Love and Loss on Mount Jefferson
On the inside of a crevasse high on Mount Jefferson, between vertical walls of blue ice, Alison Fountain cradles the head of her husband, Tommy.
She speaks to him softly every few minutes, checking his vital signs in the straightforward manner of the veteran nurse she is, even as her stomach knots with anxiety.
“Tommy, are you still with me? I love you. Help is on the way.”
There are broken bones in his hands and arms, but that’s not what has Alison worried. She’s watching his breathing and alertness, observing the way he answers questions to determine the progress of the traumatic head injury slowly swelling his brain.
Alison layers him in all the dry clothing they have — three jackets, two pairs of pants, long sleeves, long underwear, emergency blankets, hat, gloves, ski mask, wool socks, Buffs. She moves him to a place in the crevasse safe from falling rocks.
“I’m here,” Tommy says. “I’m with you.”
Every 15 minutes or so, she walks toward the mouth of the crevasse, ice popping and crunching under her spiked crampons, to search for cellphone service and the status of a rescue effort launched a few hours earlier, just after the accident.
Mount Jefferson is clear and cold this night, around 5 degrees at their 8,900-foot elevation. Moonlight is spreading milky light across the crags and ice-polished glaciers below the summit of Oregon’s second-tallest mountain.
Her phone lights up, cutting brightly through the darkness.
“Emergency crews are dispatched. Turn your phone off until you need it,” says a text message from her brother, Dalen Ashby.
She aims a flashing headlamp into the sky, hoping to catch the attention of the rescue teams and then returns to Tommy. His breathing is starting to become labored. She knows instinctively time is running out.
Then there is a sound.
It’s distant at first, far off. But soon the thump-thump-thump of helicopter blades breaks the silence.
Alison sprints toward the opening in the crevasse, jumping and flailing her arms, flashing the headlamp.
A spotlight breaks the darkness, finding her at the mouth of the crevasse.
Alison drops to her knees in relief, crying with happiness.
The helicopter hovers for a moment and then does something she doesn’t expect. It turns and vanishes into the night, leaving them alone, two tiny specks on a huge white mountain under a canopy of distant stars.
Alison Fountain wipes away a tear as she sits in the small, cozy house she bought with Tommy seven months ago in McMinnville.
Her corn-silk-colored hair spills onto her shoulders. She’s wearing her wedding ring and speaks of Tommy in the present tense, as though describing a man visitors will soon meet.
“He has such a good spirit,” she says. “When we met, I was trying not to date, but I was just drawn into him.”
Her childhood friend McNeil Stafford puts her arms around Alison.
The heartache from that day on Mount Jefferson is impossible to shake. Alison hasn’t returned to work as a flight nurse yet, and she’s trying not to make any significant life decisions for six months.
But she’s no shrinking violet, either. She’s a veteran trauma nurse who treated gunshot wounds for three years in California emergency rooms. As a flight nurse, she has flown into accident zones to bring medical aid to those in need.
She takes a deep breath.
Alison is ready to tell her story.
They left McMinnville at 6 a.m. on Nov. 28, driving through morning darkness onto Highway 22 and into the realm of the Cascade Range volcanoes.
It would be Alison and Tommy’s sixth attempt to climb Mount Jefferson, and the weather could not have been more perfect. They anticipated a nice crust of snow, clear skies, cold temperatures and little wind.
“Everything lined up perfectly,” Alison said, “almost like it was calling our name.”
They parked at Whitewater Trailhead east of Detroit and snowshoed into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness carrying heavy packs. After five or six miles, they headed off trail and made camp on a ridge just above Jefferson Park.
Climbing as often as Tommy and Alison did helped them create some unique traditions, and dinner that night was a good example. As the sun began to set, they dined on bean and cheese burritos from Taco Bell — they bought eight on the drive out — followed by Cheez Whiz and crackers. They washed down their meal with a toasted-coconut chocolate porter from Caldera Brewery, sipped straight from a vacuum-sealed growler.
“We tried everything in terms of food, but we found the dollar burritos from Taco Bell were perfect,” Alison said. “They’re a little heavy, but have lots of protein, really fill you up and don’t get soggy.”
The moon was full that night — so bright it felt as though someone was shining a flashlight into their double-walled Hilleberg tent, made especially for winter camping. They lay together in sleeping bags, telling stories until drifting off to sleep.
