t has been more than a half-century since the avalanche tore the rope from Tony Woodfield, cutting loose 10 other boys and cascading them down a mountain in Canada, burying them alive.
After the tons of snow and ice had crashed onward, Tony staggered down the slope to try to rescue the others. Soon, he heard a small voice from under the snow and began digging furiously there, to no avail.
The boy froze to death — one of seven to die needlessly on a misguided mountaineering expedition in 1955 whose deadly end spread sorrow through one of Philadelphia’s most affluent communities, captured international headlines, and remains an appalling example of the abdication of adult leadership.
As the July 11, 1955, tragedy slips from memory into history, it survives in postcards sent by campers on a trip to their doom, in hundreds of pages of Canadian inquest transcripts, in faded accounts from long-shuttered newspapers, in yearbook memorial pages, in interviews with the last living survivor of the disaster. It survives, too, in recent correspondence — anguished e-mails between Woodfield and the sister of the boy he could not save, two strangers who forged a friendship across continents and found a way to help each other heal.
Taken together, a picture emerges of unforgivable errors, of a night of horror and death on a windswept mountain — and of heroism by boys as young as 13.
rode west in a hearse.”
That’s what a survivor of the tragedy said would be the opening sentence of his memoir.
Wilderness Travel Camp left Philadelphia for points west in late June, after meeting up in the parking lot of Chestnut Hill Academy, the elite prep school in one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The boys piled into two vehicles, a new Ford station wagon — and a hearse converted into a kind of minibus. The cars towed trailers laden with canvas tents, surplus stoves, cinched bedrolls, and the like.
It was the spring of 1955. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was campaigning to build the Interstate Highway System. Disneyland was just about to open. “Rock Around the Clock” was surging to become the first rock single to hit No. 1. Phillie Richie Ashburn was on his way to beating out Willie Mays for the National League batting crown.
The boys on the trip ranged in age from 12 to 16. Among the oldest were sophomore Tony Woodfield and junior Billy Watts Jr., enrolled in different New England boarding schools. They were both natural athletes and leaders. Tony, thin and tall, with chiseled good looks, had grown up in Switzerland and already had had a fair amount of experience with climbing in the Alps.
The blond Billy wasn’t bookish like Tony, but had plenty of common sense. And like his father and namesake, Billy had charm to burn. He’d transferred to his school in Connecticut after attending Chestnut Hill Academy.
The 16-year-olds were proud to be named the trip’s two teenage “crew chiefs.”
In all, 22 boys had signed up for the grand trip put together by Bill Kershaw, the teacher at Chestnut Hill Academy who had founded Wilderness Travel nine years before. The grandson of a venerated headmaster at Germantown Academy, Kershaw had the pedigree and contacts to attract the kind of boys whose families were in the Social Register, prep-school students bound for Harvard, Yale, or Kershaw’s alma mater, Stanford.
For $2,500 in today’s dollars and a signed release from liability, parents bought a 6½-week expedition that took their sons across the United States and into western Canada. The traveling camp would include visits to national parks in both countries, camping, canoeing, and climbing.
Kershaw, then 32, and business partner Don Dickerson, 29, planned the trip. They decided a highlight would be climbing 11,626-foot Mount Temple, a popular tourist destination that was one of the tallest peaks in gorgeous Banff National Park in Canada, west of Calgary.
Kershaw was not along for the trip itself. Instead, he took a different group of boys that June on a trip through New England. The two men hired another counselor, Bill Oeser, 28, to accompany Dickerson on the trip. They were all teachers. Dickerson, who lived in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy section, was an insurance whiz who lectured at the Wharton School. Oeser had graduated from Pennsylvania State University after growing up in Philadelphia. He taught at a Baltimore junior high.
As they headed west, in Minnesota, the boys jumped over the headwaters of the Mississippi. The hearse broke down in North Dakota, and the boys camped out in a town park in Minot for five days while it was repaired. On the road again, the two-car caravan headed to Glacier National Park in Montana. While the boys took in the view at Glacier — its massive glaciers shrouded in glistening white snow — porcupines chewed flat all four of the hearse’s tires. They liked the salt on them.
