TRIP/FALL ON SNOW–TWICE, UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST–FALL INTO CREVASSE
Washington, Mount Rainier, Ingraham Glacier
On July 7 at 0720, John Lucia (31), a guide with Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI), was leading a rope team up the Ingraham Glacier around 12,800 feet when one of the clients, Peter Bridgewater (54) fell on the icy slope. Lucia successfully arrested the client’s fall and then attempted to place a picket for a running belay. After that, Lucia’s memory becomes fuzzy, but he does recall wanting to put Bridgewater on a “short tie-in” as he was concerned about Bridgewater’s footing. During this time, Bridgewater somewhat regained his footing and starting crawling towards Lucia. As he ascended, slack was created in the rope; moments later Bridgewater fell again and pulled Lucia off his feet. Lucia described being unable to self-arrest due to the momentum and the hard ice. The other two clients, Matt Fisher (42) and Patrick Clements (36), also attempted to self-arrest, but were subsequently pulled off as Bridgewater and Lucia slid by.
The team fell approximately 150 to 200 feet down the Ingraham Glacier before hitting a crevasse. Lucia and Bridgewater were tossed across this crevasse while Clements and Fisher fell into the crevasse and landed on a shelf 20 feet down. Lucia was knocked unconscious during the fall but regained consciousness shortly thereafter. Lucia, who sustained lacerations and a head injury, radioed for assistance to other RMI guides as he assessed the team’s injuries.
The initial call to the Park Service indicated that all of the members of the team were badly hurt, including femur fractures, serious head injuries and spinal injuries. Within minutes of the initial call, climbing rangers Gauthier and Kessler had a rescue team on stand by ready for flight, while air support from the military was requested. A Hughes 500D helicopter that had just arrived at the park for material hauling was diverted for rescue operations.
While the carrying capacity of that ship was limited, the maneuverability and small footprint for landings made it extremely useful during the initial stages of the rescue.
At 0840 helicopter 12F, piloted by Jerry Grey, was launched to Camp Schurman to pickup climbing ranger Jeremy Shank and insert him on scene with rescue equipment. Ranger Matt Hendrickson at Kautz Helibase was flown to the accident scene on the second flight. Those rangers assisted Lucia and four other guides already on scene in extricating the injured clients from the crevasse. Shank and Hendrickson provided patient care and technical rope rigging skills.
Clements and Fisher, the two climbers in the crevasse, were the most critically injured. Clements had serious head, spinal and chest injuries in addition to a suspected broken femur. Fisher had sustained serious chest injuries with multiple rib fractures. Bridgewater, also banged up badly, sustained a dislocated shoulder. Bridgewater was ambulatory and therefore able to walk to the LZ. He was airlifted out when the next climbing ranger, David Gottlieb, arrived on scene in 12F. Gottlieb arrived at 1002 with additional rescue equipment; Bridgewater was flown to Kautz Helibase and met by medics and the NPS ambulance.
Rescuers continued stabilizing and packaging Clement and Fisher into litters for crevasse extrication. A 20-foot technical raise was needed to extricate Clement and Fisher from the crevasse before they could be hoisted from the mountain. At 1042 VIP Climbing Ranger Andy Winslow was flown to the scene and Lucia was then flown off the mountain to Kautz Helibase. Lucia and Bridgewater were transported to Tacoma General Hospital via AMR ambulance.
During this time, two Oregon National Guard Blackhawk med-evac helicopters and one Fort Lewis Army Reserve CH-47 Chinook helicopter arrived at Kautz Helibase. The crew of first Blackhawk enroute to the park was given GPS coordinates of the accident scene in order for them to complete a flyover and familiarize themselves with the site.
The field operations continued to prepare the remaining two patients for extrication. Raising the climbers from the crevasse was slightly hampered by an overhanging snow lip. As Clements was being raised to the surface, the first Blackhawk was launched to retrieve him via hoist. The ship arrived on scene 14 minutes later and inserted one medic with litter. That medic helped rangers to transfer the patient to the National Guard’s litter before hoisting Clements into the ship at 1159. The ship flew directly to Madi- gan Hospital in Tacoma with the patient. Clements was the most critically injured of the four.
At 1233, minutes before the last of the injured was ready for airlift, the second med-evacked Blackhawk was launched from Kautz with an NPS medic (Rob Bjelland) onboard. A repeat of the previous operation was made to hoist Fisher from the accident site and fly him to Harborview Medical Center.
The RMI guides assisting with the rescue descended to Camp Muir after the patients were evacuated. The Army Reserve Chinook was launched at 1503 to retrieve the climbing rangers from the top of Disappointment Cleaver via Jungle Penetrator.
Lucia was released later that day after being treated for a broken orbit, lacerations, and contusions. Clements spent six days in the hospital having suffered two broken cervical vertebrae, six broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, severely bruised femur/thigh, broken nose, and serious facial lacerations. Fisher remained in the hospital for five days with six broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a lacerated liver. Bridgewater was released that day having been treated for a dislocated shoulder.
One of the difficulties for a guide is the gamble of who will end up on your rope. While RMI clients are screened for fitness, those on the standard summit climbs are given only a few hours of technical training. A majority have never used an ice ax or crampons before. Clients are given specific instructions on what to do in the event of a fall, but a novice, especially when panicked, cannot be expected to react with rapid and correct reflexes. It seems Lucia, having successfully caught Bridgewater’s first fall was formulating a plan to reduce the risk Bridgewater posed to his rope team when, only moments later, his client stumbled and fell again. Once pulled off his feet, Lucia stood little chance of arresting both his own fall and that of Bridgewater’s on the early morning boilerplate surface. While experienced mountaineers observing the fall of rope team members upslope might be expected to drop into self-arrest, digging in his ice ax and front points vigorously in preparation for the impending shock load, little can be expected from those whose only experience with self-arrest is a few minutes of dropping onto flat ground from a standing positions without the realism of even a good tug on the rope. Given these imposed conditions, Lucia, it seems, did the very best he could. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)
(Editor’s Note: Rangers and MRA personnel used a dynamometer to test the forces of snow anchor systems and human anchor systems—as in self arrest—several summers ago on the Muir snowfield. Many were surprised to learn how quickly and easily belayers could be pulled from the self-arrest position, even when they were allowed to get into position prior to the climber simulating a fall.
Ofnote here is the hi-tech rescue that was accomplished. In earlier years - before cell phones and several available helicopters, the results of such an incident would likely have been quite different.)