Crazy Night in a Crevasse

This story was originally written as part of a climbing resume several years after the event to get credit for the Mountaineers, Mountaineering Orientated First Aid class (MOFA).  A MOFA postmortem is included at the end.

Rick and I decided to give Mt. Baker a go on the last weekend in September, 1990.  I had just purchased a brand new expedition tent, and wanted to test it out before the winter season hit.  The weather forecast was for clear skies and no precipitation.

We started up early Saturday and made it up to the “Hogsback” just before noon. This is an area just below Heliotrope Ridge where most climbers set up base camp for the Coleman/Deming routes. Our intention was to set up basecamp, lay around, eat and get to bed early.  We wanted to start off early Sunday morning, summit, and descend all the way down the mountain the same day.

Mt Baker 1990 3
Rick on the hike in to base camp

I noticed as soon as we got to the base of the glacier that it was severely crevassed, and that the ice was bare right down to the hard blue glacier ice.  I knew the glacier would be opened up this late in the season but it looked menacing.  Route finding up the ridge looked pretty challenging, and very intense.

Mt Baker 1990 6a
Rick scanning the hard glacier ice and open crevasses

We went out and tested how our crampons would bite on the hard ice and found that we really had to kick them in to get a good purchase.  Our ice axes barely scratched the surface.  Good thing we had ice screws.

Mt Baker 1990 2
Rick testing the ice

Self-arrest on ice that hard and steep is all but impossible.  I spent most of the afternoon scouting the whole ridge with binoculars looking for a line that could be put together.  I wanted to be sure I could navigate it in the dark so I spent a lot of time studying the glacier.

Rick chillin’ in front of the spanky new tent we didn’t get to sleep in. Note the Army surplus wool pants and wool shirt prior to synthetics taking over.

Another tent was set up nearby, and I figured that the owners were up climbing and should be back shortly if they had set out early.  I wanted to see how they descended through the crevasse field so I was constantly watching for them to break over the ridge about 1500 feet up.  I was beginning to worry a bit that they weren’t in sight yet, it doesn’t take all day to summit Baker, and the ice conditions were nasty.

A Canadian party of three climbers made it up to the basecamp area and set up their camp.  We chatted a little and discussed the fact that we hadn’t seen the climbers from the mystery tent all day and were joking about hating to do a rescue up the nasty looking slope in the dark.  The glacier looked funky enough that the Canadians weren’t sure if they were going to climb or not.

About 5:30 I was watching as three climbers popped into view over the high ridge.  They were just little dots in the distance.  I was watching them closely with the bino’s as they maneuvered through the shattered ice.  I told Rick that I thought they were moving pretty fast over ice that hard.

The entire rope team was moving at the same time and hopping from block to block, no belays of any kind with a lot of slack rope between climbers.  They looked like they were beat.  I laughed and said that it looks like they smell the barn and wanted to get through the nasty stuff before the sun set.

As I was watching everything suddenly seemed to go into slow motion.  The climber in the middle had slipped and was sliding down the mountain. I stopped breathing and every muscle in my body tensed as I watched him tumbling totally out of control.  I was willing him to self-arrest, but as he slid faster the rope came taut and jerked the third climber off his feet, followed by the leader and they all went sliding down the glacier.

My stomach felt like someone had taken a full swing at it with a baseball bat.  I couldn’t believe it was happening right before my eyes.  I was waiting for them to self-arrest even though I knew there was no way in hell that they could on that ice.  They slid for about 150 feet before they all disappeared from sight.  They had all fallen into a crevasse.

Rick yelled “shit, I can’t believe they fell, what are we going to do”?  I knew he wasn’t wild about going up the crevasse field to start with, let alone starting up just before dark.

I looked over at the Canadians and they were looking up at the slope also.  I told Rick that we would wait a few minutes and see if the climbers would reappear.  The Canadians came over and asked if we had seen the fall, they only knew that they had disappeared from sight.  I told them what happened and we started making plans.