In a postcard to his parents, one boy wrote of Glacier’s beauty — and of their “big snowball battle” on the Fourth of July. It arrived just after his death.
Two weeks after leaving Philadelphia, Dickerson, Oeser, and their charges entered the Banff park, 4,500 feet up, a spectacular range of peaks and glaciers, of alpine plateaus and lakes, of bears and caribou. On Thursday, July 7, they pitched their tents at Two Jack Lake.
Billy Watts wrote a letter to his 8-year-old sister, telling her proudly that he was a crew chief and a cook for the rest, preparing meals on an Army stove.
“The trip is wonderful. ... We are now in Banff, Canada. The scenery is beautiful, but the weather is much colder. We have seen deer and bear and I have fed a chipmunk out of my hand. Love, Billy.”
The goal was to climb Mount Temple and then head to another national park in Canada for more adventure and then return home in early August.
In the village of Banff, Dickerson headed to the park information offices and picked up mountain maps. But he couldn’t find anyone expert about Mount Temple, just “some girls” in the office who “seemed to know absolutely nothing about the mountains in the area,” he would say later. For its part, the office staff found him impatient and incurious.
He was given a form to register his plan to climb the mountain. It asked what day his group would be climbing. He hadn’t decided yet, so he ignored it. No one officially in charge would learn of their plans.
Despite knowing little of the mountain or its conditions, Dickerson and Oeser pressed on. On Saturday, July 9, they and the boys scaled part way up 9,675-foot Mount Rundle, just outside Banff, returning to their campsite late, at almost 10 p.m. This climb went well.
On Sunday, they moved their camp near the foot of Mount Temple, and set up at Moraine Lake, glacier-fed and startlingly blue. The next day, they would tackle the snowcapped mountain, only 250 feet shorter than the highest peak in the park.
The popular trek up Mount Temple’s southern side is known as a “scramble.” Climbers don’t need pitons or other equipment used in technical climbing, but it’s not a route to take lightly. In places, hikers must haul themselves from rock to rock to ascend vertical bands of stone. Some climbers hire guides for the trip, and some of those guides rope up clients for tougher traverses.
There is danger from falling rock, cliffs — and avalanches.
Experienced climbers stay off the mountain in early summer, when rising temperatures melt snow, creating the conditions for avalanches. In 1955, an early spring had heated up the mountain, melting the snow, and rangers already knew it to be dangerous. If Dickerson had found park officials to ask about Mount Temple, one would later say, “we would have advised them against going anywhere near it.”
Nonetheless, the group pushed off that Monday morning. Six boys stayed behind. The counselors had given the youngsters a choice: Do laundry at camp or climb the mountain. Dickerson also stayed behind. A heavy cigar smoker, he was too winded to go, especially after climbing Mount Rundle.
That left Oeser, with far less climbing experience, in charge. Neither he nor Dickerson knew that avalanches were a risk on Mount Temple. Their group, the first to tackle the mountain that year, was climbing in early summer. That was significant because park rangers usually advised scramblers to wait later in the summer when most snow had melted away.
The 16 boy climbers were not well-equipped. Many lacked hiking boots. Instead, they wore baseball shoes with cleats or even track shoes. They carried only 150 feet of manila rope, in just two lengths. Many wore only thin summer shirts. As the most skilled climber, Tony carried the group’s only ice ax.
Oeser and the boys hiked for four or five hours, working their way higher via switchbacks to the pass that connected Paradise Valley with the Valley of the Ten Peaks. This put them up on Sentinel Pass, which cuts between 10,062-foot Pinnacle Mountain and the higher Mount Temple. At the pass, the group turned east to scale the southern face of Mount Temple.
At about 8,500 feet, Oeser and his 16 boys reached a meadow. It was ablaze with wildflowers. Oeser called a halt. He had a nasty blister on his foot. Besides, Oeser would say later, “unfortunately, heights do not agree with me entirely.” He told the boys that he, too, was dropping out.
