American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Exposure and Exhaustion, Stranded in Bad Weather – California, Mt. Shasta

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1978

EXPOSURE AND EXHAUSTION, STRANDED IN BAD WEATHER— California, Mt. Shasta. Five climbers were hit by a sudden storm on the Whitney Glacier of Mt. Shasta on February 19, 1977. Exposure and exhaustion claimed the life of Geraldine (Dina) Lombard (45), while descending from the summit with her companion, Fred Camphausen (43). Three members of the party (Bill Robinson, Paul Venuti, and Phyllis Olrich) were in camp at 10,100 feet and were able to descend safely. The following account is by Fred Camphausen.

Dina and I started down from the Mt. Shasta summit at 4:15 p.m. The day was sunny with thin cirrus clouds and there were moderate winds in the afternoon. The wind increased when we reached the steep ice and crevassed glacier section (12,100 feet) at 6 p.m. We were suddenly enveloped in cloud and premature darkness and our flashlights were ineffective in the blowing snow. Dina had difficulty descending the ice and said she could not continue. The snow was too thin for digging a cave so we moved to a rock rib at the west edge of the glacier. The rib protected us somewhat from the phenomenal winds and windborne volcanic rocks but it was necessary to tie ourselves to the rock to keep from slipping off. Extra clothing on hand included ample wool, down-filled and windproof articles, and down booties, and these were donned. Although we remained generally warm, spindrift snow gained entry into the pack secured around our feet and we were unable to prevent frostbite. Food consisted of candy, dried fruit, and nuts; however, much of this was lost to the wind while attempting to eat with mittened hands.

Continuing storm and whiteout hampered our next day’s attempts to escape from the mountain. Dina was weakened by a fall during one of our attempts to descend. The climb down the near-vertical rock below our bivouac site was judged to be too risky, while headwinds and blinding snow prohibited our gaining the saddle between Mt. Shasta and Shastina for eventually reaching the Horse Camp cabin or the road to the south. We ultimately succeeded in our second attempt to descend the steep ice section. We then traversed toward a remembered ice bridge crossing the broadest of the crevasses. Progress was slow in the whiteout; we were forced to crawl much of the time on hands and knees. Dina collapsed in the deep snow at the edge of the narrow bergschrund and a snow cave was dug. She was comfortable in the cave, although very weak, and it was decided that I should try to get to camp and return with a stove, food, and a sleeping bag. I reached the tent around 8 or 9 p.m. and packed the supplies but was unable to return up the glacier in the storm.

There was no improvement in the weather on the morning of February 21.

I climbed up the glacier and searched for the snow cave. Dina was found in the late afternoon, deceased. The wind has stripped away most of the snow and her cave was obliterated.

I reached the base of the mountain during clearing weather on the following day. The Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit had been summoned by Bill Robinson. Improving visibility on the north side of Mt. Shasta permitted a fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter search, and the body recovery was accomplished before nightfall. I lost most of the toes on one foot due to frostbite. (Source: Fred Camphausen, China Lake Mountain Rescue.)

Analysis: The deceased apparently died of hypothermia contributed to by exhaustion, bad weather, lack of shelter, and lack of food. The high winds that arose were apparently not accompanied by clouds that would have given clear warning of deteriorating weather. The party was experienced but Lombard had a documented history of pushing very hard for high peaks in the United States, Mexico and Europe, often becoming exhausted on the summits, and minimizing the potential difficulties in winter ascents. The party of three who descended the mountain for help displayed good judgment and skill in avoiding becoming casualties themselves and then taking significant steps to initiate and assist search and rescue operations. Once a serious problem arose, the deceased’s rope partner displayed exceptional strength and endurance in his rescue and self-rescue efforts. Not only were weather forecasts for the area significantly in error, but reports given to pilots of existing weather were equally in error. Further, reports by usually reliable sources looking right at the weather were just as wrong (estimates by officials late in the morning of February 22 concerning flying conditions around Mt. Shasta). To get reliable weather reporting, an observer trained in the type of operation proposed must be at the scene of the search/rescue operation and his estimates included with other reports. (Source: G. Barnes, Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit.)

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