American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Hypothermia, Party Separated, Bad Weather, Colorado, Mt. Alice

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981

HYPOTHERMIA, PARTY SEPARATED, BAD WEATHER

Colorado, Mt. Alice

A party of eight experienced mountaineers departed Grand Lake on March 7, 1980, and skied to Lone Pine Lake where they spent the night in snow caves. The next morning, all eight persons started to ski up to Boulder-Grand Pass (21,061 feet). En route, Jim Brooks and Steve Sanders dropped behind the rest of the group which continued to the pass. Just short of the pass, Franz Mohling and the others cached their skis, as the remainder of the route was blown free of snow. There the group discussed the poor weather and visibility conditions and the fact that, because of these conditions, they would need to watch for and keep each other in sight. About 15 minutes from the pass, the group again gathered together for a short break. They then started the upward walk to the summit of Mt. Alice, walking single file with Mohling leading and Ruth Magnuson (29) second from the rear. A short distance from the summit, Mohling again stopped to let his party regroup. When the file of people reached Mohling, Magnuson was missing. John Tuckey and Ted Dortignac stated that they had seen her about eight or nine minutes earlier. Thinking that Magnuson would arrive shortly, Tuckey and Dortignac remained behind while Mohling and the rest of the party continued to the summit.

Upon returning to Tuckey and Dortignac, Mohling learned that Magnuson had never showed up. At that point, the group felt that since Magnuson wasn’t with them she had returned to the place they cached their skis. When the group reached the cached skis, Magnuson was not there but her skis were. For the first time, the group became alarmed that Magnuson was in trouble. At that point, Mohling realized that the weather and their physical conditions dictated saving the group versus initiating a search for Magnuson. Mohling and Dortignac descended to their camp. Tuckey, Sarah Cheney and Jim Bock hiked a short distance back up toward the pass and waited a while before they, too, had to descend to their camp.

The next morning, March 9, Brooks, Sanders and Dortignac skied to Grand Lake to report the situation to the rangers. Bock stayed in camp to keep a fire going. Mohling, Tuckey and Cheney skied back to treeline, below the pass, to search for Magnuson. Mohling reported that the weather had deteriorated since the previous day. Knowing that Magnuson’s only chance for survival lay in getting below treeline, Mohling and the group concentrated their search from treeline down. They found nothing.

Rocky Mountain National Park rangers received the report from Dortignac and party at 1:22 p.m. on March 9. At that time, extreme winds were buffeting the eastern slopes of the Rockies, precluding the use of helicopters anywhere near the Continental Divide, on which Boulder-Grand Pass and Mt. Alice lie. Wind chill factors were known to be — 50° F and below on the Divide. Ranger personnel, along with members of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, skied to Thunder Lake, which lies just east of Boulder-Grand Pass, that night in anticipation of a search beginning the next morning.

On March 10, Rangers Bob Seibert and Tom Watters climbed Boulder-Grand Pass from the Thunder Lake or east side. There they were met by Ranger Bob Haines, Tuckey and Cheney, who had been airlifted to the pass from Grand Lake when the wind subsided somewhat. The five searchers then began a sweep from the pass toward the summit of Mt. Alice. Knowing that Magnuson had a Pieps avalanche beacon on her person, in the transmit mode, the searchers all carried beacons in the receive mode. At 2:15 p.m., Magnuson’s boyfriend, Tuckey, heard her beacon and discovered her body. She was about 400 yards from the summit. Her body was airlifted from the mountain. (Source: Larry Van Slyke, Rocky Mountain National Park)

Analysis

All members of the group involved were experienced in winter mountaineering. All were well equipped for foul weather. Tuckey was surprised, upon returning to the snow caves on March 8, to find Magnuson’s down parka in the cave. For some reason she failed to take the parka, which left her with just a down vest in her pack for extra clothing. When she was found, she had the vest on, unzipped, over her mountain parka, which afforded little protection. Mohling stated that because the group members were so experienced, it led one not to think about something being amiss until it was too late.

Magnuson died of hypothermia, about seven hours after last being seen. Whether she was first hypothermic, then became separated from the group or vice versa, it seems to be a classic case of how insidious and speedy hypothermia can be, even with experienced mountaineers. (Source: Larry Van Slyke, Rocky Mountain National Park)

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