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Fall into Crevasse-Inadequate Protection, Weather and Stranded-Weather, Exposure-Hypothermia, Washington, Mount Rainier, Ingraham Glacier

FALL INTO CREVASSE—INADEQUATE PROTECTION, WEATHER AND STRANDED—WEATHER, EXPOSURE—HYPOTHERMIA

Washington, Mount Rainier, Ingraham Glacier

On June 6, Mount Rainier Climbing rangers responded to two mountaineering accidents on the Ingraham Direct Glacier Route. The rescues are interconnected and began on June 5. That evening, climbing rangers Glenn Kessler and Paul Charlton noted a single occupied tent when passing through Ingraham Flats Alpine Camp on summit patrol. While descending later that night, the rangers encountered a party of two, Benjamin Hernstedt (25), and Jeffrey Dupuis (21), at 13,000 feet ascending the mountain. The rangers contacted the team and discussed current conditions, which included barely penetrable ice and hard snow, a poorly defined climbing route, clear, but windy and cold weather. The climbers said there were prepared and would descend immediately upon reaching the summit. The climbers also stated that they were the team camped in the tent at Ingraham Flats.

The next morning, RMI Guides contacted NPS climbing rangers at Camp Muir to report that one of their rope teams had fallen into a crevasse on the Ingraham Glacier. Near 11,800 feet, Melody Wyman, Charles Grubbs and their guide Kurt Wedberg fell after a wind gust knocked Wyman off her feet. When she fell, Grubbs and Wedberg were pulled along for the ride. The trio attempted to self-arrest but slid 100–150 feet on hard icy snow before falling 60 feet into a crevasse. Wyman broke an ankle and Wedberg and Grubbs sustained non-serious head injuries. Wedberg was knocked unconscious for an undetermined but presumably short period of time. Wedberg and Grubbs managed to climb out, while another RMI team assisted with the crevasse rescue of Wyman.

NPS climbing rangers climbed towards the accident site and assisted the guides who were lowering Wyman in a rescue litter to Ingraham Flats. Since it was decided to fly Wyman off the mountain, Ranger Kessler remained at Ingraham Flats to prepare for helicopter operations. During the preparation of a helicopter landing-zone, he observed that no occupants were in or around the tent he noted from the night before. This seemed odd, as the pair of climbers contacted the evening before should have returned to their camp many hours earlier.

While the Wedberg helicopter evacuation was underway, the NPS also tried to determine the location of the Hernstedt party. The contents of the Hernstedt tent revealed overnight and cooking gear but no climbing gear. It appeared the team had not returned. Every tent was checked and all parties were contacted at Camp Muir and Schurman to determine if the Hernstedt party had inadvertently descended another route. Around 2:30 p.m., Wyman and Grubbs were airlifted. All rescue efforts then focused on locating the Hernstedt party.

A search team of NPS Climbing Rangers and RMI guides began an ascent of the Ingraham Direct Glacier route checking all likely fall lines and crevasses. A Bell Jet Ranger and US Army Reserve Chinook actively joined the search around 5:00 p.m., focusing higher up the mountain. Shortly thereafter, the crew of the Jet Ranger spotted what appeared to be two individuals, down, near 12,400 feet on the Ingraham Glacier below an ice-cliff.

The pilot of the Jet Ranger then guided the search team through crevasse and serac fields to the accident site. At the base of a 100-foot ice cliff on the Ingraham Glacier, Kessler’s team found Hernstedt and Dupuis, dead and entangled in rope. Because of their location and daylight constraints, US Army Chinook hoisting operations were ordered to remove the pair. A technical lower of each was required in order to keep the Chinook away from the ice cliff over which the climbers had fallen. After relocating them some 400 feet away, the bodies and equipment were hoisted and flown to Kautz heli-base. Technical search teams were able to descend to Camp Muir before total darkness.

Analysis

The weather had been poor for numerous days before June 5, preventing many climbers from summiting. When the weather finally cleared on June 5, climbers started going for it. This weather window was enticing but such weather can also be accompanied by very firm snow/icy conditions, which can make for great climbing (i.e. cramponing) but can also be particularly unforgiving in the event of a fall.

When the weather and snow conditions are such, it’s quite possible that being tied into a rope to other climbers poses its own dangers. If thefall of one member might potentially lead to the sweep of an entire rope team, running protection, such as pickets, should be used. Also noteworthy is the fact that more than once on Mount Rainier, the smallest person on a roped team has pulled numerous larger teammates off the mountain.

Wedberg’s team fortunately came to rest without life-threatening injuries. More than likely, Dupuis and Hernstedt experienced a similar sliding incident with more serious results. The position of the bodies and the entanglement of rope strongly suggest that the climbers slipped and fell somewhere above the ice cliff. They were dressed for cold weather and were wearing headlamps. Based on their last known location, time, and clothing description, it suggests that they were descending when the accident occurred. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: See similar incidents—one on Mount Hood in this issue, one in ANAM 1998 in Alaska on Ptarmigan Peak.)