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Fall on Ice, Unable to Self-Arrest, Climbing Unroped, Washington, North Cascades, Glacier Peak

FALL ON ICE, UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST, CLIMBING UNROPED

Washington, North Cascades, Glacier Peak

On June 30, 1991, elated veteran mountaineer Steve Studley (27) stood above the clouds at the 10,568-foot summit of Glacier Peak in the North Cascades Mountains.

Then, as he and a climbing partner, Tim Lewis (33), of Seattle, began their descent on the steep slope of the rugged peak, Studley slipped on the glistening ice of Sitkum Glacier.

“I was tumbling, trying desperately to sink my ice ax into the glacier so I could control my fall, but the ice was too hard,” he said yesterday from his bed at General Hospital Medical Center in Everett. “I couldn’t stop the fall. I thought I was going to die.”

Studley’s right leg snagged in a fissure as he plummeted out of control. The bone snapped between the knee and hip.

“I don’t know if I did it unconsciously or if I still had enough presence of mind, but I finally sank my ice ax into the snow,” said Studley, of Snohomish. “It jerked me to a stop. Below me was ice from an earlier avalanche with some very sharp edges. If I had hit it, it would have slit me open.”

As Studley lay terrified and in agonizing pain on the 45-degree snowy slope, a series of events began that Sgt. John Taylor, head of the Snohomish County Sheriffs Department’s Search and Rescue Division, called “miraculous.”

“This guy was fortunate, because if it didn’t all mesh, he would be up there until Tuesday or Wednesday, and he might not have made it,” Taylor said.

Dr. Sean Grady, a neurosurgeon at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, and his climbing partner, Ben Norton, a King County firefighter and emergency medical technician, were nearing the summit on their ascent and saw Studley’s 500-foot plunge.

They rushed to his side.

“They stabilized my leg by cutting a climbing rope into pieces and tying my right leg to my left leg, sort of using it as a splint,” Studley said.

Then Studley, a licensed ham radio operator, reached into his backpack and pulled out a portable, two-way ham radio.

“I’ll never go without it again,” he said.

As soon as he flicked it on, he heard two Canadian ham operators talking, one of them in Victoria, B.C.

“I said, ‘Break, break! I have an emergency, and I need a connection to Snohomish Search and Rescue,’” Studley said. “That’s when all these ham operators went into action.”

In Everett, ham operator Doug Fister telephoned Snohomish County’s dispatch center, which alerted Taylor. In Seattle’s Matthews Beach area, ham operator John Pollock began serving as a central-base control, linking all involved in the rescue, who were operating on a myriad of radio frequencies.

“At one point, I had seven radios operating at the same time,” Pollock said.

Taylor contacted helicopter pilot Tom Barr, who got ready to go at Harvey Field in Snohomish. Then Taylor started an emergency alert system that sent “more than 80 search and rescue volunteers to start for the trail head to help carry Studley out in case the helicopter couldn’t land.”

By the time Taylor climbed into the helicopter’s co-pilot seat, three others already were aboard—crew chief Jim Duffy, emergency medical technician Kathy Wilhelm and her husband, Howard, a first-aid specialist.

As they flew toward the mountain, Studley handed his radio to Norton, who gave the ham operator in Victoria information about weather conditions and the elevation level of the small group surrounding the barely conscious mountaineer.

The ham operator in Victoria relayed the information to Pollock, who passed it along to Bell and Taylor in the helicopter.

The rescue was risky. “We circled above the mountain to burn off some fuel and then we threw down a smoke grenade to help us determine the wind and other conditions,” Taylor said.

“We landed at the 8,200-foot level on a snow ridge. We packed snow on the landing skids to keep the helicopter from toppling and shut down the rotor.” As Studley was loaded aboard the helicopter on a stretcher, Howard Wilhelm volunteered to climb down the mountain so the helicopter wouldn’t be overloaded.

Despite surgery to set the leg, Studley said the accident wouldn t keep him from challenging mountains.

“I love climbing,” he said. “I made a stupid, bonehead mistake. We didn’t follow the basics, and we weren’t lashed (roped) together.

“I won’t do it again—and I will never climb again without bringing my radio along. It was the most important tool in my rescue.” (Source: Article in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 1, 1992, by Arthur C. Gorlick)

Analysis

A number of mountain rescue personnel pointed out that radios are no replacement for skill and carrying the right equipment and essentials. Assuming that ham radios, CBs, or air traffic locaters will result in timely rescue can lead to a false sense of security, resulting in climbers taking chances beyond their level of skill or ability to self-rescue. In this particular case, the victim was also extremely fortunate that a doctor was nearby. (Source: Jed Williamson)