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Stranded, Exceeding Abilities, Bad Weather

STRANDED, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, BAD WEATHER

Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Front Range, Mount Abraham

On June 9, 1991, D.M. and O.M. began a climb of Mount Abraham, 2820 meters, along David Thompson Highway, at 0630. This is a long day’s rock climb up a buttressed ridge with a 1400 meter elevation gain and difficulties near the top, but an easy descent down the“back.” About midaftemoon they reached the base of a broad pillar rising about 150 meters beside the end of a high ridge. O.M. had done this climb 13 years previously, but had doubts now, as it appeared ominous and he could not remember details. However, they started up, and were soon committed by the steepness and bad rock.

After climbing the pillar and the remaining hundred meters or so up the side of the ridge, they reached the base of the final buttress, about 75 meters high, at 2245 meters. It was dark, and they found themselves stranded by sheer drop-offs on both sides, vertical and overhanging walls, and smooth slabs slimey with water from a melting cornice. After spending the night there, they considered descending, and then reviewed the buttress; it was still uninviting, so they decided that retreat was their best choice, but they would have to start early the following morning to have enough time. The descent would be complicated by having only a single rope and very little hardware for the large number of anchors required if they were to rappel; a lot of down- climbing would be necessary.

Meanwhile, the alarm was raised because D. did not appear for work, but ran into a snag when Parks Canada personnel denied the existence of a Mount Abraham. Through the persistence of D.M.’s colleagues, the RCMP at Rocky Mountain House located the mountain, and found the couple’s vehicle parked at its base the next morning. They requested helicopter assistance from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and three park rangers, including the Branch Alpine Specialist, were flown to Mount Abraham, about an hour away. Assisted by two other helicopters, one of which had already been in the area to recover a plane wreck, they were able to scan its lower sections and the valleys thoroughly, but the top of the mountain was in clouds, and the helicopters had to stay below. Late in the afternoon, two men with a radio were lifted to the top of the highest step in the ridge below cloud level, about 2285 meters.

On the same morning, June 11, D.M. and O.M. began to descend, but were turned back by rain, which made the rock slippery. Soon it turned to snow, and as that melted in the valleys, great mist clouds rose to hide the upper part of the mountain, and the climbers could see nothing but whiteness. About 1130, they heard a helicopter, and then others, which were soon circling below, and they knew a search was on. For several frustrating hours, they waited and listened, blind in the murk, as the machines buzzed all around below the clouds.

Then, about 1830, they heard the voices of two searchers who had been set down high up the ridge below the clouds, some 250 meters below the bivouac. They called out, and contact was made. Immediately afterward, the clouds began to break up, and a helicopter was able to sling the Alpine Specialist and another Ranger in to prepare D. and O. for evacuation. By 1930, everyone was back down at the road. Apart from being chilly and a little stiff, D. and O. were in good condition.

Analysis

These are climbers of several years’ experience each, but they underestimated the length of the climb. O. had done it before, and thought he and his partner on that occasion had started up at midmorning, so an earlier start would give D. and him an advantage. Subsequent viewing of old photos, however, revealed that they had in fact started in the dark hours of a September morning, and they still ended up reaching the summit at night and biwying on the descent, so if anything, they were at a Disadvantage on this attempt. Furthermore, O. and his previous partner formed a more aggressive team, though less experienced. The importance of careful planning, verification of all information, and assessment of party strength are highlighted here. Also, though not unwilling to turn back generally, they would have been prudent to do so upon O.’s doubts at the base of the big pillar. (Source: O. M., Victim)