A lost Seattle climber's family seeks an elusive peace
A family, in its own way, still waits for a climber gone missing 39 years ago this September on Sloane Peak. No trace of him was ever found.
"The fate of Wally Somers remains a mystery."
— Mountain Rescue Council bulletin, January 1974
THIRTY-NINE YEARS ago this September, Walter H. "Wally" Somers Jr., of Shoreline kissed his wife goodbye and drove off to climb Sloan Peak, a craggy tooth in the lower jaw of the North Cascades mountains. He has never returned.
The large search that followed his disappearance made news, but not the front page. After a couple weeks, most of the world stopped waiting.
Wally, 28, was presumed dead from a climbing accident.
But because no trace of him was ever found, the tight-knit Seattle family that Wally left behind — particularly his two adoring sons, aged 4 and 6 when he went missing — still, in its own way, waits.
Not for him to come waltzing through the door. Just for resolution. Explanation. Some answers to the basic questions — where, when and especially how — that eat away at any family left squinting into the wind rushing through the gaping hole torn in lives when a loved one simply vanishes.
Over the next four decades, that hole would, in some ways, consume the rest of the Somers family, which kept its grief bottled tight, rarely discussing that fateful day, for fear of reopening old wounds.
It took the youngest of the Somers clan — David, that 4-year-old son, now 43 and a new father himself — to drag it all out into the light, finally breaking down walls of silence within the family as he searches for a way to say a proper goodbye to a father he barely remembers.
But the big question he struggles with is just as perplexing today as it was when the pain was fresh: How do you make peace with the loss of a father, brother, husband and son who disappears without a trace?
Because that, precisely, was the uncommon fate of Wally Somers, a man who vanished doing what, for many Northwesterners, is common enough to be considered a rite of passage: A simple, single-day climb up one of those enticing peaks in our backyard.
HE PLANNED to be home by dark. It was a reasonable estimate for Wally Somers, a young Army veteran and drywall installer who had caught the bug of climbing Cascade peaks a couple years earlier.
Self-trained and assisted by climbing friends, Wally was no expert. But his ample physical strength and zeal for alpine air led him down the well-trod path of local peak baggers.
"Wally got the bug," says his widow, Barbara Repass, now 67, of Port Angeles. The two Seattle natives had married in their early 20s and settled just north of Seattle after Wally was drafted and served a tour of duty in Germany. "He was just obsessed with climbing."
At one point, Barbara put her foot down, telling Wally he couldn't climb every weekend.
"So then it was every other weekend."
She let it go. People have far worse habits. He loved her and was a good father to sons Steve and David. When he wasn't climbing, they all camped and fished together.
But he began to live to climb. With friends, or sometimes his younger brother, Ed, Wally made weekend climbs on Mount Rainier, St. Helens and smaller peaks he marked in a first edition of Fred Beckey's "Cascade Alpine Guide." Only weeks before he disappeared, he climbed Whitehorse Mountain near Darrington.
Nobody in the family thought that was a very good idea. But nobody had much success telling Wally Somers what to do.
ON FRIDAY, Sept. 7, 1973, Wally and Ed Somers hatched a plan to climb Sloan Peak, an awe-inspiring tusk often called "the Matterhorn of the Cascades."
Mountaineers consider Sloan Peak a "basic" climb, strenuous but not technically difficult under normal conditions. The traditional Corkscrew Route gains 6,000 feet in elevation over six miles, with a glacier crossing leading to a scramble up loose rock to the summit.
The brothers, Ed says, had scoped out Sloan two weeks before, making the dicey ford of the North Fork Stillaguamish, then huffing up the steep miner's path that empties into alpine meadows below the rocky summit buttress.
That day, seeing no way to avoid that angry, creaking Sloan Glacier — "huge crevasses," Ed remembers — they vowed to return, equipped with ropes and crampons, early Sunday morning, Sept. 9.
That Saturday night, Ed, out late with friends and not feeling well, realized he would be neither rested nor organized enough to leave with Wally in just a few hours. He went to bed, but woke up in time to meet his big brother in his garage.
