American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Overdue — Did Not Return, Unknown Cause of Fall, Oregon, Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Headwall

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  • Publication Year: 2010

OVERDUE – DID NOT RETURN, UNKNOWN CAUSE OF FALL

Oregon, Mount Hood, Sandy Glacier Headwall

On early Friday morning, December 11, Luke Gullberg, (26), Anthony Vietti, (24), and Katie Nolan (29) left Timberline for a climb of the Sandy Glacier Headwall. Their climber registration stated an expected return of 1400 later that day. The form indicated that the party was carrying adequate equipment including a cellphone, but no radio distress beacon (neither PLB nor Mount Hood Mountain Locator Unit).

Concerned friends reported the party overdue on Friday afternoon and Clackamas County Sheriff's Office requested a ground search by Portland Mountain Rescue volunteers at first light on Saturday morning. Searchers were greeted by storm conditions with light snowfall, light winds and limited visibility on the approach to the Sandy Glacier. The first search team dropped down from Illumination Saddle onto the upper Reid Glacier and immediately discovered the body of Luke Gullberg at the 9,200-foot elevation. He appeared to have fallen (unroped) from the headwall above the glacier. An immediate search in the vicinity revealed a helmet, seat harness, glove, camera and two water bottles. Gullberg was clad with only light clothing and neither pack nor climbing tools were found. He was wearing crampons, one of which had apparently become detached during the fall. The searchers now focused their efforts on the headwall and upper glacier area, but were limited by 50-yard visibility and by potential avalanche hazards of soft slab.

The moderate storm continued throughout the day depositing several inches at Timberline Lodge and prevented air search operations. The storm continued and increasing avalanche hazard prevented ground searchers from deployment on Sunday. However, a local NOAA weather forecaster predicted the possibility of temporary clearing late Sunday morning, justifying a request for air search assets. A Blackhawk helicopter from Salem was manned with additional spotters and accumulated several hours of flighttime searching the upper Reid Glacier and headwall area. There was no sign of the remaining missing climbers.

Stormy conditions extended through Monday, but several hours of clear and low winds allowed renewed air searching. This effort included the upper section of the headwall, the summit area, and the Southside descent route. A ground team was able to perform some limited searching in the area around Illumination Saddle and west crater rim. A FLIR-equipped Jayhawk (USCG) was also used, but no signs were detected.

Due to the onset of the winter storm cycle, a thorough ground search could not be conducted for the missing Vietti and Nolan. When the search effort resumes in the spring, it is likely that additional clues will be found. This accident received significant media coverage and brought to the public’s mind [once again] two controversies: who should pay for mountain rescues and should (radio locator) beacons be required safety equipment for Mount Hood climbers. It is likely that county and state legislators will again be addressing these issues “for the benefit of the public”.

Analysis

The camera found with Gullberg provided some clues of the party’s action on Friday morning. It appears that they descended to the 8,500-foot crossover point on Yokum Ridge. Here a decision was made to abandon the Sandy Glacier headwall. Instead the party ascended the lower Yokum ridge. Below the first gendarme, the party traversed to the right crossing Leuthold’s Couloir below the hourglass. They continued southeast to the Reid Glacier headwall and ascended one of the gullies on the headwall.

For the steeper climbing the party was roped, with Gullberg in the lead. One of the last pictures showed Gullberg anchored with two self-equalized ice screws, presumably to belay his companions.

It is speculated that there was an accident with an injury to either Vietti or Nolan. As the stronger climber, Gullberg was likely descending the route to get help when he himself was injured during a fall. However, his injuries were severe enough to halt his travel and subsequently he succumbed to hypothermia.

A meaningful analysis cannot be conducted with the current unknowns of the accident. It does not appear that neither route conditions, weather, nor party experience should have an undue contribution to the cause of the accident. (Source: From a report submitted by Jeff Sheetz, Portland Mountain Rescue)

(Editor’s Note: A comment on an incident report from last year:

“My name is Devin Lee, the son of Dr. Gary Lee, who was in the [Mount Hood] story [on page 64] in the 2009 ANAM. … a few minor details: the rock hit my father in the head [not on the back].

“… the most important comment [is that] we knew the conditions. We had climbed late-season before. We knew it was dangerous as soon as we got to the Cooper Spur. My father has climbed that mountain more than 40 times, on all routes, and experience is not a question. Our choice of not wearing helmets was not because we did not fear rock fall. Not only that, we thought we would be out of the rockfall hazards much sooner than that, but the horrible conditions on the upper face of Cooper Spur slowed us down. We had gotten to the top of the snowfield and were very close to Tie-In Rock.

“… We were not ignorant, we were not careless. We went into it with our eyes open, fully aware, taking what precautions we could with conditions that were worse than expected. I don’t know what you can do to change anything, since the document is already in print, but I could not, in good conscience, let these thoughts go unsaid.”

As I pointed out to Mr. Lee, we are only as good as the information we receive, so sending in first-hand accounts is the best way to go.)

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