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Washington, Cascades, Hall's Peak

Washington, Cascades, Hall’s Peak. On May 20, John Woll, Dan Davis, Steven Skubi (15), and Richard Springgate left Silverton, Washington on the Silver Gulch trail at 5:30 A.M. Davis and Springgate were experienced climbers, Woll and Skubi first and second year climbers. The party had planned to climb the peak via the West ridge (see Route 2, Climbers Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains) but observed that the route involved considerable brush travel and so decided to climb a snow gully to the north ridge that appeared to offer a feasible route to the summit. The upper portion of the peak was clouded over, and the weather was generally cool and foggy. The snow gully was ascended to a saddle on the north ridge which was reached at 11:30 A.M. From the saddle a gendarme was climbed to get a good view of the ridge. Party opinion was divided on the desirability of climbing the ridge. It was decided, however, that one rope team would try the first pitch. This pitch went well so a second was attempted. The second proved much more difficult and so the team returned to the saddle. The time was then 2:00 P.M. Clouds had come in reducing the visibility considerably. The gully which had been quiet during the morning was active with rock and snow sliding in from subsidiary chutes. The whole party was apprehensive and discussed the possibility of a bivouac or trying a different route down. The party decided to descend the gully unroped since it was thought that a rope would slow the descent, and the only danger appeared to be from rockfall and avalanches. Each party member put on extra warm clothes; the use of avalanche cords was discussed and rejected.

The party descended in the order Springgate, Woll, Skubi, and Davis. There was about 100 feet separating Springgate from Davis. Just after Davis left the saddle the snow avalanched, sweeping Davis and Skubi off their feet. The avalanche moved slowly so that Springgate and Woll could step out of its track. Davis and Skubi were both in a sitting position moving with the snow. Davis rolled out of the moving snow. Skubi rolled into an arrest position which was ineffective since the whole snow mass was moving. The speed of the moving snow mass increased. It swept Skubi through a narrow area at the base of the gully and then down a series of rocky slopes. The slide carried Skubi down about 1300 feet. A nearby hiking party witnessed the avalanche and heard Skubi’s shouts. One member of this hiking party came up the hillside to Skubi while the others went out to report an accident. Woll, Springgate, and Davis descended and reached Skubi at about 4:30 P.M., just after the member of the hiking party arrived. Skubi was very badly injured. Woll, Springgate, and the member of the hiking party stayed and gave first aid while Davis went out to assure that the details and seriousness of the situation would be reported. Members of the Everett Mountain Rescue Units led by Bob Fisher arrived at the accident scene at 8:30 P.M. Dr. Leon Aller administered drugs, performed external heart massage and mouth to mouth resuscitation. The group evacuated Skubi and reached the road about midnight. Skubi died during the evacuation. (See Rescue Report.)

Source: Mountaineer Safety Committee, John Woll, Frank C. Fickeisen, and Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Analysis: Treacherous avalanche conditions prevailed on this day, as they had for several months, due to late spring snowfalls and very warm weather. The death of two climbers by a huge avalanche only 50 miles from this area two months earlier (see Granite Mt.) had made snow conditions a regular topic of discussion among local climbers, and these four climbers were well aware of the hazard but apparently ignored it up to the last moment. Under certain conditions of avalanche hazard it is preferred to travel unroped, but in this particular situation it is certain that a roped team could have adequately and safely protected themselves from what did happen. A roped man can safely test for avalanches on a direct descent and can usually push off any surface snows to leave a clean avalanche-free path.

Recognition of potential accident situations is only a first step in their prevention. It is significant that the first course of action that was discussed and rejected, a bivouac, was probably the proper response in the situation. It would have allowed a safe descent in the early morning hours, or in the case of a warm night that did little to reduce the avalanche hazard, it would have allowed a full day to find a safe route down.

It is also noted that Skubi, a relatively new climber, went into an ice ax arrest when he found himself moving down the snow gully. The trained response with which the new or old but non-thinking climber may meet an emergency does not provide safety all of the time. In this instance, he should have tried to roll or scramble out of the avalanche path onto firmer snow.