[A friend has sent me a long, recent story from the Philadelphia Inquirer & Daily News site, Philly.com, about one of Canada’s worst mountain disasters that occurred 62 years ago. The reason he sent it to me was because one of the seven boys killed went to our school and was a member of Boy Scout Troop 188, where my friend’s father was scoutmaster, and where one of those partly responsible for the disaster, Donald Dickerson, was an assistant scoutmaster. I was a member of Troop 188 and wrote later about the troop and the incident]
Sam Smith – In the 1950s I joined Boy Scout Troop 188, specifically the Rattler Patrol. I initially regarded the Scouts as training for a life of adventure, but I was soon disabused of this notion by a more knowledgeable member who pointed out that with my interest in writing and his political clout, I could easily become troop scribe, thus achieving instant status without the tedium of earning merit badges. It was, he correctly pointed out, the troop council, and not the goody-goodies with all their badges, who actually ran the place.
I readily joined his political machine and never rose above second class. I was more than content to be a member of something and, for a few hours a week, to hang out with other boys engaged in normal boylike activities. My most notable outdoor achievement was to lead a three-hour hike that mystically and unintentionally brought us right back to where we started without ever having viewed our assigned destination. I also learned that the outdoors was more uninviting than I had envisioned — the ground was hard, the food marginal, and even a spring night could be cold.
This view would be strengthened shortly after I graduated from Germantown Friends School, when our ex-Marine assistant scoutmaster helped lead a group of boys, aged 13 to 16, to Canada’s Banff National Park in order to climb the 11,656 foot Mt. Temple. The hikers were ill-trained and ill-equipped (some made the climb in sneakers) and the mountain was one of the toughest in the region. Only a year earlier, four Mexican climbers had died in an avalanche four and half miles from where my scout leader and his squad were hiking.
The group made it to within 2000 feet of the summit before deciding to turn back. Then, according to an AP story:
“As they started down, a mass of snow and rock roared upon them, tossing them 300 feet down the slope. One died instantly, rescuers said. Three others succumbed to multiple injuries and exposure to the bitter weather last night before search parties could reach them.”
Seven students died, two others, along with the two leaders, were injured. Our assistant scoutmaster, Don Dickerston, responded to press criticism saying, “How do you equip for an avalanche?”
[According to the Philly.com story, Dickerson’s wife “learned about his role in the tragedy only after he died and she discovered old news clips hidden in a box in the basement. Dickerson died of emphysema in 1974 at age 48. In retrospect, she believed, ‘it was a tragedy that brought an early death to my husband. He felt guilty.;”]
Listverse, which included it in a collection of 10 tragic mountain accidents reported:
“On July 11, 1955, in one of Canada’s most tragic mountaineering accidents, seven American male teenagers were killed on the southwest ridge route….They were clad in only light clothing and there was only one ice axe in the group. Some wore baseball cleats for better friction, and they were tied together on a manila rope.
“At 4:00 p.m. they reached 2,750m and gathered to assess the situation, as the warm summer day had caused several nearby avalanches. After talking it over, the boys decided to start back down. A few minutes later a large avalanche thundered down towards the group. One of the boys dug in his ice axe and the rope went taut before it broke. Ten boys, ages 12 to 16 were swept 200 m down the snowfield and through a bottleneck, smashing into the rocks along the way. Before the day was over, seven of them would be dead in one of the worst avalanche accident in Parks Canada history.”