The Search for John Zazzara
(Mountaineer Lost on Mt. McLoughlin)

21-25 Jun 2005 - by Marek rudolf Damm

Copied from johnzazzara.worldofadventures.com with permission of the author, Marek Rudolf Damm


John Zazzara, clad in his armor


Tuesday: 21 of June, 2005.
I was checking my email on this morning expecting news regarding a recent trip related to my photography work that I had taken to Lone Pine in the Sierras. Instead, I found the following message waiting for me:
I was shocked that John had been missing for over a week and I had only now found out about it. Although the search effort was suspended, I knew I had to go up there myself. Immediately, driving to Klamath Falls County, Oregon and searching for John became my top priority. Before I started packing, I replied to the email:
I called my wife Isabella at work and asked her to come home right away to help me prepare for the rescue trip. I also called the Sheriff's Office in Klamath Falls and spoke with Shawn Richards to notify them that I was coming.
A little while later I saw I had several more emails in my inbox:
I left San Francisco for Oregon that same day. I brought with me all of my technical tools and other equipment in order to be able to scale and inspect all possible terrain on the mountain. Additionally, along the way I purchased an avalanche beacon, 10-mile range walkie-talkies, and a pair of binoculars in the hope that these tools would aid me in the search.

Wednesday: 22 of June, 2005.
In the morning I held a conversation with Sheriff Tim Evinger of the Klamath County Sheriff's Office and his personnel, who gave me as much information as they could and allowed me to inspect John's car to examine his climbing gear. Even though I was informed that the search I was going to perform was completely on my own (private) and that they could not provide me with any communication devices or other tools, we agreed to inform each other about any new findings over my cell-phone and through my wife.
Thanks to my wife, who was my Search Coordinator Headquarters, I gathered additional information related to any possible gear John would have carried and routes he would have intended to take. Unfortunately, the information was vague and difficult to draw any specific conclusions from.

I went to the base of the mountain at Four Mile Lake to take some pictures and reconstruct possible routes that John may have taken. This side of the mountain has had numerous rock falls and avalanche activity during the recent past and I doubted that he would have wanted to attempt it. However, there was a rumor that he was interested in 'taking a look at a cantilever that [is] located on the North side of the mountain and possibly doing some technical climbing in that area.' Due to that fact and information that the SAR team was searching the upper part of the standard route (around the trail, cliff, and the summit), I decided to focus on a hazardous part of the mountain to the Northeast and North.

About 20:00 I set up my high camp by a steep ridge north of the trail around 7,400 ft., with a store of food and fuel to last me two weeks. Just before I erected my tent, I climbed the ridge to take a look at the hazardous area across on the other side. While scanning the slope with my binoculars, I noticed a man-like shape in the snow. I called Shawn Richards and reported my finding. I said that I was only 50% sure because it was dusk and the light was dim, therefore I would like someone to check out the spot from the air before going there, as the area was highly exposed to rock-falls. I also informed Shawn that I would re-check my finding the next morning under better light.


Thursday: 23 of June, 2005.

This was my first real day of searching for John Zazzara. I climbed the Northeast ridge much higher than the day before and looked at the man-like shape again and realized that it was just a rock. Due to the low cell-phone reception I called 911 instead of Shawn's cell to cancel my previous 'alarm' and climbed down to the other side of the ridge, entering the upper part of the hazardous area to check the snow which was disturbed and disheveled from rock falls and avalanches. Carefully examining every substantial nook and cranny in the snow, I was slowly moving toward the saddle of the North ridge. From there I examined the North side of the mountain for any signs of John. On my way back to high camp I searched the lower part, tree level and above, of the hazardous area. I found not a single definitive sign of John's existence.

Due to several calls that day and low temperatures, my cell-phone battery was getting low and I decided to hike down to my car and reload it. On my way down I tried to lose the trail by wandering off to the North side of it, like John and I got lost in the snow on this mountain in separate trips during the previous years, just to explore this possibility. Nevertheless, getting lost was impossible this time because this part of the terrain was not significantly concealed by snow, and the surface, especially the trail, was easily visible.
In the evening, down at the trailhead I met Richard Calliger, another mountaineer friend of John's. Like me, Richard, too, arrived from California to search for John on his own. We considered our situation and decided to coordinate our efforts for the next day. As he was not prepared for extreme climbing and lacked appropriate technical gear, Richard made the prudent decision to search around the middle parts of the mountain, while I would mostly focus on the upper regions. He reasoned that since John was a very strong man, if injured he would crawl down to tree level in order to escape the snowfield. In fact, John was the strongest climber I have ever met.


