Rocky Butte’s craggy face claims another life

And, days after the most recent death, yet another urban mountaineer requires professional rescue. See why officials say that while this area may be challenging for the proficient, it’s certainly no place to play around…

-1 New hand-made signs warn of danger atop Rocky Butte’s east face, where a 16-year-old David Douglas High School student fell to his death in the darkness of Monday evening.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A David Douglas High School student died, and later an adult had to be rescued from the deadly east face of Rocky Butte this week, making this one of the most lethal years yet for people who climb, or play on, this extinct volcanic feature in outer East Portland.

> To see our story on the Austrian climber who died there in a climbing-related fall in May, CLICK HERE.

Officials say that 16-year-old Austin Fisher fell off the rock ledge at night, while simply hanging out with a friend atop Rocky Butte. Family photo

On August 15, after dark, officials report that Austin Fisher was with a friend, atop the east face of Rocky Butte about 10:00 p.m., and fell over the cliff.

“It’s more than an 80 foot drop,” pointed out Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) Public Information Officer Paul Corah. “It’s a dangerous area, even for highly-skilled climbers; there are ledges, outcroppings, and sharp rocks all the way down to the bottom.”

Firefighters from PF&R Station 2 on NE Sandy Boulevard arrived to find 16 year-old Fisher lying unconscious at the cliff’s bottom, Corah said. “Paramedic/EMT firefighters immediately rendered medical attention to the boy, who had sustained life-threatening injuries, and was transported to Emanuel Hospital.”

A Portland Fire & Rescue crew member puts on his climbing gear at the foot of Rocky Butte. East Portland News file photo

Fisher, who later died as a result of his injuries, was an outer East Portland native who attended David Douglas School District’s schools from first grade through his sophomore year at David Douglas High School. He would have been starting his Junior year in about three weeks.

This rock outcropping provides a panoramic view of outer East Portland —  but officials say it’s a very dangerous spot, here on these rocks, where friends of student Austin Fisher have now assembled a memorial. By the way, that’s Interstate 205 in the background, down below.

Those who gathered at David Douglas High School’s Palermini Field on August 17 for a candlelight vigil said Austin always displayed a great sense of humor, and could easily “charm an entire room” the moment he entered it.

A memorial fund has been set up in Fisher’s memory at Wells Fargo Bank.

“We’re not sure why teenagers are attracted to this area; it could be any number of reasons,” Corah said. “But, because there isn’t a physical boundary preventing an accidental fall there, and the area isn’t well lit. This area is particularly dangerous after dark.”

The view is breathtaking; but the rocks and soil at the edge of Rocky Butte’s east face make for treacherous, life-threatening conditions, even for experienced rock climbers who continue to make unauthorized use of this forbidden area.

Rocky Butte cliff said to be on ODOT land
Corah said his research shows that the east face of Rocky Butte, just east of the Portland Bible College campus, belongs to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

We asked ODOT officials to comment on this area of Rocky Butte – which some people call an “attractive nuisance”.

“This area on Rocky Butte is owned by ODOT,” confirmed ODOT’s Region 1 spokesman Don Hamilton. “We’ve put up warning and ‘No Trespassing’ signs. But, they’re taken down almost as quickly as they’re put up! This is not a recreation area, it is a cliff face.”

Asked if ODOT will takefurther steps to secure the area, Hamilton said, “Jason Tell, the our Region 1 Manager, is out with staff looking at the area today, to see what actions might be appropriate.”

Pooped climber rescued from rock face

Portland Fire & Rescue’s specially trained and equipped High Angle Rope Rescue Team prepares to rescue a stranded rock climber on Rocky Butte. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

The story does not end there. As the sun was setting on August 17, yet another unauthorized rock climber got stuck about midway from the Rocky Butte cliff to the bottom about 8:00 p.m.

“A climber on top lowered his climbing partner down to a ledge about 50′ from the top of the cliff,” Corah told us. “The climbers experienced fatigue, and could not get back up to the top.”

Once it became apparent that the individual could not climb up or down on his own, and with darkness setting in, Corah told us, one man went to get help, since neither was carrying a cell phone or wearing helmet lights.

About 9:30 p.m., PF&R’s High Angle Rope Rescue Team used equipment from Portland Fire’s Heavy Rescue truck to lower specially-trained firefighters to rescue the climber, reported Corah. “17 firefighters participated in the two-hour rescue operation, and brought climber Daniel Martinek, 40 years old, up safely from the east face of Rocky Butte.”

Even with years of training, and with the aid of expert gear, PF&R’s High Angle Rope Rescue Team uses great caution at the cliff’s edge, during this nighttime rescue. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Reports indicate that these climbers’ young children were playing near the climbing spot while the individuals were climbing, Corah added. “This is not a place for children as there is no fence, no roped off area, and no signage to indicate how dangerous this area has been – especially in recent months.”

By 11:30 pm, the climbers and their children had been safely reunited following the rescue.

“The climbers indicated that had not heard about the tragedy two nights before, when a 16 year-old boy fell off the butte at that same location, and later died from his injuries,” Corah sighed after the incident.

A member of PF&R’s High Angle Rope Rescue Team steadies lines, just before bringing the tuckered-out climber to the top. Dick Harris, PF&R photo
Corah added, “There are a lot of climbers going to that spot. You just can’t stop them. If you’re a novice, it’s no place to start rock climbing. And, it’s not a place to bring young kids – it’s a sheer drop-off!”

“It’s just common sense,” Corah concluded. “Experienced climbers say this is a site for ‘advanced’ climbers. Adults can do what they want. But, please, don’t bring your kids there!”

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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