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Stranded, Weather, Washington, Snoqualmie Pass

STRANDED, WEATHER

Washington, Snoqualmie Pass

Jim Doub and I set out from Source Lake early Sunday morning to climb the North East Buttress of Chair Peak. Jim was doing his first rock climb rated at class 4. We ascended the route without difficulty, but near the top we saw that the weather was deteriorating quickly. We decided to continue to the summit because I felt confident that I could find the descent route, although I had not climbed the peak in five years. Upon reaching the summit, we encountered a heavy fog with visibility of no more than 15 meters. Several attempts up and down various gullies left us in the approaching darkness and some light freezing rain. Jim and I spent the night in a plastic garbage bag under a space blanket sheltered by a mountain hemlock. I became moderately hypothermic. During the night it snowed about 15 to 20 centimeters. The wind was intense. We reviewed how to deal with hypothermia, ate our emergency food, and consumed our water at regular, scheduled intervals. We chanted a meditation mantra I know, and told stories of even worse situations we had found ourselves in in the past.

In the morning our water bottles were frozen and visibility was even poorer than the previous evening. My wife had been instructed to call the sheriff at noon if we had not contacted her by then. Although it was usually perfectly feasible to descend the peak and get to a telephone in four hours after sunrise, the poor visibility did not allow us to descend easily, quickly, or safely. We found the descent route but all the ledges and traverses were heavily iced. I felt it was better to wait until further warming allowed safer passage, especially for Jim who had no experience with verglass. By the time we were down the descent chimney, it was well past noon and the rescue helicopter was circling overhead. Through the courtesy of the pilot we were lifted back to the parking lot where Mountain Rescue and the Sheriff's Department rescue unit was waiting. Neither Jim nor I was injured or required medical attention. (Source: Dick Hoskins)

Analysis

On the positive side, this incident shows that the rescue system works. I left a time with my wife when she was to call for help on our behalf assuming that we were indeed in difficulty requiring rescue. She had all the information needed to find us and start rescue if necessary. Jim and I were cold and miserable but our collective outdoor experience left us reasonably well-off the next morning.

Perhaps we should have left a later time with my wife to call the sheriff, but Chair Peak is in fact regarded as a short day climb. If you are not back by noon the next day, something is likely wrong. We did not expect difficulty getting off the mountain as we in fact encountered due to continuing bad weather. After it was all over, we were very concerned that Mountain Rescue was called out for a simple overdue situation. Nevertheless, it could have been far worse.

Perhaps we could have retreated earlier in the day, but I was anxious that Jim have a successful climb his first time out. It is still not clear to me if this was a judgment error. The weather did not seem all that bad; after all, cloudy weather is common in the Northwest. Not many summits are made in clear, sunny weather. Even with 20/ 20 hindsight, it seems we got caught in a storm at the summit and we decided to wait it out rather than risk a dangerous descent. (Source: Dick Hoskins)