I am beginning to write this blog post as my wife Vickie drives us north away from Mt. Shasta. The memory and emotions of our experience on the mountain is still as raw as an exposed nerve. I am writing this now to explain the human side of the tragedy to the very few people, mostly friends and family, who actually follow this blog. Before you read on go to this link provided to read the sheriff’s department account of the climbing accident that occurred on Mt. Shasta. I was the 1st person to reach the fallen climber, Jim.
Here is the link. http://www.mtshastanews.com/article/20160813/NEWS/160819895
Climbing Mt. Shasta:
After leaving Lassen National park, Vickie and I were driving north on Interstate 5. As we approached the City of Mt. Shasta, the mountain stood above the surroundings like a lone sentinel. Its 14,179 foot presence was massive and intimidating. Summiting Mt. Shasta is one of the goals on our Life list, but we weren’t sure that we would be attempting it because of Vickie’s previous battles with altitude sickness above 10,000 feet. We stopped in the city for dinner and to find a place to stay while we discussed the possibility of attempting a climb. At dinner we read through route descriptions and reports from summitpost.org and decided that it would be possible for us to attempt to climb it, but we needed more information. The next day we made a visit to the ranger station in town to get more information about the routes and conditions. The ranger there was very helpful and extremely knowledgeable about the climbing routes. We asked him for other hikes in the area so we could go for a day hike and contemplate our final decision to climb or not to climb.
On a day hike on the summit Mt. Eddy (9,026 feet), looking at awe of Mt. Shasta, we decided we would attempt to summit.
We went back to the ranger station the next day to complete the required paperwork and pay the fees. We talked with the same ranger again to review the options. We chose the Avalanche Gulch Route. Being this late in the year most climbers were diverting to another route that provided better snow and an easier passage to the summit. We decided the Avalanche Gulch route for two primary reasons. First our vehicle probably could not make it on the rough and gravel road to get to the other route’s trail head and we would be able to attempt the route in a one day push to minimize the time above 10,000 feet to reduce the likelihood of altitude sickness for Vickie. The route we planned to climb was mostly under 35 degree slopes except the crux of the climb in the chutes through the Red Banks. We wouldn’t need ropes or technical protection. It would be a long day of more than 11 miles and 7, 900 foot vertical gain but we would be rested and ready. We figured it would take us about 6 hours to get up and 3-1/2 hours to get down, a 10 hour day. Most people who attempt to summit hike up to Helen Lake the day before to camp overnight at over 10,000 feet. Although it’s named Helen Lake there really isn’t a lake there.
Vickie and I left the Bunny Flat trail head (elev. 6950) parking lot at 3:40 am in the moonless darkness on Thursday August 11th. We traveled by headlamp and were making good time passing the Horse Camp (1.6 miles) in only 45 minutes. We walked the ½ mile of the stone paved trail called Olberman’s Causeway. After that the terrain got more difficult, steeper with scree. Scree is loose rock and gravel that makes moving up tedious and tiring. As you take a step up you slide slightly back down. It’s like walking up a pile of sand and takes extra energy to continue to ascend. We finally arrived at Helen Lake camp around 6:30 am, just as the sky was brightening to the sunshine of a crystal clear new day.
On the way though camp we passed two climbers, Joe & Dean, who were in the final stages of preparing to leave for the summit. We made some small talk and asked them which route they were planning to use. They were going up the Avalanche Gulch and the 3rd chute left of Thumb Rock. The same route we were planning to use. We all stood back looking up at the mountain pointing out features, (the Gulch, the Heart, the Red Banks, the Thumb, and the chutes) and discussing the exact route. We were to go up Avalanche Gulch, moving fast under the area with rock fall hazards and go to the right of the ‘Heart’ and make our way up to the ‘third’ chute from the left of Thumb Rock. That chute was supposed to allow us safe passage on snow all the way to the top of the Red Banks. From on top of the Red Banks the summit was just an easy scramble up Misery hill to the summit. From our angle the snow passage of the 3rd chute was hidden from us so were hoping the information we had was correct. The routes from our angle at Helen Camp which obviously held snow through the Red Banks were much steeper more exposed. We deemed those beyond our technical ability.
