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Group leader had special way of dealing with climbing's dangers

Posted: Friday, July 15, 2005

SEATTLE (AP) — After 41 years of marriage, Jim and Jo Backus had a special way of facing the dangers of mountain climbing, Jo's other love.

''We'd say to each other, 'Everybody dies sooner or later','' Jim Backus said Monday, ''but if it's sooner, you'd better be doing something you really, really love.''

Backus and their three grown children, Dean, Sara and Emily, are now dealing with the reality of that approach following Jo's death Sunday in rockfalls in North Cascades National Park.

In addition to team leader Backus, two other climbers were killed when a refrigerator-sized boulder struck the party. Three others survived the ordeal.

''I usually worried about broken legs and things like that, nothing like this,'' Jim Backus said. ''But climbing was her love, her passion.

Jo Backus, 61, of University Place, was a former president of The Mountaineers' Tacoma chapter. A passionate volunteer, she is going to ''leave the biggest hole'' in the community, said fellow member Helen Engle, secretary for the Tacoma branch.

Martha Scoville, a board member of the Tacoma group, said she and Backus spent Friday working on a Habitat for Humanity housing project.

''She's really a leader in anything she does. We broke off into little teams, and she was in there organizing people. She was among the last to leave,'' Scoville said. ''She and I were checking to make sure things were done. That's the way she was, very thorough, very conscientious.''

Backus, a registered nurse, worked at Tacoma General Hospital as a lactation nurse and at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital as an on-call staff nurse for nearly 25 years.

The deaths Sunday were the ''the worst disaster ever'' for the century-old, Seattle-based Mountaineers climbing and outdoor-recreation club, which organized the trip, said executive director Steve Costie.

Backus's first climbing feat was to reach the top of Mount Rainier in 1986. Since then, she has summited nearly 200 peaks throughout the West.

Jim Backus describes himself as a stay-at-home dad when it came to mountaineering.

Rainier became an obsession for Jo, he said.

Driving on Interstate 5 past the Tacoma Dome, ''You can look up and see Mount Rainier. That's what did it for her. She looked at the mountain and just decided she wanted to climb it,'' he said. ''That was 200 mountains ago.''



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