We decided to wait ten minutes for someone to appear, if they didn’t show we would start up after them. It was pretty tense because it was fall and the sun was rapidly descending.

About then a climber popped up and started pacing back and forth along the edge of the crevasse like a wild animal.  I watched through the bino’s for him to signal or something.  He seemed very preoccupied and disappeared again.

Soon two climbers were visible and we started hoping that they were all OK.  The two climbers disappeared for awhile and we couldn’t tell what was happening up there.

I started dumping out my pack and collecting head lamps, clothing, foam pads, water, stove & pot, sleeping bags, first aid kit and food.  I put my harness on and got the rope and climbing gear ready to go.

It soon became obvious that something was seriously wrong.  The other two climbers hadn’t been seen for a few minutes and the third had not been seen at all.  Then the two appeared again and started waving their arms at us.  They both paced back and forth, stopping once in a while to talk and wave their arms again.

Then one of them started down the slope alone.  We waved back at him and tried to make him stay put.  He kept coming, staggering around crevasses and across ice bridges. He finally had to stop when he came to a huge crevasse about half way to us.

He dropped down on the ice and put his head in his hands.  He quickly jumped back up and started yelling but we couldn’t hear what he was saying. He then collapsed back on the ice.

We finalized our plans with the Canadians while all this was going on.  Rick and I were ready to go, so we would start up first and try to get to the upper group and help them.

Since this was before cell phones, one of the Canadians would get ready to run back down to the trailhead, several miles, drive out to a pay phone and call the sheriff for a rescue.

The other two Canadians would follow us up and help the fellow stranded in the middle of the slope back down to our camp.  The Canadians had some signal flares that we would fire to start the runner down the trail if we decided that a rescue team had to be called in to help the missing climber.

Rick and I started up, picking our way through the broken ice fall as fast as we could.  I was very concerned about making it all the way to the accident site before sunset.

I wasn’t even sure about being able to climb the slope at all, and now we were climbing with night coming on, up a route I would not have chosen if the climber hadn’t been stranded in the middle of the glacier.

I’m a strong hiker and I was charged with adrenaline, wanting to get up the slope as fast as possible.  I was soon tugging at Rick, he couldn’t move any faster and was very apprehensive about going on.

He reminded me several times that it would serve no purpose to add another body or two to the rescue effort. I knew he was right, but I still felt like I was in control and within our technical ability… so far.

We made it to the lip of the crevasse directly across from the climber in the middle (Steve).  He had gotten up as we got nearer and was again pacing back and forth in a nervous manner.

I yelled for him to sit down and wait for us to get to him.  He appeared confused and disoriented.  I could see blood on his face and he was holding his wrist.  I eventually got him to sit down and stay put.

The crevasse was about 30 feet across and about 80 feet deep, with steep overhanging sides.  The uphill lip of the crevasse was about 15 feet higher than the lower lip.  The only way across or around was a knife-edge bridge that ended about three feet short of the other side.  It started out about 3 feet wide and narrowed to a few inches.  It was at a diagonal angle to the slope and about 30 feet long.

Rick came up and took one look at the bridge and said that I shouldn’t even try it.  I tended to agree with him, but the guy on the other side was looking pretty crazed and I didn’t know what shape he was in.

It was getting darker and darker and I didn’t see any other possibility to get across. Rick got into a good stance and belayed me on a tight rope.  It was a very spooky walk across the sliver of ice.

I got close to where the bridge ended and tried to talk to the injured climber.  It was obvious that he was in a panic.  He wasn’t talking coherently, blood was crusted from his nose and his face had cuts all over it.  I tried to calm him down and I finally deciphered that the climber we hadn’t seen yet was in bad shape, wedged in the bottom of a crevasse with broken bones.

Steve turned out to be a very inexperienced climber and was feeling guilty about pulling the other two off. We took a few minutes to calm him down a bit and convince him that he needed to get down to basecamp and we needed to get up the glacier to help his friends.