We pulled out our mountaineering gear, boots, crampons, ice axes, and helmets on the first snowfield above the camp. As we put on our gear Joe & Dean passed us heading for the summit. Already high on the mountain I could see another climber that I guessed was about an hour ahead of us and another set of headlights far above him that were more than two hours ahead of us. In retrospect, I assume this was Jim and Jack. After a small breakfast and water break we started our climb up the snow field.
The snowfield was rock hard from the freezing nighttime temperature which made for solid footing while wearing our crampons. Without the crampons the route would have been impassable. For people who don’t know what crampons really are, which is almost everyone, they are ‘spikes’ that mountaineers strap to their hiking boots to allow us to ‘stick’ to the ice while climbing.
Wearing the crampons allows us to sink the sharp points into the ice to provide a solid purchase to propel us one step further up the snowfield or glacier. The ice axe is the mountaineer’s next piece of crucial equipment. It is both a tool and a safety device. As a tool you can use it to cut steps into the ice to ease the climbing, or as a ‘cane’ to add a 3rd point of contact to the mountain (2 feet and the ice axe). It is also the safety device used to self arrest if you do fall.
Vickie and I worked our way up the mountain in the predawn light, each step having the satisfying chunk of solid placement. Because it was late season (August), the ice was channeled and uneven. It made it hard climbing and slow going.
We negotiated our way up the gulch to the right side of the Heart feature and approached the 3rd chute left of the Thumb through the Red Banks.
As we entered the bottom of the chute, Joe & Dean were about 40 minutes ahead of us just below the top of the chute. The sun had finally risen high enough in the sky to shine directly on us by about 9:00 am. We were behind schedule. The plan was to be past the steepest section, the crux, of this route before the sun started baking us from above and the snow reflecting the intense rays from below compounding the heat. Now the snow would begin to soften making the climbing more difficult and the potential for rock fall hazard greater.
We arrived at the relatively flat area above the Red Banks at about 10:00 am to find three climbers (Dean, Joe, & Jack) talking at the top. We walked over and to see how it was going. Jack said that a climber had fallen and that search and rescue (SAR) were on the way. My next question was did anyone know who the climber was. Jack said “Yeah, it was my dad.” He seemed very calm and matter of fact about it. One of the guys was talking to the 911 operator to relay the situation so we waited with them and to see if there was anything we could do to help. The general consensus was that one of the guys thought they saw the fallen climber, Jim, Jack’s father, moving and that SAR should be there soon. We figured the situation was being handled the best it could so we moved on up the mountain.
About 15 minutes up the final summit push I turned to Vickie and said “Fuck it, I’m done”
I had no desire to continue the easy scree hill to the summit. Vickie agreed. We felt we had to go back down and see what was going on. We had not yet seen or heard a helicopter. We turned around and went back down to check on the rescue progress. When we got back the relatively flat area above the Red Banks, the SAR deputy who was coordination the rescue effort was on the phone with one of the guys and asking if anyone was an experienced climber. The short answer was no. Jack and Jim were on a completely different route than the rest of us. We hadn’t seen them since predawn when we put on our crampons and noticed the headlights high on the mountain. The decision was made for Vickie and me to take Jack down below the Red Banks so he could show us where his father was and see if we could help until SAR arrived. We started back down at about 10:30 am.
Even though it was not the most direct route, we chose to down climb the exact same route that Vickie and I had just come up. The route that Jack and his father climbed was beyond our capabilities. Jack was pretty shaken up so we needed to take the safest route available. We wanted Jack to concentrate and focus on the down climb so we reassured him that everything was going to be fine. I took the lead, Jack in the middle and Vickie following up. When we stopped to rest we asked him questions to take his mind off the gravity of the current situation. When we started climbing down again I reminded him to pay close attention and follow exactly in my footsteps.
After down climbing a while, Jack said this should be near his father, so we traversed just under the Red Banks until we were stopped by a vertical cliff. From there we spotted his father hundreds of feet farther down the mountain. From our distant position, I could see he was lying in a vertical position on his stomach with his head pointed downhill and his feet uphill and he was not moving.
