As three Seattle-area climbers were beginning their journey home Monday night, they had a bizarre encounter with a naked Bob Terczak, who shared with them a tragic tale of his wife's death and his own near-drowning in North Cascades National Park.
Dale Smith and Justin Mayo had driven only a couple of miles down the mountain when they heard a man’s cries for help.
Through the darkness, they saw him poke his head out of a trail-side latrine. He was naked except for the toilet paper he had wrapped around his head and neck.
It was a bizarre chance encounter, and over the next few hours, Smith, Mayo and Seattle police Officer Rob Brown, who had just finished a climb in the North Cascades, learned the man’s tragic tale: A couple of days earlier, his wife had fallen 35 feet near Klawatti Peak. She died 24 hours later as a storm raged outside the tent her husband had pitched on top of a glacier. When the weather cleared, he went for help — and nearly drowned crossing the Cascade River.
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That was Monday night. The bad weather continued until Thursday morning, when two rangers from the North Cascades National Park were finally able to recover the woman’s body from the mountain by helicopter.
“At the very top of Klawatti Glacier, at about 8,000 feet, they were able to make a landing,” said Kelly Bush, a National Park Service ranger who coordinates search-and-rescue missions in the North Cascades. “The rangers found the tent right where the husband left it on Monday.”
The woman’s body was flown to the ranger station in Marblemount, and from there was driven to the Skagit County Coroner’s Office in Mount Vernon, Bush said.
The woman has been identified as 50-year-old Cathleen “Cathy” G. Terczak, of Elkton, Md., said Bob Clark, Skagit County deputy coroner. An autopsy was to be performed Thursday, but results aren’t expected until sometime next week, he said.
Dicey climbing weather
It was rainy and cold when Smith, Mayo, Brown and three other climbers — all members of The Mountaineers, Seattle’s quintessential mountain climbing club — set up camp about 7 p.m. Sunday, with plans to climb Forbidden Peak the next day. They thought they’d have to call off their climb but woke at 3:30 a.m. Monday to a sky bright with stars. About an hour later, they headed up the trail and began the climb up to the peak’s western ridge.
Smith, 44, a Redmond engineer, and Mayo, 39, a Seattle Times reporter, were the fastest in the group, summiting before their fellow climbers. After the group descended, Smith and Mayo got back to Smith’s car about 9 p.m. but lingered more than an hour to make sure everyone else got off the mountain safely. As they drove away, the other climbers were packing their gear.
They hadn’t driven far when Smith slowed at a nearby trailhead. Mayo asked, “Did you hear something?” Smith turned the car around and used his headlights to scan the weeds. Then they noticed the outhouse.
“This guy opens the door and yells, ‘Help me.’ He’s naked and he’s got toilet paper wrapped around his head and neck and part of his body,” Smith said. “I thought maybe he had some mental issues. … He wasn’t making any sense.”
Smith and Mayo said the man was sobbing and incoherent, but they heard him say his wife was dead and that he had fallen in the river. They gave him a sweat shirt, some beef jerky and granola bars, and assured him they were going to get help. Smith and Mayo drove back the way they’d come. They saw Brown, 39, and signaled for him to pull over.
The three men returned to the outhouse, and Brown, an 11-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, quickly realized the man was distraught, in shock and hypothermic. Smith gave the man a pair of climbing pants, and Brown grabbed an emergency blanket from his truck. The man identified himself as Bob Terczak, 58, from Maryland.
Terczak climbed into Brown’s pickup, and Smith and Mayo followed in their car.
As Brown drove to the Marblemount Ranger Station, Terczak began talking.
“As he’s warming up, he’s calming down and regaining some of his composure,” said Brown, a bicycle patrol officer in the University District.
Brown recounted the story, as told to him — in bits and pieces — by Terczak:
Bob and Cathy Terczak, both experienced mountaineers, loved the North Cascades. They’d parked their rental car at a campground that Wednesday, July 23, and set off on a weeklong trek through North Cascades National Park.
It was just starting to get dark on Saturday when wet and windy weather turned more fierce than had been forecast. From a glacier they had scrambled up some steep rocks, looking for a col, a small pass between two ridges, but decided it was too dangerous to go further. As they descended, Cathy slipped — and Bob, below her, watched her fall past him into a deep moat created by snow that had melted away from the rock face.
Bob climbed down to her. Cathy was conscious but badly injured. She couldn’t stand on her own, so Bob struggled to pull her 35 feet from the bottom of the moat. By the time he rolled her onto the glacier, she’d lost consciousness. He tried to call 911 but couldn’t get a signal on his cellphone. He pitched a tent, cut the wet clothes from his wife’s body and bundled her in their sleeping bags. Wind and rain whipped their tent. Cathy’s breathing grew increasingly labored.
On Sunday evening, “24 hours after the fall, she died,” said Brown. “He administered CPR for an hour — until he was exhausted and she was cold.”
The next morning, Bob woke to clear skies. “He realizes it’s his best chance to get help,” Brown said. “He leaves her in the tent and leaves a note” explaining the situation — and begins hiking down to the nearest road.
It took him 10 to 12 hours to travel roughly five miles over glaciers and rugged terrain before he reached the north bank of the Cascade River near Eldorado Creek. As he attempted to walk across a logjam, he fell into the water and became pinned beneath a log. He struggled to free himself of his pack and pull himself out.
“The current was so powerful, the river ripped his pants down to his ankles,” Brown said. Though his knee had been badly twisted, Terczak walked about a quarter-mile more and found the outhouse, where he took off his soaked climbing gear and tried to dry off with toilet paper. Not long after, he spotted Smith’s headlights and called for help.
When Brown, Terczak, Smith and Mayo arrived at the ranger station about 11:30 p.m. Monday, there was no one around. Brown found an emergency phone and called 911. Volunteer firefighters and medics quickly arrived. One of them told the men that a few hours earlier, another group of climbers had called from a satellite phone to report that they had found the tent and Terczak’s note.
Since Monday night, Terczak stayed at a cabin near Marblemount while he waited for his wife’s body to be retrieved from the mountain. On Thursday he began making arrangements to fly home, said Bush, the National Park Service ranger.
Terczak could not be reached, but Bush, who is responsible for investigating mountaineering accidents, said there’s no reason to doubt his harrowing account.
“He’s had a long ordeal,” Bush said. “It’s just a sad tragedy.”
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org