I threw a loop of rope across to him and had him plant his axe pick as deep as he could, tie a knot, and clip it to the ice axe head.  He was very confused and I had to go over it several times.  He wasn’t sure how to tie the knot so I ended up pulling the rope back and tying the figure eight myself, and tossing it back.

His wrist was injured and he couldn’t seem to get a good swing with the other hand, so I had him chip a good stance into the ice with his axe to brace his feet and then plant the pick and lay on the axe in a self arrest position.  This gave me enough confidence to get a pick in across the gap and step/hop up onto the upper lip using the rope for balance.

By this time the two Canadians had arrived.  We fired the flare and the climber at base camp started off for the rescue call.  He had a long way to go and wouldn’t make it all the way out before dark.  Our signal flare meant that an evacuation with a litter was necessary, on a very nasty slope, with one climber in serious but unknown shape from a crevasse fall.

He was to tell the main rescue party that we had enough gear to keep the victim warm and enough first aid training to help anything but very severe injuries.  Rick and I both had quite a bit of first aid training and Rick works at a hospital.  We had no real idea what we would find at the bottom of the crevasse.

The two Canadians started setting up a Tyrolean traverse to help Steve across the huge crevasse.  We determined that he had a broken wrist, broken nose, facial cuts, bumps and bruises and at least a minor concussion.

Rick and I continued up, now thinking that the injured climber might die from hypothermia before we even got there.  Just as we got to the victim’s crevasse the sun disappeared behind the mountains.  At least now we could just concentrate on the victim.

The rope leader (Reese) was unhurt except for minor bumps and bruises.  It turned out he had been pulled into a different crevasse than the other two.  He had set up a Z-pulley system while waiting for us to climb the slope.

The victim (Vince) had fallen about 25-30 feet into the narrow end of the crevasse.  He was loosely wedged into the crevasse where it pinched together at the right side.  A large ice block was wedged about 20 feet left of where he lay, forming a false bottom or shelf.  The block was about 8 feet long and maybe 3-1/2 feet wide from wall to wall.  The left side of the shelf dropped off again another 50 or 60 feet to the bottom, as did the right side of the shelf.

I looked over the edge and yelled down to the victim that he was indeed a lucky man, two of the greatest mountain climbing gods in the whole world had come to his rescue and that he would be out of that hole in no time (trying to ease his fears with a little humor and confidence).

No response from him.  We used their rope to drop into the crevasse to the victim.  I jumped up and down on the perch block to see if it could hold our weight, it seemed solid, so Rick came down.

I had to stem a crampon into either wall of the crevasse to climb out to the victim.  He was still conscious, and in a lot of pain.  His leg was twisted grossly back against the wall of the crevasse.  He said his head and neck were really hurting and he couldn’t move his head.

They had used a few pieces of clothing and a small blue foam pad to try and block some of the cold, but his clothing was soaking wet from being pressed against the ice wall.   They didn’t have any sleeping bags or heavier clothing.

He was shivering uncontrollably and moaning continuously in pain.  I thought “great, we have to move this guy over to that block.  One false move and we snap his neck and kill him instantly. If we don’t move him he dies of hypothermia and shock in no time.”  He has already been laying on ice with water dripping on him for close to 2 hours with a broken leg and busted head.

We talk to Vince constantly, trying to gage his condition and reassure him that he’s going to be fine, just in a lot of pain while we move him.  We lift and slide a sleeping pad under him and use it to support his weight as we move him to the block.  There is very little room to maneuver in the narrow crevasse, and I have to stem my crampons on either wall of the crevasse and hold the broken leg with both hands as we move him.  Rick has to immobilize the neck as much as possible while he stems as well.  We used the small foam pad as a splint to support his neck as much as possible.

