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`White Death' revisits Glacier tragedy of 1969

`White Death' revisits Glacier tragedy of 1969

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GREAT FALLS (AP) — It's the classic mountaineering dilemma: When do you turn back, relinquishing a personal goal, and when do you keep going, risking injury or death?

It's a choice five young Montanans once made 30 years ago, ultimately leading them to their deaths.

It's a choice that's left Glacier National Park Ranger Bob Frauson studying their tale and telling it, again and again and again.

Frauson can see the story with the benefit of hindsight, of course. But even on that cold Dec. 26, 1969, when the five asked him about conditions on Mount Cleveland, Frauson recommended caution.

“ I talked to them a long time about the danger. I dissuad ed them.”

The events that followed are history, chronicled in news papers at the time and in later books about avalanches and mountain rescue.

Those events also have taken on larger significance. They make up a compelling tragedy that captured the imag ination of a writer so much that he wrote it as a book.

“ The White Death” by McKay Jenkins resurrects the events in eerie detail, filling in pieces that were absent from news articles and rounding them out with perspec tives from mountaineering experts.

Frauson, now 76 and retired, chuckles at the interest, and marvels at how much time he's spent with the media in recent weeks.

“ This whole thing is just like an avalanche or snowball rolling down the hill,” he says. “ It's become too big. It was so long ago; it's like writing about Hannibal.”

Frauson played a key role in the story. He warned the group of the mountain's dangers. He also headed rescue efforts and, once it became clear the men were dead, the search for bodies.

He tells the story in a slide show he's presented at the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex, and to other groups.

One of the first slides: of four of the mountaineers, Jerry Kanzler, James Anderson, Clare Pogreba, and Mark Levi tan. The image was taken by the fifth man, Ray Martin, and found later in Pogreba's camera.

The men — whom Jenkins calls boys in his book — were experienced climbers who all had spent time in Glacier.

Even the oldest, Pogreba and Martin, were only 22. They both were from Butte and were Montana Tech students who started the school's mountain climbing club.

The other three were Montana State University students. Kanzler, 18, came from a Columbia Falls family of outdoor enthusiasts and was the group's most experienced moun taineer. Anderson, 18, from Bigfork, and Levitan, 20, from Helena, probably had the least technical knowledge, but still were comfortable on high peaks.

The five visited Frauson, then 45, at his ranger station in St. Mary on the day after Christmas 1969.

Each was prepared for a winter expedition up 10,488-foot Mount Cleveland. They told Frauson they wanted to ascend the north face, a vertical pitch of 4,000 feet and one that had never been climbed.

Frauson had served in the Army's Tenth Mountain Divi sion and served a stint as a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and was considered an expert in winter treks. He knew what was at stake.

“ The biggest thing for anybody is, When do you turn back?” he says. “ And these fellas didn't.”

The group camped at St. Mary that night, then made their way to Waterton. Boat operator Alf Baker ferried them to the Goat Haunt Ranger Station.

The five skied and hiked to the mountain's north face. They dug three snow caves for shelter that night.

Frauson, worried, went north the next day so he could look back at Mount Cleveland.

“ It looked bad, the weather,” he says.

Frauson and other Glacier and Waterton national park rangers, with one of the men's brothers, began searching for them early Jan. 3.

That morning they found the men's base camp on the mountain's north face, with the beargrass still smoldering from a fire they'd built. Around the fire was an array of gear.

A Malmstrom Air Force Base helicopter was called, and searchers on board found tracks in the snow. The tracks led in two directions, to the north face and west bowl of the mountain, confusing rescuers.

The weather hindered search progress, with windchills dropping at times to minus 44 degrees.

“ The weather got worse and worse, and it was getting dangerous for the searchers,” Frauson says.

In the next few days, Frauson and the Canadian rangers were joined by searchers who included some of the best mountaineers in North America.

On Jan. 5, searchers found a small backpack on the mountain's west face. Searchers decided to reconcentrate their efforts there, in a huge field of avalanche debris.

The families of the missing men congregated at the Waterton Townsite, near where the search was based.

The weather worsened. On Jan. 7, Frauson called a sup plier with an order: for five body bags.

On Jan. 9, a major storm hit. Frauson met with the family members.

“ I told them I knew they had five sons on the mountain. I told them, 'I've got 35 sons up there — rangers — in jeop ardy,” he says.

He called off the search, not to have it restarted until spring. The final body wasn't found until July 4, 1970.

Although Frauson is amazed by recent publicity about the tragedy, he notes that it remains the largest single loss of life in Glacier National Park, and one of the worst moun taineering accidents in recent U.S. history.

Frauson says his book about the deaths is highly accurate, and probably has lessons that still need to be heard.

Until he retired in 1982, Frauson continued holding up a body bag to show young rangers and hotel employees-in-training, to show what easily could happen to any of them.

“ The rescue work kind of makes a grandma out of you. You respect the mountains even more and more.

“ You never know when you've saved your own life,” he says.

Friday, February 25, 2000


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