Like the sirens who lured legendary mariners to their deaths, Mount Hood sparkles in the spring sun, attracting thousands of hikers each year who look to its southern slope as the easiest climb in the Northwest.
From this lodge halfway up its slopes, the silent volcano looks like a giant licked cone of chocolate-chip ice cream: inviting and benevolent.
Mount Hood is close to Portland and easily accessible by four-lane U.S. 26. Timberline Lodge, built by the Works Progress Administration and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, is an attraction in itself.
But mountaineers and mountain rescue personnel say it is the seemingly easy climb and ready access that has led unprepared hikers into vicious storms and over hidden crevasses and made Mount Hood one of the country's most deadly climbs.
"It just looks too easy," said Keith Petrie, an official of the Mount Hood Recreation Association who joined the Mount Hood ski patrol in 1945.
Since the first white men scaled the sacred mountain of western Indians in 1857 -- a mountain the Indians came to fear -- 61 people are known to have died, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
That includes the seven students and two adult sponsors from Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, caught Monday in a whiteout. Two others, Ralph Summers -- the group's only guide -- and student Molly Schula, walked for help Tuesday, and two others were in Portland hospitals, where their conditions were listed as critical today and their prognoses described as good.
The survivors, Giles Lewis Thompson and Brinton Clark, were found Thursday among the bodies of six more companions in a snow cave. Memorial services were held today for Erin O'Leary and Alison Litzenberger, two of three student climbers found dead Wednesday not far from the hidden cave.
Today, with temperatures in the 60s and no clouds in sight, nearly 200 hikers dotted Mount Hood's snowy slopes. The Forest Service estimates that 10,000 people climb the mountain each year -- most of them in the spring -- making it second only to Japan's Mount Fujiyama as a popular climb.
There are no restrictions on climbing Mount Hood, and on a clear day, a novice can walk up and back in a day.
"I've known people in tennis shoes to make it to the summit," said Richard L. Kohnstamm, who has managed this lodge at the 6,000-foot tree-line level for 30 years. But he said those climbers were taking a terrible chance and he predicted that because of last week's disaster -- the worst in the mountain's history -- restrictions may be placed on climbing.
After a relatively easy climb from the lodge across a huge snowfield, where some hikers follow a ski lift above the 8,000-foot level, climbers must work their way around an ancient volcanic dome that once was a center of the crater. Crevasses, falling rock and shifting snow increase the danger here.
But it is the weather that makes Mount Hood dangerous. Cruel, sometimes sudden storms can roll in off the North Pacific and drop temperatures far below zero in howling winds that blow clouds and snow and reduce visibility to nothing: a whiteout like Monday's.
"It was a nasty little storm," said Kohnstamm. ". . . You cannot believe what it's like on a bad day up there. You get vertigo, you get sick to your stomach, you don't know if you're moving or not moving. It's a frightening experience."
Kohnstamm said a lodge employe once got lost in a storm in the lodge parking lot and almost did not find the front door.
"The mountain is so big it can make its own weather," he said.
Mountaineers say proper equipment is a priority, something that many hikers do not take into account. Some who had seen the Oregon Episcopal students said they were well-equipped for a day hike, with warm clothing and other equipment, but not to live three days in a snow cave.
Dr. Donald Jenkins of the District of Columbia, who spent 16 years rescuing hikers on Mount Hood, said every hiker should have first-aid equipment, a wire splint, one climbing rope for every four climbers, an ice axe, crampons to allow boots to dig into ice, cold-weather clothing, two compasses, hooks and slings and "enough mountain sense to know when weather is coming in."
Several mountaineers at the lodge today agree that "mountain sense" also means one experienced guide for every three novices in a hike up Mount Hood. One climber, who asked not to be identified because he said he may have to serve on any review board that investigates the tragedy, said, "I really question it [having a single guide for the group]."
Summers, the students' guide, has said that the hike was going well and the group was returning in time to escape the weather, but was delayed for more than an hour when a student developed hypothermia, a lowered body temperature. He helped the climbers dig in and went for help, returning with rescuers who finally found the cave after a two-day search. He returned Friday to remove the hiker's equipment.
"This thing is going to haunt me for years," he told the Portland Oregonian then. "I wish it wouldn't, but I know it will." He could not be reached for comment today.
The Rev. Thomas Goman, 42, was the only other member of the party with extensive experience -- 18 climbs up Mount Hood. "You can climb the mountain 18 times," the official who spoke anonymously said, "but that doesn't make you a guide."
Kohnstamm and Mike Volk, owner of Timberline Mountain Guides, said the climbers would have stood a much better chance had Monday's temperature been colder than the estimated 30 to 32 degrees, and the snow been less wet and heavy.
"If it was 20 degrees and snowing, they would not have gotten wet and would have been a lot better off," Volk said. "Maybe all of them would have gotten through it, maybe with severe frostbite."