We traversed back to our route and continued to climb down until we were at the same altitude as Jim’s position. There, Vickie and Jack found a safe spot to wait while I got ready to traverse across to Jim. We assessed our gear which wasn’t much. Jack gave me a spool of webbing and an extra bottle of water and I was off. It took me about 10 minutes to cross the 45 degree slope to Jim. My heart was beating hard from the traverse and the anxiety. I called to him but no got no response. When I finally was standing next to him, I didn’t see any movement at all. I checked for a pulse. His wrist was warm and I optimistically thought maybe, just maybe, there was a very faint one. I wasn’t sure because my heart was beating hard.
Then I knelt down to look at his face and check for breathing. Nothing. I checked his pulse again. Nothing. I reached to feel his carotid artery in his neck. Nothing. I repeated this procedure three more times with the same results. I unstrapped his watch and went through the progression again. Nothing. Blood had settled in his face and his back was at an awkward angle. There was nothing I could do. He was gone.
The only thing keeping Jim from sliding further down the mountain was the front points of his crampons. His ice axe was nowhere to be seen. We were on about a 45 degree slope, so I pulled out the coil of webbing, dug an uphill slot, embedded my ice axe and tied him to the mountain so he wouldn’t slide further. I pulled out my phone to call 911; they immediately transferred me to the SAR coordinator. Just as I started talking to the deputy, I lost the signal. I tried again. Again, as soon as I was connected, I lost signal. This happened several times. It was frustrating as hell. I resorted to texting directly with the deputy which seemed to be the only reliable communication. He informed me the chopper was only a few of minutes away. They asked for my description and asked me to signal them when they were close. When I saw them, I stood and waved my orange jacket so they could identify me and launch a rescue attempt.
T he SAR chopper made 3 separate attempts to reach us, but in the end the windy conditions and steep slope thwarted their efforts.
As I sat there with Jim, I knew that this was a recovery and not a rescue. Up until that point the only thing I thought about was the situation at hand. Now I started to think about that 16 year old boy losing his father. I felt my chest tighten and tears start to well up. What would I say to him about his father when I walked back? He was hoping and praying that I would come back and tell him that everything was going to be okay. As I sat there lost in despair, a rock released from the cliffs above me and interrupted my thoughts. It was bounding down the slope directly at me, so I stood to prepare to dodge it. It bounded towards me, then, bounced abruptly away from me. Another bounce and it was back at me again. It was like predicting the path of a sharply hit baseball on an un-groomed infield, only it was a rock the size of my head and I was standing on an icy 45 degree slope wearing crampons. It missed me by a few feet. It wasn’t going to be the only rock fall headed downhill in this steep section. I needed to suppress my emotions and keep alert.
Around 3 pm, the SAR deputy sent me a text informing me that a large helicopter was en route. I later learned that it had been dispatched all the way from Sacramento. He asked me to leave my position and head back to the safe zone where my wife and Jack were waiting. He told me later that the downdraft created by a helicopter that size was potentially strong enough to blow me down the mountain. Since my ice axe was the anchor to the webbing securing Jim to the mountain, I grabbed one of his poles to use on my crossing back. As I traversed the mountain towards Jack I had no idea what to say.
From the spot on the mountain where Jack and Vickie had been waiting for me, they had consistent cell phone signal and had been in communication with Jack’s mom, Cathy, on Vickie’s phone. Jack’s phone was out of power. As soon as I was close enough he started asking me questions. I ignored them until I was right next to him. He looked at me and asked me again. Is he okay?
I don’t know why, but I couldn’t lie to him. I just hugged him and told him I was sorry and his father was gone. Jack broke down. He was inconsolable. He screamed that he needed to call his mother right away. Vickie gave him the phone and he called. We could overhear the conversation. Jack was sobbing when he told his mother the news.
“Mom I don’t know how to tell you this but dad is gone. He’s dead!” Then he broke down, unable to talk. He handed me the phone and said “you talk to her”. Cathy asked me if it was true. I confirmed yes. I didn’t know what else to say. I just said I was so sorry that he’s gone and I broke down. She started sobbing but then composed herself quickly. She asked to talk to Jack again. We overheard her conversation with the boy. She was trying to console Jack. She asked him to stay strong for her. She wanted him to concentrate because she needed him to gets down safely.
