AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Fall on Rock, Climbing Alone and Unroped, Falling Rock, Idaho, Sawtooth Mountains

FALL ON ROCK, CLIMBING ALONE AND UNROPED, FALLING ROCK

Idaho, Sawtooth Mountains

On July 2, 1989, Louis Stur (65) fell to his death from an unnamed mountain near

Baron Peak. He was climbing with a friend, Frank Kreusi (70). Here are some excerpts from Kruesi’s report:

We arrived at the dry lake or meadow where we were to stop just after noon. Louis announced, “Frank, you are here. You’ll have a minimum of three hours to rest. Let’s have a bite to eat and try out my new water pump.” Louis was no engineer; he pumped it so hard that the tubes kept collapsing. He laughed as I slowly pumped and filled my quart bottle with little fuss. He had introduced me to new peaks as we’d gone along, told me of his two and a half day backpack into the area from another direction a week earlier, and of his desire to study a different route up this peak, which became Mount Ebert, even though it isn’t named on his Warbonnet Quadrangle. It was only at this time I realized he was quite intent on climbing it. But that was his way; I wasn’t in the slightest surprised or concerned.

There is a very large and I thought steepsnow field, that looked quite formidable at its upper reaches on the north face of the very craggy and rugged peak about 450 to 600 meters above our location. Louis said it wasn’t as steep as it looked but, without an ice ax, would take care. He said he’d go for it. Louis and I had a comfortable relationship. I wasn’t of comparable ability or experience, but we knew all that. We’d been on similar ventures, particularly Mount Spire in the Tetons, wherein we went into the high lake regions together and then would separate while he did his thing and I took in additional lakes and lesser peaks only to meet again to go out together. We had good times and pleasure in each other’s company.

After briefly having a little to eat Louis said, “You’re to be here. I’ll be three–four hours.” It was no more definite than that. I said I’d do the peak to the north. It’s just over 3000 meters and surrounded by several small lakes below it. He looked at it and said it looked fine. He took off with his two ski poles, a couple of fruit punch cartons and maybe a candy bar.

He wore only a polypropelene shirt and yellow hat. I said I’d follow him to the snow field but he took off without comment. I sensed he wanted to do his own thing from that point on so I reversed direction and headed for my peak. I looked back toward him from time to time and saw he was making fine deliberate progress. I suspect he did the same. We were in easy sight of each other for a long time. The last I saw him was about 1330, as he was fairly high on the snowfield traversing. I never saw or heard from him again but didn’t make much of an effort to do so until I reached the top of my peak which afforded a grand overview. At that rime I spent considerable time studying his intended route, but didn’t see him. I had no concern then. It was fun to watch a pro, and I hoped to see him in motion.

I had scrambled up a short section near the top of my climb, which others would have given no thought to, but I was squeamish about descending it, the latter being much harder than the ascent. I traversed the top ridge, which was fairly broad, and found a scree boulderfield that seemed to go all the way down. It took a while, but I was back in about two hours overall. Louis had spread out his orange poncho on the meadow before leaving; it was quite clearly visible from my peak and I’m sure from his. I went to rest there but the mosquitos were too bad so I made other forages.

I expected Louis back at the earliest by 1530, but knew 1630 was more likely and even then I thought I’d only spot him coming down. About 1600 and periodically thereafter I glanced at the huge snowfield to see if I could spot him. As time went on, maybe about 1700, I went out to the snowfield and examined it carefully. About this time I was saying to myself, “Damn it, Louis, you’re going to make us go down at a forced pace just before dark closes in.” He had arrived several hours late in the Tetons and we just got out by dark. In that instance he had lost his ski poles and felt stupid about leaving them on the mountain, though they were worth nothing, and had spent an hour or more hunting them. Nevertheless, he had come down exuberant, apologetic, and grateful I had waited so he didn’t have to wonder about me. You couldn’t be put out with Louis for long; you just had to learn the pattern of things.

By 1900 I felt it was possible we could just get out by dark if all went well. We’d taken five hours to get in and I wasn’t much slower paced than Louis on ascents but clearly he moved much faster on descents. Three hours and maybe a little more but an excellent trail for the last 45 minutes, might do it. But I now started planning seriously.

I opened his pack and studied the maps carefully; I hadn’t paid any real attention on the way in, just followed the master. I established carefully compass courses, landmarks, etc., in case it were to cloud up during the night. I built a large fireplace and gathered lots of wood in case Louis was hurt and finally could signal me. I made repeated hikes up the snowfield and searched each snout on the off chance he’d slid down uncontrollably. I called and raked the area with his binoculars. I debated whether to attempt to go up after him but hesitated as I was convinced I had surveyed where I knew him to be and knew nothing of the back side of the mountain he had alluded to if he found his planned route wouldn’t work. Louis was a careful, deliberate climber. I thought about it, but thought it was unlikely he’d fallen. Much more likely, in my anguished mind, was the thought of a heart attack. He always talked about his health when we were with him. On this trip he volunteered he hadn’t taken his Beta pill but hadn’t on his last weekend backpack either and felt fine. He had told me he had a heart pressure device at home and always found it lower than the higher levels that the doctors found. I never thought for a minute that he could be lost and particularly in such good weather and familiar territory to him. I even rationalized that somehow he’d taken a different route than expected, had found an easy way down, and that I’d finally give up and come down so as not to be caught up there that night. I really didn’t believe this as he’d left his pack and Louis wasn’t one to leave a companion in such a stew. I kept telling myself to relax, we’d laugh about the episode in one of our debriefing sessions with friends. Deep down as the light faded I knew he was in deep trouble, would probably survive one cold night, but I needed to get help now.