He wanted them to quit, as well. The boys wanted to keep going. After all, it was a balmy 76 degrees. The looming summit seemed so close.
Oeser sat down and pulled off his shoes. He relented and waved the boys onward.
Tony Woodfield and Billy Watts were now in charge. In short order, five more tired youngsters abandoned the climb, clambering down Mount Temple to rejoin Oeser.
That left 11 still ascending.
The youngest was 12-year-old Miles Marble. He was an only child who was a blur on the basketball court at Germantown Friends School. His favorite expression: “Oh, rot.”
There were the smart 13-year-old Balis twins: Ricky and Townsend, aka “Towny,” eighth graders at Chestnut Hill Academy. Their parents must have seen them off with some trepidation. Before the twins were born, their parents’ first child was killed at age 5 in front of his Chestnut Hill home when he rode his scooter into traffic.
There was Frederic Ballard, 13, also a “Ricky,” another Chestnut Hill Academy eighth grader. His great-grandfather founded Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr law firm, and his grandfather and father were lawyers there. His mother was Ernesta Ballard, a civic leader and feminist years before the term had any wide popularity.
Luther “Buzzy” Seddon, 13, was a competitive speed skater from St. Louis who was named after a grandfather who had led the campaign to build the Gateway Arch there. Seddon had joined the caravan near Chicago so he could vacation with a friend from Chestnut Hill.
Another 13-year-old, Peter Smith, a Haverford School student from Paoli, was tousle-haired, outgoing, but intense.
Glasses-wearing Terry Clattenburg, 14, another student at Chestnut Hill Academy, was tall and quiet, the son of an architect. He bunked in a tent with the twins and camper David Chapin.
Chapin, 15, was a close friend of Woodfield’s at the Berkshire School, a boarding school in Massachusetts. His father was an ad executive in a new field, television. At Berkshire, the determined Chapin liked to hike nearby Mount Everett, a peak one-quarter the height of Mount Temple. A photograph from his teens shows him with a big grin, a big cowboy hat, and a backpack.
Willie Wise, the son of a Souderton obstetrician, was a coltish 15-year-old in the middle of a growth spurt. It was his second consecutive summer with Wilderness Travel. This time, he was hoping the hiking would toughen him up for football at William Penn Charter School. A junior there, he was a Lutheran acolyte who’d read just about everything by Bruce Catton on the Civil War.
At first, the boys seemed to bound upward, encouraged by the warmth. What they didn’t realize was that heat was a growing threat.
Oeser and the boys had started out that morning far too late. They had set off from Moraine Lake at about 9:30, many hours after most climbers depart to summit Mount Temple. That meant the boys would still be out there when the afternoon sun was thawing the snow, making it unstable and the climb more strenuous. Moreover, the afternoon was unseasonably hot, the climax of a run-up that had seen temperatures climb nearly 20 degrees in just five days. The heat sapped their energy, slowing them and keeping them on the mountain longer and later.
They should have been off the mountain by lunch. They weren’t.
ow well above the snow line, the boys found the going increasingly rough. The trail was narrower. The snow was deeper and slushier. Some of the boys slipped here and there. Frostbite was creeping through the thin leather of the boys’ shoes. As they scrambled upward, the boys saw how a kicked rock would trigger a slide of snow. From afar, the boys saw avalanches on neighboring peaks, and they listened to the sound of sliding snow — a buzzing, droning noise. Towny Balis was simply too light to stamp footholds in the snow, and he was visibly afraid. This was no longer fun.
Tony and Billy called a halt. Forget the summit, they agreed. It was time to get down.
After a 15-minute break at about 10,000 feet, the boys began their descent. Mostly to calm anxiety, the group roped up. The 11 boys tied themselves together at five-foot intervals with thin manila rope, “not much more than a laundry line,” Tony would later say.
Tony Woodfield was the anchor, highest on the mountain, with the others stretched out below him. Billy Watts was the lead man on the other end.
The 16-year-olds were piling mistake upon mistake. Mountaineering experts say it’s a bad idea to put too many climbers on any one rope or to tie them so close. And they used slipknots, a reckless choice of a knot that can tighten and choke.
