Hurricane Ridge Blizzard
Presidents Day Weekend, 1977
One of the benefits of spending one's teenage years in the Pacific Northwest is the diversity of outdoor recreation available within a short distance. Since the winters are famously long, wet, and dreary, working and playing outdoors during the winter normally requires appropriate planning and gear, particularly in the mountains. The winter of 1976/1977 was a rare exception to the rule of wet winters with a record-setting snow drought throughout the mountains of the Western U.S.
One of my friends' family from Curtis High School, Doug Arnold, owned a cabin at Lake Crescent up in the Olympic Mountains. Doug and his older brother Brad would often invite a few of us on hiking and skiing trips in the Olympics, occasionally staying at the cabin. During the mid 1970s we backpacked many of the trails in the Olympics, including the Elwha, Sol Duck, and High Divide trails. In February of '77 Doug suggested a hike near Obstruction Point to take advantage of the lack of snow and unusually fine weather. As the date grew nearer and the forecast continued to look good, a total of eight of us committed to making the trip, most of whom had been on extensive backpacking trips together. The group of hikers included Greg and Gary Lockard, Doug Arnold, Bob Widness, Don Elmore, Joey Nole, Tim Waldron, and myself; all from the Tacoma area ranging between 17 and 19 years of age.
The backpacking trip would begin at Hurricane Ridge, hiking over the pass at Obstruction Point, setting up camp below in Badger Valley. This location would serve as a base camp for day hiking in remote parts of the Olympics normally inaccessible in winter. Even though the weather forecast was Spring-like, we planned for winter conditions, including packing down bags, tent stoves, winter clothing, and a couple of expedition tents used on Everest, which turned out to be fortuitous. As we stopped at the headquarters of Olympic National Park to pick up our permits we discussed the trip with a couple of park rangers. Given the current conditions, weather forecast, experience levels and gear, they didn't seem concerned, but offered a few precautions just in case.
Even though we were well aware of the drought conditions that year we were still amazed when we arrived at Hurricane Ridge; it was bare, dry, and warm. At a mile high in the mountains of Washington during February one can expect over 10 feet of snow. That year, however, it felt more like early fall, so off we went carrying heavy packs no doubt thinking that some of the gear would be unnecessary. After a pleasant 8.4 mile hike traversing the valley on the dirt road used in summer we came to the trail head for Obstruction Point, which consists of a small parking lot and outhouse in an otherwise unspoiled alpine valley. We were up the trail and over the saddle with relative ease, setting up camp in a sheltered basin behind some trees about 11 miles east of Hurricane Ridge Lodge.
I was the Area Ranger at Hurricane Ridge in 1977. It was a very dry & clear winter. Day after day of sunny weather & no snow. People were doing back country hikes almost as if it were still Fall. Weather forecasts for Washington weekend were for more of the same -clear sunny days.
- Jack Hughes, NPS.
At some point during our first night the wind picked up, which was followed a short time later by the sound of something soft brushing the tent so someone poked their head out through the tent's snow portal to confirm that it was snowing. This news actually came as a nice surprise as it hadn't snowed much at all that year. The mountains could certainly use the moisture. We were well prepared and the forecast was good so we went back to sleep. By first light it was snowing heavily with several inches of snow on the ground and increasingly strong wind gusts occurring more frequently. We didn't believe that we were under any serious threat so we decided to sit out the storm. I remember thinking that the storm would likely blow through within hours, allowing us to continue with our plans.
As the second day wore on we could hear the wind gusts building on the ridges to our west before swooping down to the tree line with ferocity far beyond anything I had ever experienced. A particularly strong gust caught one of the expedition tents temporarily empty of human anchors, ripped it free from tie lines and sent it sailing down the valley full of gear. Our friends were able to retrieve and secure their gear, but it was a vivid demonstration of how strong the westerly winds had become, particularly considering we were well below and to the east of the ridge in a sheltered basin behind a small stand of alpine trees.
Our camp was far more protected than the pass to our west where we had come from, which was also our planned return route to Hurricane Ridge Lodge. It was if mother nature was toying with us; using the drought conditions to entice us into a place humans don't belong in winter and was now reminding us what she could do.
The second night was long with very strong wind gusts that required us to hold on to the tent frames to keep it from collapsing and non-stop heavy snow that required constant clearing. The following morning we began to seriously discuss our options. By then the snow was already drifting several feet deep in places so if the storm continued unabated we could be in real trouble. While we had adequate food and clothing, we didn't bring snow shoes, x-country skis, or avalanche gear. There wasn't any snow on the ground that winter so it would have seemed preposterous to consider carrying such gear.
