FALL ON SNOW—INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, OFF ROUTE, PARTY SEPARATED
California, High Sierra, Mount Ritter, Southeast Glacier
On August 9 the body of Otto Loenneker was found by Mono County Mountain Search and Rescue at the base of the Southeast Glacier on Mount Ritter.
Otto and his partner, John Dickinson, arrived at the base of Mount Ritter late morning of August 8. Their plan that day was to scout a route to the base of the Southeast Pinnacle, then return to basecamp. The “official” route ascends the 1,000 foot lower gully to the Southeast Pinnacle at the base of Ritter’s Southeast Glacier, traverses north and back west around the edge of the glacier to Owen’s Chute, then approaches the summit from the southwest. As they approached the gully, Otto and John disagreed about the location of the lower gully, with Otto starting up a line farther to the northwest. They agreed to rejoin at the base of the Southeast Pinnacle. When John arrived at the point where the route traverses, he looked down and saw Otto about 500 to 1,000 feet below him in the lower gully and assumed that his line had topped out on this other gully and that he had retreated to a point where he switched to the lower gully. John built a cairn to mark the turning point, then continued the traverse to a small snowfield below the Southeast Glacier. This was the last time he saw Otto alive.
Upon retracing his path, he did not encounter Otto and assumed that he had returned to basecamp. Not finding him there, he waited out the night in camp, then hiked out the next morning and requested SAR assistance. By 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, the Mono County Mountain SAR team, after several passes around Mounts Banner and Ritter in an Air National Guard Blackhawk, had a faint spotting on the lower portion of the Southeast Glacier. One team was put in lower down and climbed to the scene to find Otto’s body in the rocks at the base of the glacier. A second team was inserted just before dark, to assist in packaging and lowering to a safe landing zone. All were retrieved the following morning.
The most likely assessment of the events of that day is that Otto continued climbing up, missing the landmarks for the northwest traverse and instead headed up a steep gully to the east of the Southeast Pinnacle. This gully exits high on the glacier. It may have appeared to Otto that the glacier was partially snow-covered; however, it was in fact hard sastrugi. At this point, Otto, not seeing his partner John, may have believed that contrary to plan, he had gone for the summit that day. Regardless, despite lack of crampons and ice ax, he attempted to traverse high across the 35-degree glacier. At some point he lost his footing and slid approximately 500 feet into the rocks.
Teams should be extremely cautious about splitting up, especially when on unfamiliar terrain. The conditions high on the Southeast Glacier, which Otto attempted to traverse, were hard ice laced with encrusted rock shards. Faced with such conditions, without proper equipment and contrary to agreed upon plans, Otto should have retreated. (Source: Craig Knoche, Mono County Mountain SAR)