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Slip on Snow, Fall Into Moat, Washington, Monte Cristo Peak


Washington, Monte Cristo Peak

The climb began at 5:20 a.m. on August 22 from the Glacier Basin trailhead above the Monte Cristo resort area. I led the party at a moderate pace to the basin. All party members except for Gael Welch appeared to be in good to excellent physical condition and were able to maintain the pace without difficulty. Gael was slow. I slowed the pace a bit as we made our way through the fog to the upper end of the basin and contoured around Ray’s Knoll from the left (north). Gael was able to maintain this slower pace.

Due to the extremely poor visibility (30 to 100 feet) because of the fog, we were unable to see the large talus cone across from Ray’s Knoll and traversed too far south before proceeding across the snow toward it. We eventually reached some cliffs to the south of the talus cone and proceeded to traverse north until we finally reached the large talus cone.

We followed the talus cone and the gully within it through the break in the cliffs to a broad low angle snow field. At this point, the fog lifted for about ten minutes, giving us a good view of the summit as well as the route for ascent and descent. Several bearings were taken and the route selected and discussed before the fog closed in again.

After moving up and across the snow slope to another talus slope and following that to its terminus at a steeper snow slope, we stopped to rest and rope up. Again the fog lifted briefly, giving us another look at the summit and a chance to shoot more bearings for the next leg of the route, eastward and upward past a few rock outcroppings and then northeast from there up the north col.

I kicked steps about 600 feet, then stopped to rest on top of a small rock outcropping at 6800 feet. The snow was steep and hard enough in places to necessitate three kicks per step, making progress rather slow. Earlier on I had decided that crampons would be more of a hazard than a help, and still feel that this was appropriate for the conditions that existed at the time. There was a particularly steep place about 30 feet long and probably 60 degrees some 30 to 60 feet below and to the north of the rock outcropping, so I boot-axe belayed my rope partner up to the rock outcropping and directed the other rope leaders to belay their partners up also. Some belayed from above the rock outcropping and some from a shallow moat nearby.

Rich Twight, my assistant leader, was coming up next, so I asked him to continue up past me to kick steps and check out the route. He moved into view through the fog and I noticed that he was chopping steps with his ice axe rather than merely kicking into the steps. He made some comment about improving the steps for those who would be following. I thought this unnecessary, but didn’t say anything to him about it because it occurred to me that he may have felt tired and insecure there. The step chopping was slow, however, and I was concerned for all who had to wait because I knew they would be getting cold. Eventually he reached the rock outcropping, rested a few minutes, then continued up to check out the route. The others followed, and finally all were on the outcropping or in the small moat about 15 feet away.

About 12:30 p.m., about five minutes after the last rope team had reached the rock outcropping, it began to rain lightly. People were getting cold and beginning to shiver so I told everybody that we’d be moving soon, but to put on some more clothing and raingear. I called up through the fog to Rich, inquiring as to whether or not the route would go. He wanted another five minutes to check further. I told him that things were getting marginal and that if he hadn’t found a sure route in five minutes, we’d have to start down. Five minutes later I asked him what he’d found. His reply was that he’d come to a rock wall and couldn’t see a route on it, so I told him to come on down and told the last rope team up, Don Tjossem and T. Michael Gardiner (32), to start back down.

As they started down, I noticed that Don was descending first with T. Michael behind him. I thought to myself that Don ought to be uphill rather than T. Michael, but didn’t say anything just then because I assumed that Don was just moving to above the steepest place where he would stop and belay T. Michael. I was also distracted at the time by a question or comment from Rich, still descending from above, and by a question or comment from someone in the group, so Don and T. Michael disappeared into the fog below without any specific directions from me.

Neither Char Twight nor Dianne Gorman had started their rope teams down when we heard Don call from below, “Sharon—accident—Michael fell in a moat.” I yelled down asking where they were and whether or not he could get to T. Michael. Don replied that they were about 300 feet below and that he needed a belay to reach T. Michael. I was still putting myself together after a quick pit stop when Don’s call came, so I asked Rich Twight and Michael Welch to start down to help, boot axe belaying every 30 feet. My rope partner and I followed immediately, but it took us until 1:30 p.m. to reach the moat at 6680 feet. The whole process was reminiscent of the nightmare in which one is trying to run but can barely move.

Don soon realized that it was going to take a long time for us to get there, so he anchored his ice axe in the snow and rigged a handline/rappel down to T. Michael and gave first aid. Don estimated the injuries to be a broken upper right arm, cracked ribs, and possible lower back injury. T. Michael had also been unconscious for five to ten minutes, but was coherent, pupils were equal, and eyes tracked properly.

I gathered extra clothing and ensolite pads from Rich, Michael Welch, John, and myself and tossed them down to Don. Meanwhile, I called for the other two rope teams to descend, using boot axe belays every 30 feet, and asked Rich, Michael, and John to dig out a large platform in the snow to accommodate us and the other two rope teams. I then climbed down into the moat to talk with T. Michael and Don. Rich and John took turns belaying me into the moat which was about 20 feet deep. T. Michael had landed on the one snowpatch at the bottom of the moat, which was miraculously flat. Don had him well protected under and over with all clothing, ensolite, and rain gear that was available at the time. His upper arm and shoulder were giving him considerable pain, so Don decided not to splint it, but keep it immobile as it was by padding well with clothing. Although there was a tempting flat rock under a sheltering rock overhang about ten feet away, we felt it important not to move him due to the possible lower back injury.

