FALL ON SNOW, DESCENDING UNROPED, PARTY SEPARATED,
EXCEEDED ABILITIES, FATIGUE
Washington, Mount Shuksan
Midway through the Fisher Chimneys about 2000 the evening of July 3, 1988, five of the members of our party of eight were descending steep snow (about 45 degrees). The snow pack was composed of snow 15-20 centimeters of soft snow over more consolidated snow. I kicked about two times with each foot to secure a step and drove the ax in about three times with each placement in order to get the head of the ax to the surface of the snow. We were all moving across the snow unroped and without crampons.
As Denise Read and I reached the bottom of the slope (snow) which was about 25 meters wide, I looked up to see Denise Daly (30) sliding down in a self-arrest position. She appeared to be flat with no arch to her back. Paul Flemming reached toward her and managed to slow her down. (Paul made a subsequent comment that reinforced my observation about her form.) I traversed quickly and tried to slow her but could not. Denise accelerated as she slid below me and within three meters bounced off a small heathered ledge and took a tumbling fall into a gully, then down the gully and over the edge of a step and out of view. I then downclimbed the gully to the edge of the step, where I saw Denise about ten meters below. I also saw that she had fallen about three meters vertically down the step and tumbled across a down sloping bench to the edge of the next step where she stopped.
I then climbed quickly but securely down the fall line to her and found her semiconscious, breathing heavily and face down in a small stream of water running down the gully system. I could not tell if the water was obstructing her breathing or if it was seeping in underneath her water resistant outer gear. Moreover, there appeared to be a clear potential of her falling over the edge of the next step, so I decided to move her. I gently removed her pack and rolled her over on her back. I then pulled her from under the shoulders and armpits while supporting her head with my forearms. I pulled her from the edge and clear of the running water.
At this point Denise began responding to my questions and examination. She complained of pain in her mid-lower back and her right hip and leg. She also complained of loss of memory and of dizziness. By this time Jonathan Rubin had reached us to assist while Paul Flemming was not far behind. As we discussed the situation, the decision seemed clear: we would send Jonathan and Paul out for help as soon as Paul had finished an accident report and Jonathan had finished helping me to protect Denise from the cold ground and cooling air.
Around this time (2030) I received word that Jack Schneider (47) was injured while descending to help with Denise. He and Chris Pforr were behind the rest of the group because they had stopped to retrieve a rope.
Jack fell while traversing a shallow snow patch above the snow slope on which Denise fell. According to Jack’s subsequent verbal report, he had just begun plunge stepping down when his footing gave out. (We estimated the snow here to be harder than that on the larger slope below). The handle of his ax was planted about halfway into the snow and it began to lean downhill before he could get his free hand on it. As he continued to fall and as he realized that his planted ax would not hold him, he tried to move into a self-arrest position. He was just getting into position and had already slid about ten meters when he hit heather and rocks below the snow patch. He slid another few meters and landed on his knee. Chris Pforr was very close to the spot where Jack ended his fall so he was able to attend to him immediately. Once Chris and Jack determined that the knee was the only injury, Chris set up Jack’s bivy for the night. He built a level platform using snow and helped Jack with his extra clothing and ground insulation. Jack said he was very comfortable and slept most of the night.
While Chris attended to Jack, Denise Read descended to Denise Daly and me on a fixed line set by Ansel Wald. Ansel then served as the communications link among Chris, Denise Read and me while Jonathan and Paul went for help. Denise Read and I stayed with Denise Daly for the remainder of the night. We spent our time trying ot keep her warm, dry, immobile, and in good spirits. We had fairly good success except in keeping her immobile because of the wet and downsloping rock. We monitored her primarily by talking to her and simply asking her questions. Her general condition and expressiveness seemed to improve through the night but we did not give her food or water.
As we talked that night, Denise reported that she had been having trouble planting her ice ax for self-belay—that she could not get it to penetrate as deeply as necessary to perform an adequate belay. I noted that Denise is very small and lightweight and also that she had an ax with a plastic coated handle (not rubberized).
By 0600 the morning of July 4, rescuers from Bellingham MRC and Whidbey Island SAR arrived. They airlifted Jack and then later Denise. They were off the mountain by 0900. (Source: Gary McCunn, Leader of this Mountaineers trip)
One of the victims, Jack Schneider, observed that the party had been climbing for almost 14 hours on a demanding route, and that people and conditions were deteriorating. At the same time, some members were trying to get the group to move faster. The other victim, Denise Daly, observed that the party being separated left the least experienced people without enough supervision and no belay. (Source: Reports filled out by victims)