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Falling Rock — Washington, Mount Buckner

FALLING ROCK

Washington, Mount Buckner

On July 21, 1984, a group of eight climbers from The Mountaineers began an outing whose principal objective was an ascent of the North Face of Mount Buckner (3311 meters) in the Cascade Pass area of North Cascades National Park. The party was led by me. The other party members were: Larry Anzalone (27), Dick Hoskins, Mark Mniszewski, Ray Saborowicz, Jim Scheltens, Walt Swan, and Jack Wassom.

The party climbed the Sahale Arm and established the first camp at 2750 meters, just below the summit of Sahale on a ridge overlooking the Sahale Glacier. From there seven of the party went on a scouting party to determine the exact route to the Boston Glacier. On the way, six of the party climbed to the summit of Sahale. Later, Larry, Jack and I joined Ray in a ridge walk over to Boston Glacier. We then climbed Boston Peak. We three then erected cairns to mark the best route as they returend to the others at camp.

The weather was warm and perfectly clear, with a moderate wind that occasionally gusted to 20 knots. Arising at 0600, we packed for a carry-over (except Ray), and left for our climb at 0700. The traverse of the Boston Glacier was longer than we expected due mainly to crevasses which forced us down much further onto the glacier than we had planned. We began our actual ascent of the North Face of Buckner at a still reasonable hour of 1015. The snow was of firn quality to a depth of at least 76 centimeters with a distinct ice layer of about five centimeters at a depth of 40 to 50 centimeters. There were no signs of any recent slide activity. However, at several locations on either side of the route, cornices from the higher ’shrund structures had come down within the past three days.

As we climbed navigating several large crevasses, the slope gradually rose to 40 or 50 degrees. This angle was sustained for nearly 175 meters, after which the slope steepened to 45 or 50 degrees for 100 meters. The final slope to the summit was about 30 degrees and gained 175 meters. On the lower 45 degree slope we skirted a rocky area to the left. Just above this was a small moat at the base of a rock wall. Each rope team in turn paused here for a break. I was second on the first team and stopped here to fill my water bottle in a rocky gully off route at the left end of the moat. I then led out with Ray and Jim on a rope now above, with Dick belaying me from the moat. As I was climbing Mark and Walt pulled into the moat on their rope, and Jack arrived and began belaying Larry. At this point I had just set a picket, was within shouting range of the entire party and had an excellent view of Larry on the slope 50 meters below.

It was then (1220) that a natural rock slide swept down the gully in which I had just been standing getting water. The source of the slide was about 100 meters higher. Larry was directly in the path of the falling rock. Three of the rocks that hit him were in the bowling ball size range, plus he was pelted by dozens of smaller rocks.

To begin the rescue operation, I first directed those still in the moat to try to pull Larry in by the rope. This was not successful, so Walt went down to him on belay. Larry’s first response was to tell Walt to leave before he too got hit. Walt took Larry’s pack, and made an initial exam. He then helped Larry to get to the moat with the assistance of Mark’s and Jack’s belays. While this was happening, I had Ray and Jim above establish a top rope belay which reached from their spacious ledge down to my level.

Once Larry was secure in the moat, I had Mark climb to just below me and set up a top rope for Walt who came up top roped and carrying two packs. Walt picked up a second and top roped belay as he came by. Once Walt was on the wide ledge above, Mark went up and set a picket to direct the higher belay so that Larry could only drop to his knees and not pendulum when it was his turn.

It was at this point that I told Jim and Ray to take off for the summit and to start out for help. Due to our party strength, they were told not to request a Mountain Rescue callout, but to definitely order a helicopter. I said that we would make every effort to get Larry to the summit to facilitate a pickup.

Next, I belayed Dick, who was still tied into the other end of my rope, to the belay stance previously constructed by Mark. He trailed a second rope to be used by Jack and Larry. Jack tied into the rope about two meters ahead of Larry, and they slowly started to climb. By this time Larry was responding to Dick’s first aid, which included several hits of codeine. He was in pain, but was considerably less shocky. The two meters proved to be too close, so when the transfer was made to the second rope, this was extended to three plus meters.

Once we were all on the ledge and above the steeper slopes, I gave Larry a second exam. No additional treatments were indicated, so I put him in a clavicle strap fashioned from 2.5 centimeter tubular webbing, and then made him a good sling. While we were on the ledge, a second slide cut loose down the same gully. This one contained several desk sized boulders.

Next, we then all moved slowly to the summit on a 30 to 35 degree slope in excellent steps that had been prepared by Jim and Ray.

Due to the extent of the hard work in very hot and attention riveting conditions, we were all somewhat dehydrated and exhausted when we reached the summit at 1630. We had climbed over 300 meters of the most difficult part of the grade II + route while performing a self-rescue in only four hours from the initial accident. This was only possible because this party was extremely well prepared and experienced. Frequently, when I would give an instruction, I would discover that the indicated procedure or something very similar was already underway. And despite being on a climb that was sufficiently serious without distractions, everyone pitched in and did what was required without hesitation.

We spent the night in a beautiful bivy prepared by Dick, Mark and Walt. At 0630 we got up to the sound of an approaching helicopter. Jim had made it out at 2130 the previous evening. The U.S. Naval Air Rescue team directed by Chief Piper from Whidbey Island flew in a Sea Knight for the pickup. For them this was a record high altitude rescue.

Seaman Robert Crawford was lowered to assess the situation. He ordered a stokes litter, and Larry and Bob were winched into the helicopter and flown to the hospital in Sedro Wooley. The five of us remaining then began the long haul out. (Source: Craig Dupler, Seattle, Washington)

Analysis

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Anzalone’s helmet saved his life. The largest rock to hit him landed square on top of his head. The blow forced his helmet down hard enough to shatter the frames of his mountain glasses. However, his head and face were not even bruised. The second large rock slammed into his left shoulder causing three breaks and some minor internal hemorrhaging. The third large rock glanced off his left knee causing very deep brusies. We were extremely fortunate for three facts:

He was wearing his helmet;

He was not leading, and thus did not take a leader fall without ability to use his ax while tied in 50 meters above a climber with only one ice ax on a 45 degree slope above large crevasses;

Every other member of the party was in a secure position above the path of the slide.

Had any one of these points been otherwise, we would have had a body count. (Source: Craig Dupler, Seattle, Washington)