I told Vince that “this will really hurt but we have to move you”, and explain that he will be much more comfortable once we get him to the block.  This took a while since we were in such awkward positions.  He was in severe pain and screaming like hot nails were being pounded into him.  I could feel the bones in his lower leg grinding and grating in my hands.  I thought that every small move was going to snap this guy’s neck.  I didn’t get a full breath the whole time we were moving him.

Finally we get him to the block. We slide a Thermarest pad plus the foam pad under him and slip a sleeping bag under him as well.  Hoping not to compound the fracture, I didn’t want to move the broken leg too much so we left it in position.  We cut his laces and took his boot off to allow us to monitor the temperature and blood flow of his foot.

My thermometer showed that he was already several degrees below normal.  We checked the knot on his head and his eyes and thought he probably had a concussion as well.  His face was also cut in a few places but nothing major.  We loosened his harness and clothing and checked for signs of internal bleeding and other injuries.  We were very afraid of moving his neck/spine, so we left any clothing that would have to be pulled or yanked to get it off.

We got our other sleeping bag on top of him and started our stove to heat water.  This was quite an operation, because Vince was taking up almost all of the ice block perch.  There was less than a foot of space beside his head and about the same at the base of his feet.

There was no room for our packs or other gear, so Reese lowered what we needed from the top of the crevasse. We filled several water bottles with hot water and put them in the sleeping bags.  Soon there was steam rolling out of the sleeping bag when we checked his pulse and temp.

We told stupid jokes and silly stories continuously to keep the situation a little lighter, and keep him awake. His pupils were still dilated and we believed he had a concussion (he did in fact have a skull fracture).  We fed him hot chocolate by emptying a Visine container and using it as an eyedropper so he didn’t have to sit up.

It was a long night at the bottom of that crevasse.  Neither Rick or I could sit down, so we had to stand the entire time, yelling at Vince every so often so he wouldn’t pass out.  He was in such misery that he was moaning stuff like “just let me die, I can’t stand this anymore, this night will never end” and on and on.

Then we would tell some awful story or have a farting contest, and tell him there was no way we would let him die with all the misery we were putting up with (you had to be there).

The glacier moaned and groaned and creaked and snapped, dripping water all around us.  Every once in a while an explosive cracking sound would scare the crap out of us.  It felt like the crevasse would snap shut any time, smashing us to greasy spots in the ice.  The glacier seemed sinister and alive and determined to get the last laugh.

At the same time it was like being in a fairy world.  The candles we had placed in the bubble pockets in the ice flickered and illuminated the clear, bubbly ice like a vast crystal palace, with the stars twinkling overhead through the narrow black slit above us.  Our lack of sleep and fatigue from climbing had us punchy, and it was easy to imagine this giant hole swallowing us up and not spitting us out until years later.

Around 2:00 AM Reese yelled down from the edge of the crevasse that he saw lights down at base camp. The main rescue team had arrived and was gearing up to climb the glacier.  It took them all night to climb what Rick and I climbed in an hour.  We heard them clanking and yelling for hours as they slowly moved up, setting screws and belaying each other.

Finally, as the sun was coming up around 6:00 AM, they got to the crevasse.  It was pretty odd when they got there as they totally ignored us at first. No one on the rescue team asked how we were doing, what shape the victim was in or anything for at least 10 minutes. Rick and I looked at each other and shrugged like WTF?

They looked down at us like we were some kind of side show and shuffled back and forth on the rim.  They were busy up on top doing something and apparently none of them thought it important enough to talk to us.  I will always remember the feeling of anticipation as they approached the crevasse and then the disappointment I felt when they ignored us. Not even a hello.

Rick and I just looked at each other like “what the hell are they doing up there?”  I hope they have a better bedside manner when they reach a victim that hasn’t received assistance.  If nothing else, I will always remember to give immediate assurance that I am there to help and ease the victims anxiety.

