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Fall Into Crevasse, Snow Bridge Collapse, Washington, Mount Rainier

FALL INTO CREVASSE, SNOW BRIDGE COLLAPSE

Washington, Mount Rainier

All 15 members of this climbing party were coworkers, family, or in one case, friends of the Tacoma Fire Department. Kurt Fengler (34) was a lieutenant with the Tacoma Fire Department. Fengler had promised his daughter Kirstan that when she turned 14 he would get her up Mount Rainier. Fengler organized this attempt to climb the Emmons-Winthrop route.

Ralph Johnson and Marilyn Crawford are intermediate climbing instructors with The Mountaineers, as was Fengler. Ralph Johnson’s climbing card indicates he was the most experienced climber of the group. Chris Morrill taught a class in climbing techniques at Tacoma Community College. Mike Walling and Tom Henderson had experience on Mount Rainier and other glacier peaks. Eight of the members listed no climbing experience.

In early June, Fengler organized a meeting in Tacoma Fire Station No. 3 to discuss the route, equipment, food, and clothing needs.

On June 20 the group met at Mount Rainier National Park. They climbed onto the snow slopes on Pinnacle Peak to practice self-arrest and “Z” pulley systems. They did not practice in a crevasse. They registered to climb on June 25.

On the morning of June 26, they climbed to Camp Schurman and the Emmons Flat via the Inter Glacier. The party arrived on the Emmons Flat in the late morning and set up camp. The rest of that day they took it easy. They all had dinner around 1200. They said they ate many snacks and took naps for the 11 to 12 hour period before the climb.

At 2245, all except Kirt E. Swaleson started the climb. Swaleson stated he decided to stay in the camp on the Emmons Flat because of his lack of experience. The party broke into two four-person ropes and two three-person ropes. By the time of the accident, the teams would be strung out along the glacier with the last rope team about 30 minutes behind the accident group, and the first rope team about 15 minutes ahead of the accident group. The teams were following a route tracked and wanded by previous climbing parties, which leads up The Corridor and then right on the the Winthrop Glacier.

The weather conditions were beautiful. There was little wind. The temperature was 5° C when the party left camp.

It was around 0200 at the 3900-meter level on June 27 when one of the party, Tom Henderson, stopped because of leg cramps and diarrhea. Fengler unroped him and proceeded to go up to the next team with his daughter to get her roped in with them so he could return with Henderson. According to Rick Ussery, Kurt Fengler “was just talking to Dave, Kirstan was standing in front of me and the crevasse opened up. I mean it wasn’t like we weren’t on a snow bridge on a crevasse. We were on a path that had the markers on it and the whole works. Had we been on crevasses we would have been holding the lines tight, but it wasn’t like that. It was on an open snow bank and all of a sudden it just opened right up. I mean snow slid down and they disappeared and Kirstan was standing there talking to me. Then the rope went ahead and pulled tight. She looked like someone put her into a U.”

Fengler was found buried in a meter and a half of snow at the bottom of the crevasse. Kirstan Fengler, the only other person on the rope with her father at the time of the accident, did not go over the lip of the crevasse. She was standing within six meters of Fengler, and yet they were roped with 20 meters of rope between them. At the time Kirstan must have been standing in a coil of the rope with her left leg. Ussery did catch the end of the loose rope, which Tom Henderson had been tied into earlier. Ussery may have stopped the girl from falling into the crevasse. The rope that the Fenglers were on was a 35-meter climbing rope. Kirstan was tied into the center of that rope. It is estimated that Kurt Fenglar fell 16 meters. Ussery stated, “The rope twisted around Kirstan’s leg once and it was burning her. She had Kurt’s weight and the weight of all the snow on it.” She was examined by a doctor on that evening. Her injuries consisted of a rope bum and a hematoma on her left leg where the rope was wrapped around it.

David Barrett (27) and Kurt Fengler fell into the crevasse at the same time. Barrett landed on a one-meter ledge eight meters below the surface, but was not injured.

At the time of the accident, Kirt E. Swaleson, Jr. (20) was on the Walling rope of four at the accident site. At first it was believed by the people at the accident that Swaleson had also fallen into the crevasse, because the climbing harness he was wearing was found in the crevasse. It was shortly learned that his climbing harness was jerked off his body and he was uninjured.

At the time of the accident Mike Walling ended up being the only experienced climber at the site. Self-rescue efforts began when Tom Henderson walked to the scene unroped from below. Henderson cut Kirstan Fengler’s climbing harness from her, and got her released from the rope. The others were trying to get Barrett out of the crevasse. It took about 30 to 40 minutes to get to the site. Morrill helped rig the rappel for Henderson, who then rappelled into the crevasse. He found the rope and followed it to Kurt Fengler. He dug down with his hands until he found Fengler’s hand, which he squeezed. Fengler responded. Henderson found a vent hole and was able to make contact with Fengler, who was upside down and needed help. The rope was tight on him and he asked to have it loosened. The snow was packed ice blocks and the party had no shovel. Henderson told the group that Fengler was alive and he needed help. Morrill descended into the crevasse to help dig because the going was slow. Fengler was not dug out until about one hour after the accident, at which time neither Morrill nor Henderson could find a pulse.

Matt Chase, a park ranger, oversaw the rescue and recovery operation at the crevasse. Other park personnel and helicopter support staff completed the entire operation by June 29. The total cost of this rescue was close to $4,000. (Source: Ed Wilson, Ranger, Mount Rainer National Park)

Analysis

This was a very complicated accident because of the number of people involved and the lack of ability among most of those who were in the position to rescue Kurt Fengler. Disciplined roped teams seemed to be moving appropriately just prior to the unfortunate illness suffered by Henderson and the equally unfortunate snow bridge collapse.

It is common and recommended for climbers to have knoweldge of and practice in crevasse rescue technique prior to attempting a route like this.

(Source: J. Williamson)