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Frostbite—Weather Conditions, Failure to Turn Back, Falls on Snow and into Crevasses, Washington, Mount Rainier, Kautz Glacier


Washington, Mount Rainier, Kautz Glacier

On June 9 at 1700, David German and his partner Judy Rittenhouse left their high camp at 10,200 feet on the Wapowety Cleaver in an attempt to climb the Kautz Glacier Route. The party found themselves encountering increasingly poor weather. For some reason, the party continued to ascend to the summit in whiteout conditions, wanding their route. Upon descending, German attempted to follow his wands but took a 10-foot fall into an open crevasse which pulled Rittenhouse off her feet and down 50 feet. Both were able to walk out. Continuing on, the two wandered off their wanded course and unknowingly began to descend the Wilson Headwall. German then fell into another open crevasse. Rittenhouse attempted to arrest the fall, but was unable to do so. The force of the fall slingshoted Rittenhouse over the crevasse to the lower side before she was able to arrest. German then climbed out. At this point the team decided to dig a snow cave and bivy (at 13,000 feet). On June 10 the party attempted to descend further in poor conditions (whiteout, high winds and soft snow). After two hours the team, unable to determine their location, decided to dig in again, excavating a new snow cave.

June 11 brought continued severe weather and poor traveling conditions, keeping the two holed up in their snow cave. On June 12 the visibility improved enough to allow German and Rittenhouse to determine their location (upper reaches of the Wilson Headwall), but they delayed descent until the following day.

On June 13 at 0800, weak and dehydrated, they slowly descended and crossed the Kautz following their wands. At 1430 the party returned to their high camp (after a few more “minor” crevasse falls) to find their tent badly ripped and full of snow, tent poles broken. Seeing another party below, they descended to their camp at 9,340 feet to seek assistance. The Reike-Crank Rainier party assisted the German party. The German party reestablished camp next to them.

On June 14, German awoke with acutely painful feet which was self-diag- nosed as frostbite. Later in the day, believing himself unable to walk out, German asked for assistance from the NPS relaying his request through the Crank Rainier party using “talk-about” radios to communicate with a party member at Paradise. At 1530, Climbing Ranger Glenn Kessler arrived at Paradise and was told of the situation by Paul Soboleski, a base coordinator for the Crank Rainier party. By radio, Kessler and Soboleski contacted the parties at 9,350 feet. German relayed that he was unable to walk and requested assistance. Kessler explained that due to very high avalanche danger and poor weather, assistance would be delayed until conditions permitted. Kessler then arranged for a medical evaluation of German to be performed by a nurse with the Crank Rainier party. At 1830, the medical evaluation showed some frostbite signs on both feet. Most of the injury appeared superficial to the nurse, except for a two-centimeter-in-diameter portion on the right big toe, and a one-centimeter-portion on the smallest digit, which appeared very dark in color. In the opinion of the nurse, German should be able to walk off. German and Rittenhouse agreed that he would be able to walk, but requested assistance for the descent from camp.

NPS Ranger Steve Winslow was apprised of the circumstances by Kessler. After a thorough discussion of options, Winslow determined that the most appropriate course of action was to prepare for an assist the following morning if conditions allowed. Kessler began a call-out of available Climbing Rangers.

At 0600 on June 15, Kessler was joined by Rangers Jennifer Erxleben (VIP) and Paul Charleton, along with Crank Rainier’s Paul Soboleski at the Paradise Old Station. Gear from the Longmire SAR cache and Paradise SAR cache was assembled. At 0630, Uwe Nehring, Incident Commander, contacted Kessler at Paradise. It was agreed that a consultation with a doctor should be made prior to asking the German party to move. The resulting medical opinion was that German should be removed from the field as soon as conditions would allow and that avoidance of further damage from walking would be beneficial. Kessler then apprised the German party of this information and that greater assistance would be available. Helicopter LZ suitability was discussed with those on the scene. German, however, relayed that he wanted to begin walking down and refused additional help beyond a ground team to carry his gear. IC was apprised of the circumstances and the ground assist was set in motion. Additional overnight provisions, avalanche rescue gear and glacier travel gear was collected. At 0730, Rangers were notified that the German party had begun their descent. Rangers Stoney Richards (VIP) and Matt Hendrickson joined Kessler, Erxleben and Charleton, and the “assist” team left Paradise at 0800. At the time of the departure, visibility was poor, with light drizzle and very light winds.

Due to recent avalanche activity elsewhere on the mountain, an avalanche pit was dug above Glacier Vista and avalanche conditions were assessed to be relatively stable for slopes of similar aspect and elevation. The team then proceeded downhill below the moraine alongside the Nisqually Glacier. While gearing up for glacier travel, the visibility began to improve and a party of four followed by a party of two was witnessed crossing the Nisqually Glacier below the “Fan.” When the party of four reached the Rangers, it was confirmed that the following party was the German party. When the German party reached the Rangers, they appeared to be traveling at a reasonable pace and were in good spirits. Rangers took the contents out of German’s pack to carry down to Paradise. The German party was assisted back to the Paradise Old Station where a detailed report of the incident was obtained. Medial evaluations were refused; however, the patients both signed EMS release forms. The German party indicated that they would seek further medical evaluation at Harborview Hospital in Seattle and report back the results of their evaluations to the Old Station by phone. (Source: Report prepared by Glenn Kessler and Jennifer Erxleben, NPS Rangers, Mount Rainier National Park)


David German wrote a report describing the details found above. He indicated that on the ascent, when they had reached the Wilson Headwall and Fuhrer Finger, Judy “suggested that we turn back.” By the time they reached the crater rim, it was a complete whiteout. “Judy again suggested turning back, but the summit was so close!” His concluding statement was this: “We had survived. Poor judgment cost us dearly, but competent mountaineering skills (and some luck) brought us back alive (barely). Skills and technical competence are requirements for mountaineering, but nothing will ever substitute for good judgment.” (Source: Jed Williamson)