Published DateBy Erik Eisele
CONWAY — The team of climbers rescued off Mount Washington last week following an avalanche that sent three to the hospital is wrestling with the decisions that put them there.
"We know," said Thom Pollard, the film producer who was making a documentary about former U.S. Marine Keith Zeier's ascent of Mount Washington. Zeier lost his left leg in an IED explosion in Iraq that killed four other soldiers. He is now focused on raising money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which supports severely wounded special operations personnel and their families. Zeier, 53-year-old Ohio-based mountain guide Andy Politz, Pollard and nine others were climbing a moderate snow and ice gully in Huntington Ravine on Thursday with plans to sleep at the Mount Washington Observatory when an avalanche started by the lead party of three caught the other nine climbers.
"The fourth team, which triggered the avalanche near the top of the gully, was the only team to avoid a sliding fall," the U.S. Forest Service snow rangers said in a description of the slide posted on their website. "The team that took the longest fall was in the center of the gully, while the others were along the rock face on the left. No snow anchors were in place and some, if not all, parties were moving simultaneously while roped up, though it isn't entirely clear how many elected to use this technique."
"This type of multi-casualty incident has happened here before," the report went on to say. "Fortunately, the injuries this party sustained were relatively minor compared to those who have taken this fall in the past, allowing rescue teams to stabilize the situation and evacuate the party via the forest service snow tractor."
"We are well aware that people are going to have issues with how that day went down," Pollard said. Both he and Politz have climbed in major ranges around the world, and in retrospect they recognize missteps. "We were so focused," he said, on what was directly in front of the team, that they missed big picture questions.
Now, Pollard said, the movie that was originally going to be about Zeier's ascent will take a hard look at the team's decisions. "We're going to answer these questions," he said, and interview people involved in the rescue. "If they want to say something negative it won't be edited out."
The team members, meanwhile, have been making their way home. The bulk are from Ohio, like Politz, who was discharged over the weekend and is now home. Some of the less experienced climbers were "shellshocked," Pollard said, but from his perspective the most difficult thing is having this happen to Zeier. "It just breaks my heart that anything happened to him."
Zeier wrenched his back when his prosthesis pushed up into his hip, Pollard said, and also injured his rotator cuff. He stayed at the hospital for several days for observation, but he was due to get out any time. "He's just looking forward to going home and beginning physical therapy," Pollard said.
In the meantime Pollard has been split between conducting interviews for his film, "Ascents of Honor," and being interviewed by reporters from as far away as New York and Ohio, "call after call after call," he said.
Some members of the team are already talking about getting Zeier back to Mount Washington so he can finish the climb. "We can't let something like this shut us down," Pollard said.