Even if we left that morning the planned route back to Hurricane Ridge Lodge would expose us to over ten miles of deep snow, extremely strong winds, and crossing over a pass that included one or more avalanche slopes. Complicating the decision was the fact that the National Park Service doesn't allow overnight parking at Hurricane Ridge in the winter, simply because cars would get blown off the parking lot and/or buried in just this type of storm, although it was unlikely that the seventeen mile Hurricane Ridge road would be kept open in such a storm anyway. The only certainty was that the lodge was built like a fortress and would be there if and when we made it back, even if deserted and locked.
Without warning a very severe storm moved in Saturday night. At Hurricane it was a full blizzard and the road closed on Sunday. Janet Kailin, Norm Simons, (Volunteers) & I were up there & became snowed in. We were waiting for the hikers in Mark's group to get out. By Monday snow was about five feet with drifts. - Jack Hughes, NPS.
Our only other choice appeared to be a cross-country route to the east and north through one of the most remote valleys in the Olympic Mountains, which could take several more days of hiking before we found civilization. Since the park rangers weren't expecting us to take that route, it was unlikely a search party would be looking for us in that direction if we missed our checkout date. Neither choice seemed particularly pleasant, yet both were better than spending the rest of the winter, if not eternity, in our current location. We all knew conditions would only get worse if the storm continued, so in discussing our options, hiking out sooner than later emerged as the consensus, but in which direction?
One of our friends, Tim Waldren, volunteered to hike up to the exposed ridge-top to check out the pass on the route back to Hurricane Ridge and report back to the group. We would wait on his report before voting on which way to go. Tim confirmed what we suspected; the winds were more severe and the snow deeper on the return route to Hurricane Ridge, but making it up to the pass was doable. We took a vote and decided to leave for Hurricane Ridge in the morning. I recall voting to hike out the other direction — it would have been longer, but I believed safer. During the first morning of the storm, before the whiteout began to dominate the environment, I noticed the snow line a couple of thousand feet below us to the east with a green valley below heading north.
After yet another long night of strong winds and heavy snow, we packed up the most necessary items, leaving quite a few stuff sacks of gear buried in the snow, and started our slow slog through deep drifts up the ridge. We were strong, with appropriate clothing, and reasonably well fed, so even though the cold was beginning to wear us down, our chances were excellent, provided none of us had an accident or attempted something stupid.
The most dangerous immediate hazard we faced was the pass just below Obstruction Peak. Since we were pushing through waste deep snow we had the luxury of not worrying where the trail was so we chose a spot near the top of the peak with the most narrow point of risk and then proceeded one at a time. I had been in the Olympics in previous winters listening to the echo of frequent avalanches, and this was obviously an avalanche slope so I was very cautious. While the snow had not given way yet in the current storm, that fact only made the risk greater in my view given 8 two hundred pound weights walking across one step at a time. If the slope broke loose one or more of us might be buried until Spring.
Fortunately, we all made it across the avalanche hazard down to the exposed saddle. Our reward was a powerful greeting from the Pacific Ocean in the form of the strongest wind gusts we had yet encountered. Until this point we had been subjected to very strong down drafts from the storm, but had been somewhat protected by ridges to our north, west, and south. As we inched over the pass facing the brutal westerly winds there was no longer anything between us and the full brunt of the storm itself swirling over the Pacific. Obstruction Point is 6,450' above sea level, nearly 1,000' higher than Hurricane Ridge Lodge, forming a northern crest of the Olympics that shelters the Puget Sound area from the northern Pacific. The only other significant wind barrier within many miles is Mt. Olympus at 7,980', the highest point in the Olympic Mountains, surrounded by the third largest glacial system in Washington State, which was to our south. On the President's Day blizzard of 1977 this sentry position at the northwestern extreme of the contiguous U.S. in the northern Pacific was earning its name. On that particular day it felt like we could have been on any of the world's tallest mountains.
As we descended from the ridge in brutal winds, faced with a long struggle back to the lodge, several of our group members decided to lighten their loads further. I recall a few of our group pulling gear from our packs and releasing it to the whiteout with muffled voices offering sacrifices to the wind Gods; no doubt to be found a few months later by summer day hikers. Better the gear than us.
