American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Loss of Control on Voluntary Glissade – Washington, Mt. Rainier

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

LOSS OF CONTROL ON VOLUNTARY GLISSADE—Washington, Mt. Rainier. On February 13, party leader Jerry Hasfjord (40), Paul Neilsen (23), Jack Wilkins (55), and Dan Lepeska (21) left the Tahoma Creek Campground for a climb of Success Cleaver. If the climb was successful, it would be a first winter ascent of Success Cleaver.

The party had planned to spend Sunday night at Indian Henry’s Patrol Cabin but was making good time and at Indian Henry’s decided to push on up to their high camp at 8300 feet on Success Cleaver. It took the group about eight hours to go from Tahoma Creek Campground to its high camp at 8300 feet.

Upon reaching their high camp, they set up their tents and spent the rest of the evening relaxing. Monday, February 14, was the day they were supposed to reach high camp. But since they pushed up on Sunday, they spent Monday relaxing and preparing for the climb.

Early Tuesday morning at 2 a.m., they got up and started preparing to leave camp. At 4 a.m. the party set out to climb the ridge and on to the summit. They climbed unroped to about 11,500 feet where they roped up. Jack Wilkens was moving slowly and had trouble with one crampon. At 11,700 feet the party stopped and Jack volunteered to wait there until they returned. He knew his limitations and didn’t want to hold the rest of the party up. Hasfjord asked Wilkens if he wanted to descend to the base camp with Lepeska and Wilkens said no, he would wait there. Hasfjord explained that they would probably have to bivouac on their return from the summit and made sure Wilkens was in a safe place and had adequate equipment. Hasfjord, Neilsen and Lepeska continued on and reached the summit at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. They started their descent immediately and bivouacked at 13,500 feet.

At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Hasfjord, who had picked up a Park Service radio at Nisqually, radioed to Paradise Ranger John Loehr that they were bivouacked at 13,500 feet and had lost their wanded trail from yesterday’s ascent. Hasfjord said the weather was cold and snowing and the winds about 25 to 30 knots out of the west. Hasfjord requested a weather forecast and update as soon as possible. Loehr received a weather forecast and at 9:30 a.m. he made contact with Hasfjord.

Hasfjord had already started to move and found his wanded trail again. The weather broke clear about 10:30 a.m. and the party proceeded down to Wilkens. Hasfjord and the party reached Wilkens about noon and proceeded down to base camp.

About 200 yards from base camp the party stopped and decided to unrope and go on into camp. Their camp was visible from where they stopped and there was about six to nine inches of snow on top of ice. Hasfjord started to coil the ropes and Neilsen started to glissade and after about 100 feet he hit an icy spot and lost his balance. He stopped and regained his balance, then started walking toward camp.

Wilkens decided that he was going to glissade and laid down on his pack and lifted his feet in the air. His right hand was on the shaft of the ice axe near the head, his left hand was on the shaft near the spike. As he lifted his feet he started to slide and Lepeska started walking beside him. As Wilkens started to gain speed, Lepeska had to run to keep up. Lepeska yelled at Wilkens to self-arrest, which Wilkens apparently didn’t even attempt. As Wilkens continued down, he pulled away from Lepeska. When Wilkens hit the icy section about 100 feet down, he was out of control. He fell another 800 feet over rock and cliff to the snow below.

When Lepeska saw that Wilkens was out of control, he yelled, “Help! Help!” to Neilsen and Hasfjord. Lepeska arrived at where Wilkens had come to rest first and Wilkens was trying to sit up. Wilkens recognized Lepeska, said that his side hurt and that he wanted to lay on his right side. Wilkens’ pack was gone and one crampon was missing. His shirt and pants were almost torn off. Wilkens’ face was bleeding from numerous small cuts. He had some swelling and discoloration above his left eye. There appeared to be a fairly large abrasion above his left kidney.

Lepeska was putting a parka on Wilkens when Hasfjord and Neilsen arrived. About this time, 3:45 p.m., Hasfjord called Ranger Loehr at Paradise and informed him of the accident. Hasfjord started checking Wilkens’ legs and arms for broken bones. Hasfjord asked Wilkens if he had any pain in his legs or arms; Wilkens said no, he didn’t. Wilkens stated that he wanted to go to sleep.

After about eight to ten minutes, Hasfjord started to notice Wilkens’ eyes getting fixed. His breathing also stopped at this time. They started CPR immediately and continued. Meanwhile Loehr had requested a MAST helicopter to land at Paradise and pick up a Ranger, then head to the accident site.

The helicopter was due into Paradise at 4:30 p.m. About 4:40 p.m. MAST called and said that they did a fly-by and found the injured party and landed and were on their way to the hospital. The MAST medics performed CPR all the way to the hospital, arriving at 5 p.m. Wilkens was pronounced DOA due to extensive head and chest injuries. Hasfjord, Neilsen and Lepeska spent the rest of the night at their base camp and came out to Longmire on Thursday, February 17, at 6 p.m. (Source: John Loehr, Mt. Rainier Park.)

Analysis: Wilkens was a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligence. His primary objective was to cover a first winter ascent of Mount Rainier. Party leader Hasfjord said that Wilkens started to run and work out two weeks before the climb. Hasfjord stated that he had reservations about letting Wilkens go above their high camp, but Wilkens prevailed on him and Hasfjord let him start the climb. Wilkens ran out of gas at 11,700 feet and waited for them there, not wanting to destroy the climb.

It is obvious that Wilkens didn’t use good judgment in starting his glissade without looking to see where he might end up. His glissade position was unusual and his hands were positioned wrong on his ice axe for self-arresting. It is unknown why he didn’t attempt to self-arrest. Possibly if the first climber that noticed the icy section had yelled back up to be careful of that section, or if Lepeska had cautioned him when he first laid down on his pack, Wilkens might not have started the glissade. (Source: John Loehr, Mt. Rainier Park.)

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