STRANDED—WEATHER, CLIMBING TOO SLOWLY, EXPOSURE— HYPOTHERMIA AND LOSS OF CONTROL GLISSADING, FAULTY USE OF CRAMPONS
Washington, Mount Ranier, Liberty Ridge and Kautz Glacier
On Saturday June 29, the Quillen party of two was rescued from a summit crevasse bivouac, three days overdue from a planned climbing trip of Liberty Ridge. Also that day, climber Yong Phan was rescued from 8900 feet on the approach to Camp Hazard. Phan had broken his lower right leg/ ankle.
The Quillen team began their climb on Sunday, June 23, ascending just ahead of the Whitcomb party previously mentioned. The Quillen team had communication with the Whitcomb party before their accident and witnessed the rescue and helicopter activity from Thumb Rock high camp Tuesday, June 25. On the morning of June 26, the Quillen team continued with their ascent of Liberty Ridge, wondering what had become of the Whitcomb party.
Most of the day was spent carefully climbing the route as the team moved cautiously over the exposed icy terrain. At sunset, they finally reached Liberty Cap. Spent, they decided to make camp and enjoyed the lights of Seattle. By 4:00 a.m., the temper of the mountain had changed. The visibility had decreased to whiteout conditions and the wind speed and precipitation increased dramatically. A significant storm had blown in.
They broke camp and attempted to find a route over to the Emmons/ Winthrop Glacier. Quickly, they recognized how futile this was, even remembering the tragic events of previous weeks. Instead, they decided to take cover and bivouac in a crevasse near the Summit Col. During the storm, they found a suitable slot and fixed an anchor with an ice ax. From there, they rappelled 50 feet into a cold dark hole to wait out the weather.
On a “shelf” in the crevasse, the pair huddled, inside sleeping bags and wrapped in the tent. The average temperature was 20–25 degrees F and there was little food other than gorp remaining. They also lacked fuel to run the stove, and were forced to melt water by collecting spindrift in plastic bottles, wrapping those in the sleeping bag. Roughly twice each day, one of them would ascend the fixed rope to the surface and check weather conditions. Once there, they would also reset the emergency signal marker, which was a red piece of fabric attached to a metal tent pole, stuck in the ice on the large summit plateau.
Melting snow, running out of food, and living in a crevasse was quickly accepted as a losing battle, but the team remained calm and stayed together. They considered descending but the storm was too fierce given their deteriorated condition. The Park Service was aware of the overdue party but could do nothing because the weather was too severe for both flying and upper-mountain climbing. Not until Saturday afternoon June 29 did periods of clear skies make flying possible.
During this time, another climbing accident had occurred below the high camp on the Kautz Glacier Route. Mr. Phan twisted and broke hislower leg while sliding with crampons. Phan was assisted to a safe location by his teammates, who then hiked out to Paradise to call for help.
Mid morning on the 29th, a ground team from Tacoma Mountain Rescue climbed towards Phan’s location from Paradise. The weather was poor for upper-mountain flying, but reasonable for lower-mountain climbing. The TMR team made good progress as the weather cleared throughout the day. These clearings enabled the US Army Chinook Helicopters to provide aerial support for the Park Service on both rescue missions.
Because of occasional cloud cover, the initial flight inserted ranger Giguere and rescuer Haseby via Jungle Penetrator 600 feet above Phan’s accident site. They down climbed to meet Phan, where they then stabilized and prepared him for air evacuation.
After inserting team one, the Chinook then began aerial search for the Quillen party. They searched Liberty Ridge, its fall lines, the summit plateau, and Liberty Cap. Nearly an hour later and near the end of a fuel load, the helicopter finally noted a small hole in the ice near the Summit Col. Next to it was a tent pole with a red marker. The ship hovered over the hole for some time, but no activity was seen. The ship then returned to Gray Field to refuel.
During this time, Giguere and Hasebe prepared Phan for Jungle Penetrator evacuation. This required leg stabilization and transport to a better landing zone some 300 feet higher. It also meant waiting for the weather to clear, as the clouds were in and out throughout the rescue.
Sunset was approaching when climbing rangers Gottlieb, Shank, and Richards were dropped off on the summit to spend the night and search the “marked” crevasse. After drop off, the Chinook departed to assist Giguere’s team. The weather, however, remained obstinate. At 8:45 p.m., Gottlieb reported finding the Quillen party alive in the crevasse. He immediately called for a pickup, as both were very hypothermic and in need of food, warmth, and better shelter.
The Chinook quickly returned to the summit and picked up the Quillen party and Gottlieb’s team. Then it returned to Giguere’s location, where fortunately, the weather had improved, making it possible to hoist the rescuers and patient before nightfall.
The Quillen party undoubtedly saved themselves in a location and under similar conditions that have killed others. Their survival techniques are commendable but their pace put them in a position to need them. The party admitted that though they were able to climb the route, they had hoped to do so in better style and time.
Every year, teams over-estimate their skill and ability when measuring up to Liberty Ridge. The route is committing, longer, and more strenuous than most perceive. A two- or three-day trip commonly becomes a four- to seven-day trip when the weather kicks up its heels. Add a little altitude sickness and general fatigue and your team suddenly moves at a snail’s pace above 13,000 feet. If you want to climb Liberty Ridge and not spend aweek or ten days doing it, make sure you’re in the best shape possible and are comfortable moving on exposed big mountain terrain with a pack.
Glissading seems like an easy way down the mountain, but it’s also dangerous. Many climbers and hikers are injured glissading on Mount Rainier each summer. What seems like an innocuous descent technique has actually resulted in numerous broken ankles, twisted knees, pulled muscles and, at minimum, loss of gear. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)
(Editor’s Note: If snow conditions are such that crampons are needed, then one should not be glissading.)