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Originally published Tuesday, July 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Long night with death for student climber

As darkness descended over the North Cascades Sunday, Janel Fox faced a night shivering in the rain below a gnarled granite ridge, huddled...

Seattle Times staff reporters

As darkness descended over the North Cascades Sunday, Janel Fox faced a night shivering in the rain below a gnarled granite ridge, huddled not far from the bodies of her climbing instructors.

The 28-year-old mountaineering student from Seattle had hiked into Boston Basin as the least-experienced of six mountaineers, and one of two students hoping to summit the 8,120-foot Sharkfin Tower to complete a basic climbing class from The Mountaineers, the Northwest's most storied climbing organization.

By early Sunday evening, everything had unraveled.

Fox's two trip leaders were dead, killed by a falling rock the size of a refrigerator. The only other uninjured survivor, Michael Hannam of Olympia, was racing down a snowfield to get help. And Fox, the rookie, was left holding two seriously injured climbers — one fading in and out of consciousness, and the other so wounded he later died in Fox's arms.

"Janel was amazing," said Pat Timson, a guide for a different group, Alpine Ascents International, who was the first to arrive at the accident scene in the North Cascades National Park Sunday evening.

"She had her moments of falling apart. But she held those guys and took care of them. And then she spent the night freezing her butt off, sitting on a foam pad in the snow with a sleeping bag pulled over her."

The worst accident in the 99-year history of The Mountaineers finally ended yesterday, when a helicopter dropped Fox and Hannam in Marblemount, Skagit County, carried the injured climbing student, Wayne McCourt of Tacoma, to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, and took the bodies of the three dead to a morgue.

But it may be days or weeks before the National Park Service, Skagit County officials and members of The Mountaineers can determine the precise chain of events in the first multiple climbing fatality in the national park since the 1980s.

"We've never, ever had anything like this," said Steve Costie, executive director of The Mountaineers.

The dead were identified yesterday as Johanna Backus, 61, of Tacoma, a 19-year member of the Tacoma branch of the Mountaineers; Mark Harrison of Bellevue, a former Marine and a climbing instructor known for being fun and loud; and John Augenstein, 42, of Seattle, who had joined the weekend climb just to help out.

McCourt suffered head injuries and was listed in satisfactory condition at Harborview.

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The accident began to unfold about 4 p.m. Sunday, when the climbers, all members of The Mountaineers, were retreating from a failed attempt to reach the top of Sharkfin, a knob at the head of the Quien Sabe Glacier.

Backus, who had been to the top of Sharkfin before, was leading the group with help from Harrison and Augenstein.

The trip was part of The Mountaineers' basic climbing course, which draws 300 to 400 people a year. But it's not easy. The route crosses a snowfield and a glacier with crevasses.

"Everyone had a lot of training," Costie said. Especially Backus. "You talk about nail-down-all-the-details — she wasn't going to be frivolous out there in the backcountry. You can really trust her."

But while descending through a gully, Backus was struck by a falling rock. The rest of the group helped her to a lower point. They were re-rigging ropes when a larger rock fell and hit them, said Tim Manns, spokesman for North Cascades National Park.

It's not clear what knocked the rocks free, said Kelly Bush, lead climbing ranger for the national park.

"As rare as these kind of accidents are, there is always loose rock in those gullies, so it's always a possibility," Manns said.

Officials said they believe Backus and Harrison died instantly. Augenstein and McCourt were both badly injured.

The climbers had set up camp below, in Boston Basin. So they were carrying only small packs with little overnight gear. Hannam sprinted down the glacier to the campground for help, finding Timson, who had been preparing to guide his own group into the mountains.

Timson sent his group to contact authorities, and then immediately climbed up to Fox. Fifteen minutes later, Augenstein died.

By 10 p.m., Hannam had returned with more gear, and rigged a series of tarps to protect McCourt.

Fog and rain prevented helicopters from reaching the climbers immediately. But climbing rangers had arrived by 6:45 a.m.

"They were really cold, shivering, and in need of something warm," said ranger Alex Brun. "It was a long night, but they made it."

Backus, a registered nurse, organized everything from climbs to snowshoe outings for The Mountaineers, and founded a group that takes at-risk kids into the woods.

"She was very safe, very sensible and never let good judgment get swayed by desire," said Helen Engle of the Tacoma Mountaineers.

Harrison, who friends say performed hostage rescues when he was a Marine, was remembered as a strong climber who led backcountry ski trips and worked with Backus' group for kids.

"He was a ton of fun," recalled Jim Farris, a friend who had often climbed with him.

Augenstein, friends said, initially came off as a quiet man, probably because he was hard of hearing. But he "was a very warm and funny guy," said friend Ted Baughman, who had gone on a climbing trip to Colorado with Augenstein.

The second-worst accident for The Mountaineers was a two-person fatality on Mount Rainier in the late 1960s.

Recently, however, the club has experienced an unusual string of fatal accidents: a climbing-trip leader died near the base of Lundin Peak near Snoqualmie Pass in 1997; another climber died in the same area on Kendall Peak in 1999 after sliding down a snow-covered slope; and a student on a basic-climbing-class trip in 2001 died after falling on Guye Peak while traversing a section where people travel without ropes.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093

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