American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Bad Weather, Washington, Mt. Rainier

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

AVALANCHE, BAD WEATHER

Washington, Mt. Rainier

This is an account of an accident which befell Willi Unsoeld (52) and 21 of his students from The Evergreen State College while attempting to climb Mt. Rainier in late February. It covers the essential details chosen from close to 75 pages of reports and newspaper articles.

J. P. de St. Croix, a Mt. Rainier Park Ranger, recorded this report which covers the early stages of the events:

“Their (students Jeff Casebolt (21) and Bruce Ostermann (20)) recollection was that since signing out from Paradise on Sunday, February 25, 1979, they had spent the night of Sunday camped at the base of Panorama Point. The nights of Monday and Tuesday they camped in a storm in snow caves made by another group at the top of Panorama Point. On Wednesday, they proceeded up the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir and spent the nights of Wednesday and Thursday at Camp Muir in the public shelter. They had put a track up Cadaver Gap in good weather on Thursday.

“On Friday, I remember Unsoeld contacting Ranger Gary Olson in Paradise by radio. Unsoeld told Olson then that the avalanche danger was ‘very low’ and that his group would be ascending the Cadaver Gap route instead of their planned Disappointment Cleaver route. The weather that day was good.

“Casebolt and Ostermann informed us that all 22 group members spent Friday night, March 2, at their high camp at 11,800 feet on the Ingraham Glacier right up against the north side of Gibraltar Rock. There was good weather Saturday morning when Unsoeld and part of the student group attempted to reach the summit, but they were turned back by winds and deteriorating visibility and weather. On Sunday the weather was worse and some of their tents were collapsing (some people spent Saturday night in snow caves at their high camp).”

On Monday, the party began its descent to Camp Muir. The following account is by Ian Yolles (20s), the student who led this effort following the accident:

“The party, consisting of 21 climbers and led by Willi Unsoeld, departed from our high camp on the Ingraham Glacier (located between Gibraltar Rock and Disappointment Cleaver at an altitude of 11,800 feet) at 10 a.m. The impetus to retreat from our high camp to Camp Muir resulted from the fact that both our food and fuel supply were low, our position on the mountain was vulnerable due to heavy winds coupled with severe snowfall and resultant drifting, and the knowledge that the three-day weather forecast called for deteriorating conditions.

“Our initial intention was to move down the Ingraham Glacier to Cathedral Gap, descend Cathedral Gap to the Cowlitz Glacier, and finally to traverse the Cowlitz Glacier across to Camp Muir. Upon arriving at the top of Cadaver Gap we altered our route plan and decided to descend Cadaver Gap and move directly to Camp Muir. This decision was based on a combination of factors which led us to believe that the Cadaver Gap route was in fact the preferred alternative given the inherent dangers in both routes. The ingredients that combined to form the final decision were as follows: (a) the Ingraham Glacier presented us with serious crevasse dangers; (b) we were familiar with the Cadaver Gap route and had wanded it on our ascent two days before; (c) the Cadaver Gap route offered us a much more direct and shorter route to Camp Muir; and (d) the movement of our group was slow, and, given the weather, we were concerned about the potential for hypothermia and the possibilities of not making it to Camp Muir due to the length of the Cathedral Gap route.

“As the party collected at the top of Cadaver Gap, Willi requested that each rope team depart in 100-foot intervals. At 12:40 p.m. Willi Unsoeld’s rope team, including Janie Diepenbrock (21), Peter Miller (26), and Frank Kaplan (20), began their descent down Cadaver Gap. At 1:10 p.m. Willi’s rope team was hit by a slab avalanche—the fracture line measured the entire width of Cadaver Gap and had a depth of three feet in the center—the estimated distance of the avalanche slope was 500 feet. The avalanche buried Willi to a depth of three feet, Janie to a depth of two feet, left Peter buried—but he was able to force his hand up through the snow surface—and Frank partially buried.

“As the avalanche settled, Frank spotted Peter’s arm protruding through the snow, and the first attempt to extricate the victims centered on Frank’s attempt to dig Peter free. About 1:10 p.m. Ian Yolles’ rope team, including Bruce Clifton (24), Wanda Schroeder (25), and Dave Ridley (28), arrived at the base of the avalanche. Wanda and Bruce assisted Frank in his efforts to revive Peter while Ian and David immediately followed the rope in order to locate the next victim. After 15 minutes David and Ian recovered Janie, who was lying face down in the snow with her pack on her back. Her

face was cyanotic and there was no evidence of breathing or pulse. Upon her recovery, Ian began performing artificial respiration while David followed the rope to find the fourth victim, Willi Unsoeld.

