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Party Separated, Stranded—New Hampshire, Mt. Washington, Huntington Ravine

PARTY SEPARATED, STRANDED—New Hampshire, Mt. Washington, Huntington Ravine. To the left of the main gully (Central Gully) in Huntington Ravine are several precipices, the lower of which is known as “The Pinnacle.” Several technical climbing routes are established on the Pinnacle, although to this writer’s knowledge no official written description of the routes exists.

Edward Wuensch (in his late 20s) of Penfield, New York, and Don Berens (mid-20s) of Rochester, New York, hiked to Hermit Lake Shelter Area on Saturday, July 3, to spend the night. Their intentions were to climb the Pinnacle the next day and return to Hermit Lake for the night. Wuensch was described as an “intermediate climber with three years’ experience” by Berens, who said he himself had climbed “seriously for a year and a half.”

Sunday, July 4, was predominantly sunny with a light breeze blowing all day. The two climbers left the shelter area at 8:30 a.m. arriving at the base of the standard route up Pinnacle at 11:15 a.m. They began the climb at 12 noon. Wuensch, the leader, was said by Berens to be “very slow” and the duo had only completed two pitches (approximately 300 feet) by 6 p.m. Wuensch then continued the lead up a variation which in approximately 60 feet took him out of sight and voice contact (due to the obtrusion and the moderate breeze) with Berens, who had him on belay. Sometime within the next 2-1/2 hours Wuensch reached the end of this pitch (the third pitch) and set up a belay. He then relied on fruitless calls and rope tugging to signal Berens to ascend. Because Berens did not respond to this “signalling” Wuensch surmised that Berens either left his belay and descended, or fell and was injured or killed. Wuensch, who in his words “couldn’t handle a rappel back down to the beginning of the third pitch,” untied, secured his rope and free climbed what remained of the Pinnacle climb, and hiked to the Summit and reported to State Park personnel that his climbing companion was stranded or injured on the Pinnacle.

During this same 2-1/2-hour period Berens, not hearing or noticing any sign from Wuensch, surmised that Wuensch had been injured or killed in a fall or from falling rock. Berens did not feel confident enough to climb without belay, so he remained in his belay position at the base of the third pitch.

As darkness fell (approximately 8:30 p.m.) Berens, now very concerned, saw three hikers descending the Huntington Ravine Trail and began yelling for help. One of these hikers, Don Kepler of Pease Air Force Base, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, had beginning rock climbing experience (mostly top roping) and not being able to communicate effectively from the base of the climb, decided to make an effort to get closer to Berens. He instructed his companions to continue to Pinkham Notch Camp to report the situation. (When these individuals reported in at Pinkham, the rescue was already in progress.)

At 10 p.m. the Hermit Lake Shelter Area Manager, Doug George, was notified by Joel White of Pinkham Notch Camp that a climber was stranded or injured on the Pinnacle. George notified two Forest Service officers on duty, Chris Haartz and Gary Manning, and at 10:15 p.m. these three left for Huntington with a 300 foot and 150 foot perlon rope and assorted nuts, chocks, slings, carabiners, etc. At 11 p.m. this group reached the base of the Pinnacle. Visual contact was made with Kepler and Berens (however, the rescue party did not know the identity of these two), but voice communication was difficult due to the moderate breeze and the noise of the stream which runs past the base of the climb. The word from the stranded climbers was that there was a “severely injured or dead climber” on the route. The rescuers then surmised that (1) two passers-by had responded to cries for help, or (2) the reason Berens had not responded to Wuensch’s “signals” was that he in fact had been incapacitated.

At 11:30 p.m. Haartz and I began climbing standard route. Between us we had extra clothing, food, water, first aid equipment and an AMC radio. Enough extra technical gear was taken to establish a belayed rappel if necessary.