Back down at the trail head for Obstruction Poin we took turns escaping the wind in the tiny outhouse, which I assumed must be secured with hurricane straps. We then proceeded in small groups across the valley towards Hurricane Ridge. Greg Lockard seemed to be the most motivated as he took off blazing a trail in the lead. He was followed by his twin brother Gary, Doug Arnold, and myself, who took turns acting as a snow plow. Visibility was lousy with whiteout conditions dominating the alpine environment, so we quickly lost sight of Greg in front of us as well as the four hikers to our rear. Greg's trail quickly disappeared in the blowing snow, driven by severe gusts consisting more of snow than air. What little progress we made was due more to wading through deep drifts than walking.
We had only traveled a few miles by mid-day, expending a great deal of energy in the process, but at least the most exposed part of the hike was behind us. We could make out the clearing where the dirt road was bare just 3 days earlier which we knew eventually led to the lodge so we just kept placing one foot in front of the other. At some point we entered a tree-line that deflected some of the wind, which protected remnants of what we guessed were tracks from a failed rescue attempt, giving us hope that someone might be at the lodge. We could also see occasional depressions in the trees that appeared to be Greg's tracks; his path was beginning to zig zag.
I was one of the people that tried to ski out in the direction of your group, and remember being knocked to the ground with some of the gusts. My ski partner Norm Simons and I were only able to ski two miles from Hurricane Lodge before we decided that we could not go any further.
— Janet Kailin, NPS.
In mid-afternoon I recall sitting in the snow for a brief snack when the shivering was overwhelmed by a warm glow followed by a powerful desire to lay back and go to sleep. Fortunately, the members of our group were aware of the symptoms for hypothermia and able to keep each other awake and moving; motivated by fear of even contemplating yet another night in this storm. As the afternoon wore on we grew colder and weaker, but also closer to the lodge. Daylight succumbed to dusk, as did our remaining energy, when we finally reached the small hill that would lead us up to the lodge.
This brought back a memory of an incident at Obstruction Point in 1967. September had been clear & warm Fall weather. Forecasts called for more of the same weather through the 29-30 weekend. Three fisherman signed out for a trip to Grand Valley (Mark & Co's destination too). But Saturday night a major storm moved in with heavy snow & high wind..... Monday morning I set out with Don Brown (another ranger) to check on them. Our 4x4 vehicle was stopped by 4 ft. drifts three miles short of Obstruction. We walked on through & around drifts. We found the vehicle empty & half covered by snow.... We went about a half mile toward Grand Valley & found one of the group. He was cold & could barely speak..... We asked about the other two. He told us “you can't help them, they're froze”. In a weather break a Coast Guard helicopter got in and evacuated him & dropped off some more rangers. We found the other two as the storm moved back in. He had been right — they were both froze. My thoughts in 1977 went back to '67. I thought “not again”. — Jack Hughes, NPS.
We slowly emerged from the forest, once again fully exposed to the full force of the torturing winds, reminding us why this place was called Hurricane Ridge. It seemed to take a long time to cover the remaining few hundred yards, finally reaching the lodge, only to discover locked doors and no signs of life. I recall shouting over the howl with Gary and Doug speculating on how we might break into the lodge when one of the latches clicked and the steel door finally gave way.
As we entered the lodge, stomping the snow off on the hard floor sent a shock through my body, which had grown accustomed to the fluid and unstable environment of wading through snow. After brushing the snow from our once-strong bodies we looked up at our surroundings to find ourselves hovering in front of a display case full of snacks. I can recall translating in my mind the appearance of the candy as some kind of reward from the wind Gods for finding our way through the swirling white maze to the formidable structure of Hurricane Ridge Lodge. We accepted the loan of candy bars with gratitude before starting our search for signs of life.
The only clue was a dim light from downstairs which we followed around a corner as a man suddenly appeared wearing a National Park Service uniform. While consuming candy bars we exchanged information, the most important being that we had not seen our friends behind us for several hours and as many miles. We then inquired about our friend Greg. The ranger said that Greg was downstairs in the first aid room suffering from hypothermia that warranted concern, but the rangers thought he would be OK.
We found three NPS staff members at the lodge; Jack Hughes, Janet Kailin, and Norm Simons. They told us that they had been waiting for our return when they were trapped at the lodge by the blizzard. The Hurricane Ridge road had been closed the day before. Jack Hughes was in a back brace from a helicopter crash the previous summer and ordered not to ski so Norm and Janet had skied towards Obstruction Point earlier in the day, but were turned back by the severe conditions.
