American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Weather, Exposure, Failure to Turn Back, California, Mount Shasta

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

WEATHER, EXPOSURE, FAILURE TO TURN BACK

California, Mount Shasta

Early Monday morning April 10, Craig Hiemstra (38) and John “Zippo” Miksits (45), both experienced climbers, set out from the Bunny Flat Trailhead in beautiful weather to climb Mt. Shasta via Cascade Gulch. John and Craig had never climbed together before. They had made acquaintance at the trailhead with two other climbers, who then went with them. Their first camp was in Hidden Valley.

April 11 brought more beautiful weather, with a slight increase in winds, and both groups made their next camp at Lake Sisson, in a sheltered depression at the Shasta/Shastina saddle about 11,500 feet. That afternoon the winds increased, but nobody was alarmed. John mentioned the high, thin clouds he had been noticing, and Craig responded that the barometric pressure had remained constant and stable for the past four hours. Agreeing that there was no need to worry, the pair made plans for a 1:00 a.m. departure for the summit. The other two climbers decided that a summit attempt was out, due to their limited technical expertise, and that a ski descent from the saddle would be their plan for morning.

When they went to sleep, the temperature was around 25 degrees F, winds were around 35 mph, and the moon was visible through a thin layer of clouds. The winds continued throughout the night and the moon soon became disguised. Dawn brought whiteout conditions and winds up to 65 mph through the saddle.

On 12 April at 8:00 a.m., the two climbers who remained at the saddle received a radio call from John: “We are descending from summit, are at 11,900 feet, but can’t find camp. Can you call the weather service and see if this is going to stick around.”

The two at the saddle agreed and scheduled to make radio contact again in 20 minutes. Upon attempting to reach John and Craig after that interval, they received no response, nor did they ever again establish contact, despite repeated attempts. The pair remained at the saddle as long as they could, then descended because the high winds were starting to rip apart their two-season tent, while continuing attempts to contact by radio.

John and Craig were reported missing on April 13 when a check of the Bunny Flat Trailhead revealed that John’s vehicle was still in the parking lot. A major search operation ensued, involving two California Guard Blackhawks, US Air Force Pavehawk, USFS CWN Bell Jet Ranger, and CHP A-Star. Over- the-snow vehicles and skiers were used on the days when weather conditions made flying impossible. On April 15, Craig’s body was discovered without gloves or ice ax at an elevation of approximately 10,300 feet in Cascade Gulch. Injuries were consistent with a headfirst fall in soft snow (fractured cervical vertebra), and death had been instantaneous.

On April 19, during the search for John, a California Guard UH-60 Blackhawk crashed at 11,600 feet near Cascade Gulch, just below the Shasta/ Shastina saddle. The helicopter rolled at least once and came to rest on its side, yet those on board—four Guardsmen, a reporter, and two Climbing Rangers—sustained only minor injuries. The party descended together through clouds to a helispot. The Guard crew and reporter were evacuated later that day by another Guard Blackhawk. The Climbing Rangers skied out to Bunny Flat through hazardous avalanche conditions, continuing to search.

John’s body remained buried by snow and undiscovered until the Memorial Day weekend, when we found his remains at approximately 11,500 feet on the north side of the saddle. Subsequent autopsy revealed a dislocated wrist, pulmonary edema (associated with either the altitude or the terminal stages of hypothermia), a heart condition, and the probable cause of death was listed as hypothermia. Seventy-five feet above John’s body, a meager bivouac site was found. Buried by almost two feet of snow, and almost directly beneath John’s body was most of their gear, including water and food, packs, wands, and Craig’s gloves and ax, laid out in an organized fashion. The sleeping bags and cooking gear were gone, however.

Analysis

Although there has been much speculation, we will never know for certain exactly what happened up there after the last radio contact. We do know that John and Craig were hit by an extremely violent and prolonged winter storm with winds in excess of 60 mph, which dropped two feet of snow in 24 hours, and which, by the end of the search, had deposited over six feet of new snow on the mountain. The presence of Craig’s body in Cascade Gulch suggests that he may have been on his way to get help for John, and suffered a fatal fall.

The fact that John and Craig had never climbed together previously should also be noted. While we will never know if this was a contributing factor in this accident, knowledge of your partner, and of yourself, in critical situations, can sometimes make a difference in the outcome.

The bottom line is this: In the high mountains, even ones we are familiar with, there is but one season: Winter. When a big storm moves in, circumstances can rapidly compound into a potentially fatal situation. High winds, zero visibility, and heavy snowfall all can combine to disorient and incapacitate the most able climber. Add a physical problem like an injury sustained in a fall or AMS, HAPE or HACE, and the odds rapidly mount against us. Preparation and awareness are our closest allies against those odds. I miss my friend. Be careful out there! (Source: Bruce Binder, friend of victim and searcher. Report reviewed by other search volunteers: E. Holland, M. Golay, J. Burns, J. Huber, J. Keeney, and Dave Nicholson, Incident Commander)

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