The paramedic finally got to the crevasse and leaned over and tried to figure out what was going on.  He was the first one to say anything to us. There was little room in the crevasse so the team put some screws in up top and set up a rappel line.  The paramedic then rappelled down right over the top of me.  As he came over the overhanging lip an explosive crack rang out and I thought the whole edge was going to cave in.  He moved over a bit and came down a bit more carefully.  He got to the bottom and quickly quizzed us on what had occurred as he began checking the victim.

We explained what we had done and all other pertinent information.  He checked Vince’s vitals and put a stabilizing collar around his neck. The only thing left to do was put Vince in the Stokes litter they had brought up and assembled.

First we had to straighten and set the broken leg so it would fit in the Stokes litter.  The paramedic had me apply traction since I was at the foot end. I could feel the bones grating and grinding as I pulled back and slowly twisted the leg back around into its normal position.  Rick held the leg steady as the paramedic maneuvered a wrap-around splint into position. Vince, understandably, was screaming bloody murder the whole time.

img_2522-e1566971706211.jpg
Stokes Litter

Meanwhile, the crew on top was rigging for a litter raise.  We lifted Vince into the litter, strapped him down and then climbed out of the crevasse for the first time in over twelve hours.  A big Navy rescue chopper from Whidbey Island flew in to do a cable lift right out of the crevasse, as the crevasse was in the middle of a very severe slope and couldn’t land.

The giant chopper nearly blew us off the mountain as it came in close to hover and maneuvered to pick up the litter.  It slowly cranked the litter up out of the crevasse and then flew down to basecamp with Vince dangling and spinning below.

As the helicopter descended and began hovering over basecamp, my brand new Eureka Expedition tent was blown up into the air, bouncing around and nearly sucked up into the rotor until the Canadians ran over and finally snagged it.  I just knew my beautiful, and expensive new tent was going to be shredded before we even had a chance to spend a night in it.

They eased Vince to the ground, moved him into the main cabin and picked up the other victim with the concussion and prepared to medivac them off the mountain.

As the chopper flew off, everything suddenly became very silent as the main rescue team had already begun descending with the tinkling of climbing gear and crunching of crampons on the hard ice.

We were left alone to pack our gear, looking back down the chaotic glacier to basecamp.  My feet were frozen blocks from standing on bare ice all night. My Thermarest pad was punctured full of crampon holes from Rick standing on it all night, but at least his feet weren’t frozen.  All our fuel, water and food was gone, and we were totally wiped.

We looked wistfully at the summit…the day had dawned beautiful, sunny and clear, a perfect summit day, but we were trashed after being up all night and the summit was not to be that day.

We picked our way carefully down a better route to basecamp and packed the rest of our gear…the new tent still un-slept in. As we made our way down the trail we started bumping into hikers coming up that wanted to know what was going on with all the rescue guys and excitement at the trailhead.

At first, still kind of jazzed up, we carefully told the tale to each group we bumped into, but finally, just wanting to get off the mountain, we just shrugged when asked and told people we didn’t know what was going on.

Mt Baker 1990 6
Rick on the way out

Looking back, I think my biggest disappointment was deciding to leave my camera and film at base camp to save some weight.  With all the time we spent in the crevasse I would have had some killer photos with time exposures, the Navy chopper, cable rescue tent flying in the air and so on.

My second disappointment was that Vince, Steve and Reese never even said thanks or even acknowledged what we had done for them. I’d like to think if someone went to the efforts we did that I would at least buy them a beer and give a heartfelt thanks.  Maybe they were embarrassed as they were real “Mountaineers” (this was before I took the course myself several years later), or perhaps they were just shell shocked the whole time.

We did get our names mentioned in the Bellingham Herald that quoted the “Rescue Team” saying “they did the guy a world of good by keeping him warm before the rescue party got there”.  I know in another hour or less he would have been dead from shock and hypothermia and they would have been doing a body recovery.

 

Comments for MOFA Postmortem

Summary: I believe all three victims had gone through the Tacoma Mountaineers Basic course.  I know that Reese and Vince did the course and had some level of climbing experience. Reese was leading the team and seemed to have the most experience, although Vince mentioned he had climbed some big mountains.  Steve had the least experience, I believe Baker was his first major climb.

