FAILURE TO FOLLOW ROUTE–WEATHER, FAILURE TO TURN BACK, INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT, DEHYDRATION, HYPOTHERMIA, FROSTBITE
Washington, Mount Baker, North Ridge
James Genone (25) and I began the approach to the North Ridge of Mount Baker on June 7. We had checked the weather and [noted that] a storm was expected. The route was reported to require six to eight hours from a basecamp, so we thought we had an adequate window.
We stopped at the American Alpine Institute (AAI Guide Service) to check on conditions and were told that there was some fresh snow on the route and that it was a little slushy at lower altitude, but that overall, the route was in good shape. We inquired about the weather and were told that it was expected to be okay until the weekend. This corresponded to our own research.
At our bivy below Heliotrope Ridge, we were passed by an AAI expeditionary course. They had just completed an ascent of the North Ridge and confirmed the report that soft snow made for slow going low on the route.
We began climbing before sunrise the following morning. The weather was clearly unsettled, with lenticular clouds over the summit, apparently high winds higher on the mountain, and scattered and gradually building cumulus clouds. The lights of Bellingham were clear to the west, and we hoped conditions might improve. We made rapid progress, as the boot tracks from the AAI group allowed easy travel. The weather gradually deteriorated as winds and clouds increased. James suggested descending a couple of times, but I hoped that the weather might hold long enough for us to summit and descend, and if it didn’t I thought we would be able to find our way down.
Around 10,000 feet, the angle steepened considerably. I climbed up a rope length, but the wind was rapidly increasing, snow was beginning to fall, and visibility was deteriorating. We were close to the summit, but finding our way across the vast summit of Mount Baker and back down the descent route in these conditions was unlikely, and we decided to descend. Visibility was approaching zero, and windblown snow was rapidly filling our boot tracks.
Shortly into the descent, I lost our track on an exposed, wind blasted portion of the ridge. I guessed, and guessed wrong, and soon we were wandering lost in the jumbled chaos of the Roosevelt Glacier, to the east of the North Ridge. At one point while descending a 40 degree slope, my legs punched through into a crevasse. I was swimming up to my armpits in unconsolidated snow, unable to arrest myself, or make progress up from the lip of the crevasse. James anchored himself, and with tension I was able to extricate myself and climb back up.
I was convinced from my observation of the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers the previous day that any attempt to continue to descend would result in reaching a dead end, and that the only solution was to climb back up and traverse west until we hit the North Ridge. When we reached an area which I believed was close to where I lost the track, we took shelter by a rock wall. I noticed a moat filled with unconsolidated snow at the base of the wall, and quickly stamped out a trench for shelter. The wind was strong, so the trench was poor shelter. I was getting extremely cold. I began excavating a cave for better shelter. I was able to dig out a fairly comfortable cave and began to believe that our chances of survival were better sheltered in the cave than in wandering blind in the heavily crevassed icefalls of the Coleman and Roosevelt glaciers. This was probably a mistake. We most likely should have attempted to traverse west and find our line of ascent. We had no bivy gear, and our remaining food consisted of one Clif Bar. James disagreed and wanted to continue descending, but I felt that wandering around lost in the storm would be suicidal.
We made one attempt to break out during the storm, but high winds, cold, avalanche hazard, and no visibility convinced me that the attempt was futile and that we were better off in our cave.
On Sunday, June 10, the winds and snow decreased, visibility improved, and we decided to attempt to descend. Two to three feet of fresh snow had fallen. In order to avoid avalanche hazard, James wanted to descend the Roosevelt Glacier, hugging the rock ridge on its Eastern border. I wanted to traverse west to the North Ridge and descend the ridge. We decided to descend the Roosevelt but were unable to find a way through the icefall, so we bivvied that night in a crevasse.
The following day I was extremely weak. James had been eating snow and seemed in much better shape. I had always heard that eating snow was a bad idea, but I began to eat snow and soon felt much stronger. We climbed back up the Roosevelt Glacier and again bivvied in a crevasse. The weather had deteriorated again, and our spirits were low.
After a bad night, the day dawned with more snow and poor visibility. Then, midmorning, the sky began to clear. We immediately decided to begin traversing west until we hit the North Ridge. We ate the last of our Clif Bar, suited up, and started out. James had broken trail the previous day and was tired, so today was my turn. The snow was hip-deep. That is, I stopped sinking in when it reached my crotch, but it was certainly deeper. Probing with a full length ski pole yielded four feet of unvarying unconsolidated snow, and every step took a force of will.
In our dazed, sleep deprived, and dehydrated state we over-shot the North Ridge and traversed around to the south side of the mountain, descending gradually. Near the tree line we thought we heard voices. Soon I spotted Railroad Grade, which I recognized from an ascent of the Eaton Glacier as part of an AAI class almost ten years earlier. I hoped that there might be a class camped there now, and that was in fact the case. The two guides had first aid training and two surgeons were members of the class, so we were in good hands. They warmed and rehydrated us and arranged for our evacuation. The following day we were dragged down in litters until the weather cleared to allow us to be picked up by helicopter.
We suffered frostbite on our toes and hypothermia. James eventually lost half the length of nine toes, and all of one toe. I recovered completely.
Climbing into deteriorating weather was the proximate cause of the accident. Using the map and compass we brought, along with an altimeter (which we did not bring), could have allowed us to plot a course up the ridge which we could have followed back down blind. Adequate clothing and bivy gear could have reduced the consequences. We should have attempted to relocate our ascent route as soon as we realized we were lost.
But ultimately, it was my reluctance to “bail” that led to the accident. Our lack of experience with the severity of Cascade weather was a contributing cause. I have climbed through storms without consequence in the Sierra and on Mount Shasta. I had summited Mount Baker in a whiteout uneventfully ten years previously. This gave me false confidence. We were on vacation with limited climbing days. This contributed to my desire to keep going. But I believe it was Don Whillans who said, “The mountain will always be there; the trick is to make sure you’re still there too.” (Source: William Folk—39)
(Editor’s Note: Honest self-reports like this one are the most helpful for this journal. It should be noted that Folk’s partner also sent in a report with basically the same description and conclusion.)