Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jenna Bush Delayed Denali Avy Rescue?

I see three possible takes on this:

1. This is horribly unfunny, as a climber is unjustly criticizing the Park Service.
2. This is horribly unfunny, as the Park Service delayed a rescue of avy victims.
3. Forget the facts, whatever they might really be, and focus instead on the inherent humor of passages like:
"We survived an avalanche together. They've got serious injuries, they're at 14,200 feet waiting to be rescued, and this helicopter is cruising around on the airstrip making some stupid bullshit-for-television show."
... combined with the prospect of these two meeting up on Denali:

And quite the classy gal in college, arrested for alcohol-related charges twice within five weeks (while her father was President), for a total of three alcohol-related arrests in Texas:
"on April 29, 2001, Jenna was charged with a misdemeanor for possession of alcohol under the age 21 in Austin. On May 29, 2001, Jenna was charged with another misdemeanor - attempting to use a fake ID (with the name Barbara Pierce, her paternal grandmother's maiden name) to purchase alcohol. She pleaded no contest to both charges."

Denali climber claims rangers put celebrity before avalanche victims

A professional Alaska mountain climber who was caught in a Mount McKinley avalanche June 12 that injured three other climbers claims their rescue was delayed while the National Park Service escorted "Good Morning America" correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former President George W. Bush, about the mountain in a rescue helicopter. Florian Hill told the Chilkat Valley News(subscription required) the three injured climbers struggled to the 14,000-foot camp and obviously needed rescue but were told to wait for days to see if their injuries improved. Denali National Park officials deny the accusations, saying the climbers claimed they were in no hurry to leave the mountain.
Hill, who continued his descent after parting with the other three at 14,000, said he met Bush ... on June 14 at a camp at 7,000 feet, while he was still dazed by his injuries and by painkillers. "I was just thinking of the three guys who became my buddies. ... We survived an avalanche together. They've got serious injuries, they're at 14,200 feet waiting to be rescued, and this helicopter is cruising around on the airstrip making some stupid bullshit-for-television show."
Whether Bush was being ferried in the park's rescue helicopter was unclear [last] week. [Park spokeswoman Kris] Fister said Tuesday the film crew had used the rescue helicopter, but park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin on Wednesday said Bush was using private aircraft.
The three injured climbers were finally flown off the mountain June 15 in what the park service described as a supply trip to the 14,000-foot camp.
Fister on Tuesday told the Chilkat Valley News that the park service's helicopter had been used to escort Bush for the TV segment. But Fister said the three injured climbers at 14,000 feet declined the option of being rescued. "Our staff checked, but they weren't in any hurry to come down," she said.
Read more at the Chilkat Valley News:Climber: Jenna Bush, not injured trio, given priority

Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2012/06/25/2519237/denali-climber-claims-rangers.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2012/06/25/2519237/denali-climber-claims-rangers.html#storylink=cpy

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Firsthand Account of June Montana Avalanche

From the June Montana avalanche, some sobering thoughts from one of the two survivors:



Post subject: Stay on your toes
PostPosted: Fri Jun 15, 2012 2:05 pm

I'm writing this laying in bed, two days out of surgery. triggered a considerable slide that half-buried my partner (shattered his jawbone, broke his cheek bone and wrist) and hooked me up with a broken leg just this week (monday) here in southwestern montana. This is only my sixth consecutive winter out west, but is undoubtedly the most unstable of any ive seen, and the 19 inches we got last weekend were a brutal reminder that the avalanche danger is as real as anything and will continue into july regardless of how much snow we do or do not get.

I dropped in and took a few turns, cranking a heelside (which in hindsight should have been much gentler) that popped off a slide running over 200 feet, and smashed my partner who was near the bottom against a rockband and carried me quickly and turbulently to the bottom of the chute. we ended up having to get airlifted out and flown to a hospital.. coulda been a lot worse, and to be honest i'm glad it happened or i would still be riding carelessley and guided by an ego better suited for mick jagger or chuck norris.

bottom line: unless youre 120 percent sure your line can not and will not slide, youve dug a pit, and everyone is on board with the plan, youre tempting fate. Not sure why or how im still alive, but I owe my life to the guys that came to my rescue and everyday from here on out is gonna count.. and next season is gonna be mostly spent in bounds, and in church

legs: broken right tib-fib. healing: 6-8 weeks. painkillers for three meals a day.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Article on Rainier Ranger Nick Hall

More details in this article:


Key "lessons learned" excerpt:

Conditions were unusually slick and changing quickly on the 14,411-foot peak, said John Race, a mountain guide from Leavenworth, Chelan County. He'd been leading clients up the Emmons Glacier but turned back because he considered the route unsafe.