They all had minimal packs, presumably because the weather was very good that day.  They had basic technical gear for climbing Baker, rope, axes, crampons, good boots, screws, etc., but they didn’t take a sleeping bag or full rain gear for the summit attempt.  No stove & pot for melting additional water.  First aid equipment was not even close to adequate.  They did have one bivy sack that did nothing to insulate Vince from the ice.  They couldn’t even get it around him in the position he was in.  Vince was wearing cotton thermal underwear with a cotton T shirt. Reese had a vinyl poncho that he used for his night on the rim of the crevasse.  None of them were prepared for an unplanned bivy on a mountain like Baker.

All of their water was gone when we got to them, so they were all probably dehydrated and very tired from their long day. Fatigue mixed with the desire to get back to base camp or just bad judgment forced them to move through the icefall without using belays or using good rope management.  The inexperience of Steve was enough in itself to set up a belay of some kind over the tricky hard ice.

Once the accident occurred, panic seemed to set in and they weren’t quite sure what to do.  They were in sight of camp the whole time but wasted quite a bit of time before signaling that they needed help.  It was a major mistake to send or allow Steve to down-climb the heavily crevassed icefall alone and in his condition.  He had already shown that he had trouble on the icefall.

MOFA 7 steps from the rescue party perspective:

Step 1) The situation was taken charge of twice; once at base camp by planning the course of action with the Canadians, and again at the crevasse site with the victims.  There was no doubt that I was the one directing the actions of the rescue, and everyone responded with the best of their ability.

Step 2) Approaching the victims safely was a judgment call.  I think it could be argued either way that the rescue party endangered itself while climbing the icefall.  I felt I was in control and within my climbing abilities.  Delaying climbing the icefall until morning or waiting for Mountain Rescue would have meant that Vince would have died from hypothermia. The false bottom in the crevasse could have dropped out, but it appeared to be stable for the moment.

Step 3) Emergency rescue was performed as well as could be expected.  The victims were moved to safer environments so that additional first aid and comfort could be given.  Steve was evacuated to base camp and Vince was relocated to the level area of the crevasse as soon as possible.

Step 4) Both victims were protected from further environmental hazards as much as possible.  Steve in the relative comfort of base camp, and Vince with the foam pads and sleeping bags, along with hot water bottles.  Both were constantly conscious and were warmer than the rescue party.  Both victims were given reassurance and told exactly what was going on at all times.

Step 5) I assume the Canadians treated Steve at base camp.  Our immediate need when I last saw him was to get him off the icefall.  Once we had Vince on the shelf ledge we took precautions to keep his spine from being moved and didn’t allow him to move around. Although we loosened his harness and clothing to allow better circulation, we didn’t notice until morning that he may have been laying on his ice screw all night.  We checked him for other injuries and tended his scrapes. The one thing I would do differently now is to go ahead and set the leg as soon as he was to the shelf.  Although he only complained of pain when his leg was moved, he may have been a little more comfortable with his leg straight. I was afraid at that time of further injury and possibly compounding the fracture and having to deal with bleeding.

Step 6) Our planning was done fairly well.  Everyone pitched in options and the best course of action was chosen.  Everyone knew what was expected and carried it out great.  In the crevasse we ensured that Vince was kept awake to guard against his concussion, he was checked regularly for a good pulse and that his injured foot was still warm enough.  Water was heated at regular intervals so that we knew we could make it through the night with our fuel supply.  We knew our only option was to keep Vince alive and comfortable until an evacuation team could get him off the mountain.  We sent back the information that we knew.  There was no way to know the extent of injuries and to wait until we climbed up and then sent someone back would have meant several hours delay and endangered us by night climbing down the icefall.

Step 7) The rescue party was uninjured, the victims lived, the plan worked great.  If bad weather had dumped on us, I feel we still would have been OK, just more miserable.

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