Washington, Mount Rainier, Ingraham Glacier
On October 24, climbers Aaron Koester and Matt Little contemplated a summit ascent from their high camp at Cadaver Gap, but due to a late start the pair instead decided to train and explore and the crevasses on the Ingraham Glacier. Near 11,700 feet, the team entered a large cavernous crevasse close to the Disappointment Cleaver. They traversed some 7 5 yards into the crevasse and found an exit ramp out the other side. While ascending the 35-40 degree exit ramp, the snow slope fractured and slid.
The slab was estimated to be about eight to 14 inches thick and ran roughly 150 feet. The avalanche swept both climbers back into the crevasse. Koester was pinned against the ice wall of the crevasse and was completely buried by the debris. Little was partially buried; only his arm and head were exposed. Little spent about 30 minutes extricating himself from the entrapment before beginning the search for his partner. By the time he located and freed Koester’s head, Koester had no pulse and was very blue.
Little left the accident site and descended the Ingraham Glacier back to high camp, packed np the team’s equipment and continued down to Camp Muir. Along the descent, Little attempted to contact the authorities using a family service radio. A hunter picked up the transmission and notified the NPS of the accident at 4:58 p.m. Twenty minutes later, Little arrived at Camp Muir and called the Park on the Camp Muir emergency radio. After providing more specific information about the accident, Litde descended to Paradise and met with park rangers.
The following day, climbing rangers Mike Gauthier, Bree Loewen, and Adrienne Sherred, with the assistance of an MD 500 contract helicopter, were inserted at Ingraham Flats, 11,000 feet. They climbed to the cavernous crevasse and performed the body recovery. An analysis of the fracture, slide, and ramp area was not possible however, due to lingering instability in the snowpack, time limitations and deteriorating weather. Koester’s body was successfully recovered that day.
A recent storm had deposited only a few inches of snow, but high winds preceding the climb had transported this snow significantly. Many areas were scoured; others had deep pockets of snow. Autumn is an atypical time for avalanche accidents; at that time of year the dangers of falling on hard ice, snow bridges collapsing, rockfall and icefall are generally more pressing. As this accident illustrates, climbers must evaluate the avalanche risks at any time of year.
The fact that these climbers chose to wear avalanche beacons on the day of the incident indicates an increased level of avalanche awareness. They knew that they were in avalanche terrain and that there was a possibility of a slide occurring. However, no assessments of the snow stability took place. It is possible that if the climbers had done an assessment, they may have recognized the snow instability and avoided the terrain trap.
As the use of avalanche transceivers has become more standard in alpine climbing, it’s important for climbers to connect the reasoning of wearing such a device with the conditions. Donning a transceiver does not prevent the consequences of an avalanche. It’s important not to let down your guard when wearing a transceiver. A false sense of safety lowers the level of situational awareness, causing many to ignore or misinterpret valuable information and signs. (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Rainier National Park)