American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Loss of Control—Voluntary Glissade, No Hard Hat, Washington, Mount Stuart

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996


Washington, Mount Stuart

On the morning of June 25, Gordon Rieker (31) and Chuck Buzzard (40) left their base camp at 0315 and headed up Ulrich’s Couloir, a narrow gully leading to the summit of Mount Stuart.

The two Yakima County employees were not novice climbers. Rieker had been climbing since the early 1980s, Buzzard since 1978. Nor were they strangers to Mount Stuart. This was Buzzard’s fourth climb, and Rieker had at least five previous climbs on the mountain. They also had made numerous climbs together.

They reached the summit about 0645. Instead of returning the same way, they headed east to the Cascadian Couloir, which is generally considered one of the least difficult routes on the mountain. Not far from the summit, they reached a long, steep snow slope where they began glissading, a standard mountaineering practice of sliding while using an ice ax to control speed. Buzzard went first.

“I was out ahead, nearly to the boulders. I looked up and he was doing a regular sitting glissade,” Buzzard said.

But something caused Rieker to lose his ice ax. Unable to control his speed, he began an uncontrolled slide into the rocks.

“It happened so fast it’s hard to picture,” Buzzard said.

The impact broke Rieker's collarbone and several ribs, and caused severe head injuries. He appeared conscious but was unable to respond, Buzzard said. About ten minutes later, two other climbers discovered the Yakima men. They stayed with Rieker, and Buzzard began a long walk out for help.

Off the mountain, he still had to climb another smaller ridge before reaching the car. He then drove to a horse camp. But the camp’s radio had been vandalized and wasn’t working, Buzzard said. A woman at the camp had a cellular phone, but that required additional driving to reach a point where the phone’s signal could be picked up.

Typically, U.S. Army MAST helicopters from Yakima Training Center are dispatched for back-country rescues. But this accident occurred at an elevation of 8,400 feet. That’s considered too high for the standard single-engine MAST helicopter, which generally isn’t used above 7,000 feet. Instead, a more powerful helicopter had to be dispatched from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane.

Initially, doctors were optimistic about Rieker’s condition. But he died at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital seven days after the accident. (Source: Yakima Herald, from an article by Craig Torianello, July 23, 1995.)

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