They woke early, between 3 and 4 a.m., surrounded by snow and ice with a temperature well below freezing. The mountain glowed in the moonlight.
As they began climbing, heading up the gigantic pyramid of Mount Jefferson, they caught a quick glimpse of sunrise, orange and soft pink in the east.
These moments were what Tommy, 32, and Alison, 29, lived for. Their love for the outdoors brought them together and sustained their relationship. They couldn’t imagine living any other way.
“I f---ing love this mountain!” Tommy shouted. “Look at it! It’s just so f---ing cool! Beautiful!”
It was not love at first sight for the couple, but rather a love that grew brighter the more time they spent together using ice axes, crampons and headlamps.
Alison Ashby met Tommy Fountain in 2012 through an Internet dating website. It took some reflective me-time before she agreed to meet him. She was in what she called a “dating detox,” recovering from a bad breakup and a move to Visalia, California, from the Bay Area. She recalls not being particularly eager to rejoin the dating world, but Tommy was persistent.
Content to hike by herself with her two dogs, Nacho and Ingrid, she took the time needed to heal, driving Tommy slightly crazy in the process.
“He liked Alison so much, but she was acting pretty uninterested, and it tore him up,” said Tanya Fountain, Tommy’s older sister. “We had a whole conversation around what he should do.”
After leaving her numerous messages inviting her out for coffee or a meal, Tommy left her one voice message that caught her attention. He said: “I’m a salesman. I can handle rejection, but I also don’t back down until I get what I want.”
The message made her smile, and they met at a Starbucks. He was charismatic, Alison said, and there was no denying an attraction.
She learned he’d been divorced and had a young daughter.
She also discovered they shared a common love of the outdoors.
When he suggested they try rock climbing, she was game.
“We developed our rock climbing skills together,” Alison said. “We started taking classes in rock climbing and ice climbing. And Tommy threw himself into it, climbing with me and climbing with a friend.
“If you had known him, you’d know he researched everything, and when he made purchases, he would get nothing but the best. The best shoes, the best gaiters. Everything,” she said, wistful at the recollection of a man who nurtured her, inside and out.
After taking classes, the couple attacked climbing with a passion. Alison said they started indoor rock climbing at gyms, four or five times per week.
“Sometimes our fingers were so sore, we couldn’t open a water bottle,” Alison said. “We pushed ourselves. We started going outdoors and did easy climbs.”
Tommy invited a friend, Juan Lopez of Woodlake, California, to start climbing with the pair. He was older and more experienced and played the “father figure,” sharing information and ensuring they knew what they were doing.
Lopez, 46, who has a wife and three children, said he appreciated the Fountains’ passion for the sport of climbing because Lopez’s family thinks he’s “crazy.”
“It’s my therapy,” Lopez said. “Trust me, my family is better off for me doing it. And Tommy and Alison had it in their blood, too. I met Tommy on a hiking Meetup and together we did a lot of climbing in the Sierras. We all took classes in mountain rescue and practiced together, and we always seemed to wind up on a mountaintop on Super Bowl Sunday. We laughed at the thought that most people were parked in front of their TVs and we were working our butts off to get to the top of a mountain.”
They segued from rock climbing to ice climbing in the Sierras in 2012. It only took one climb to know they wanted to spend more time on snow and ice.
On June 6, 2012, the relationship took a passionate turn. Alison laughs at the nickname they gave the date. “We called it our official love-iversary.”
She said they set out to climb Sawtooth Peak in California, and despite using topographical maps, they must have missed a turn. When they reached the summit and looked out, they saw a nearby mountain that had a much more sawtooth appearance. They laughed as they realized they must have climbed the wrong mountain. They soon learned they were on Empire Mountain in Sequoia National Park instead.
“But that was us. That was how we rolled,” Alison said.
The climb up was not for naught, however. She said they realized it had sealed their relationship.
“Previously, we’d been on dates to farmers markets and to coffeehouses,” Alison said. “But we conversed easily back and forth the whole climb. There was no silence as is often the case. He told me he’d been told girls don’t want to be outdoors climbing, ‘And here you are,’ he said. I was totally hooked.”
