Two leaders of one of the most challenging rescue attempts Mount Rainier has ever seen will be honored Wednesday in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Neither Charlie Borgh nor David Gottlieb will be there to receive their Valor Awards for risking their lives in the 2004 rescue attempt.
Borgh died in an avalanche in 2006 while climbing in British Columbia. His parents, John and Mary Borgh of Minnesota, will receive his award. Gottlieb is in southern Tibet, where his climbing partner and former Rainier climbing ranger Joe Puryear died Oct. 26 after a fall on Labuche Kang.
The Valor Award is presented to Interior employees who demonstrate “unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger,” according to the department’s website.
In May 2004, two experienced climbers from Maine were ascending Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge when Peter Cooley, a father of three with degrees from Stanford and Yale, tripped and fell.
His climbing partner, Scott Richards, could only watch as Cooley slid over a 12-foot cliff.
“I couldn’t see him,” Richards told The News Tribune last year. “I was screaming.”
When Richards climbed down to Cooley, he realized his friend had hit his head on a rock. And just then, Richards said, it started to “spit this snowish rain.”
Cooley needed immediate medical attention, but that was impossible on the 50-degree slope. Richards chipped a ledge into the ice below a rock outcropping he hoped would protect them from the Volkswagen-size chunks of ice that regularly tumble down the mountain.
He pitched his tent, lowered his friend inside and then climbed outside to call for help.
When lead climbing ranger Mike Gauthier received the call, he launched what he still describes as “perhaps the largest and most complicated rescue” in his 18 years at the park.
The clouds were too thick to reach Richards and Cooley by helicopter, so Borgh and Gottlieb were sent to the northwestern corner of the park to try to climb to 12,300 feet. With visibility near zero, Borgh and Gottlieb needed 40 hours to get close enough to hear Richards’ distress whistle.
“Scott was excited to see us,” Gottlieb told The News Tribune in 2004. “His situation was nothing less than desperate. His entire motivation was to get his friend out of there.”
The weather remained uncooperative, so the rangers began devising an elaborate pulley system to lower Cooley off the mountain. If all had gone well, they might have had Cooley to Madigan Army Medical Center within three days.
But an unexpected parting of the clouds allowed a small window for a helicopter rescue. With television news helicopters recording every move, Borgh and Gottlieb rigged a litter to be hoisted into an Oregon National Guard Chinook helicopter.
“There was a sense that he was with the professionals now,” Richards told The News Tribune last year. “I didn’t think he was out of the woods, but I didn’t think he was going to die.”
Cooley died during the 15-minute helicopter ride, and Gottlieb had to break the news to Richards on the mountain. The next day, a helicopter flew Richards off the mountain.
Richards gave up climbing when Borgh died in 2006. He said it reinforced that walking away from the sport he loved was a smart move.
Since the accident, Gottlieb has continued to emerge as one of the most respected mountaineers in the United States.
“Mount Rainier is fortunate to have him,” Gauthier said.
Gauthier remembers Borgh as a rising star, whose career trajectory might have one day put him in charge of Rainier’s climbing program.
“He was the full package,” Gauthier said. “He was brilliant, educated, fit and very, very strong, very articulate and he wrote well. He had a good nature and he was a sweet kid.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497