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Climbing Mount St. Helens to honor a brave life

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
  • Mount St. Helens was first mountain that Joe Bohlig summited
  • Scott Salkovics, who introduced Bohlig to climbing, was the last person to see him alive
  • Before Bohlig's death, two were to climb Mount St. Helens on anniversary of 1980 eruption
  • Instead, Salkovics and other friends and family of Bohlig's climbed mountain to honor his life

Kelso, Washington (CNN) -- Dinnertime at the Bohlig home is standing room only as the house fills with friends and family, some of whom have driven hundreds of miles to be here.

In the packed kitchen, relatives take turns serving spaghetti onto paper plates, a much needed boost of carbs for the next day's memorial climb on Mount St. Helens.

They were preparing for an expedition last Tuesday, the 30th anniversary of the deadly 1980 eruption.

But a more recent, personal tragedy was the inspiration for this latest expedition.

Joe Bohlig died in February while summiting Mount St. Helens. He was 52.

Watch CNN's report on the search mission Video

Bohlig had planned to climb the mountain on May 18 to mark the anniversary of the 1980 eruption, as he had in previous years.

Video: Climbing mountain in hiker's memory

So, for his loved ones, the only way to make peace with his death was to return to the mountain on that day. To the mountain that Bohlig loved most, the same mountain that took his life.

In one room of the crowded house, Bohlig's 84-year-old father, Richard, is manning a slide projector. Images appear on the wall of Mount St. Helens before and after the eruption 30 years ago when the volcano triggered a ground-shaking explosion that killed 57 people and sheared more than 1,000 feet of mass from its summit.

Watch an interview with Bohlig's father Video

Other slides show photos of family vacations -- a young and gangly Joe Bohlig hangs from trees, walls, anything he can climb up.

Last day

Among those watching is Scott Salkovics, the man who introduced Bohlig to climbing more than a decade ago. Salkovics was also the last person to see Bohlig alive.

The two men had just returned from Ecuador, where they had successfully climbed three mountains much more challenging than Mount St. Helens, the first peak the two men had summited together.

Already an experienced climber, Salkovics invited Bohlig -- his co-worker -- to join him on the mountain. Bohlig was a long-distance runner but not a climber.

Soon their roles were reversed as Bohlig took to scaling mountains from Europe to Argentina, with the same "all-in" enthusiasm with which he attacked everything in his life.

When he climbed with an experienced climber such as Salkovics, Bohlig raced up the slope, inevitably taking the front position to cut a trail through the fresh snow.

"The nice thing was he liked to lead," Salkovics said. "So I got to walk in his steps."

As he got better, Bohlig encouraged inexperienced climbers to join on him on Mount St. Helens. But he didn't rush them. He was patient -- waiting and encouraging them as they made their way up.

Bohlig's friends remembered he always warned the novices that snowpacks could give out, rocks could shift and fall.

Even though no one had died on the mountain since 1980, Bohlig knew Mount St. Helens was still a dangerous place.

On the day of their last climb, the winter afternoon was crisp but clear. In the distance, the men could see Mount Rainier, a taller volcano to the north that -- when the weather permits -- dominates the landscape with an otherwordly snow-capped majesty.

As they reached the summit, Bohlig walked toward the edge of the crater, the open wound where the mountain's dome once stood.

Salkovics remembered Bohlig was still 5 feet away from the crater, which should have been far enough from the cornices. Bohlig had warned novice climbers about this packed snow that builds up along the crater's edge.

The men happened to lock eyes just as the ground underneath Bohlig's feet gave way.

"I saw his expression change, and then he was gone," Salkovics said.

Salkovics threw his backpack in after Bohlig, hoping the supplies might help him if he survived the fall into the crater.

A rescue effort was mounted, but just as quickly thwarted by the region's famously fickle weather.

I saw his expression change, and then he was gone.
--Scott Salkovics, climber and friend

A night of thunderstorms passed preventing rescuers from reaching the summit.

Still, there was a strand of hope to grasp onto.

Another climber on the mountain thought he heard a whistle being blown from inside the crater. Salkovics remembered Bohlig saying he recently bought an emergency whistle.

Over 24 hours after he fell, a Navy helicopter landed in the crater and recovered Bohlig's lifeless body.

The local coroner said there was no way the climber could have survived the injuries he sustained in the fall.

Bohlig's death was ruled a result of the fall without the coroner having to conduct an autopsy.