By the time they reached the summit, she said she felt like she’d known him for years. At the top, they shared their first kiss, six months from the time they’d first met. (”I think that sealed it for him, too,” Alison recalled.) A month later, he told her he loved her, and a month after that, they moved in together.
From then on, the two were inseparable. They moved to Southern Oregon in late 2013 and Tommy told her “he never thought he’d love that way again,” Alison said, wiping tears from her eyes.
He pushed her to pursue her career dream of becoming a flight nurse.
“He didn’t want me thinking about details. He’d send me links to the company I wanted to work for, and told me to go for it. He said the words like, ‘We’ll make it work,’ that made it possible for me to believe,” Alison said.
McNeil Stafford, Alison’s close friend, has known her since they were in seventh grade together. She described changes she saw in Alison after she started dating Tommy.
“She’d always been a go-getter, and that’s good. Then she found someone equally ambitious, and it could have turned out differently. But Tommy really softened her up. He made her more passionate about who and what she loved,” Stafford said.
The couple climbed throughout 2012 with an indefatigable energy. As they reached new heights together — literally, often above 10,000 feet — their trust and communication as a couple soared.
“Face it, there are times you get tired of climbing, and I admit I could complain a little on occasion, but Tommy listened to me,” Alison said. “Tommy and I frequently would take cuddle breaks throughout all our trips. We would lay down on a rock, snuggle up with each other and just watch a sunset, or we would huddle together while getting blasted with wind.
“We napped when we needed to, and well, you know. Sometimes we just said, ‘That looks like a good sex rock.’ We made the most out of our time and didn’t push ourselves.”
They coveted their time together, but shared it as well. Tommy’s young daughter, Penelope, is now 8 and living in Bakersfield, California. He had custody of her three weekends per month, and Alison said they took her hiking and camping, eager to share a love of the outdoors with her.
“We tried to make every moment with her special, and on that one free weekend per month when Tommy didn’t have Penelope, we’d plan a mini-expedition,” Alison said.
Together, in 2012, they scaled Kaiser Peak, Mineral Peak, Sawtooth Peak, Mount Whitney and Mount Langley.
They reached many peaks, but turned back just as often. They attempted Mount Shasta — the second-tallest Cascade Range mountain, at 14,179 feet — nine times before finally reaching the summit.
Alison had mentioned to Tommy that since third grade, it’d been a dream of hers to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I was obsessed with Kilimanjaro, and as I shared the stories with Tommy, he said, ‘Awesome! Let’s do it,’” she said.
They planned a trip to Tanzania in January 2013, and their preparation bordered on obsessive, so methodical were they in their equipment research and climb conditioning.
“We planned and planned, practiced and practiced and started over. We were climbing indoors and out. Constantly. We were ready,” she said.
It took the couple about seven days to reach the summit Uhuru on Kilimanjaro. Alison said Tommy started to behave differently the night before they were to reach the summit. She thought he might be suffering some of the ill effects of nearing the 19,341-foot top of the dormant volcano, the highest peak in Africa.
“It wasn’t acute mountain sickness or anything like that, but he was acting all weird,” she said. “I really thought the altitude was getting to him, and I just told him to chill. I had no idea what he was planning, so his behavior seemed really goofy. Not necessarily worrisome, but goofy.”
In the wee hours of the morning, they began their ascent, and there was excitement in the still morning air, but she chalked it up to their getting close to the top.
At about 18,000 feet, she “hit the wall,” caused by altitude. As a nurse, she had packed for this contingency.
“I had steroids, inhalers, all sorts of remedies. But I had packed those for others. I didn’t need them. I didn’t want to take anything, all I wanted to do was stay behind and take a nap. I didn’t think I could make it the rest of the way up, and told Tommy and our guide that.
“Tommy was behaving weird again, pushing on ahead. And I didn’t know why our guide was pressuring me,” she said. “He kept trying to move me, and I thought, ‘Geez, we paid for this?’ I almost quit on Tommy, but the guide was persistent, and he helped me make it up the final thousand-plus feet.”
And there was Tommy, waiting for her. Grinning from ear to ear, she said, as he asked her to marry him and held up a box with a sparkling round diamond ring set in platinum.
“He started telling me that I made him a better person, and I broke down. It was the most amazing thing.”
Once the couple descended, they started thinking about their wedding, but ever the explorers, they started planning their next summit as well. She said they considered Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, and Pico de Orizaba, in Mexico.