When I first saw Greg he was in a sleeping bag with a look barely of this world. Greg was conscious, but seem confused, and his pupils were dilated. The NPS crew had been slowly warming Greg's core temperature with hot water bottles and administering first aid. We all had varying degrees of hypothermia, but Greg was clearly in the worst shape despite wearing similar gear and spending the least amount of time exposed.
When Greg Lockard stumbled out on Monday, Feb. 23, 1977 at 1300 hours, he was in bad shape. Very cold shaking & having trouble speaking. That meant 7 more were back out along the 9 mile road in the blizzard. We called for more support — snow plows & more help.
— Jack Hughes, NPS.
We were very worried of course about our friends still out in the storm with no idea how they were doing or how long it might be before they made it back, assuming they could. It was pitch dark as we looked out the thick windows of the lodge designed to defend against just this sort of wind when I began to reflect on what we had just been through. With great relief two hikers blew in from the storm a few minutes later, appearing to be in similar condition to Gary, Doug, and myself. Unfortunately, they too had not seen anyone in the blizzard for many miles so Norm and Janet headed back out into the blizzard on skies to look for the remaining two in our party. A short time later we heard the good news — they found our two friends not far from the lodge.
After a time I was able to talk some with Greg. The other 7 were still missing. I asked him about the condition & experience of the others. He told me that he was the most fit & experienced of the group. He was the most fit & experienced, but just barely made it back! I thought “not again”....
But – as the major rescue was getting on the boys kept staggering in a few at a time. Norm & Janet skied out & met the last two & everyone was accounted for. The last 7 went slower than Greg & took more rest stops & maybe snacks. They were slower but in better condition than Greg on arrival!
Regards to all.... — Jack Hughes, NPS, 05/03/2009.
About a half hour later we could see lights reflecting off of the blowing snow. Our link to the outside world was a giant snow blower slowly cutting its way through deep snow towards the lodge, sending copious amounts of snow into the wind with its twin rotating blades.
I was very grateful to have the opportunity to ride down the mountain in the cab of this snow eating machine with the brave driver who kept a path to safety open for us. We were followed closely by our friends in the rangers' 4wd vehicles. We were hypothermic, had been through a great ordeal, and were all very aware that we were very fortunate to be alive. Through some combination of luck, good planning, strength of youth, the help of heroic NPS staff, and perhaps a few sacrifices to the wind Gods, we had survived.
The following summer after the blizzard I drove back up to Hurricane Ridge to take in the view and contemplate the experience. A very interesting looking character with a long gray beard was peering over the valley towards Obstruction Point, so I approached him and started a conversation. He said “I lived down there during the war... WWII”, then went on to describe experiences that confirmed that he could only be the legendary Herb Crisler. We talked for perhaps a half hour, during which time I listened with great interest to his recollections of his pioneering life hiking, living and filming in the Olympics with his wife Lois. I shared a brief of our trips to several of the areas he had lived. He seemed most interested in the Obstruction Point blizzard.
In the winter of 2009, 32 years after the blizzard of 1977, my wife and I moved to Santa Fe, NM. I accidentally ran into an old high school friend, Pearce Dressel, who lives nearby. On a short hike with me and my wife Betsy, Pearce asked me about the blizzard in 1977 with our friends, which was the first time in many years I had thought about it. Thanks to Pearce for reigniting the spark to share these memories in writing.
In researching the story I owe thanks to many including the folks at the Peninsula Daily News and the Port Angeles Public Library. A special thanks to Karin Bubaco and Mark Albright at the University of Washington who confirmed the dates with climatological data and Mark Albright's memory of the bare and dry conditions in the mountains of Washington in the winter of '76/'77.
When I first began the process of converting imperfect memory to paper I sent a casual email to the Olympic National Park not expecting that anyone was still working at the park who would remember this event. A few weeks later I was very surprised to receive a letter from Janet Kailin which brought tears to my eyes when reading it to my wife Betsy. Janet is now the secretary for the Superintendent of Olympic National Park and Jack Hughes is now her husband. Norm Simons later became a ranger at the park. The three visited and reminisced about the storm prior to sending the letter, which included the incident report and a wonderful note from Jack describing the blizzard from his perspective. Most of all I'd like to thank Jack Hughes, Janet Kailin, and Norm Simons of Olympic National Park for risking their lives to save eight youths in 1977, as well as sharing their memories.
-- Mark Montgomery
Copyright © 2009, Mark A. Montgomery. All rights reserved.