California, Mount Shasta, Avalanche Gulch
On May 21, while ascending the Avalanche Gulch route, a large rock slide occurred, hitting a party of one guide and four clients. Two clients were injured.
The Sierra Wilderness Seminar (SWS) guided groups began their climb early to lessen their exposure to rock fall, which is usually more active in the afternoon. There were several SWS parties on the route simultaneously. One party was at 11,500 feet at 0745 when the rock slide started. As rocks and ice chunks fell, they attempted to move out of the way, but the rocks were moving fast and had enough momentum to cross the gulch where the party was located. Two of the five member team were struck by rocks. Gabriel Artalejo (27) was hit on the forehead, impacting his helmet. He tumbled down the hill 250 feet, lost consciousness, and slid another 250 feet before coming to a stop. The SWS guide descended immediately to Artalejo and did a primary and secondary assessment.
Other SWS guides were notified as well as Search and Rescue. The other guides were able to keep their clients in a safe place while they descended to assist. They made a barricade of backpacks and gear above Artalejo to protect him from continuing rock and ice fall. Artalejo’s neck and head were immobilized, and the laceration on his forehead was bandaged.
Another climber, not with SWS, was also impacted by rock fall to the arm, and walked to Lake Helen where he was evacuated by helicopter at 0945.
Patrick Daley (30) was hit on the upper back and on the lower arm/hand. Daley descended with a guide to Lake Helen (10,400 feet), where he was evacuated by helicopter at 1030.
Search and Rescue climbed up to Artalejo and arrived at 1230 bringing rescue gear. Artalejo was back-boarded, placed in a SKED, and lowered to an LZ at 10,600 feet where he was evacuated by helicopter at 1330.
The California Highway Patrol helicopter evacuated all injured climbers and transported them to Mercy Medical Center, Mount Shasta. Both Daley and Artalejo were released by 1600.
The snowpack on Mount Shasta was around 70 percent of normal and very warm spring conditions caused a rapid melting. Rock fall usually becomes more prevalent in July and August as the Avalanche Gulch route is surrounded on three sides by higher terrain of loose rocks. This route is notorious for rockfall as the snow melts, and early season and early morning climbs are usually safer.
Although climbing helmets are not designed for front or side impacts, this helmet probably made a huge difference in the extent of Artalejo’s head injury.
Wilderness rescues often take several hours to days to complete. In this case, the party had to wait six hours in a very exposed and dangerous area before they were evacuated. (Source: Eric White, Matt Hill—USFS Climbing Rangers, Michael Massari—SWS)