Moreover, the boys took a route across an open snowfield and down a gully, a pathway for avalanches. Guides prefer that climbers stick to ridgelines, routes far less susceptible to avalanches. As the boys cut across the snowfield, a massive amount of increasingly unstable snow lay above them. “You have the whole mountain sitting on top of you, particularly that time of day,” Bertram Pettaway, a Banff ranger, would later explain.
Step by cautious step, the boys made it about halfway to the meadow below. Then, snow stirred 700 feet above them, likely a product of the sun and not of the boys’ movement. The avalanche burst forth about 4 p.m., a violent and accelerating wall of snow, ice, and rock, rolling down the gully, gaining force and mass as it funneled between two ridges of rock. Its sound began as a buzz, but soon was as loud as a thundering train.
“Avalanche!” Tony yelled. “Head for cover!”
Just before the avalanche engulfed him, Tony plunged his ax into ice just beyond the gully and jumped sideways. He held on. Within the maelstrom of din and snow, he felt the rope tug and tighten at his waist — and then snap free.
Tony held fast to his ax. But the Balis twins, the next boys down the rope line, and the rest were driven hundreds of feet down the mountain. Some fell free, cut loose like Tony. Others tumbled like linked rag dolls.
Tony struggled to his feet and tried to get his bearings. For two long minutes, he watched the avalanche roar down the mountain. He realized that, incredibly, he was unhurt. Somehow, he had dodged the onslaught of snow. Now he was determined to locate his friends. Hand over hand, he climbed down the ridgeline, avoiding the treacherous, unstable snow packing the gully. Some 500 feet below, he spotted Ricky Ballard, three years his junior.
Ricky was seated on rock, cold and in shock, with a six-inch gash across his forehead. He was dazed and had no idea what had happened. Tony stripped off his shirt and handed it to him.
Anything broken? Tony asked. No.
Next Tony found Willie Wise. His face was lacerated, and he was crying for help. Tony pulled another shirt from his rucksack and tried to put it on him. Among his many injuries, Willie had a broken left wrist. That made it hard for Tony to get the dry shirt on him. Willie also had a fractured right hip, and could barely move. Tony tried to pull him out of the wet snow and onto drier rocks, but couldn’t make headway.
Suddenly, Tony heard a new voice. It was faint, but close, coming up from the snow. Tony began digging frantically at the spot where he had heard the cry. He used his hands and rocks and even his shoes. And as he cleared away the snow, a foot down, the head of his fellow crew chief emerged. It was Billy Watts.
Tony kept stabbing the snow and ice with a rock and scooping it away. He dug down to Billy’s hips, but could get no further. Billy’s left leg was trapped within a hardened mass of icy snow. So was his right arm.
Light was fading. The temperature was falling rapidly. It had begun to hail.
“I’m cold,” Billy said.
Tony leaned into the pit he had dug, wrapped his arms around Billy’s chest, and pulled and pulled. Billy would not budge. Only 20 hours later would rescuers learn the macabre reason Billy was anchored there.
Suddenly, Tony heard another voice from under the snow. It was close by. Another boy was buried.
Freezing, weary, frustrated, Tony had to decide what to do. If he divided his energies and tried to rescue both, he thought, he might end up not saving either. And then two boys would die.
He stayed with Billy.
“I’m getting colder and colder,” Billy said.
“Move your limbs,” Tony told him. “Hang on to life.”
hen he heard Woodfield scream out “avalanche,” Peter Smith ducked and jammed his fingers into a rocky crevice and tried to hold on.
Peter was just above Billy on the rope line. His grip on the crevice did him no good. The snow mass tore him free. And as he was slammed down the mountain, the rope slid up and its slipknot tightened around his neck, throttling him.
Riding the avalanche’s front edge, Peter somehow freed himself of the noose.
He stood, only to be pummeled by another wave of snow and driven another 100 feet down Mount Temple. When he got to his feet, the 13-year-old saw bodies scattered everywhere.
