American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Failed to Turn Back, Inadequate Clothing and Equipment, Weather, Poor Position-Bivouac Site

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  • Publication Year: 2003

FAILED TO TURN BACK, INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT, WEATHER, POOR POSITION–BIVOUAC SITE

California, Split Mountain

In October, the climb up our twelfth 14,000-foot peak, Split Mountain, did not go well. One member of our climbing party, Dave French, was hospitalized for frostbite afterward and is still recovering.

It was early October. Dave, his son Sean, Sean’s friend Matt, their college professor Tom Campbell and I were expecting late summer conditions with fair weather and little wind. We did not realize however, that a storm earlier in the week had left seven to ten inches of snow above 9,000 feet, or that cold temperatures since then had left the snow as a dry powder. We were surprised to see the snow on the mountains when we arrived but we felt that it would probably burn off before we reached it and that any remaining would not be a significant factor anyway.

The first day we hiked from a low start on the valley floor, up Red Creek to Red Lake. We camped there with nine other climbers in three groups all headed for Split Mountain the next morning. It seemed odd that such a pristine area would be hosting so many climbers that late in the season. We suspected this out-of-the-way eastern Sierra trail had been largely ignored before the recent interest in California’s fourteener’s.

We were first out of camp at 6:30 the next morning with the other climbers close behind. At head of the Red Creek Canyon is a glacial cirque, which in normal conditions would have been an easy Class 3 climb up a steep chute of loose scree. The layer of dry snow meant that we were still walking on loose scree, but we couldn’t see it. Add to this the fact that in many sections, between large rocks and in the bottom of the chute for example, the snow had drifted to waist depth and beyond, and you have very difficult climbing conditions.

It was slow going, especially the last hundred feet, which was particularly steep. Tom and I were first up. By the time Dave, Sean and finally Matt had mounted the cirque and turned toward the peak it was after noon. One of the other climbing parties, a man and his two sons, had passed us and started up the peak about 15 minutes before. The six climbers behind us had given up and turned back short of the top of the cirque.

From the top of the cirque at 13,000 feet, the summit climb looked easy, but it was not. The north side of the peak is less steep than the cirque, but the climbing conditions were just as bad with a dry powder over talus and scree. There was no crust on the snow. It could not support a climber’s weight. Each step was supported by the surface below, which often did not provide a good footing, especially with a layer of compressed powder under your boot. Often your boot would fall between unseen rocks. Occasionally we crossed drifts where we sunk in above our waists.

I did not have sunglasses and was concerned about snow blindness. As we started toward the summit I covered my prescription glasses with strips of adhesive tape from the medical kit I was carrying. I left a narrow gap between the strips and used my fingernail to open additional slits. I alternated between eyes while climbing and closed them both during rests.

Even beyond the difficult conditions, our progress was very slow. Tom was in the lead. Dave and Sean were stopping for rests often and waiting for Matt to catch up. I had dropped back when I taped over my glasses and after catching up had stayed back with Matt to encourage him.

A couple hundred feet above the cirque Tom turned around and walked back down to the rest of the group. He said that the last hundred feet had taken us 30 minutes and there was not time to make it to the peak and back down before dark. He said he was not prepared to bivouac and so was heading back. Sean and Matt were willing to turn around too.

I was not. It was still early afternoon. I didn’t think we needed to make it back to camp before dark; we just needed to get off the top of the cirque. We had a couple headlamps with us and could walk the rest of the way after dark.

Dave also wanted to go on. He didn’t want to have to come back up Split Mountain before finishing the fourteeners. (He and I had just four more peaks left.) He said that we had enough equipment with us and should be able to bivouac if we had to. Tom and Matt turned back. Dave, Sean (who decided to stay with his father), and I went on. Before separating Dave asked Matt to leave me with his bivy sack and headlamp.

A while later we passed the two boys coming down. They had not made the peak and had decided to turn around. They were going to wait for their father at the top of the chute. About an hour later their father also passed us. He had made the summit. The climb to the peak was very slow with frequent stops for rest. We took some pictures and started back down at 4:30 p.m., two hours before sunset.

On the way down, the wind came up. Waiting for Dave and Sean I started to feel cold, and with that a bit of apprehension. We were at high altitude late in the day and late in the season. Hoping to speed things up I commented that we could not spend the night here. We had not yet resigned ourselves to a bivouac but realized that if we were going on we had to find the chute we came up and get down the steepest part before dark. Without ropes there was no other reasonable route and the top portion was simply too difficult to downclimb after dark.