They continued classes and climbing.
They kept in condition in 2013 by climbing to the summits of Alta Peak, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park. Half Dome via the Snake Dike route in Yosemite Valley, and to the giant fissures in the mile-high granite rock of Taft Point, west of Glacier Point, also in Yosemite National Park.
Their mountain-year capstone was marrying in the shadow of Mount Rainier in Washington on September 7, 2013, eight months after climbing to the summit of Kilimanjaro. The outdoor wedding had a decorative backdrop few can duplicate. With an alpine lake in the foreground and Rainier towering into a near-cloudless blue sky in the background, the two took their vows at the base of the mountain in the company of close friends and family members. Photos show sunlight dancing off their faces.
The couple was supposed to honeymoon on the mountain, and had purchased the climbing and wilderness passes to get above 10,000 feet. But Mount Rainier, the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, had other ideas. They planned to be on the mountain for four days, but a steady stream of groups descending and reporting sketchy conditions such as melting snow bridges and falling ladders convinced them otherwise.
Since winter conditions generally exist from mid-September to mid-May on the peak, Alison and Tommy put down their 65- and 75-pound packs and chose to postpone their climb.
“Not the honeymoon,” Alison said quickly, “Just the climb.”
She called it their “homeless honeymoon.” Thwarted from their ascent plans, they relied on a friend who lent them a cabin in Seattle, and they climbed indoors, in gyms, instead.
“That was like us: We spent a lot of money on climbing permits, but we were never going to risk our lives to get our money’s worth,” Alison said.
Together, the couple then spent a euphoric 2014, climbing at every opportunity.
They tackled Mount Thielsen, Mount McLoughlin, South Sister and Middle Sister, and they made attempts on Mount Shasta and Mount Jefferson. They climbed, reveled in the outdoors, made love in places most wouldn’t attempt, and then climbed some more.
By 2015, the couple had made five attempts to climb Mount Jefferson, but had never reached the summit.
“Tommy was happy because, he said in 2015, we’d been increasing our success-to-failure ratio. By the time we took our annual Thanksgiving weekend climb on Mount Jefferson, we’d had eight successes.”
It was time to try again.
The shoppers at the former Roth’s Fresh Market in Keizer will never forget Tommy Fountain.
The Keizer native had a wacky sense of humor that led him, more than once, to make announcements over the grocery store loudspeakers in different dialects, including a thick southern drawl.
“Yeeee-haww shoppers! Have we got some excellent deals in produce today!”
Another time, he did announcements about specials on meat — in character as a Tyrannosaurus rex.
“He was really upbeat, energetic … but it worked,” said Tanya Fountain. “He had this way of getting people to come out of their shell. We’d walk through Roth’s, and it was like he was friends with everybody in the store.”
A member of student government and the district’s talented and gifted program, Tommy graduated from McNary High School in 2002.
“He was one of those guys who was nice to everyone,” said Eddie Zapien, who served on student government with Tommy at McNary. “If you were feeling down, he’d always look for ways to make you feel better.”
After graduating from the University of Oregon in 2006, he headed south to California and took a job with Harold Crawford Companies as a produce broker. He married, and his daughter Penelope was born.
It was toward the end of his first marriage that he discovered a passion for the outdoors. To clear his head, he traveled from his home in Bakersfield into the desert and mountains of Southern California.
“He wasn’t a big outdoorsman before that,” Alison said. “But he discovered that being outdoors, it was more than just a place to be alone — it was a place he discovered a lot about himself.”
His transformation into mountain climber after meeting Alison made him all the more thrilled to begin climbing the mountains of his childhood, and among those, none loomed larger than Mount Jefferson.
A white beacon in his childhood sky, Mount Jefferson hovered above Tommy’s Mid-Valley home and family vacations to Detroit Lake.
“It was this icon for him,” Alison said. “The mountain he grew up with.”
But Jefferson is no easy mountain to climb.
Considered among the most challenging summits in Oregon, it requires a long wilderness hike just to reach its base, and strong route-finding and climbing skills to reach the summit.
“It’s a big multi-day climb with a lot of route-finding, exposure and near vertical terrain,” said Nate Meehan, a longtime climber and member of the Corvallis Mountain Rescue team. “I won’t say it’s the toughest summit in Oregon, but it’s up there.”
