Fall on Rock—Dislocated Knee, Fall on Snow—Unable to Self-Arrest, Exceeding Abilities, Inability to Continue Due to Injuries, Trying to Please Others, Inadequate Communication, Washington, North Cascades, Mt. Baker, Spider/Formidable Couloir
FALL ON ROCK-DISLOCATED KNEE, FALL ON SNOW-UNABLE TO SELFARREST, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, INABILITY TO CONTINUE DUE TO INJURIES, TRYING TO PLEASE OTHERS, INADEQUATE COMMUNICATION
Washington, North Cascades, Mt. Baker, Spider/Formidable Couloir
Marty, Dave, Doug and I (Mike) all met as volunteers on a local mountain rescue team. Among the four of us we had varying degrees of rescue, mountaineering and rock climbing experience. Additionally, Dave and Doug are members of a popular mountaineering club. Doug is also a certified EMT.
On August 25th, we entered the North Cascades National Park to begin our journey along the popular Ptarmigan Traverse, a 25 mile, more or less, alpine traverse along the boundary of Skagit and Chelan Counties. The route spans from Cascade Pass southerly to Downey Creek. I’d completed this same traverse years ago with another friend from our rescue team.
On the morning of August 26th, we packed up camp, shouldered our 5 5-pound packs, left Kool-Aid Lake, and headed towards the Red Ledge, a narrow ledge cutting across the face of a reddish cliff band. Unfortunately, due to the late season snow conditions, the lower portion had to be gained by a short 4th-class climb. Doug brought up some concerns about climbing with his pack up this rock and suggested that we could do a pack haul, but a decision was made not to because we thought it would be fairly easy to carry them. (Doug later recalled that he’d felt like no one really seemed to listen to his suggestion, so he went with the flow.) Marty climbed first followed by Dave then Doug. I waited down below on the snow while Doug began to ascend a steep dirt bank to the base of the rock. I noticed he was having difficulty getting a good stance when he suddenly yelled and dropped to the ground. I quickly ascended and asked Marty and Dave to wait for a minute. When I got to Doug, he explained that he had weighted his foot at an odd angle causing his knee to dislocate. We pulled his pack off and talked about the situation. I told him we had three choices: rescue, hike out, or hike on. Doug thought that if we wrapped his knee, he could continue without incident. We taped him up with some athletic tape and hung there for a few minutes to see how it felt. Marty volunteered to descend and grab Doug’s pack so Doug could climb without that extra weight. Doug climbed on without issue.
Later that day, from the top of the Middle Cascade Glacier we had to descend the Spider/Formidable Col. Again, due to the late season conditions, it was melted out about a third of the way down. After a short discussion with Doug, we decided that he would descend without his pack. I rigged a belay for Marty to descend with two packs. Dave started the descent first, followed by Doug, then Marty. After Marty got down to the top of the snow, he called, “Off belay,” and I began my descent. Doug decided he could descend the snow with his pack, so he followed Dave while Marty waited for me. Once I made it down to the top of the snow with Marty, I started coiling the rope. That’s when we heard Doug yell, “Falling!” Doug had fallen and self-arrested on the snow. I finished stowing the rope and Marty and I started to descend when we saw Doug fall again, but this time he didn’t self-arrest. He remained on his butt and tried to control his slide. He couldn’t control it and went feet first into a band of exposed rock separating the chute from the snowfield below. He flipped forward, skipping
his helmet off the rocks and tumbled over until he hit the snow field and slid to a stop. Marty and I quickly descended. When we got down to Doug and Dave, Doug looked up and said, “I’m done.” He had a laceration on the same knee he had dislocated earlier. This time there was deeper soft tissue damage and he couldn’t bend his knee without a great deal of pain. He had some bumps and bruises and a good ding on his helmet that most likely would have resulted in a concussion had he not been wearing it.
I rigged a couple pickets and belayed Doug down the snow field with Marty and Dave assisting him to the boulders below. We found a large semi-flat rock and made it as comfortable as possible for Doug. We quickly resolved that two of us would head back to the Cascade Pass Trail head and initiate a rescue at first light while one stayed with Doug. I prepared dinner, Marty prepped the bivy site, and Dave climbed to the South Ridge of Formidable to see if he could get a signal on his cellular phone. Dave didn’t make it back until after dark, but he had gotten out. The sheriff told him to expect to see a helicopter by 7:00 a.m. and to call him back if we hadn’t seen it by 8:00 a.m. We spent that evening loading up Doug’s pack with all of our nonessentials and extra food rations.
The next morning we placed a large red tarp on the snow field behind us, located a primary and secondary landing zone, had some breakfast, and waited for the helicopter.
An honorable mention should go out to Jake, a lone hiker who wandered the North Cascades taking pictures. He wandered into our bivy site to say hello and ask some route questions. We filled him in on our situation and he decided to hang around for some possible photo ops and offer his help if he could. (Thanks Jake!)
By about 7:50 a.m., we hadn’t seen our helicopter yet, so Dave volunteered to once again climb the South Ridge of Formidable to contact the Sheriff. This was a commendable effort. Shortly after Dave’s return to tell us they were enroute, we heard the buzzing of a helicopter from the south. We saw it fly in over Le Conte Mountain. They must have seen the couple camped down at Ying Yang lakes to our south because they decided to land there. It turned out to be the Chelan County Sheriffs Office. They took off again and made another attempt to locate us. We quickly grabbed our compasses and started flashing them with mirrors. It worked! They flew up to us and we quickly pointed out the two landing zones and after a few passes, they left. About 1:00 p.m., a second helicopter flew in from the north. They landed on our primary LZ without hesitation. After some assessment they maneuvered the bird to the secondary LZ, smaller and dangerously close to the snow slope behind us. Once they loaded Doug into the helicopter and took off, we shouldered our packs and headed back towards Cascade Pass.
Though Marty, David, and I were comfortable climbing the 4th class rock up to the Red Ledge and descending the Spider/Formidable Couloir, Doug was not. His experience on rock was limited. There was a failure on our part for not communicating with Doug enough to recognize his level of comfort on that terrain. We failed to see the urgency when he suggested a pack-haul on the Red Ledge. This level of climbing continued intermittently and led Doug into having a raised level of anxiety throughout the day There was a failure on Doug’s part for not relaying his true level of discomfort to us adequately. It was a subtle communication breakdown which proved to be very dangerous in the end. It can be difficult to stay within your comfort zone in a changing environment. But it is extremely important to communicate effectively with your climbing partners to maintain safe climbing practices and stay within your comfort zone as an individual and as a team. Better communication on all of our part would have probably resulted in hauling our packs up the 4th class climb to gain the Red Ledge, changing route choices to better accommodate the team and rigging a belay down the Spider/Formidable Couloir. (Source: Edited slightly from a report submitted by Michael Nichols)
(Editor’s Note: This was recorded in Table III as two incidents. There were several other incidents reported in Bergtrage this year, but without enough detail to enter them as narratives. They included a 65-foot fall into a crevasse on Mount Baker,
resulting in a broken femur; a 60-foot leader fall in Leavenworth resulting in a fractured femur; a 60-foot fall on Little Si resulting in fractures; and a 30-foot fall on Sunshine Wall because protection pulled out.)