“About 2 p.m., Sean Downey’s (20) rope team, including Penna Dempsey (19) and Jeff Casebolt (21) arrived. Sean and Penna, who is an E.M.T., took over from Ian and began performing artificial respiration on Janie.

“At this point Willi’s body was extricated from compacted snow and Ian began artificial respiration. Willi too was found lying face down in the snow with his pack on his back. His face was cyanotic and there was no evidence of breathing. At this point Frank took the radio from his pack and Peter Miller notified the Paradise rangers of our situation.

“About 2:45 our attempts to revive the victims were halted. This decision resulted from a common belief amongst the rescuers that the two victims were in fact dead. This decision was verified by Ian and Penna who are both E.M.T.s. At this point our efforts turned to the rest of the party in hopes of retreating to Camp Muir safely. By 3 p.m. the entire party had collected at the accident site, and Ian, Jeff and Bruce led the party to Camp Muir. We arrived at Muir at 4:30 p.m. at which point Ian contacted the Paradise rangers.”

Due to continuing bad weather, it was not until a few days later that the students were able to return to the valley, and not until March 10 that rescue personnel were able to recover the bodies of Unsoeld and Diepenbrock. (Source Mt. Rainier National Park reports)

Analysis

An accident review panel was constituted by The Evergreen State College and included Ed LaChapelle, Dee Molenaar, and George Senner. In terms of the direct cause of the accident, they concluded that the avalanche was set off by the first team. “Apparently,” the report stated, “the snow was indeed stable at the top of the Gap slope, but this turned out not to be the case farther down, probably due to cross-wind slab deposition among the rocks.” They noted that it was fortunate that the first team triggered the avalanche and subsequent small avalanches, because if a later roped team had done so, earlier teams might have been caught. It was also pointed out that Unsoeld thought that the strong up-slope wind on the Camp Muir side of the Gap might have removed some snow and diminished the avalanche danger, but he also had commented on the possibility of wind slab formation at this site.

Over the past two decades, there have been reports of school/college affiliated groups experiencing accidents not unlike this one. Two questions always arise: one is whether the benefits outweigh the inherent risks, and the second is whether the group and especially its leader(s) stepped beyond the bounds of inherent risks. The foundation upon which The Evergreen State College Outdoor Education Program is built is the belief that individuals need to engage in demanding physical and mental activities in order to acquire the strength and energy it takes to accomplish something worthwhile in life. Unlike many of the school/college outdoor programs which focus mostly on teaching technical skills, this program also works consciously and specifically on decision making, leadership and followership, coping with risks and stress, and examining values and beliefs.

Climbers in general believe that the risks involved in climbing lead to the benefits. It is only a question, then, of whether the risks are entered into responsibly; that is, climbers and leaders of climbing groups must consider the levels of risk in relation to the stages of development of the risk takers. This addresses the second question which was mentioned, and the answer in this specific case is that the leader had prepared his students adequately and that they were adequately equipped. The question of whether they should have attempted this climb in the first place was one which in this case was carefully considered by the leader and the students in the light of all important factors. Some students, in fact, remained at Camp Muir, and some did not attempt even that. The review team correctly pointed out an interesting difference between a risk activity for which there is wide cultural acceptability—such as football—and mountaineering which is still viewed as an aberration in the world of sport. Our culture accepts “loss-of-time” injuries, which number two out of every three participants, in the culturally supported high-risk sports, but when an injury or death occurs in mountaineering, every aspect of it is brought under close and widespread scrutiny.

The conclusion drawn from this accident—by the review team and several other experienced climbers—is that Unsoeld made reasonable judgments under the circumstances. There are still some concerns which continue to be expressed. To those not familiar with the details who ask about the size of the group and the ratio of leadership to this number, the facts are that over the many years Mt. Rainier has been climbed or attempted (by more than 40,000 climbers), parties have numbered from one to over 100, and the accidents which have occurred do not relate in any meaningful way to the size of the party. As for leadership, this particular party contained, as can be seen from the events following the avalanche, a depth of capable leadership ability. There are many guides who would not have taken on this particular climb with this particular group, but this is a matter of personal preference rather than a determination as to whether this climb was proper to attempt or not. The reader is reminded that this report is only a synopsis of many written and verbal reports, as well as of personal contacts with the individuals involved. This lengthy analysis, though brief in relation to the amount of material available, is provided because this particular accident has received widespread coverage and will be referred to often in the future. It is essential, therefore, that those interested have the facts available to them. (Source: J. Williamson)

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