But Tommy wanted to bag his home mountain, and the couple’s ability had grown since earlier attempts.
There are two seasons for climbing Mount Jefferson, said Bob Freund, an expert climber and member of Corvallis Mountain Rescue team: early winter and spring.
Spring, when the snow is deeper and the days are longer, is the more popular option. But early winter has its advantages.
“A lot of people enjoy climbing in late fall or early winter,” Freund said. “You’re not dealing with that deep, soft, slushy snow that you get in the spring. The ice is very hard, especially after a few cold days, and you can move pretty well.
“But … it’s also very slick. If you slip and don’t self-arrest in almost the first second, it’s very hard to stop a fall.”
Tommy and Alison decided to climb Jefferson Park Glacier. It’s not the easiest route, but they were comfortable with it. They’d climbed it in the past, to almost 10,000 feet, and felt familiar with it.
“We had a lot of information on it from guide books, websites and online forums,” she said. “Finally, it was just like, ‘Let’s go!’”
The packs Alison and Tommy carried up Mount Jefferson were about 30 pounds each.
They brought snowshoes and crampons, ice axes, harnesses, ropes, slings, ice screws and locator beacons.
They carried headlamps and emergency blankets, a stove and fuel, shovel, extra food, three liters of water each, cellphones, many layers of clothes and Alison’s specially outfitted first-aid kit.
When they reached Jefferson Park Glacier, on the morning of the climb, they found a maze of crevasses shimming bright blue in the early morning sunlight.
The climbing was slow.
They needed to head up the mountain toward the right, in the direction of a saddle, but getting there was tricky. A field of crevasses — large fissures in the ice — blocked their way. To avoid them, they swung left, climbing above the crevasse field, before heading back right toward the saddle.
Conditions were not as ideal as they’d hoped. The wind was picking up. It was icier than expected, and each step required “toeing in” — kicking their spiked crampons into the ice to step up.
“We kept waiting for the sun to hit the slope and maybe soften the ice a little bit,” Alison said. “But it never did. Everything stayed in the shadow.”
As they attempted to cut across toward the saddle, another landmark blocked their path. Below a large overhanging cliff, they could see rockfall and boulders of ice that had recently fallen.
Worried about safety, they changed course. They decided to traverse over the ridge to Whitewater Glacier — another climbing route — and try from that side. They had climbed on Whitewater Glacier in the past and felt comfortable with the route.
But the steep ice-climbing took a toll on their legs. They wanted to take a break, to drink the hot tea, eat, and reassess the route. But every good rock they came across, every potential place to rest, was covered in ice and too slippery for a quick stop.
“We finally decided, ‘OK, this is getting unsafe,’” Alison said. “’We’re getting a little too tired. We need to turn back.’”
They were at 9,600 feet. It was 1:45 p.m.
Now came a choice. They could stay on Whitewater Glacier, follow it down and then hike the long way around the mountain to their tent.
Or, they could go down the way they came up, where it was steep and icy, but where they had already climbed.
When they reached the point where the glaciers split — and had to make a final decision on which way to descend — Tommy suggested taking Jefferson Park Glacier down, the same way they came up.
“I said, ‘OK, if you think that’s the best,’” Alison said. “’I just think we need to start moving down.’”
By this point, Alison’s legs were getting tired. Tommy began cutting steps into the ice to help her move down steep sections more safely.
He would kick his crampon into the ice to get solid footing, then cut out a step with his ice axe. Then he’d pick down a few feet and do it again. The problem was it left him semi-unprotected, without both ice axe and crampon in contact with the mountain.
When they made it through the steepest section, Alison felt better.
“I said, ‘I think I’m good, honey. Thank you.’”
Tommy wasn’t having it. They were coming to a rock outcropping, jutting out from the mountain, and would have to climb around it.
“He said, ‘I’ll get you around this corner.’ Because that’s what he does — when you’re with Tommy, he takes care of you.”
A few steps later, Alison turned around and prepared for her next step down. She saw Tommy cutting a step in the ice, and then she saw him slip.
He didn’t yell, “Falling!” as they were trained to do. He didn’t make a noise. He disappeared around a corner in the outcropping, vanishing down a chute of ice.
Tommy’s best skill as a mountaineer was his ability to self-arrest, his wife said. He was good at jamming his ice axe into the mountainside quickly, stopping a fall before it became something worse.
