SKAMANIA, Wash. – Searchers recovered the body of a climber who tumbled 1,500 feet into the Mount St. Helens crater after a cornice gave way beneath him early Monday afternoon.
A helicopter crew managed to reach Joseph ("Joe") Bohlig during a break in the weather Tuesday after rescue efforts were thwarted by dangerous weather conditons the day before. They said Bohlig, 52, was dead when they finally got to him around 3 p.m. and could not be revived. His body was airlifted off the mountain.
Bohlig's family in Kelso was in shock after initially holding out hope that he somehow survived the fall.
"We're sorry that he's gone, that he didn't make it," said Richard Bohlig, the climber's 84-year-old father. "He was doing something he enjoyed very much. That's all I can say."
Just moments before Bohlig fell, he had been celebrating a successful summit at an area called "Shoestring Notch" with his best friend and climbing partner Scott Salkovics - their 68th time atop St. Helens.
Salkovics said it was about 12:30 p.m. and a sunny day, but the climb had been especially difficult and took them an unusually long four hours.They were exhilarated to be at the top of the south rim and, after stripping off his backpack and a layer of clothing to cool down, Bohlig decided to pose for some photos.
That decision cost him his life.
Salkovics said Bohlig handed his camera to another climber and urged him to be sure to get Mt. Rainier in the background. Then he turned around and took one last step.
Slideshow: Mount St. Helens crater
“'Boom,' it busted off and I saw him clawing for the edge with a startled look on his face, and then he disappeared,” recalled Salkovics, his voice cracking with emotion.
Another climber at the summit – a total stranger – heaved himself toward the edge and frantically waved his arms over the lip, hoping to grab Bohlig. But he was already gone, tumbling down the wall of the crater, which was covered with ice and jagged rocks.
“We had just talked about cornice safety that morning. I’m sure he assumed he was not on a cornice. He had warned others to watch for cornice cracks,” Salkovics recalled.
An Army rescue pilot himself, Salkovics quickly went into survival mode. He threw together a bag of supplies – an avalanche beacon, a jacket, food and water – and tossed it into the gaping hole. Then he called 9-1-1.
All dispatchers heard was “I’m on top of Mount St. Helens and we have an emergency…[call breaks up] a guy fell…” and then the call went dead.
However, that was enough to spark a rescue.
There were some reports that climbers heard Bohlig blowing a rescue whistle after he fell, but Salkovics said he never heard a whistle and didn't think Joe was carrying one.
Helicopters hovered over Bohlig
A rescue helicopter reached the summit about three hours later and another followed a short time later. Both pilots spotted Bohlig about 1,500 feet below the lip of the crater. The pilots said the climber was in an upright position, but he wasn’t moving, even when they got close. No one could tell for sure if he had survived the fall.
"There was no movement of his head, no attempt to signal," said helicopter pilot Lt. Brooks Crawford.
The backpack that Salkovics had tossed into the crater was seen resting about 100 meters below Bohlig. One of the helicopter pilots said that there was no way Bohlig could have gotten to it.
HD Video: St. Helens Volcano
The wind was blowing too hard for the pilots to safely lower a rescuer to the fallen climber. They were forced to retreat with plans to return to the mountain Tuesday as soon as weather cleared.
Finally, the weather broke Tuesday afternoon and a waiting helicopter crew jumped into action. They flew into the crater and lowered a rescuer to Bohlig. But it was too late.
Investigators have not said whether it appeared that Bohlig died from the fall or the cold weather that moved in while he remained in the crater overnight. Temperatures had dropped into the 20s Monday night in the crater and it would have been a major feat for anyone to survive in those conditions without a jacket, helmet or other survival gear.
Bohlig had a "passion" for climbing
Richard Bohlig said his son used to climb Mount St. Helens any chance he could. He took up climbing well into his 40s but learned quickly, scaling mountains in Switzerland, Argentina and other areas across the globe.
"We'll always keep him in our memories," Richard said. "It's a shock... children are not supposed to die before their parents."
Richard said Mount St. Helens was Joe's favorite climb and sometimes he even did it alone.
It was Salkovics’ idea to climb on Monday; a spur-of the-moment decision. The pair had just returned from a climbing trip in Ecuador and they thought it would be fun to do an easy day trip on Mount St. Helens. Salkovics shared photos (shown above) he now treasures of their trip to Ecuador. He said every day was a fun adventure with his buddy and they were very close - he was even the best man in his wedding.
“I introduced him to climbing," Salkovics said. "It was his passion. He just liked the physical aspect of it, the accomplishment, the challenge.”
Together, the best friends had gone on more than 100 climbs.
YouTube: Mount St. Helens South Rim
Salkovics said he wished he could have somehow saved his friend and now he wanted to be sure that people knew what a great man he was.
“He is a very giving individual… a true partner.”
Bohlig lived in Kelso and had one son who died years earlier while serving time in the military. He was survived by his parents, a twin brother, and his ex-wife.