I thought the chute was at the low point in the pass to our north. Sean said it was to the northeast. I decided to go ahead of Dave and Sean to make sure we located it before dark. I went toward the northeast first to pick up our outbound tracks. I found a very light track in the snow with clear switchbacks and followed it north. I assumed that the rest of our tracks were running parallel to this further to the east or had been covered by the blowing snow. Sean became alarmed when he saw me continuing further down the ridge to the north. He yelled after me that I had gone too far. He checked his altimeter and yelled that the pass was only 70 feet below him. Dave yelled after him that it was 170 feet below. Sean corrected him, but I didn’t get this message and thought that 170 feet was more consistent with where I thought the pass was. Sean was sure that this was wrong and stopped to get a GPS reading before continuing down. He had both his GPS and his altimeter watch with him. Further, he had checked the altitude and stored a fix at the top of the chute.

With Dave and Sean now stopped on the slope above me, I took my headlamp out of my fanny pack and left the pack with the second headlamp out in the open where they could see it. My idea was that if I could locate the chute I could mark it with my light and guide them to it. I went toward the edge of the ridge to my east to see what was below. In the waning light I could see that the canyon below was not the canyon we had come up, but rather a canyon further north. To the south I could just make out an arête, which I recognized as being on the north side of the cirque we had come up.

By this time Sean had a GPS reading and he and Dave had started back up the ridge toward the southeast. I picked up the pack and hurried back up the ridge to join them. By the time we were back together it was dark and continuing to look for the chute, even with the GPS and headlamps seemed pointless. We could not climb down in the dark.

We decided to bivouac. We started to move away from the pass to avoid the wind but then decided to just dig into the snow where we were instead. The snow was only about a foot deep at that spot. We cleared a four by six foot patch, stacking the snow from the clearing on the windward side. We then got out our bivy bags. None of us had used or even seen this equipment before. It was still in its original packaging.

I had thought that each of us had a bivy bag, but it turns out we only had two, the one Matt had left me and an identical one Sean carried. Dave was carrying a space blanket instead. Dave thought that we would be able to double up in one of the bags for warmth and use the space blanket as added insulation. But the bivy bags were not big enough for two of us to get into.

The space blanket was not long enough to extend all the way to Dave’s feet and still cover his shoulders. Further it was not wide enough to completely wrap around him so he just tucked the sides in under him. The wind kept pulling the sides out. The Mylar was flapping in the wind most of the night. I got up to help tuck in his legs a couple of times. The last time the Mylar had ripped so I just took what was left and wrapped it around his legs a couple of times.

During the night Dave expressed a concern about getting frostbite on his toes. I didn’t know and didn’t answer the question directly. Instead I suggested that we alternately curl and straighten our toes every few minutes to keep the blood flowing. Dave relayed this message to Sean who was on the other side of him. About 2:30 in the morning, Dave could no longer wiggle his toes.

At some point I suggested that Dave and Sean breathe into their jackets to preserve body heat. It was a long night. My fingers and toes were numb and I was at times shivering more violently than I have ever before. Despite the cold I fell asleep several times.

We waited for the sun before getting up the next morning, found the chute easily and headed back toward camp. At that point we didn’t know that anything was wrong. Tom and Matt had come up the trail looking for us and met us half way down.

We were back in camp before noon. Dave took his boots off to rest before we walked on down to the car. His toes were heavily blistered and discolored. The blisters were orange and were not located at wear points as hiking blisters usual are. And the ends of several toes were black.

Dave ended up hospitalized for a week and continued Jacuzzi treatments and medication for one month. Although he did not lose any of his toes, he still has not fully regained feeling in them. Although not discolored or blistered, my toes and fingertips tingled for about three weeks after the climb. I assume this is the result of some pre-frostbite condition.

Analysis

We made an astounding collection of errors. The most obvious of course is the failure to turn back when the climb proved more difficult than we had planned for. But to end the discussion here would be a great oversimplification. We went on expecting to hike back after dark and we had accepted the possibility of a bivouac if we couldn’t. We’ve hiked through the night before and we’ve bivouacked successfully before, and we should have been able to in this case.

I did not bring sufficient clothing. I had made a religion out of traveling light, taking only that which I was sure to use. This left little margin for the unexpected. My predicament hit home while I was waiting for Dave and Sean near the peak. The only way I had kept warm during the climb was by moving. A few minutes without moving and I was cold. This is absurd. You should be able to stop anytime for as long as needed; whether for a broken leg, a tired partner or, as in this case, wet gloves.

We were not familiar with the emergency equipment we were carrying. If we had examined this equipment before the climb, we would have been much less receptive to the idea of a bivouac!