Alison hoped she would round the outcropping below her and see him, flat on his belly, ice axe jammed into the mountainside. Scared but safe.
She rounded the corner and looked down.
He was gone.
It was 3 p.m.
Adrenaline raced through Alison’s body.
She needed to get down the mountain to find Tommy, but she forced herself to breathe and collect herself, summoning the presence of mind to send a text message to her mother to activate search and rescue.
Then, calmly, slowly and methodically, she moved down the mountain.
“Two injured people aren’t going to help anything,” she thought.
Facing the mountain, she jammed her ice axe in and took three steps down. Then, she’d remove the ice axe, jam it into the mountain, and take another three steps.
Wind rippled across her jacket as she reached into her pocket to check on the status of the rescue.
At one point, she picked up Internet reception on her phone — but not cell service — and posted on Facebook.
“Please help stuck on Jefferson with injuries,” she wrote.
She wasn’t sure she was climbing in the direction of Tommy’s fall. There was no sign of him. She could only guess by looking and judging the curves and slope of the mountain.
Then she found evidence. First a glove. Then his ice axe. Then wet wipes. It was a small debris field of Tommy’s gear.
All the while she had been calling out his name, assuming the worst; now she yelled louder.
Then she heard a faint response, coming from a 50-foot deep crevasse.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Are you OK?”
There was hope.
Tommy had slipped 500 feet and dropped another 50 feet or so down into a crevasse, at about 8,900 feet.
But he was alive.
Now Alison had to get inside. She considered climbing down the vertical ice walls. Instead, she swung around the crevasse to its bottom and found an entrance at its mouth that she could step into.
She entered a long hallway of ice, about 10 feet wide, and headed toward the back where Tommy was lying covered in ice, snow and blood.
It was 4:30 p.m.
Alison had treated severely injured people for more than five years, and she did her best to summon that mindset to inspect his injuries.
He had smashed the bones in both hands, and had what looked like an arm fracture. The real concern, Alison saw, was head trauma.
His helmet was off — probably from the impact, she believes — and he had an orbital fracture around one eye, an injury that comes from blunt force trauma to the face.
When he spoke to her, Tommy knew they were on Mount Jefferson and that Alison was his wife. But he didn’t know what had happened and thought it was 1995.
The evidence wasn’t good. When Alison looked into the hood of his backpack for a painkiller, she found everything demolished. The pill bottles were broken, the pills pulverized into powder, his headlamp in pieces.
Alison understood the power of his fall.
“I lost it,” she said. “To see the force that could cause all of that … to understand what my poor husband had just been through. It crushed me.”
Even so, Alison said she stayed in “nurse mode.” She stripped off his wet clothes and dressed him in every jacket, blanket, hat and extra item she could find. She put socks on his hands, got him onto a pad and moved him to a safer location in the crevasse.
When they spoke, Alison was honest.
“It’s really bad, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s really bad, honey.”
She knew search and rescue had been activated. She’d relayed coordinates through her brother, whom she was able to contact when she found bars on her cell phone. The service was spotty in the crevasse.
She set up one of the headlamps to blink, hoping to catch the eye of any helicopter crew that passed.
As the hours crept by, she kept Tommy as warm as possible. The sun set.
“Tommy, are you still with me?” she said. “I love you. Help is on the way.”
“I’m here. I’m with you,” he said.
High on the mountainside, at 7 p.m., the first helicopter swept down over the mountain. Hearing it, she sprinted to the edge of the crevasse, jumping and flailing her arms, flashing the headlamp and doing everything possible to get noticed.
The helicopter spotlighted the darkness above them. They saw her.
Tommy would get to a hospital, she thought. It would be a long road to recovery, but he might survive.
The first helicopter was a Life Flight based out of Central Oregon that didn’t have the capability for an off-the-mountain extraction. It had been sent to check the climbers’ location and relay information.
The mountain rescue teams were still putting a rescue plan into motion. There wasn’t a crew for the Army National Guard’s HH-60M Black Hawk helicopter in Salem yet — it was a holiday weekend. The Coast Guard helicopter from Astoria was en route.
Even if one of the helicopters capable of extraction had been ready, Marion County Sheriff's office Lt. Chris Baldridge said, the high altitude, freezing temperature, winds, darkness and blowing snow would make an off-the-mountain rescue dangerous.
