades on Baker. Those he set in the sun to thaw while he finished guiding his trip. He led his clients out of camp at 3am and up the Coleman-Deming route, choosing a less-traveled detour: a steep section up the Roman Wall, under the Roman Nose. The Mustache.
 

Image: Andrew Waits


Devine knew it was a dangerous spot. In 1939, an avalanche there had killed six climbers from Western Washington University. In 1986, two. But it was the first week of June—early in the season, still relatively cold and frozen. 

“On a technical route like that, it’s a matter of your technique being dialed, your fitness being good, and your system really being clued in,” he says. Fast, with minimal time under things that can fall on you—best practices in the mountains.

Devine and clients summited by 8am and descended through their camp to retrieve gear. The blue pack was dry but dusted with glacial silt, and it became clear that this was merely the top section of a pack that folded over the main compartment: the lid, or the brain. It’s where you pack small bits of gear. Important stuff.

Devine figured he’d try to locate S. RASCHICK, make the day of a onetime careless hiker. By dinnertime back in civilization, a quick Google search revealed that the owner had perished.

All attempts to contact a local Raschick family member failed, but Devine stumbled on the discussion section of a website about the Coleman route. A man named Tom Waller, now 47, had left comments about route minutiae and a friend lost on the mountain. Devine sent an email.

In late August, Tom drove a hundred miles from south King County to Bellingham to gratefully accept the package before sunrise. Devine noticed that the man didn’t even look inside the paper bag he handed over.

Tom couldn’t bring himself to open the backpack until October 1. The Raschicks had scattered from Enumclaw, and none wanted—or needed—the pack; their Christian faith had brought closure to the loss of the 21-year-old baby of the family, and the stuff was just stuff.

But Tom looked in the pack and saw metaphor. He saw the things that defined his friend: the flair to hike with cologne, the conscientiousness to pack extra batteries, and the faith to carry a Bible on a summit attempt where every ounce counts. 

The film inside the camera was obviously trashed, but two film rolls had been returned to their canisters. He took them to a photo lab in Queen Anne and asked them to do what they could.

 

LAST YEAR TOM’S MOTHER started asking if he had untreated PTSD. He’s been fixated on what happened on Mount Baker, writing copiously about the best friend he lost. It didn’t keep him from a life in the mountains—he’s summited Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens—but he’s talked about it for years. Tom himself says he is “surviving survival guilt.”

There’s a difference between PTSD and survival guilt. PTSD is a disorder, a complicated one; the official matrix for a PTSD diagnosis lists specific symptoms, like nightmares and flashbacks. There are almost 600,000 possible combinations of those behaviors, says Dr. Gaithri Fernando, director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at Cal State Los Angeles. 

For whatever reason, mountain climbers get it less often. A 2004 study of Swiss mountain guides found that despite their high exposure to trauma—no one can climb mountains for long before knowing someone who’s died doing it—their rates of developing PTSD were just 2.7 percent. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 7 percent of Americans will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, with rates for military vets around 30 percent.

Survivor guilt, on the other hand, doesn’t appear in the official diagnostic manual. Its signs can overlap with PTSD symptoms, says Fernando: intrusive memories, dissociative flashbacks, irritability. Survival guilt can feed a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or a depression-type syndrome—or it can do the opposite. It can fuel so-called traumatic growth.

“There’s a notion that after a trauma, some people grow from that and change their lives for the better,” says Fernando. “They might want to live for that per​son or make their life count in some way because they survived and someone else didn’t.”

In 29 years Tom’s white-blond hair has mellowed to brown, his beard a mix of red and gray. He’s no longer a compact teen but a broad-shouldered man and he sits with one leg askew as he recovers from a motorcycle accident that banged him up worse than Baker. 

Looking back at the decades since he lost the friend who helped him break in his first pair of hiking boots, he sees layers, likening his own life to the layers of snow that build snowflake by snowflake, battered by wind and rain: college, marriage, three kids, a career in wildlife management, lost jobs, divorce. “At a certain point it’s about a crack,” he says. “Every circumstance in your life is part of that final slide.” 
 

The Things He Carries Tom Waller holds a photo of Steve Raschick, who he still calls “my best friend.”

Image: Andrew Waits


Tom has memorized almost all of Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, about a callous sailor burdened by a dead albatross—one he killed—that hangs around his neck until he appreciates the beauty of the sea and his curse is lifted. To Tom, the albatross is “a claim of guilt upon that man’s life”; the lifted curse is restoration and redemption. Tom has written his own poetry about the avalanche, many voiced by his “Angel of Ice”: “I destroyed thee, but I—I also delivered thee…. The Ice set you free.”

He plans to deposit the backpack at Steve’s grave in Washington Memorial Park in SeaTac, a gravestone etched with snow-covered peaks. He’ll keep the rope and ice fluke for an art piece to remember Steve.

It took the photo lab a few weeks to develop the film found inside the backpack; one roll didn’t stand up to the color processing system, the film emulsion sloughing away. So the lab tried a black-and-white technique for the second, the old-fashioned way, by hand. New-fashioned Photoshop bumped up the black and white contrast. 

What emerged were what the photo processors call “ghost images”: a faint outline of Ian in a white helmet, hanging from a crevasse on practice day. The glacier above camp, smooth and shiny in some parts and jagged in others where the glacier had splintered, torn, and crashed into itself. Tom’s back as he peed at the edge of camp. 

And one ghost photo of three boys: Tom’s blond head in the middle, Kurt behind shades to the right. And on the left, forever smiling, Steve Raschick.