I vacillated and finally rationalized against trying to get down in the dark with only my small flashlight, no trail, and all. There was no moon at all and I knew there would be none. I kept up a vigil all night. I had blown alternatives by earlier complacency. I didn’t sleep nor do I think I dozed. I went out to the snowfield and called and waved the flashlight every half hour or so. I knew it would be virtually impossible to hear him as the creek cascading along drowned out other sound. I would hear massive rock falls from time to time, start, and renew hope it might be Louis but became reconciled he was gone or badly hurt and freezing in the cold.

At dawn I made one more careful trip to the snowfield and a binocular search and then started down. I wanted to be careful and deliberate and not get in some improper watershed. I took Louis’ comment to heart that we had probably traversed too high and that it might be faster to find the yurt area and follow the ski route out. I hadn’t had but two cheese sandwiches in 24 hours but eating was never really on my mind and no problem. I went out nonstop, didn’t find the easy way, got too low once and bogged down in an extremely deadfalled and tangled avalanche area where the streams were flowing in several different directions and lost an hour or so in exhausting scramble. I finally forced myself to ask which way George (Allen) would go, decided to climb way high, and soon was making good progress. Only once did I cross an area I was sure I’d seen the day before. I picked up the trail finally, almost where I should have, and hurried down to the sign-in box praying I’d find a note that Louis had for some reason assumed I’d come out when he didn’t show. I went on to the car praying I’d find a message there.

In the hours I’d been waiting, I tried to think just how I’d get help marshalled best and not lose time in endless explanation. I focused on the See’s first and at Redfish Lodge. I didn’t recall their names but knew well of their devotion to Louis. I then wanted to get to the ranger, get word to Joe Csizmazia, then Louis’ secretary to notify the family, then George Allen, and finally my family.

I got to Redfish Lodge somewhat after 1100 and contacted Jack See who was magnificent and efficiently got things rolling with a minimum of explanation and maximum of consideration. Not a second was lost. I didn’t have to repeat anything.

There was some confusion in my mind as to the name of Louis’ peak; I had the wrong name at first. I had heard so many names on the way in and hadn’t been too attentive. I did know precisely where we had stopped and could pinpoint that on the Quadrangle. I had my directions clearly in mind and with Jack See’s help in fairly short order was convinced that the peak was Ebert. He clearly knew the snowfield and understood my description of the approach Louis had planned, and then I made my other calls. Jack had action rolling, rescue plans and people were underway. I marveled at the response on the 4th of July weekend. As “It’s Louis Stur,” was mentioned, all I heard was, “I’m on my way.” I wanted a helicopter to go right in. One had passed near the peak as Louis and I were hiking in the day before. Jack asked for that. There was some hesitation, I think because of SOP waiting periods, authority, etc. I made it clear reimbursement should be no consideration; I would pay all expenses.

The Ranger asked that I come to headquarters, that he was getting approvals. I drove over, found the helicopter observers assembled, and all most helpful and awaiting confirmation as to where to go and look. I thought they had the wrong map out. In any case, I spread mine out, showed them just where they’d spot Louis’ pack and poncho, which snow field he’d gone up, and stressed the back side of the peak as I thought there was too much concentration on the snowfield that I felt I’d surveyed thoroughly. The crew was satisfied they knew where to go and shortly had the go-ahead. It was only a few minutes later that they radioed back that Louis had been found. I couldn’t make out the conversation. The Ranger, Steve Lipus, asked me to wait in his office; he’d go to the heliport and bring down the report.

Shortly after, the crew came in and it was clear to me before they spoke how grave their report would be. They told me forthrightly that there was no hope, that he surely could have suffered little if any in the fall of something like 60 meters. Joe Csizmazia had called shortly before the helicopter flight and said he was on his way up to go in with his son. (Source: From reports gathered by George Sainsbury, including Kruesi’s narrative)

Analysis

Louis was Mr. Mountaineer: experienced, cautious and definitely in good shape for the moderately easy terrain. His route of fall was (between Class 5–5.8) definitely not on the logical ascent or descent route. The only logical explanation we (R. Rosso, K Sweigert, J. Csizmazia) could come up with was that Louis must have looked for an alternate route, when a massive rock parapet gave way directly in front of and below him. He fell into a ravine 30 meters below.

The weather was perfect, although the time was late, 1700–1800 (estimate by the autopsy). He was planning to climb down to base camp, where his good friend (not a climber, but walking and flying companion) waited for him. They were to walk back (five hours of rough terrain) to Fishhook trailhead in the same evening! (Source: Joe Csizmazia, personal friend and climber, who found Stur’s body)