At one point Jack said “He was climbing with me and now he’s gone. It’s my fault.” She kept reassuring him and tried to keep him focused only on getting down the mountain. A little later in the conversation Jack asked his mom “Why aren’t you crying? Your husband’s dead!” She told him her primary concern now was that he gets off the mountain safely. Cathy said “We will deal with this once you are down and safe.” That is when he handed me the phone and said she wants to talk to you again. Cathy asked me to bring her boy back safely to her. I promised her that we would.
We were still at over 12,000 feet with and still had serious down climbing to arrive at a safe area. It would take hours before we could get off the mountain. Cathy asked me how I thought Jack was really doing and if he could make it. Jack overheard this part of the conversation and stated definitely that he could not make it. She asked me if I thought the helicopter could pick up Jack also. Since I was in direct communication with the SAR deputy I told her I would ask and call her back.
The large helicopter arrived to attempt to reach Jim. It skillfully maneuvered into position just above the scene. As the pilot hovered in position, the guardsman dressed in all camouflage gear and helmet, was lowered down to the mountain by cable hooked to a winch. He worked quickly rigging up a sling around Jim and preparing him to be lifted. When he was ready, he gave the thumbs up and they were raised together up to the chopper. The chopper tipped slightly and headed down towards the city. Then the mountain got quiet.
I sent a text to the SAR deputy to find out where they were taking Jim and to see if the helicopter would come back for Jack.
The SAR deputy confirmed my text and sent me, “Stand by.”
A few minutes later he asked me to prepare, the helicopter was coming back to pick up Jack. We got him ready for evacuation. We gave him a pair of sunglasses to keep the blowing dirt out of his eyes, his were broken. He asked for his dad’s pole that I borrowed for my traverse. I asked to borrow his ice axe. Then we hunkered down. I called Cathy to let her know where they took Jim and give her the news, the helicopter was coming back for Jack. She was extremely happy Jack didn’t have to risk climbing down in his despair.
The chopper came directly up towards us and stopped to hover above us. The rotor wash was stirring up sand and gravel making it so we couldn’t see. The lower and closer it got to us the stronger the wind it created. I was leaning on Jack’s Ice axe to maintain my position on the mountain while Vickie held onto me. The guardsman coming down the cable landed on top of me. He quickly jumped up and went to Jack to secure him to the assembly at the end of the cable. They were winched up together. The chopper hovered in position until both of them were safely loaded. Then they were gone. Vickie and I were left alone on the mountain.
We were still above 12,000 feet. It was approaching 5:00 in the afternoon and we had been going since 3:00 am. We were tired. The physical exertion, the emotion stress, the long hours, dehydration, along with the high altitude was taking its toll. As we descended, Vickie was racked again with altitude sickness. She was throwing up even the slightest sip of water. We trudged down, finally making it to our vehicle after a 17 hour brutal day.
That night, no matter how tired we were, neither of us could sleep. Vickie wasn’t able to even keep water down until the late in afternoon of the next day.
Looking back I think of how strong Cathy was during this tragedy. She knew you can’t take anything for granted on the mountain. Her concern was, 1st and foremost, getting her son down safely from the mountain that had already claimed her husband. I admire her for her strength in such a tragic situation.
Jack also showed bravery and courage when he needed it. Jack and his dad were very near the top of their climb when he fell. Jack just heard him exclaim “Oh!” and he was gone. Jack focused to finish the dangerous climb to the top and then immediately called 911. He demonstrated extraordinary discipline and focus to continue safely to the top of the climb. He also needed that concentration to down climb through the steepest part of our route just to show us where his father was on the mountain.
Mountain climbing is an inherently dangerous activity. Accidents are always a risk all mountaineers have to accept every time we put on crampons. For now, Vickie and I will continue to hike and explore on our hiatus, but we have put on hold any aspirations for summiting big mountains requiring mountaineering tools & skills. We are not sure how we will feel in the future, only time will tell.
We want to thank everyone involved in this rescue effort. These folks put themselves at risk to help people in need. They are greatly appreciated.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Cathy and Jack and the rest of their family in the aftermath of this tragedy.
Sean & Vickie