Friday: 24 of June, 2005.

We started hiking up the mountain in the early morning. I took along additional gear to my high camp. I planned to stay on the mountain as long as it took. This day I intended to again search the Northeast ridge, but further up this time, and then try the Southeast ridge's standard route area above tree level. Early in the afternoon, a little above 8,000 ft. Richard and I crossed paths. We rested and exchanged thoughts a little while, and I briefly enjoyed the use of a pair of Richard's powerful binoculars, which he was utilizing to scan the mountain. After my downtime, I continued the search up towards higher ground. Every now and again I would shout to John, 'John, don't f--- with us, show up!? Sometimes I would shout in sorrow, other times in frustration. 'Where the f--- are you John?' I asked of him, even if he could answer only through my own thoughts. At times I could hear Richard shouting as well, while we were still within earshot of each other. As I searched, I inspected every crevice and fissure in the snow because I was informed that John could have been in a hole covered with snow from the previous week. I did not feel that John would have fallen into such a trap, but to be certain I searched. I examined the area very thoroughly and became convinced that he was not there. The next target was the summit.

I spent quite some time on the summit looking around and contemplating various scenarios of John's disappearance. There was not much area left on the upper part of the mountain where I suspected he could be. Unfortunately, the forest was much too vast for just Richard and I to search. Nonetheless, I knew that if I did not find John on this side of the mountain, then yet again the hazardous area along with the forest would be my targets for the next day.

Looking down from the summit and focusing on the vast snowfield below, I plotted out the way I would have wanted to go down if I were John. It was also where it seemed possible that he may have slipped and slid down, although I did not believe that this would have happened to a climber such as him. I moved slowly and carefully in a straight line down the steep snowy slope, quickening my pace as I grew more comfortable. Some distance downhill, I observed a hiker walking up the trail a few hundred feet to my left. I continued on and as I was making my way down and looking straight towards where the snow ended and the approaching rocks began, I suddenly became aware of a figure resting lifelessly on the rocks just past the edge of the snowfield. From his clothing and physique, I instantly knew it was John. He lay on his back, tilted slightly to one side and facing head first downhill, patiently waiting for me to find him. I started running as fast as I could to get to him as quickly as possible, even though I understood I could not help him anymore. Once I was with him and I knew for certain, I began shouting various words and phrases as loud as I could so that he might hear me. I was angry. I was sad. I cried.

Momentarily after, at 17:20 I called 911 to notify them about my finding. I was instructed to stay there until the helicopter determined the coordinates. I spread out my orange jacket across the snow and built an arrow out of my trekking-poles, day pack and anything I had in it, pointing the arrow toward John to make us easily visible from the air. As I saw the approaching helicopter, I started waving with my arms and used my head lamp and compass mirror in an attempt to send visual signals. Unfortunately, in spite of this and the bright orange jacket and arrow, they still could not see me, even though the helicopter was very close.
The hiker whom I saw earlier was coming down from the summit and, seeing my strange behavior, shouted to me asking if I was OK. He pointed out the direction of the trail. I yelled back to him that I was all right and wanted him to leave. He hesitated but finally left me and John alone. I did not want anyone to disturb us. Then I received call after call to confirm that I had indeed found John. The weather was breaking and rapidly becoming cold and it was getting late and dark. I was not prepared to stay overnight with John and wait until the search team arrived. I decided to climb down to my high camp and promised John that I would come back for him tomorrow. I was confident that no one would disturb him that night.
When I was about 500 vertical feet below the place where I found John, I got another phone call from Shawn saying that the helicopter had finally found my footprints but still could not see John. He asked me if I could go back and point the area out again. I was drained, frustrated, unnerved, and had had enough of everything, especially the lack of confidence in the fact that I had indeed located John. I just wanted some peace and told Shawn that John was waiting at the end of my footprints and that they had to trust me on it. Even though I lost the trail, I kept moving down quickly on the rocky terrain hoping to get to my tent before nightfall.
Finally I arrived at my high camp but did not find it a peaceful place at all. Struggling against a violent wind, my tent was furling and looked ready to fly off. Dense, dark clouds hung in the sky above. The weather was becoming very ominous and I did not feel comfortable at all. I decided to pack everything and quickly get down the mountain. I figured I would go down to the car and bring the search team up from there the next day.

