American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall into Crevasse, Washington, Mt. Baker

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1979


Washington, Mt. Baker

While searching for two overdue hikers, Joe Kassuba (40) and A1 Errington had an interesting incident which gives further evidence of the potential hazards of rescue. Note in Errington’s report, which follows, the skill involved in the rescuers’ attending to their own difficulties:

“Joe Kassuba and I decided that a good route up the Coleman Glacier involved ‘end running’ a large schrund at the base of a midglacier rock island. This fairly straightforward route also allowed us to inspect the schrund for bodies. Consequently, we proceeded to travel the length of the schrund from west to east along its ice edge on the lower edge of the chasm. After traversing its length we decided to retrace our steps to locate a safe spot for a lunch break with the other teams which were just a few minutes behind following our route. We backtracked about 30 yards and descended a few steps away from the schrund. This allowed us to sit on a fairly flat spot about eight or ten feet from the lip of the schrund. This seemed secure since the schrund could be inspected to its full depth (approximately 80 feet) and the lip was not undercut. We then sat down, took off our packs and began to dig out lunch. All at once the entire area where we were sitting calved off and we, along with several tons of ice, fell into the schrund. The break point was nearly ten feet from the schrund lip.

“We fell approximately 40 feet and landed on top of the ice rubble (mostly five- by five-foot blocks). I landed on my back and was momentarily stunned. Once I realized that I could move I stood up and looked around for Joe. Since my rope disappeared down under the local ice blocks I assumed that he had been buried. I then tried to untie from my rope so I could look for Joe. Unfortunately, I was too uncoordinated to untie the knot. Therefore, I tried to chop the rope with my ice axe. This did not work well due to the quality of the rope (new, 9 millimeter, kernmantle design) and the shakiness in my chopping action. In frustration I pulled on the rope and found that it had already been chopped, cleanly, by the falling ice. This allowed me to look for Joe. I had only gone a couple of steps when I saw him hunched over an ice block about ten feet to the east of me. I had not seen him earlier since he was about five feet below my level and was hidden by some intervening ice blocks.

“I immediately crawled down to Joe who was in great pain and complained of greatest pain in the upper right chest quadrant and the right hip joint areas. His pain was such that he was barely able to talk. I called the rescue Base at this point and described our situation to Martin Waller. I said that Joe was severely injured and that I was also injured, but to a lesser extent.

“After contacting the rescue Base I returned to the problem of Joe’s injuries. (I might add, at this point, that all of our equipment, with the exception of one of Joe’s mittens, was on top of the ice debris. This included the radio which was left sitting on top of a pack where it had been before the fall; although it was now 40 feet lower.) I chopped out a set in the ice debris for Joe who then managed to slowly slide down into it. He experienced extreme pain during this sitting operation. I then attempted to warm Joe by digging out a cap for him and putting a pair of mittens on his hands. When he began to get cold I also slipped an ensolite pad underneath him, took off his crampons and wrapped him in extra clothing. Sometime after sitting him down I also did a secondary exam. This was probably somewhat haphazardly done but I did, specifically, palpate his spine, clavicles and limbs. He assured me that his only damages included those described above (i.e., chest and hip).

“Some time after the above events we heard a chopper pass quite near. This greatly distressed me since we were in a very vulnerable position with much loose rock and ice hanging precariously above us on the mountain side of the schrund. Eventually, the chopper left and we were left to wait for the arrival of our other rescue teams.

“After a few minutes Dave Adams appeared around the corner at the east end of the schrund. He was immediately followed by Cathy Newsheller and Jerome Eberharter with whom he was roped. They quickly set to work comforting Joe and preparing for the evacuation. They also put Joe in a sleeping bag. They did their work with great care. An evacuation technique involving the use of a taut, fixed litter guide line was decided upon.

“Soon a litter from the Whidbey NAS chopper was brought down into the schrund by Glenn Brindeiro and others. At this point it was necessary to load Joe into the litter to begin the evacuation. This proved to be an extremely painful process for Joe. It was done very slowly with great help from Newsheller, Adams and Eberharter. Once Joe was in the litter, the taut line was installed by those in the schrund at one end and by others, unseen, at the other end. The evacuation was begun with those mentioned above along with Glenn Brindeiro, Jerry Som- merman and myself in the schrund and others waiting to receive the litter as it was handed along the rope. This segment of the project was rather tense due to the fact that the route of evacuation included a section passing beneath a huge ice bridge which spanned the distance from the glacier (lower end) to the rock wall (upper end). This bridge was clearly a temporary affair, only, as it had numerous cracks passing almost all the way through its 20-foot thickness. It had a free span of about 30 or 40 feet and was suspended about 25 feet above the rescuers’ heads. Happily, the evacuation out of the schrund went smoothly, although painfully, for Joe. Joe at this time was having a harder and harder time breathing. This problem was made more severe if he was not kept in a head higher attitude. He also said that it felt like there was something ‘loose’ in his chest. He could feel it moving.

“Once the litter was secured to the ice slope outside of the schrund we waited for the chopper. Adams and Sommerman were assigned to handle the cable attachment and anchor detachment when the chopper arrived. (Later this was modified to involve Adams and Eberharter who were handier to the litter at the moment that the chopper arrived.) All other personnel were stationed about 50 yards to the west for safety purposes. After a short time it began to become obvious that Joe’s condition was becoming more serious. He was not nearly as alert as he had been earlier and he was having greater and greater problems with his breathing. Therefore, I radioed to base that I felt that it was essential that we complete the evacuation to a medical facility as soon as possible.

“In only a few minutes the chopper arrived and picked up the litter by cable. The positioning of the chopper over the litter was very precise. Clearly, there was a professional at the stick! The litter was lifted, loaded and our portion of the evacuation ended. At this point someone noted that the huge ice bridge that we had been working beneath had collapsed during the chopper’s hovering operation. It had not been noticed due to the rotor wash and the turbine noise.

“Joe is recovering quite nicely having spent six days at St. Joseph’s Hospital. His injuries were diagnosed as a fractured pelvis, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung. No permanent damage is anticipated.” (Source: A1 Errington in Bertrage, October-November, 1978)

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