Though bruised and bleeding, he was able to gather his thoughts. He moved from boy to boy, but found that there was little he could do. Their injuries were too great.
He decided to scramble down the mountain alone and get help. When the path permitted, he ran.
On his way down, Peter encountered a man coming up — Bill Oeser, the teacher with the blister on his foot and a fear of heights. Oeser had heard an indistinct cry from high above and started climbing from the meadow. Smith filled him in on what had happened.
Keep heading down, the teacher told him. Bring rescuers.
When Oeser got to the avalanche site, he spotted Buzzy Seddon and Terry Clattenburg, still tied together. Seddon, his left leg twisted, was sobbing for help. Clattenburg was badly injured — his skull fractured in three places, his face lacerated and bleeding. His right foot was deeply frostbitten.
Oeser cut the rope that connected the two boys. Clattenburg sat very still, his jacket pulled over his head. Seddon was bruised and bleeding from his forehead. His leg was broken.
The teacher also cut rope tying the twins, Ricky and Towny Balis. The brothers’ thin shirts were soaked through. They had no coats. One of the boys, face down in the snow, was already dead, Oeser realized.
Then Oeser heard a cry for help from farther up the mountain. It was Tony, still trying to rescue Billy. Oeser clambered up and joined him in the digging. It was futile. They could not move the teenager. His neck broken, immobilized by the snow and ice, Billy Watts died on Mount Temple.
By now, Tony was exhausted, chilled to the bone and nearly incoherent. Oeser sent him down. The teacher soon followed.
Between them, Tony Woodfield and Bill Oeser had come across nine of the 11 boys struck by the avalanche. But where were Dave Chapin and Miles Marble?
s night fell, Mount Temple was growing colder, windier, and wetter. For those still alive, survival was a question of how soon rescuers would arrive.
Smith was the first survivor to reach bottom. Dickerson had just returned to the campsite from buying groceries when he saw Smith and learned what had happened. He immediately headed to the accident site. On his way up, he passed Tony on the way down.
“Three or four of the boys seemed to be dead or dying,” Dickerson would recall Tony as saying.
“He couldn’t find Dave Chapin at all, and he had been three hours trying to dig Bill Watts out of the snow and they still had one leg pinned that they couldn’t get out.”
As word spread at the mountain’s base, an impromptu band of rescuers, made up of park staff and volunteers, began to stream up Mount Temple. Despite his bruised hips and facial cuts, Peter Smith had insisted that he guide the rescue party. The rescuers set out at a furious pace to cover the five miles to the avalanche site, hiking and climbing in darkness. Their flashlights blazed their snakelike path through the woods and upward.
Among the rescuers was a house doctor from the majestic Château Lake Louise luxury hotel near Banff and a couple of the hotel’s bellhops.
In charge was Walter Perren, a native of Zermatt, Switzerland, who had been recently hired as the park service’s mountain rescue expert. His hiring was spurred by the loss the year before of four women who had plummeted 1,500 feet to their deaths on a nearby Banff peak.
Only 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, Perren was incredibly agile and fast on mountains, a “free climber” with an iron grip and iron will. A teetotaler and a nonsmoker, he came from a family of guides. In his late 20s during World War II, he smuggled refugees over the Alps into neutral, safe Switzerland. His nickname was “the spider of Zermatt.”
Canadian Pacific Railway had first hired Perren a few years before to serve as a mountain guide for guests in its hotel chain. He never lost his Swiss accent and was known for ending every talk with a warning, “Shtay oot of the goolies” — stay out of the gullies that serve as funnels for avalanches and rock slides.
The first rescuers arrived at the avalanche site at about 11 p.m. — seven hours after the avalanche had struck.
Perren was astounded that Mount Temple was now the scene of so much death. For him, who had summited the Matterhorn 135 times, the mountain was “a little dull.” Still, having climbed Mount Temple many times, Perren knew beyond doubt: “It is a dangerous mountain for people who don’t know anything about climbing.”