After recording all of the accident information and discussing the plan of action with Don, I climbed back up. After the last two rope teams arrived at the platform, I explained T. Michael’s condition and the plan of action we would follow: all extra food and clothing that we could spare would be left at the accident site; two of the warmest group members would join Don in the moat to take care of T. Michael; I would take the rest of the group down through the fog to the trail at the far end of the basin at which time the three fastest party members would go on ahead for help.

About this time it became apparent that Gael Welch was having difficulties. She was very fatigued, cold, shaky, frightened, and becoming hypothermic. She was afraid to go on and wanted to stay at the moat. I felt doubtful about the wis dom of that and discussed it with Don, who confirmed that it would be a bad idea to leave her there. Space was limited on the platform so I called over to Gael that she would have to go down but that she would be belayed all the way. Dianne Gorman then took the initiative with Gael, calmed her down, got her to put on more clothing and eat some food, freeing me to determine who would stay and how the rest would proceed on down, etc.

Rich Twight and Michael Welch, being “warm blooded” types, agreed to stay with Don and T. Michael. All extra clothing and food was jammed into their packs and they prepared to descend into the moat. Char Twight was selected to be in charge of contacting the Snohomish County Sheriff and MRC and would be accompanied by John McCoy and Mark Johnston, once the remainder of the party had safely reached the trail at the end of the basin. I then rearranged the rope teams so that an extra rope could be left for use in the moat. I put Gael on the end of my rope and had Dianne rope in to the middle of Char’s rope.

After what seemed to me to be an agonizingly long time spent figuring out who had what car keys and what would become of the car keys, who had money for telephone calls and how to get at it, how many sandwiches and candy bars should go and how many should stay and why, we finally started down the mountain. Most party members were very apprehensive and chose to descend facing the slope with the ice axe placed in the snow in arrest position. I had John boot axe belay Gael while I simultaneously descended to him, self-belaying; then I belayed John down to Gael. The other rope team moved at the same rate we did in spite of Dianne doing double duty as belayer in the middle. Normally, on this part of the slope, descent would have occurred with all rope team members descending simultaneously facing outward. I was concerned about people getting too cold using this method of descent, but was more concerned that they feel secure and that no slips occur. We continued in this manner down to our roping up point. Gael requested further support with the rope, so I put her in the middle of the rope and John and I walked on either side, three to five feet away, ready to catch a slip. Upon reaching the low angle snowfield between the talus cone and Ray’s Knoll, we were unable to unrope.

By this time the fog had lifted considerably and we could see all the way up to the accident moat, 122 degrees from Ray’s Knoll. After working our way through the basin to the trail, I made a quick copy of the accident information and sent Char, John, and Mark on out. They went first to Monte Cristo Lodge, arriving around 9:30 p.m. The owners, Jerry and Ilene Rossman, provided a cabin for John and Mark to sleep in, food and coffee for all, and set up as a base for the rescue operation when Don Daniels of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office arrived to coordinate the operation.

Char reached the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office through the emergency radio voluntarily operated by Clarence and LaVerne Murray at their home, about 14 miles from Monte Cristo. The sheriff’s office and Everett MRC responded very quickly. A helicopter dropped an MRC ground party off in the basin around midnight. Dr. Lee Flanagen of Eugene, Oregon, a specialist in mountaineering medicine, happened to be camped on top of Ray’s Knoll and was aroused by the noise of the helicopter, so he accompanied the ground crew up to the moat and conducted the examination. They reached the moat around 1:30 a.m.

Don, Rich, and Michael had done a good job. They had made T. Michael as comfortable as possible, his spirits were good, and they had raised his body temperature from 95 to 99.6 degrees. He was well insulated against the weather, and they had carved a three-foot wide staircase in the snow for easy evacuation from the moat. At 6 a.m. the weather was still holding and the helicopter lowered a rigid stretcher. At 7:30 a.m. he was lifted out by the Navy helicopter and taken to Everett General Hospital. Condition after surgery was reported satisfactory. Injuries were diagnosed as dislocated right shoulder, fractured upper right arm, three fractured ribs, and fractured pelvis. He was probably saved from head injury because he was wearing his hard hat when he fell.

Factors which probably contributed to the accident were: steep snow; poor visibility; weather conditions deteriorating; novice climber, inaccurate assessment of appropriate descent technique for terrain; novice climber descending last rather than first; climb leader not insisting on proper order and belaying during descent; climbers somewhat cold and wet, therefore coordination not optimum; climbers also somewhat fatigued. (Source: Sharon Gross, Climbing Leader, the Seattle Mountaineers)

(Ed. Note: This lengthy account is provided because of its detail and analysis. If more reports like this one were received, it would, I believe, enhance the potential learning value of this publication.)