"I can't go," Ed said. "I'm sorry."
Ed says he had no idea Wally would attempt the peak on his own, and would have talked him out of it — or gone with him — had he known.
But while most of the world slumbered, Wally Somers drove the Mountain Loop Highway, back to the familiar trailhead at the base of Sloan Peak. He parked his red Chevy Blazer in the same spot they had parked two weeks before.
Nobody heard from him again.
AT HOME, Barbara Somers got worried as night fell that Sunday. By 5:30 a.m. Monday, panicked, she called his parents, Walt and Violet Somers. They hadn't heard from him, either. "We'll take care of it," they said.
At the trailhead, a sheriff's deputy found Wally's car (with his wallet, some climbing supplies, a photo of Sloan Peak, extra food) and a search was launched.
Mountain rescue volunteers combed Sloan Peak for four days, finding no trace of Wally, who had not signed the summit register. A military helicopter surveyed the mountain, to no avail.
It didn't really surprise Barbara.
"I had a really bad feeling about it," she says. If he was alive, "He would have done everything in his power to get home, or get help."
In a report filed later, searchers said they withdrew after the "very active" Sloan Glacier seemed dead set on swallowing them up. One searcher broke through the snow into a hidden crevasse. Another, coming to his aid, set off a 120-foot-long fracture line on the glacier's surface. The search was officially suspended.
IN A NORMAL scenario, the family could have commenced grieving. But in this disappearance, false leads kept hope agonizingly alive for weeks.
The first day of the search, a report came in about a climber in the area with a broken leg. Different guy.
A week later, climbers on the peak's sheer west face discovered a gear sling, hanging 60 feet below the summit, marked "W.S."
Re-energized, rescue teams scoured the area, finding more gear in a gully 200 feet below. But nothing more. Days later, another climber sheepishly admitted the sling belonged to him. His name: William Sumner.
Then, nearly a month after the disappearance, Ed Somers and others heading up the trail encountered a pair of hikers heading down. Ed will never forget them: Long hair, dirty clothes, big packs fitted with rifles — and dirt shovels, which he had never seen anyone carrying in local mountains.
"They looked like they were straight out of 'Deliverance,' " he says. "They're coming off the mountain at dawn. It seemed odd."
The two men paused to say they were "searching for the lost climber" — a full month later. Nobody got their names.
"I'll always wonder," Ed says now, "if maybe those guys shot him, hid the body temporarily, then went up after the search was over and buried him."
But it just seemed too bizarre.
"I don't honestly believe they shot him," he admits. "I think he's in the glacier."
Authorities agreed, but had to ask family members the inevitable questions: Was Wally unhappy? Could he have staged a disappearance? Everyone who knew him answered, firmly, no.
The consensus was that Wally, crossing the Sloan Glacier unroped, on a hot day, either broke through a snow bridge and fell into one of the crevasses or slipped and slid into one — and that there, he remains.
Friends and family had a memorial service at Bedal Campground — a gathering that David Somers barely remembers.
As a pastor friend said kind words about Wally, Kathy Somers, his sister, stood with her arms wrapped around young Steve.
Wally's mother, Violet, now 85, has never been able to shake the image from her mind.
"Her tears were bouncing off his head."
IN 1973, people didn't throw around pop-psychology terms like "closure." Then, grief was something you soldiered on through, not sought counseling for. And, so, for nearly 40 years after Wally Somers walked off into the sky, the jumbled emotions of the people who loved him remained cloistered.
Each family member reacted to his disappearance differently, but with one common theme: Overpowering emotions about the tragedy were kept in deep storage, mostly for the perceived protection of the two young boys.
"They knew their dad had disappeared, and that he was probably dead," Ed says. "But I don't think anybody ever sat them down and really talked to them about what happened."
His voice breaks. "Even today . . . it's still . . . it's still right there in all our minds. We're still dealing with it. Our family, we're too afraid of hurting anybody else. We kept things in."
Ed Somers' greatest demon was, and is, guilt — the unavoidable notion that he let his brother go off alone and could have stopped him.
"I know now it was not my fault," he says. But, "at that time, I felt like I should have been with him."