Days later as he and Bohlig's family went through Bohlig's effects in his home, Salkovics found the emergency whistle still in enclosed in plastic wrapping.

Moving on

Back at the Bohlig home, Salkovics and Joe's older brother Patrick began to talk about comments posted online after the accident.

Bloggers speculated that Bohlig had taken risks, that he didn't know what he was doing. Not Joe, Salkovics said. There was no one more meticulous and concerned about safety.

Patrick remembered the bad jokes that strangers online came up with about his family's tragedy.

Someone wrote that they thought only virgins got thrown into volcanoes, Patrick said. And then there were the puns about the Tom Hanks' movie "Joe Versus the Volcano."

Patrick said he'd be more angry if it weren't for the fact that Joe had the kind of sense of humor that would have found it all hilariously funny.

Paying tribute

At 5 the morning of May 18, a group of Bohlig's siblings, nieces, nephews, friends, running partners and his fiancée meet in the empty parking lot of Kelso's bowling alley to organize a caravan up the mountain.

Bohlig's sister Cathy Munden wears his climbing pants, another relative his favorite ski cap. The group grumbles about the early hour, the misty rain falling in the darkness, and a few stragglers who show up late.

Then they get behind the wheels of their cars for the hour-and-a-half drive as far as the windy roads will take you up the mountain.

It takes training and persistence to climb a mountain, but more often than not it comes down to the weather. Windows of favorable weather conditions allow climbers to make a summit, but they are as time-sensitive and precise as a surfer catching a wave.

If the weather shifts, suddenly a peaceful climb can become the nightmare of fighting the elements on an exposed mountainside with nowhere to go but down.

As the group begins the ascent, a gray drizzle hangs over the trail. The temperature has dropped 10 degrees over the last 24 hours.

But the mood of the climbers is light, Bohlig's sister Munden talks about a sea-blue tattoo she recently had etched on the bridge of her left foot of an ice ax and Joe's initials.

"I feel like I have been lost for the last three months," Munden says.

Now that she's on the mountain, Munden is focused on the trail in front of her. From the zipper of her backpack, a bouquet of multicolored flowers peeks out.

She is going to place them where her brother fell.

"I feel like Joe is with me," she says. "He is blazing the trail in front of me."

As the hours go by and the altitude increases, an eerie quiet takes hold of the group. Salkovics breaks the silence with a climbing song he and Bohlig would warble.

The drizzle turns into sleet and the snow on the path deepens. Every so often another group of climbers comes down the mountain. All report that they had turned around before reaching the top.

Around 4,400 feet, an ominous yellow warning icon of a water droplet begins to flicker on the viewfinder of my video camera. The humidity in the air is getting to it. I wrap the rain cover more tightly around the camera, but soon it does not turn on at all.

At 6,000 feet, a blast of icy air brings the group to a halt on the now-exposed trail. The tree line is far below us, and we still have a long way to go to the top.

In the four hours we have been climbing, the weather has steadily worsened, and now the whiteout makes it impossible to see anything ahead of us.

The flowers on Munden's backpack are wilting in the blizzard.

"This is as bad as I have seen it," someone in the group says.

There is more discussion weighing the pros and cons of taking risks to honor someone who already gave his life on this same mountain.

Finally, Munden declares in a firm voice, "Joe would not want us to keep going."

With the matter settled, the group turns around on the trail.

But ahead of us, Salkovics pushes forward, and soon his bright orange climbing suit is the only color visible in a sea of white.

Hours later the rest of the group stumbles back to the starting point of the climb, huddling around a fire in the cabin, feasting on a small picnic of chips and garlic bread and beer.

Two of Bohlig's brothers come in an hour later; the mountain also has turned them back. Members of the group keep watch from a cabin window for any sign of Salkovics.

The disappointment over not making it to the top evaporates over the fire.

"He would be glad we are together and thinking of him," said Bohlig's fiancée, Linda Turzillo. "He would be glad that we were experiencing what he loved."

Nine hours after he set out, Salkovics makes his way back down the trail. A cry of happiness from the other climbers rings out.

Following her brother's tradition after a successful climb, Munden blasts Salkovics with a can of Silly String.

Salkvoics breathes heavily and is soaking wet but pleased.

He made it, he says with a smile because he is "stupid and stubborn."

There were no tracks in front of him to the summit. The crater was a whiteout of falling snow and howling wind.

He and Bohlig climbed this mountain around 40 times together. If anyone was going to make it to the top that day, Salkovics wanted to be the one.