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Slip on Snow and Ice, Faulty (No) Use of Crampons, Washington, Mt. St. Helens


Washington, Mt. St. Helens

About 3 p.m. on March 8, 1980, Seattle MRC members Paul Helmcke and Joe Kassuba were descending the Dogs Head route on Mt. St. Helens after a successful climb. As they descended to the Dogs Head, Helmcke noticed three climbers above them removing their crampons and remarked that this was wrong as the slope was very icy. He and Kassuba tried to shout to the climbers to discourage them from traveling without crampons. However, the wind was very strong and their shouts were not heard.

Shortly afterwards, Kassuba and Helmcke saw climbers tumbling and sliding, completely out of control, toward the first (uppermost) rock shelf on the Dogs Head. Fortunately, they were stopped by the rocks. Two of the climbers were in the rocks and the third had stopped about 100 feet above them. Helmcke and Kassuba ran to assist the injured climbers. When Helmcke arrived at the rocks, he found that one climber, Paul Clements, was conscious but injured; the second was shaken up but not seriously injured. Kassuba checked the third climber (Tim Clements, Paul’s brother), who had stopped above the rocks, and found him to be uninjured. P. Clements complained of pain in his right ankle and his ribs.

At this time, Kassuba got the attention of a group of hang gliders situated on the top of the Dogs Head. They had a CB radio and were able to contact the Skamania County Sheriffs office to report the accident and ask for an evacuation chopper. Three of the glider people were EMTs and one took over the care of Clements while Kassuba and Helmcke began making preparations for a ground evacuation in the event that this should become necessary. During the course of these preparations, MRC member, A1 Errington, who was en route to a high camp for a Sunday morning summit attempt, happened upon the scene. In addition, a Seattle Mountaineers’ climbing party on the Dogs Head prepared to render evacuation assistance.

Helmcke, Kassuba and Errington decided that Clements’ injuries did not truly warrant a chopper evacuation in view of the prevailing conditions of wind, blowing snow and approaching darkness. They prepared to slide the injured climber down the smooth, icy flank of the Dogs Head using ice ax belays and nearly 600 feet of the assembled community’s climbing ropes. As the rescue operation began, two Huey helicopters from Portland’s 304th Air Force Reserve SAR Unit made low passes over the Dogs Head in attempts to land. On one of these passes, a ground team of four members of the 304th was put down above the lowering site. They descended with a litter and contributed considerably to the rescue. Once the team had lowered Clements to the bottom of the snowslope, his litter was slid down to a point where it could be pulled by snowmobile to the upper parking lot and a waiting ambulance. The parking lot was reached at 7:45 p.m. in total darkness. (Source: Joe Kassuba and A1 Errington, Seattle Mountain Rescue)


This accident on Mt. St. Helens, together with one in July of 1979 (not reported last year), may be the last for a short while. The 1979 accident involved slipping on “nasty little pumice ball-bearings,” as Peg Painter reported on herself. The next climbers on this mountain may need different equipment. (Source: J. Williamson)