Wally's parents, who helped Barbara raise their grandsons, are still haunted with grief. For many years, they made a summer trek as high as they could on Sloan Peak, just to sit and listen and feel.
"It just felt like we left a part of us up there," Vi Somers says.
They ordered a plaque to commemorate his death, which they planned to bolt to a rock in the meadow below the glacier. Forest Service officials advised against it. It spent most of the past 40 years in a closet in the Somers' Woodway home.Wally was rarely discussed with the boys.
"I think we protected them from our agony," says Wally's father, Walt, 91.
Barbara Somers had the toughest task of all. Already stung by the deaths of both her parents, she became a widow at 29, with two sons and no means of support. She scrambled, adjusted — and vowed to never once let her sons down by displaying weakness.
"I could have probably talked to them more," says Barbara, who did not remarry until the boys were teenagers. "But it was so painful."
Steve grasped the gravity of it all back then, but refused to discuss it, even when his mother arranged a couple counseling sessions.
David just kept asking: "When is Daddy coming home?"
"He's not," Mom said. "He died."
Ever the optimist, David refused to believe it.
He found his own way to cope. For much of his young life, David Somers kept close at hand a teddy bear, named Freddy. At night, Freddy stayed at the end of David's bed, facing the door, with a mission: When Dad comes home, wake me up.
Barbara realizes now, "He didn't deal with it at all."
SOMEWHERE IN his house in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, David Somers still keeps Freddy. David no longer waits for Dad, but he hasn't been able to part with that bear, either.
Wally Somers' sons both went on to graduate from Washington State University and start families of their own. Steve is a teacher in Spokane with sons aged 10 and 7. David is a news photographer for KHQ-TV, and dad to a 20-month-old daughter — named Sloan, after the peak.
Steve didn't want to discuss his father, saying he still finds it too painful.
For David, a lifetime of brushing it all aside came to an end the moment he held a child of his own and began pondering the consequences for her if, one day, he didn't come home.
The more he learns about fatherhood, the more he thirsts for knowledge about his own dad. Convinced it was finally time to make peace with the loss, he has cajoled family members into talking about Wally's disappearance.
As part of that process, Ed Somers and Barbara Repass recently had a heartfelt conversation about Wally for the first time in 39 years.
David wants to take it one step further: back up to Sloan Peak. He's trying to organize a memorial climb — or perhaps just a trek to the foot of the glacier — by next summer, the 40th anniversary of Wally Somers' disappearance.
Barbara, who forbade the boys from climbing (they took up other action sports, such as competitive cycling), says she's not sure how she feels about a memorial climb.
It would be an emotional moment for David, who has never been able to summon the time, or perhaps the courage, to face that mountain in person.
"I feel like it's something I have to do."
If nothing else, he wants to take Sloan there, to show her the beautiful place that inspired her name — and help her get to know a grandfather he never really knew himself.
MANY PEOPLE say the lack of a formal gravesite for a lost relative deepens the pain. Barbara Somers Repass is not among them.
In fact, "It really gives me peace," she says, to know Wally likely is entombed on one of the mountains that so captured his soul. "I hope they never, ever find him. It's just better to leave it the way it is."
Married since 1986 to golf pro Chris Repass, she says she feels, if anything, blessed — proud of her sons, thrilled by her grandchildren.
But even four decades later, the hurt lingers. When she heard news reports about four people missing in a snowstorm on Mount Rainier in January — they still haven't been found — Barbara cried for their families. "I know what they're going to go through."
Her advice: "Talk about it more than I did. Pull your family together and have them help you as much as they can. Share stories."
Now that the words have finally been coming, Barbara realized she had a few more important ones to pass along. She put them in an email:
"Because Wally died in an accident, it was much easier to handle than if we were divorced or not happy together. I always knew that he loved me and our boys. He kissed me goodbye and said he would see me Sunday night. I didn't have the stress of things not said.
"I know everyone says this, but always kiss your loved ones goodbye. No matter what. No one knows what's going to happen. One day they are with you, and then they are gone . . .
"You usually don't get second chances."
Ron Judd is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.