We underestimated the effect of the first new snow of the season. We have hiked across plenty of snowfields and glaciers, but this was different. The dry powder with no solid layer underneath it was really difficult to move across. None of us had gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots and I didn’t even have sunglasses; but the real problem was how much the snow slowed us down.

My getting lost on the way back to the top of the chute cost us the opportunity to walk out that night. This is particularly disconcerting considering we had the technology available to prevent us from ever getting lost. That I forgot about the GPS and that I was not paying enough attention on the way up to recognize my surroundings on the way back is mortifying. But a deeper concern is my willingness, like every lost hiker ever, to adjust reality to fit my perception of it. I was sure we had come up from the lower pass. And I don’t know who made the single track I followed down to it, but it was certainly not the trail of eight people going up and five going back down within the last six hours. The real trail was further east and it was not covered by the blowing snow. In fact it was still quite visible the next morning!

The location of our bivouac, right at the top of the pass, was poor. It’s virtually always windy at the top of a pass. This night was no exception. Of course, it would have been difficult to get away from the wind. Along the same lines, we needed to dig in deeper. The shallow hole we dug in the thin snow near the pass did not keep the wind off of us and the snow berm we formed on the upwind side was completely ineffective. In fact, the berm was probably triggering turbulent flow downstream! We would have been better off in the laminar boundary layer flow without the berm. We also would have been better off if we had taken the extra snow and covered ourselves with it. Snow is an excellent insulator and on this night there would have been little concern for it melting.

We would have been much better off if we had gone back to one of the deep snowdrifts we had passed through and dug snow caves. My experience with snow caves has been that they are comfortable and completely insulated from the wind.

One simple trick to keeping your feet warm is to loosen up your boots. This allows more blood to flow through the less constricted veins. I’ve always known this. In fact, I even thought of it on the way up. Sean’s boots laces had come loose and I was helping him lace them back up. The laces were frozen. I had to suck on them to get them untied. Then when I pulled them tight, the laces broke. There wasn’t enough length left to make a bow so I had just knotted what remained. That’s when I thought about loosening them at night and realized how hard this would be now that they were knotted. Still, Dave and I could have easily loosened our boots, and Sean’s other boot could have been loosened. But I didn’t think of it again once we had bivouacked for the night. And despite our numb feet, we never unlaced our boots!

My climbing gloves were of no use. The material between the fingers, which end just at the first knuckles, holds the bare fingers apart. This makes them excellent heat radiators! I believe my hands would have been warmer if I had closed my fists without gloves. I the future I’ll bring either full gloves or mittens.

We had adhesive tape in our medical kit. We could have taped Dave’s space blanket on him. This would have been much better than leaving it to flap in the wind and eventually tear. I could also have used the tape to keep the top of my bag closed, or to cover the vent if I had known it was there. More significantly, we could have slit the sewn seams on mating sides of the two bivy bags, then used the tape to fasten them together as one big bag that we all could have fit inside. We would have been much warmer with three of us on the inside and Dave would have been out of the wind. And if we had taped the space blanket inside the top of this double bag, so it reflected our body heat, I suspect we would have been downright comfortable!

Why did we not think of these “solutions” on the mountain? Certainly we had time to cogitate on our predicament as we lay awake that night. Dave and I theorized that perhaps the lack of oxygen at altitude or the cold temperatures compromised our reasoning ability. If so, it’s all the more important that we review and analyze the experience after the fact. We need to decide in advance what were going to do differently next time if we can’t trust the decisions we make while climbing.

Another theory is that we may not have been looking for “solutions.” As climbers we have a fairly high capacity for pain and a tendency to put up with whatever is thrown at us. At one point during the night Dave asked Sean what time it was. We didn’t know if we had been laying there for two hours or twelve. When Sean answered that it was two in the morning, we were all relieved. We had already made it through eight hours. Just four more and this would all be over. I think that same mentality—“let’s just tough this out”—may have taken over hours before; perhaps even while we were still climbing up toward the peak.

We were fortunate. If the temperature had been ten degrees colder the outcome would have been much more serious. Not all our decisions were poor. The arrangement with the three of us laying on our sides and pressed together worked well for all of us and provided some protection for Dave, who without a bivy bag was at least in the middle. However, he is considerably taller than either Sean or me. This left his feet out in the cold.

It was also good that we did not attempt to climb down the chute after dark. There was no discussion or argument on this point, we just turned away. That’s encouraging. On this matter there would have been little room for misjudgment. (Source: Mike Koerner)

(Editor’s Note: Another lengthy narrative, but filled with illustrative lessons from the best source: the individual involved.)

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