California, San Gabriel Mountains, Mt. Baldly. On December 5, James Chopp (19) and Thomas Richards (20) started up the south slopes of Mt. Baldy. The weather was cold with a gusty north wind blowing and climbing conditions were generally poor. Neither man was an experienced mountaineer and neither was properly equipped for the existing conditions. Both wore tennis shoes and inadequate clothing.
The climbers’ initial plan was to climb to the top of the falls and no farther, but inasmuch as they were making good progress they decided to continue toward the summit. It was not long before darkness began to close in and they realized they would have to turn back immediately. In the gathering darkness Chopp slipped on a patch of frozen snow and fell some 300 ft. down a steep snow slope. His fall was arrested by vegetation farther down the mountain. Chopp was injured, but not so seriously that he could not make his way down to the road head, a matter of half a mile. Once at the road, a motorist picked him up and delivered him to hospital where he was treated for severe contusions and lacerations on his arms, back, legs, and neck.
Meanwhile, Richards, still upon the mountain, was afraid to move. He thought Chopp must have been killed, but he could not make his way down to search for his friend in the darkness. As soon as the authorities had been notified of Chopp’s story, San Bernardino Mountain Rescue was mobilized. The group set up base camp at the road head below Richards’ position. The rescue team knew of Richards’ inadequate protection against the cold, but for reasons that are unclear it was decided to let Richards remain on the mountain overnight and search for him when it was daylight. The temperature at the top of a nearby ski-lift dropped to below 20° F. that night and represents Richards’ exposure on the mountain. Richards could see the lights of the rescue camp and called to them throughout the night, but to no avail. In the morning, Richards started down under his own power and finally made it to the road head in midmorning, as the rescue team was leaving base camp to search for him. He was taken immediately to hospital for treatment of frostbitten feet and severe exposure.
Source: Robert Gardner, Altadena Mountain Rescue Squad.
Analysis: In the opinion of this reporter, an experienced team of climbers could have reached Richards in 2 hours at the maximum and brought him out in an equal amount of time, considering the darkness and numerous belays that would have been necessary. It is evident that Richards’ injuries could have been minimized by an adequately trained mountain rescue team.