American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Hypothermia, Frostbite, Inadequate Equipment, Inexperience, Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992


Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge

Two climbers from Colorado Springs, Jon Spangler (32) and Cathy Proenza (28), left Isput Creek on Saturday, June 1, 1991, to climb Liberty Ridge. Both were experienced rock climbers and Spangler had done some alpine climbing in Mexico. Sunday afternoon two rangers from Joshua Tree National Park, Debbie Benchley and Todd Swain, who were climbing the ridge behind them, found them at the 12,400 foot level extremely dehydrated and hypothermic. They had drunk only a quart of water between them. It seems they had belayed each other up the ridge using rock climbing techniques. They explained to Debbie that they didn’t think they could make the summit, so she decided to help them up to Liberty Cap.

Debbie worked last year as a seasonal ranger at Mount Ranier and had a park radio from the rangers at Carbon River. When they reached the summit, she called down to alert the park to the problem. It was decided by the park to get a helicopter to the summit to lift them off. They obtained two helicopters, a small six seat Long 208 and a Chinook from Ft. Lewis. When the helicopters arrived they discovered that the party had descended to the 12,800 foot level on the Emmons Glacier. The helicopters were unable to land due to the steep terrain; it was decided to drop a bag with extra supplies to them. After several tries the bag was dropped. It took two bounces and fell into a crevasse. Darkness was fast approaching and no other attempts were made. The climbers would have to spend the night with the gear they had.

The smaller helicopter spent the night at the park and lifted two park rangers and two TMRU members, one at a time, to Camp Schrumann to climb to the stranded party. An Army Chinook would arrive later to lift the remaining team members to Schurmann. When the two park rangers arrived at Schurmann, they started to climb up to the subjects. An hour and a half later the two TMRU members followed them. While this was happening, the subjects had started to descend to Schurmann.

Around 2030, the Army Chinook arrived and the rest of the team was loaded to be lifted to Camp Schurmann. By this time the rangers had reached the subjects and given them food, water, and dry clothing. It was then decided to turn the Chinook helicopter around and return the team to Kautz Creek. After the two TMRU members reached the subjects, they were escorted to the cabin at Schurmann. The standby team had arrived at the park about the time the Chinook was returning.

After the subjects reached Schurmann, the Chinook launched again to pick them up. TMRU members Ed Hrivnak (EMT) and Pat Lillie (Paramedic) were on board as a medical team. The Chinook went to Schurmann, picked up the subjects, and then went directly to Madigan Army Medical Center. Jon Spangler had a broken rib where he had fallen on his ice ax. Cathy Proenza had frostbitten feet and hands. Jon was treated and released, and Cathy was transferred to Harborview Hospital and was released Thursday, June 6. Her feet and hands were thawed and she did not lose any portion of either. (Source: From Mount Rainier ranger reports)


Jon Spangler said that he felt the main reason for their troubles were as follows: inexperience on glaciated peaks; not enough fuel for their stove (one quart was all they had); progress was slowed by too much protection and belaying; the loss of their map; they forgot to pack their compass; allowing their sleeping bags to get wet; and underestimating the difficulty of the route.

Cathy Proenza added to this list: starting out the trip very tired after a long drive; and picking a route that was above their skill level. She said they had read about the route in Fifty Classic Climbs, and had not felt it would be as difficult as it was.

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