By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
David and Steve Somers were 4 and 6 when their father disappeared in 1973. Both are fathers now. Unlike their dad, they are not avid mountain climbers.
Yet one day this summer, they became climbers. More than that, they faced in a visceral way the magnitude of their childhood loss.
On their July 30 trek up Snohomish County’s 7,835-foot Sloan Peak, they experienced the rugged terrain and stunning beauty of a mountain that is believed to have claimed their 28-year-old father’s life.
They did it with the help of Oyvind Henningsen and Kevin Riddell, veteran climbers and members of Everett Mountain Rescue. The volunteer group works with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, providing search-and-rescue assistance. On Sloan Peak, their service went beyond the call of duty.
“We want to thank Everett Mountain Rescue, they were just so great to us,” said David Somers, 44, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and works as a cameraman for KHQ-TV in Spokane. He and his wife, Janie, have a 3-year-old daughter — named Sloan. His brother Steve, 46, is a Spokane-area teacher with two sons.
Forty years ago, the brothers lived in Shoreline with their parents, Barbara and Walter “Wally” Somers Jr. A Seattle native, Wally Somers was hooked on climbing.
It was Sept. 9, 1973 when Wally and his brother, Ed, planned to climb Sloan Peak. With its sharp profile, the mountain 12 miles southwest of Glacier Peak has been called the “Matterhorn of the Cascades.” Ed Somers, who now lives in Florida, couldn’t make the climb that day.
It is believed that Wally Somers went alone. His car was found off the Mountain Loop Highway near the Sloan Peak trailhead. Days of searching found no trace of the young climber.
Henningsen, who helped David Somers find information about the 1973 search, said the summit register atop Sloan Peak never had a record of Wally Somers’ name. The story of the brothers’ July trek has been recorded.
A 30-minute documentary titled “The Climb for Closure” will air at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on Spokane’s KHQ-TV. Alex Rozier, a reporter and weekend anchor at the station, is both David Somers’ colleague and friend.
Rozier, who conducted interviews for the piece, was at the Bedal Campground along the Sauk River in July. It was there, during the brothers’ 13-hour trek with the men from Everett Mountain Rescue, that their families gathered to wait.
Wally Somers’ elderly parents, Walt and Violet Somers of Woodway, came to the campground. His widow Barbara Repass, remarried for many years, found it too emotionally painful to be there, her son said.
Forty years earlier, the Bedal Campground was the site of a memorial service for Wally. David Somers barely remembers that day, but recalls someone singing John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
David Somers said that for years it had been his brother’s idea to climb Sloan Peak. In the end, it was Steve Somers who made it to the top with Riddell and Henningsen.
When they came to Sloan Glacier about halfway up the peak’s “corkscrew route,” David Somers chose not to continue across the glacier. The climbers used ropes and ice axes for safety.
Because of uncertain weather later in the day, they had started at 1:30 a.m., using head lamps before dawn. They crossed the Sauk River on logs and slogged up a steep incline, bushwhacking much of the way, before reaching the glacier.
“We got to where we could see the glacier and the peak. And I thought ‘I don’t need to go any farther.’ I was thinking about my dad — this is the journey he took — and 40 years of emotions all flooded into me,” David Somers said. His brother Steve “told me he loved me,” he said.
Henningsen set up a small shelter so David could wait several hours while the others continued to the top. David Somers could hardly watch his brother cross the glacier. At times, he wept.
The climbers carried GoPro cameras, and David has seen the video of the summit. “I don’t feel like I need to do the climb,” he said.
“I think it helped them, not that they have answers,” said Janie Somers, David’s wife. “Once he got up there and saw the glacier, how vast and huge it was, it was overwhelming. He could see how somebody could perish there.”
Riddell, of Everett Mountain Rescue, talked with David Somers about the choice his father made.
“He understood that I am a father, too,” Riddell said. “He said, ‘Do you solo climb mountains?’ I told him yes. He asked, ‘Would you solo climb this one?’ I said, ‘No, never.’”
Riddell called Sloan Peak, with its active glacier, “high-consequence terrain.”
The consequences were great for two men who have been fatherless for 40 years. And yet, Henningsen said the risks climbers take bring indescribable rewards.
At the top, Steve Somers “was elated,” Henningsen said. “I think he really felt he had accomplished something, and finished something his dad had set out to do. He didn’t shed a tear.”
Climbing gear has changed in 40 years, but the reasons for doing it are the same. “It’s being out in the wild, away from day-to-day life, and the feeling of accomplishment,” Henningsen said.
As much as a physical feat, Wally Somers’ sons took huge emotional strides going up the mountain.
In the 1970s, there was little support for grieving families. “To this day, it still makes my mom cry thinking about us as kids,” David Somers said. He said it was being a father himself that helped him explore how the loss affected them all.
Rozier, the TV reporter, said the climb was about “strength and perseverance.”
“These guys, for their whole life, had lived without answers — what happened to their father? They have an idea, but no one knows for sure,” Rozier said. “They wanted to climb this mountain in honor of their dad.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Climb for Closure’
“The Climb for Closure,” a 30-minute documentary about Steve and David Somers’ trek up Sloan Peak in memory of their father, will air at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on KHQ-TV, Channel 6 in Spokane. A film trailer is online at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=STTWY1ZJaDw