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Bad Weather, Exposure, Hypothermia, Inadequate Equipment, California, Lamarck Col


California, Lamarck Col

This account is a classic description of how hiking in the higher elevations far from the road head can turn into a mountaineering experience requiring the knowledge and equipment of a mountaineer. This letter, written by George Barnes, appeared in the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit Newsletter in October 1978. It was addressed to the victim’s brother.

“I most regret the outcome of events on the 5th of September. On retrospect, however, I think we were working on our best chance of escape and didn’t have enough going for us. To expand on the report I gave to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office:

“The storm had been gradually building since the second, but hit in earnest about 1100 on the fourth. I was camped at Wanda Lake that night and gradually all my gear except a down parka in a pack got wet (bivouac sack—no tent). When I got underway about 0600 on the fifth (wet gear turned 40-pound pack into 60- pound pack) the storm finally tapered off after 19 straight hours. Snowline was about 11,600 feet as I headed north on the Muir Trail toward Lamarck Col, the shortest way out not requiring rock climbing on now-snow-covered ledges. I knew I had to get all the way out that day because of the wet sleeping bag.

“About 1100 I met Ed and Karen (Seabury) headed south on the Muir Trail about 200 yards south of the junction with the Darwin Canyon—Lamarck Col Trail. They appeared to be in good shape although their gear was in the same shape mine was. This was their fifth day in and they had camped that night at the lake just above 11,200 feet on the Darwin Canyon drainage. They knew they had to get out, too, and had started down Evolution Valley but found the trail flooded. When I met them they were headed for Muir and Bishop passes many miles to the south. They wanted much more to go out Lamarck Col but were concerned about climbing through the snow. When I told them I was going out Lamarck, snow or not, they very much wanted to come along. Fine, I said.

“Going up the trail it was soon evident they could move much faster than I. They waited for me periodically and then went ahead to their old campsite to have some lunch. I passed them and headed up Darwin Canyon and they caught me again before the lowest of the five lakes in that Canyon. We proceeded on the tedious route on the north side of four of those lakes to the foot of the 1000-foot climb to the Col where I stopped for lunch about 1500. Karen spoke of being cold so I told them to go on up toward the Col and I’d trudge behind. Visibility was not too good above us so I showed them landmarks to follow to stay on route. It was snowing lightly with moderate wind above 12,000 feet.

“They were about 300 feet above me when I started up and I soon lost sight of them in the clouds. Weather deteriorated at higher altitudes and I saw them again, on route, about 1630 about 300 feet below the Col. I saw then that I was gaining on them. Going was tedious over snow-covered talus with one- to three- foot depths. It was snowing more heavily and the wind had picked up. Following in their tracks I reached them about 1715, 150 feet below the Col. Ed was doing a good job of route finding but had to wait for Karen who was still moving steadily but slowly. I went ahead of Ed and broke trail to the top of the Col. When I got there, Ed called up and said he thought Karen needed help.

“I dropped my pack at the top of the Col and went back to Karen, took her pack, and helped her to the top of the Col, arriving shortly after Ed. When I got to her it was clear she was rapidly becoming more hypothermic. We were now in gusty, gale-force winds driving sheets of snow horizontally. The winds were primarily from the south and my hope was to get over the Col to near the small lake on the north side which should be more on the lee side of the ridge. Just over the top and coming down the relatively steep slope to the northeast of the Col we found 1 to 5 feet of fine, unconsolidated drift snow which made descending even more work per yard than the ascent had been. Karen weakened very rapidly and by 1745 could no longer move. Ed had gotten her sleeping bag out and we wrapped it around her.

“I had left my pack at the Col and went down after Karen stopped to the first place above the lake I could stamp out a platform which I did and Ed reached it with his pack. We got out his ensolite pad and sleeping bag (the tube tent they had blew away but would have been of little use). He stayed there while I went back up to the Col to get my pack. On the way back down I checked Karen. She died about 1755.

“Ed knew he was in bad shape. He couldn’t walk far without support. He was shocked at Karen’s death but composed. After a few floundering steps with me (sinking in over 4 feet often) he decided that wouldn’t work and I helped him back to the platform, pad, and other gear. We wrapped him up as best we could and I headed for help, promising a helicopter as soon as possible.

“Going was slow down from the Col and I was in a large talus field when it got dark about 7000. I finally reached my car a little after midnight and reported to the Sheriff.” (Source: Bergtrage, October-November 1978)

(Ed. Note: Ed Seabury was dead by the time rescuers reached him. Both victims were wearing only blue jeans and sweat shirts. Barnes felt that, among other things, his Gore- Tex parka and rainpants saved his life.)