As the rescuers arrived, Dr. Geoffrey Sutton, the hotel physician, found the sole surviving Balis brother alive, but he died the moment he was moved and placed on a stretcher.
By this point, five boys were known to be dead — Billy Watts, 16; Willie Wise, 15; Buzzy Seddon, 13; and the Balis twins, 13.
David Chapin, 15, and Miles Marble, 12, were still missing.
Terry Clattenburg was still alive. Sutton gave him a shot of morphine. With Perren supervising, his team gently lowered the 14-year-old over a cliff and onto a stretcher. Perren and the other rescuers bore him down the mountain.
After a brief pause at the mountain base, Perren’s group headed back out and up. It was almost daybreak. They wanted to try once more to dig out Watts’ body.
Around noon, as Perren chopped at the frozen snow with a shovel, he solved the last mystery. He dislodged Watts’ body from the snow and ice, and made a horrific find. Buried beneath Watts were the bodies of Chapin and Marble, the two missing boys. All three bodies were still roped together. This discovery explained the second voice that Tony had heard.
Perren pounded the shovel with a hammer to sever the frozen rope. His men hoisted the bodies up onto pack horses and used remnants of the thin rope to cinch them into place. The horses trudged down.
ack in the Philadelphia area, word of the disaster raced like searing fire through private schools and homes in Chestnut Hill and elsewhere. The tragedy was in headlines coast to coast.
Eleanor Wise, the mother of Willie Wise, refused to look at her son’s broken body when it was flown home. “I wanted to remember him driving out of Chestnut Hill Academy, looking back at me and waving his hand," she wrote in her diary.
For her husband, Arthur, one thing was absolutely clear: William Kershaw should never organize another trip.
“He was very angry,” Willie’s brother, Arthur Wise Jr., would later say. “He sent his son off to have a good summer vacation and they killed him through negligence.”
Not every parent was bitter. In a letter to his son’s boarding school, Slocum Chapin wrote that his son’s death was a matter of fate. David died “having the time of his life — actually a really supreme moment — up until the fatal moment.” The family spread David’s ashes by plane over the Mount Temple summit.
Kershaw took a similar view. In New Hampshire with his other group of boys at the time of the disaster, he telephoned a statement to the Inquirer: “Such an occurrence can never be fully understood. It is in God’s hands, not ours.”
“I plan to continue with the trip I am now leading and will not permit this to spoil a pleasant summer trip for our group,” he said.
Dickerson and Oeser, the adult counselors, had their departure from Banff delayed until an official inquest there four days after the deaths. With boys watching in a Masonic Lodge hall, the two teachers were grilled by officials from Her Majesty’s Coroner, Alberta Province. They were asked about their qualifications as climbers, about the failure to get guidance before climbing, about their failure to even register their climb.
“Could you tell us what equipment consisted of, sir?” the Crown’s questioner asked at one point.
“An ice ax,” Dickerson replied in part.
“One ice ax?”
Officials concluded that poor leadership and inadequate equipment led to the tragedy. Similarly, prosecutors in Alberta blamed the deaths on “poor planning and preparation, poor judgment and inexperience,” but ruled out criminal charges.
In the months after the tragedy, embarrassed park rangers insisted all climbers register in advance and put down an expected return time so searches could begin immediately if groups failed to show up on time.
More significant, Perren created a rescue school that would teach scores of rangers how to speedily reach the stranded and injured. In time, it became an international model.
Kershaw would continue to operate his summer camp for two more decades. In time, he was revealed as a deeply troubled and dangerous man. He was convicted in 1977 on charges of molesting two 11-year-old boys from a camping trip the year before.
He died in 2015 at age 91. In an obituary he prepared in advance, Kershaw made no mention of the avalanche, but wrote that he “loved introducing boys to the wonders of nature.”
Dickerson went on to become a leading authority on insurance and a professor in the field in Florida. His 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."
Oeser quit teaching and became an accountant. He, too, rarely talked to his family about what had happened on Mount Temple. He died in 2015 at age 88.