The most important goal was accomplished: I had found John and knew where he was. Before I left the location where my tent had stood, I crossed wooden sticks in the snow and planted a wand I had come across on the first day of the search (apparently it may have been Johns?) in his memory. In the last moments just before it became completely dark, I managed to come across the trail located several hundred feet from my camp. After several long hours of painful trekking due to my very heavy backpack and plastic boots, I finally arrived not far from the bottom of the mountain to be met by Richard and the search team. Once they reached me they helped me carry my stuff. It was a great relief. We spent that night at a campground that Richard had reserved for us several miles away from the trailhead.


Saturday: 25 of June, 2005.

In the morning I was very tired, sore, and could hardly move. My toes were aching from heavy callouses. Nevertheless, I decided to go to the trailhead and then to the place where John was, and so did Richard. On the way, Richard did not keep up, so I continued alone, as John would have. I felt I must not delay. I arrived at the scene just in time and accompanied John?s last minutes on the mountain. The helicopter action this time was excellent. Every approach the crew made was very precise. They made the experience even more memorable by hovering above me. The sucking pressure of the air was so strong that I wanted to dig a deep hole in the snow and hide in it. Finally the helicopter flew away and the mountain was quiet again.

Lt. Rod Dailey, Marek R. Damm, Richard Calliger




Tuesday: 28 of June, 2005.
According to the report I received from John's family this morning, he died from a heart attack. The whole time I was perpetually questioning how John could have had a serious accident on Mt. McLoughlin, as he was extremely strong and skilled, and the area was not exceptionally dangerous. Now it appears that he was taken by surprise by his heart, and that that was what had made him slip. Although he was in excellent physical condition, the vessels in his heart were apparently heavily clogged and that resulted in the attack. I do not feel that he should have otherwise fallen to this mountain.
I feel very grateful and honored that I was allowed to find John. He was my best friend and climbing partner. He was the only person who understood my need for solo climbing and the only person who enjoyed and was interested in my climbing stories. He even used to say to me, 'Marek no one knows about the places you go but you.' I had more in common with him than any other mountaineer.
A very few words about our friendship
Although I feel like I knew John most of my life, I met him about twelve years ago in the High Sierras at the base of the Palisade Glacier. He wanted me to climb Mt. Sill with him. I declined because I had already spent a few days there soloing the area. We exchanged emails and phone numbers, though, and met later again, and again, and again. He liked to climb and hike everything, both the challenging and the less so. He was always on the lookout for new partners. Unfortunately, due to scarce time, I asked him to limit our climbs to only the most challenging ones (we called them 'crazy stuff'); climbs I would prefer not to do solo. He taught me ice-climbing techniques on frozen waterfalls in June Lake and Lee Vining. He had excellent tools and shared them with me any time we climbed together, even if I had my own. He introduced me to winter climbing on Mt. Whitney and since then I have climbed Whitney every year. Any time I climb, who knows where as he would say, and I see some icy cliff or slope, I feel that he should be there and climb it with me. He was the only mountaineer I could really trust with my life on the steepest and iciest slopes in the most extreme environments; he also knew the same about me. He knew that he could rely on me and I would come to rescue him regardless of how far and deep in the mountains he would have been.
We are both like lonely samurais who have achieved confidence in their skills but still polish those skills for life. Now, he will always climb with me in my mind.

Our last trip to North Peak couloir.

Our last emails

Marek Rudolf Damm
29 of June, 2005
San Francisco, CA

The World of Adventures, 2005
Marek Rudolf Damm


To file a trip report, please fill in the
Report Entry form or contact the webmaster.