FALL ON SNOW, INADEQUATE NAVIGATION SKILLS, UNABLE TO SELF- ARREST–ICE AXES ON PACKS INSTEAD OF IN HAND, WEATHER
Oregon, Mount Hood, Southside
On Saturday February 18, a party of eight climbers departed Timberline lodge for a climb to Illumination Saddle (9,300-foot elevation) where they dug snow caves in preparation for a summit bid on Sunday.
The decision to abort the summit attempt was prompted by the scheduled arrival of a major storm system with high winds (gusts to 74 mph) and 30- foot visibility. At 0930 on Sunday, the group descended on two ropes, with climbers attached at 20-foot intervals, intending to intercept the middle of the Palmer ski lift and follow the lift down to the lodge. They wore crampons, used ski poles, and had a magnetic compass as well as a GPS receiver.
The apparent track of the party was north of the intended heading, and an hour and half after leaving the saddle, the lead climber of the first rope team fell over a “cliff,” pulling two other rope team members and his dog with him. The last climber was not clipped into the rope, but holding a rope loop instead, and so was spared from the fall. The second rope team attempted contact by descending about 60 feet over the steep edge, but were unsuccessful. At about 1200 they placed a 911 cellphone call to notify authorities of the accident, before being instructed to “dig-in” at their reported position (as indicated on their GPS receiver.) They also activated an MLU radio distress beacon (exclusive to Mount Hood) allowing rescuers to home in on their snow cave. By 1700, a rescue team consisting of Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) and American Medical Response (AMR) Reach and Treat (RAT) paramedics reached the five cave-bound climbers who were then escorted to a snowcat bound for the lodge. Part of the rescue team remained at the accident site, descending about 450 feet into White River canyon. The team returned to the lodge after finding no trace of the missing rope team.
The missing party of three (Matt Bryant , Christina Redl , Kate Hanlon ) plus their dog fell several hundred vertical feet until reaching a lower angle section of the glacier. No one was able to arrest, as ice axes were stowed on backpacks. One person sustained a head injury (with signs of concussion), but the other two climbers suffered no significant injuries. The fall survivors did not realize their predicament and continued descending on the previous heading for about 40 minutes. At 1400 the party reached a large boulder in a wind-scoured basin, stopped to bivouac, placed a 911 - cellphone call, and activated their MLU beacon. They were reasonably well equipped (sleeping bags, tarp, stove) for waiting out a rescue, although the snowpack was too hard to build a proper snow cave. The dog (a Labrador mix) was credited for helping warm the climbers, but on-scene rescuers observed that it was three-dog night.
Ground rescue teams from PMR, Hood River Crag Rats, and Eugene Mountain Rescue were able to determine the injured party’s approximate location, using directional receivers on the MLU beacon frequency. Additionally an Air Force 304th Para-rescue (PJ) team started their way up the White River Canyon toward the accident site, bivouacking at 6,300-foot elevation early Monday morning. Periodic cellphone contact was made with the injured party as high winds and low visibility persisted throughout the night and early morning. At 0600 on Monday, a PMR team descended onto the glacier and radio-located the injured party at 7,400-foot elevation. After a medical assessment and re-warming effort, the rescuers led the party down the White River canyon and were met by a snowcat about a mile from the road.
The two-day storm, which arrived on Saturday afternoon, was fully predicted and was known to the climbers. They were confident they could navigate down to the safety of the lodge during the storm. However, their technique was simply for the first man on the lead rope to set the direction of travel from his compass. Without any distant visual reference points, it is recommended that the second person to carry the compass and give “rudder orders” (bear right or left) to the first man while descending. This requires the two be in sight of each other and able to communicate (voice shouts or rope tugs). It is not known why the GPS receiver carried by the second rope teams failed to assist in their navigation problem. If pre-planned waypoints were programmed into the unit, it should have indicated that their turning point (intersection with chair lift) was below them and they were passing above the top of the upper lift station. Their effective track was about 20 degrees north of intended. Also, rather than aiming for the middle of the upper chair lift, it is better to travel toward the middle of the ski area where the three large buildings (Silcox Hut, upper Mile Station, and lower Palmer Station) create a large visual target together with two ski lift cables and numerous boundary ropes. For this track, a slight heading error will not miss the ski area. (Heading from Illumination Saddle is 182 degrees True North).
The icy surface conditions that indicated crampon usage should also have suggested that ice axes be ready for arresting falls. Ski poles are not as effective as ice axes for arresting on hard surfaces.
While the party exercised good survival skills, their navigation skills were inadequate for the conditions experienced (visual whiteout and high winds). This accident illustrates how adequate equipment (sleeping bags, tarps, cellphones and radio distress beacons) can make a big difference in the outcome. (Source: Jeff Sheetz, Portland Mountain Rescue)