Of the four boys who survived the avalanche, Peter Smith followed perhaps the most unexpected path. After graduation from Williams College in Massachusetts, Smith became a Green Beret and saw heavy combat in Vietnam. He later adopted fierce antiwar views. Later still, he became an Amish farmer.
He struggled with depression for decades, likely exacerbated by the avalanche. “It was a tragedy that he had to carry in his life and a burden for him,” said his brother, Mark.
Peter Smith killed himself in 2013 at age 71.
As it happened, the three other survivors all went on to graduate from Harvard. Frederic Ballard and Terry Clattenburg had long careers as lawyers. Ballard joined the firm that bore his family name. A kindly and respected figure, he died at age 72 in 2014. Clattenburg, who is the only living survivor of the Mount Temple disaster, was an attorney with Community Legal Services, providing legal help for the poor.
Not long ago, in his Wyndmoor home, Clattenburg wondered aloud about why he was spared. He was the only boy in his tent to survive. He shook his head as he recalled how the boys had lobbied Oeser to permit them to keep climbing.
“He wanted everybody to stop, and like the fools we were, we argued against him, and he let us go on up,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, Clattenburg returned to Banff with his son, Will, a student at Yale. Together they climbed to the meadow where the teacher stopped and he and the others kept going.
“I wanted to take a few steps up that path where we began,” Clattenburg said.
ony Woodfield tried to put the tragedy behind him but couldn’t.
After graduating from Harvard, he went on to earn an MBA from Cornell University. He was an aid worker in Venezuela, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam before embarking on a long career as a U.N. economist, specializing in part on the gap between rich and poor countries.
In 2000, he retired in Switzerland, the place of his last posting as a U.N. official. There, despite the traumatic event years before, he was an avid skier and mountain climber. He headed the local climbing club.
Still, nearly 60 years after the tragedy, he was looking for closure.
Late in life, he saw on the internet that someone else had been hunting for information about the tragedy. The man, using a screen name, said he was married to the sister of victim Billy Watts.
Tony set out to find the Watts family. By tapping into Ancestry.com and other genealogical resources, he determined that Billy had had two sisters — Laura Watts Pearson and Wendy Watts Field. Tony turned up what looked like an email address for Laura. On Sept. 24, 2009, he composed a message:
“Mrs. Pearson, I was the last person to speak with Billy as I tried to dig him out of the snow before he froze to death.”
If he had indeed reached the right family, Tony wrote, he would answer any questions about the Mount Temple avalanche that they might have. “I remember it like it happened yesterday, but it also feels many lifetimes ago,” he wrote.
“If you were not related to Billy Watts, i.e., a person who knows nothing about Billy and this accident, please accept my apologies for the identification error.”
He pressed send. Within hours, he received a reply.
There was no error. His message had zoomed from Switzerland to the Philadelphia suburbs. He had reached the younger sister of Billy Watts. Laura Watts Pearson was 62, a photographer living in Strafford, Delaware County.
She embraced Tony’s overture. So did her sister, Wendy, and her husband, English professor John Field, the man who had been researching Billy’s death online.
“Thank you for being his friend and thank you for trying to help at the end, and thank you for writing now because it is a good time to bring his memory back for me,” Laura wrote.
For the Watts sisters, the loss of Billy left them a legacy of hurt with few ways to express it. Their mother never spoke of their lost brother. Laura had persistent nightmares. In them “I am trying to help somebody, that something terrible has happened,” then she’d wake up. Years later, she would burst into tears as she thought of her lost brother and the grief her mother suffered.
In his e-mails, Tony was both a desperate teen 10,000 feet up on Mount Temple and an elderly man searching for meaning at the end of a full life. He told how he had sidestepped the avalanche and then moved from victim to victim, offering them encouragement and even clothes. He told how he had partially excavated Billy after hearing his voice from below.
Tony tried to assuage Laura about her brother’s suffering.
“I did not get to know Billy well, but I respected him and liked him for the mature natural-born leader that he was,” Tony wrote. “He was feeling very cold and froze to death as I tried to extricate him from the snow, but otherwise did not seem to be in any pain that I could tell.”