“It’s not that we weren’t willing to do it, but that we couldn’t,” Baldridge said. “Everyone, and I mean everyone involved, was heartbroken we couldn’t get to them sooner.”
When the helicopter flew away, leaving her and Tommy behind, Alison cursed and screamed for it to come back.
Tommy was becoming increasingly disoriented. She tried to stay optimistic for his sake, to say help was on its way. “I knew they weren’t coming,” she said. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”
During the next hour, Tommy’s condition deteriorated. He had trouble breathing and became increasingly agitated. He would take his gloves off, bite his fingers and stick them into the snow.
“Even though I knew he couldn’t help it, I got mad at him,” Alison said. “I’d be sobbing and yelled ‘What are you doing? I’m trying to save you!’
“Eventually, it wasn’t Tommy anymore.”
Finally, she saw what she dreaded most. His left pupil was “blown,” dilated and unresponsive to light. His brain, Alison knew, was swelling onto the brain stem. He couldn’t speak and his breathing worsened.
Alison pulled him into her arms and held him.
“I love you Tommy,” she said. “You are so strong. I am so glad we met. You are the best thing that has happened to me.
“You are my soul mate. I love you.”
Within minutes, he took his last breath in her arms. She marked the time. It was 8:44 p.m.
In the darkest hours of her life, Alison Fountain found the strength to continue from the man who lay beside her. She sat in the deep slot of ice and cried.
But she didn’t quit.
“Tommy wouldn’t have wanted me to give up,” Alison said. “He was always so proud of how strong I was and how determined I could be. He wouldn’t want both of us to go.”
So she got to work.
Alison propped her beacon and gear at the mouth of the crevasse, near the flashing headlamp, so the rescue teams could see it.
To stay warm, Alison had to pull off most of the clothes she’d layered onto Tommy and put them on herself.
Jackets, socks, gloves, mittens, facemasks, Buffs and handkerchiefs. She put it all on. She even took one of the backpacks and pulled it up to her knees.
“I’ve been cold before and shivered,” Alison said. “But it felt like I was convulsing. That freaked me out.”
She developed a routine to deal with the cold.
Even if she wasn’t looking for cell service and updates on the search, she would walk from Tommy to the mouth of the crevasse and back until she stopped shivering.
Then, she bundled up and laid on Tommy’s chest and lap.
“I knew it would be the last time I would get to feel him close to me,” she said.
Around midnight, about the same time Alison was doing laps in the crevasse, Nate Meehan looked down from a Coast Guard helicopter onto the surface of Mount Jefferson.
The 35-year-old volunteer with Corvallis Mountain Rescue had arrived for the rescue effort and was quickly drafted into service.
The hope was to drop Meehan and a Coast Guard medic near the couple’s location and take them off the mountain.
“What ended up happening was that we flew around for 45 minutes looking for a good place to land, but they couldn’t find anything that seemed safe,” Meehan said. “It must have been awful for Alison to keep hearing the helicopter and wonder what we were doing, if we were ever going to pick her up.”
Instead, Meehan was dropped off at Jefferson Park, at the base of the mountain. Four other team members were dropped on the mountain as well, and they began climbing toward Alison around 2:20 a.m.
“At that point it was close to freezing,” Meehan said. “The big challenge was that there wasn’t a good way to anchor a rope system on that ice. It’s real hard to justify putting a rope on if you can’t anchor yourself to the mountain, because you risk pulling everyone down. So it went kind of slowly.”
Gradually, the team made its way up the mountain, as the night transitioned into day.
At long last, Alison spotted the headlamps of the rescue team, a glowing string of lights headed up the mountain.
It was a welcome sight. Her laps to stay warm had become shorter. She stumbled and slipped and could barely feel her feet. She kept the headlight on, even though she knew she shouldn’t. The darkness in the crevasse was becoming intolerable.
And she talked to Tommy — let him know what was happening as the rescue team approached.
Slowly, it felt more real. The rescue teams flashed their light at her. She knew help was coming.
And yet … she suddenly wanted them gone.
She knew that once they arrived, it was inevitable she would be separated from Tommy. Life would never be the same.
Eventually, she stopped looking for the rescue team and spent as much time lying with Tommy as she could.
