American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Bad Weather, Hypothermia, Frostbite, Inadequate Equipment, Inexperience — New Mexico, Wheeler Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1983


New Mexico, Wheeler Peak

On May 14, 1982, Steve Hendley (20) and Chris Dolby (20) were descending from the 4300-meter summit of Mount Wheeler when they began to encounter intermittent snowstorms.

By 1800, Hendley recalled, “It was a blizzard, a full-fledged storm.” The two headed back to the ridge of the peak and hiked for two hours but decided they could go no farther. They made camp about 400 meters from the Wheeler Peak trail and were found there five days later.

The blizzard did not let up Friday night and the two men huddled together in their sleeping bags trying to keep warm. They had not brought a tent and their equipment was wet. Because they were above the timberline, there was no wood for a fire, and they were too cold to eat the dry food they had brought along.

On Saturday morning, one of Dolby’s boots, which he had removed the night before, could not be found.

“We decided there was no way we were going to stay there another day and make it,” Hendley said. “I had my ski gloves and my cap and I had both pair of my hiking boots, so I was elected to go up the mountain and see if I could get some help. About 200 yards up the hill—sunglasses, hood and all—there was no way I was going to make it. It was so blinding, it was a whiteout.”

Hendley said the two kept their spirits up by making a pact that they would go for a postrescue barbecue and beer.

“All night long (Dolby) didn’t think he was going to be able to make it. And about 0830, I guess, the wind came up and he went to try to put the tarp down from the sleeping bag,” Hendley said. “That was the last sound he made or move he made. And so I lay there with him the rest of the night, using him for shelter because that was the only thing I could do. I couldn’t move him. And that probably helped save my life right there.”

During the days that followed, Hendley dreamed of Mexican food and beer and drank melted snow. “Hope kept me alive, that’s all—the dislike of wanting to die.” On Monday, Hendley awoke to clear skies and his hopes of rescue were revived. Although he yelled and waved at passing search planes and helicopters, he was not found for two more days.

“They were walking down the trail and I said, ‘Hey there, I’m Steve Hendley, are you guys looking for me?’ ” Their reply: “We sure are.” (Source: The Anchorage Times, May 24, 1982, via Maynard Miller)


There have been many reports like this over the years and it is interesting to compare this report with similar ones from Alaska, Colorado and New Hampshire. Apart from the obvious factors of equipment, weather conditions and levels of experience, the sometimes puzzling aspect is why some individuals survive while others succomb. Attitude and individual physiology are often the ultimate factors. It is possible— and recommended—to train well with respect to both. (Source: J. Williamson)

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