For her part, Laura shared how hard her brother’s death had been on her family. Then she turned her sympathy to Tony.
“How difficult it must have been for you to watch while so many died. I have often wondered what I would have done if had been there and the frustration of not being able to help.”
Laura told Tony she had shared his e-mails with Wendy. “To be honest, we both had a good cry,” she wrote.
“What came to both of us as very important in what you revealed to us ... was that Billy didn’t die alone — that someone had been with him, trying to help him,” Laura said. “And also that you were able to free a good part of him and that he didn’t stay under the snow. For some reason that has disturbed both of us for years — that thought of him trapped under the snow.”
Tony and Laura ruminated on the years gone by. They had much in common. The wife of a diplomat, Laura had lived around the globe, too. She noted that she and her husband, Gardiner, had lived in Switzerland for four years during his last postings.
“You must be about 70 if you were Billy’s age. (Are we really this old already?),” Laura wrote.
He was 71, Tony let Laura know. But he also shared a secret: He been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer two years before. He was stoic about it all. CAT scans and probability statistics suggested that he already had lived six months longer than expected, he wrote.
“You use the word ‘terminal,’ ” Laura replied. “I don’t like the sound of that at all for you. Forgive me, it’s not my business, but you feel like a new very good friend and while I really don’t know you at all, I feel like I care about your well-being very much.”
Tony Woodfield died only four months after forging his connection with the sisters of Billy Watts.
In his final weeks, Tony mentioned to Laura that a climbing acquaintance recently had spoken of how valiant he had been on Mount Temple. Tony said that wasn’t so.
“I had been no hero,” he messaged. “Just a teenager who found himself in an impossible situation. I had hoped these past 55 years to put the accident behind me, not to dwell on it, but here we are.”
Laura and her sister would have none of it.
“We do thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for being there and helping him,” Laura wrote. “You say you weren’t a hero, but you were. You simply did what needed to be done and you gave it your all.”
This story is drawn from interviews, from official investigations of the avalanche and from news accounts.
Interviews: Joanna Chapin, Terry Clattenburg, Barbara Dickerson-Maier, Oliver Donald Dickerson III, John Field, Wendy Watts Field, Allan C. Hutchinson, Laura Watts Pearson, Rosamond Woodfield Larr, Blair Meglathery, Joe Orso, Lisa Paulson, Iwan Saunders, Thomas K. Seddon, Mark E. Smith, Eleanor Robbins Wise Thompson, Sylvia Oeser Warters, J. Bradford White, Arthur Wise Jr. and William Woodfield.
Canadian documents: 245-page transcript of Coroner’s inquest; Avalanche Rescue Report, Banff Park Warden Service; case review letter, Alberta Attorney General’s office; victim injury report, Dr. Patrick Costigan. Documents provided in part in response to a request under the Canadian Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Other documents: Lawsuits brought by the parents of twins, Richard J. Balis and J. Townsend Balis; William H. Wise 2nd, and Terry Clattenburg, Avalanche memo by lawyer Frederic Ballard, father of survivor Rickey Ballard. Emails between Tony Woodfield and Laura Pearson, provided by family members.
News accounts: The Inquirer, the Daily News, the former Philadelphia Bulletin, the former Chestnut Hill Herald, the former Germantown Courier, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, Life magazine, Newsweek magazine, Sports Illustrated, Time magazine, the former Albertan, the former The Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal and the Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald.
Other publications: Avalanche accidents in Canada - A selection of case histories, 1955 to 1976, National Research Council of Canada, 1979; Development of avalanche safety and control programs in the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Park, J. Bradford White, 2002; Guardians of the Peaks: Mountain rescue in the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains, Kathy Calvert and Dale Portman, 2006; A Scrambler’s Guide to Mount Temple, Banff National Park, 2012; and Swiss Guides – Shaping mountain culture in the Western Canada, Swiss consulate general, 2010.
Archives: Chestnut Hill Conservancy, Historic Germantown/Germantown Historical Society, Urban Archives of Temple University Libraries; the Calgary Public Library; the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
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