North America, United States, California, Sierra Nevada, Birch Mountain, North Ridge, Attempt and Tragedy

Publication Year: 2004.

Birch Mountain, north ridge, attempt and tragedy. I had scoped out a line on this long ridge and questioned Sierra veteran Doug Robinson as to whether it had been ascended. He became secretive, and, probing further, I discovered that he also intended to make the first ascent that spring. We decided to do it together, but I live in the eastern Sierra and he doesn’t, so I went without him. On the first attempt we didn’t even leave the car, as a spring snowstorm had the ridge looking like K2. The second attempt, with Cindy Springer, showed what a long winter it had been. One look at the slog up the 2,000 feet of talus from base camp turned that trip into a reconnaissance. On the third attempt, in mid-July, I was in better shape and had enlisted the rope-gun talents of mountain guide Seth Dilles. A last-minute addition to the party was Keith Kramer, a long-time big-wall partner of Seth’s from Yosemite. I feared that three on a rope might make the ridge a difficult undertaking to achieve in one day, but Seth felt that Keith was strong enough and experienced enough to move quickly. A recent fire had made the approach up Birch Creek relatively easy, but the 2,000-foot talus slog was another matter. Keith began exhibiting classic signs of altitude sickness, and we urged him to rest and drink water. After he vomited several times we suggested that descent was the best medicine and offered to lead him back to a meadow at 10,000'. He assured us he could make it down, and his footing seemed strong and balanced as he walked down the talus. This was the last time we saw Keith Kramer.

We started to fix the first pitch, an overhanging crack, and Seth took a stout fall, and he too vomited. The altitude didn’t seem to be affecting any of us benevolently. We bivied at the base and woke up before sunrise to attack the ridge. The first 10 pitches were high Sierra granite at a moderate grade. We saw smoke in the meadow below and could hear Keith yelling words of encouragement, so we figured he was all right. After ascending the first tower in 13 pitches, we realized that we were only a third of the way up the ridge and would not make the summit by nightfall. We retreated via two shaky rappels, tricky downclimbing, and traversing two ridges to the west. Out of food and water, we found a waterfall, then were dumped on by an afternoon storm, just as we found a comfortable cave. We arrived at the base of the ridge at sunset and quickly made our way down the talus to the meadow, where a stick in the ground assured us that Keith had been there and was surely on his way down. But upon arriving at the car at 2 a.m., it was obvious that Keith had not made it out. We searched the lower reaches of the canyon until dawn, and then called Search and Rescue. Keith was found the following day tangled in the willows of the creek. The coroner ruled the cause of death as exposure. Keith Kramer was a jovial man who was well-known in the Mammoth Lakes community for his crazy antics and light heart. He will be sorely missed. Seth Dilles, Doug Robinson, and I intend to climb the ridge in spring 2004, name it for Keith Kramer (K2), and spread his ashes from the summit.

Mike Strassman, AAC

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