Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Long Fall on Mt. Pilchuck

The upper chair lift ran to the location marked on this old postcard.
This old photo shows the lower part of the completed chairlift.

50 years ago: Mt. Pilchuck Day Lodge and ski rental shop 

Not too many people survive a fifteen-hundred-foot fall down a mountainside and live to tell about it. My friend and Granite Falls classmate Gary Weber is one of them.

Fifty years ago this winter, Mt. Pilchuck State Park put into operation its new Riblet Tramway Company’s double chair lift. It ran from just above today’s parking lot to the 4000-foot level of the mountain. A Herald newspaper story dated December 31, 1963 described how they tested the new machinery. They loaded containers holding 400 pounds of water on the chairs going uphill, then ran them all the way to the top of the lift. They tried out the regular and the auxiliary motors. They checked the brake system thoroughly. Then the testers climbed on and rode to the top and back. They pronounced the chair lift ready for business, starting the next day, January 1, 1964.

Gary and another classmate, Dick Larson, had been working for the Forest Service at Verlot, but in the winter they had the job of taking care of the road leading to Mt. Pilchuck State Park. He also worked at the park itself. He was there for the construction of the chair lift. One of the workers wrestled a machine on skidders, like a donkey engine, to where the top of the lift would be. He attached cables around the base of trees or to boulders and winched the big machine up the nearly vertical inclines. Once it was situated, he ran a cable down the mountain for hauling equipment to where it was needed.

One day the boss, Wendell (Wendy) Carlson, told Gary to up and help the man on top. It was no quick hike, two miles or more by trail. Gary started out, then looked at the nearby cable, running around the pulley and back up the mountain. He was young and strong. Without stopping to think, he grabbed the cable, swung his legs up and around it, and hung on for a free ride to the top. No one saw what he was doing. Part way up, the cable stopped. Gary hung there, twenty-five feet above the ground. He was six feet three and athletic, but eventually, his arms and legs became so tired he knew he would fall. The snow looked deep and soft. He let go.

The snow was deep...about ten feet. As he realized how deep, he arched his back and threw out his arms. He stopped himself from sinking, but he was already buried in snow nearly to his neck. After a long struggle, he rolled himself out of what had almost become his grave. Gary headed for the trail, overcome by the realization that had it not been for God’s intervention, no one would have known what happened to him until the snow melted in the spring.

Later, after the towers were erected and the chair lift was operating several days a week, a problem arose. The towers oscillated when the lift was running. The rough ride made customers nervous. Gary was trying to find a solution, working with the cables on one arm of the topmost 40-foot tower. Without warning, a weld at the base of the tower broke. The structure began to topple. Gary knew he’d be crushed beneath it if he rode it down. The last thing he remembers is leaping out, away from the tower’s fall.

Those who saw it happen said he looked like a tumbling rag doll as he struck the slick rock below, slid down it, then bounced and rolled 1500 feet down the mountain. He flew through the opening of a large hollow stump, on the edge of a 200-foot ravine. That’s where he was when he woke up.
Other workmen reached the spot, expecting to find him dead. They pulled him from his precarious refuge and laid him down. Jim Carlson, operations manager and brother of Wendy, Gary’s boss, called Mountain Rescue at Everett’s Paine Field to send a helicopter. When it got there it couldn’t land because of turbulence and the dangerous terrain, so it dropped a litter and hovered at a safe distance.

Gary told those with him, “Just set me on my feet. I’ll walk.” They did, but he collapsed, unable to feel his body. So his friends loaded him onto the litter and carried him to where the helicopter hovered. It dropped a line to attach to the litter. As the cable lifted Gary toward the open door, all he could think of was how small that line looked. Surely it would break and he’d again be falling through the air.

Then a burly African-American medic reached out and pulled him into the chopper. “I’ve got you, boy,” he said. Gary relaxed, knowing he was in good hands.

Unbeknownst to Gary, John Larson, another man who was working at the top, had been struck by a cable which snapped as the tower fell. He had a broken leg. The helicopter had already picked him up.

When they reached the hospital, Gary’s body was still covered in packed snow. Though in shock, he remembers chunks of snow falling from him onto the x-ray table. Although the x-rays discovered no broken bones, Gary’s entire body had turned black and blue. He was covered with fist-sized hematomas (areas where broken blood vessels had leaked and the blood had clotted.) The doctor told him the snow had saved his life because it kept the bleeding down.

Back home again, he decided to take a hot bath. No one had thought to warn him against doing so. His wife Thelma had gone to work and only his little daughters were at home. The hot water loosened the blood clots and suddenly Gary felt very ill. He knew if he passed out, he would probably drown in the bathtub, so he rolled himself over the edge and crawled to the bedroom, unable to reach a telephone. He told his little girls, “Daddy doesn’t feel well. You can help by going to your bedroom and playing quietly.” The children obeyed, and Gary lay there, sure he was about to die, until he felt better. He later found that some of the clots had broken free and passed through his heart.

Gary, convinced that God’s hand had been upon him, recovered and returned to work. Not until later, when he took his son for a ride on the Mt. Pilchuck chairlift, did he discover one result of that terrible fall. As they glided through the air, paralyzing fear suddenly seized Gary. He couldn’t move except to grab the center bar in the double chair. He held on so tightly he nearly snapped his knuckles.

It happened again that summer when he climbed the apple tree to pick the fruit. Even though the ground this time was not far away, fear still froze him to the trunk of the tree. What helped him to overcome the panic was going to work for the Public Utility District. (Though he worked as a heavy equipment operator, he sometimes had to climb the poles.) Gradually, he felt safe strapping on hooks and spurs and going up a pole, although he never felt quite at ease in the new bucket trucks.

A healthy respect for high places was one legacy of Gary’s long fall on Mt. Pilchuck. Much more important was the redoubled conviction that God has a purpose for his life. He is quick to acknowledge that God used these experiences to bring him back to the faith-filled life.

Thelma and Gary Weber today
*1st 3 pictures courtesy <>