The first rescue climber arrived at the opening of the crevasse around 9 a.m.
“Hi, my name’s Tyler, I’m from Corvallis Mountain Rescue,” Tyler DeBoodt said. “I will be down in just a few minutes with hot food and drinks for you both.”
Alison looked up from Tommy’s chest, where she lay. Through tears, she told him Tommy was dead.
Tyler unclipped himself from his rope and ran to Alison. He wrapped her in a hug. Then the team gave her hot nourishment and put her in a sleeping bag and extra clothes.
“They were amazing — my knights in shining headlamps,” Alison said. “Everyone with Corvallis Mountain Rescue — everyone involved — were such good people. I can’t thank them enough.”
At 11:30 a.m., the Black Hawk helicopter airlifted Alison off the mountain. It wasn’t easy for her to leave Tommy behind.
Nineteen hours from the moment she entered the crevasse — and 15 hours after Tommy’s death — Alison Fountain finally left Mount Jefferson.
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office handled the investigation into the death. The county’s medical examiner ruled Tommy’s death due to “traumatic brain injury,” said LCSO detective Jeff Schrader.
Rescuers reported that Alison and Tommy were prepared to be on the mountain, having the proper gear and training. It was, in the words of Corvallis Mountain Rescue team leader Todd Shechter, “a tragic accident.”
Tommy’s family held a memorial Dec. 13 at a winery in Dayton that was meant to accommodate up to 80 people. Three hundred showed up.
From as far away as Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Washington, they came to pay tribute to a man who had made life just a little brighter.
“We couldn’t fit everybody, and there were cars all the way down the road,” Alison said. “It was just people talking, sharing stories, laughing. It was beautiful.
“Tommy would have loved it.”
In the days immediately after the rescue, Alison was mostly numb. Though she suffered no injuries, she had lingering effects from a mild case of hypothermia.
When Alison returned home to McMinnville for the first time, she was greeted by a television crew seeking an interview. “I just said, ‘Are you kidding me? You need to go.’ Then they went to my neighbor’s house and tried to interview them.”
Her husband’s accidental death was a significant story in Oregon and beyond.
Alison found pictures of herself and Tommy posted on websites from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom. They had been lifted off Tommy’s Facebook page without permission.
“I felt pretty indifferent to the news coverage, except when they’d report that we got stuck in bad weather or did something wrong, which made me angry because it wasn’t true, and it made me feel incompetent,” Alison said.
During their all-too-short time together, a period marked both by love and loss, Alison and Tommy had tried to do everything right, from Keizer to Kilimanjaro.
Alison doesn’t know what the future will bring. She says, with an echo from her friend McNeil, that she’s trying to live one day at a time. She wants to be sure she wouldn’t freeze up back on an air ambulance flight. She also wonders if, having been through such an ordeal, she might honor Tommy by becoming part of a search and rescue operation. She also toys with the idea of using her skills at a medical clinic in a developing nation.
She quiets as she remembers there was never a “movie moment of last words” between them.
“There wasn’t some long, drawn-out ‘I love you forever’ scene,” she said. “I thought he was going to make it. But later, I pushed his body up against a wall of ice and lay on him, knowing it would be the last time I would feel him. I was crying, but we had talked about climbing accidents. We thought though that it would be in, like, 40 years in Nepal’s Himalayas. We were OK with the risk. It was better than dying in a crash.”
Come July, she’s planning a memorial climb on the mountain in Tommy’s honor with his brother, Travis Fountain, and his best friend, Matt Ohrt.
She’s also determined to ascend Mount Jefferson at some point and retrieve their tent. She’s convinced it’s still there, probably buried under snow.
But she wants it. Says she has to have it, because it was, after all, “where we spent our last night together.”
Despite its profound and permanent toll on her life, she can look at Mount Jefferson without dissolving into tears. She’s given herself permission to be a little angry and a little resentful of Jefferson.
But she also knows it was Tommy’s mountain.
“Honestly, as tough as it is, I could see him being OK with it being Jefferson (that took his life). Maybe in some weird way, it’s his way of watching over his family, of being close to home. That mountain, for us, is now Tommy’s monument.”
This story was written from interviews with Alison Fountain and Tommy Fountain’s family and friends, and includes excerpts from Alison’s blog called “Our Summit Dreams."
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