"I've worked on Rainier since 1989, and it was really primed for big sliding falls," Race said. "The surface was quite firm and icy, so we bailed."

Originally published Friday, June 22, 2012 at 12:16 PM
Rangers at Rainier recovering one of their own after fatal fall

Authorities at Mount Rainier National Park faced the grim task Friday of recovering the body of one of their own rangers who slid 3,000 feet to his death while helping rescue a climbing party.
Seattle Times environment reporter
The helicopter hovered above in the thin mountain air as rescuers steadied the empty litter.
Mount Rainier climbing ranger Nick Hall and his fellow rescuers were 700 feet below the volcano's summit, trying to get four injured climbers to safety.
It was late afternoon on Thursday, and one victim had just been hauled up to the waiting Chinook. The rangers were preparing to load a second climber, but howling winds were whipping the steep, icy Emmons Glacier.
Hall was trying to anchor the wind-battered empty litter with another line to keep it under control amid the gusts. But something went wrong.
"Something caused Nick to fall and the litter to come loose, and they both went tumbling down the mountainside," said Mount Rainier National Park spokesman Kevin Bacher.
Hall came to rest 3,000 feet below, becoming only the fourth Rainier ranger in the park's history to die in the line of duty.
Hall, who grew up in a small town in Maine, had transformed his love of the outdoors into a job with one of the Lower 48's most elite mountain-rescue teams. Along the way he had been a Marine and a ski patroller, rock climber and hiker who had worked his way from New England to Colorado to Yellowstone and Rainier.

Nick Hall slid more than 3,000 feet to his death Thursday as he was helping evacuate climbers by helicopter.
Friday, Gov. Chris Gregoire praised his selflessness. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called his actions heroic. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray phoned Hall's father in Maine to thank the family for Nick Hall's service. Even a climbing group in Texas, home to the victims Hall was rescuing, has reached out to thank his family.
"We are heartbroken and in awe of Nick," his father, Carter Hall, said from his home in Maine. "A mountain is a hostile place, but we are grateful that so much appreciation for his actions is being expressed to us. We are happy so many people want to honor him."
Hall was Rainier's second park ranger to die this year. Margaret Anderson was gunned down on New Year's Day by Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, a suspect in a Skyway shooting incident the night before. Barnes fled in the snow and was found dead the next day.
Two other climbing rangers were killed in 1995 when they fell 1,200 feet during a rescue, also on Emmons Glacier.
While the circumstances of Thursday's accident are still being sorted out, the incident appeared to start like many others.
Conditions were unusually slick and changing quickly on the 14,411-foot peak, said John Race, a mountain guide from Leavenworth, Chelan County. He'd been leading clients up the Emmons Glacier but turned back because he considered the route unsafe.
"I've worked on Rainier since 1989, and it was really primed for big sliding falls," Race said. "The surface was quite firm and icy, so we bailed."
2 fall into crevasse
Around noon, another group of four mountaineers, led by Texas lawyer and experienced climber Stuart Smith — an adventurer who has crossed Greenland on skis and scaled the highest summits on all seven continents — had been descending from a successful summit attempt as part of a single rope team when someone slipped. The whole team skidded down the mountain and two members tumbled into a crevasse at 13,700 feet. One or both of the other two caught the fall.
Two or three other rescuers and Hall, who had been a climbing ranger for four years, worked their way to the group. It's not clear if the injured climbers extracted themselves from the crevasse or if the rangers did, but by midafternoon it was obvious the injured climbers would need assistance getting down.
"The rangers could tell in the field that in addition to bumps, bruises and contusions, that there was the clear possibility of broken bones and minor head injuries," Bacher said. A Chinook was on scene, but the weather was worsening.
"They were dealing with some very challenging conditions," Bacher said. "A storm front was coming in. There were 30- to 40 mile-per-hour winds. The conditions were really icy, and it's a steep part of the mountain."
After the first victim was hauled up, the rangers tried using a line to help stabilize the litter. That's when Hall fell.
Bacher said it's too soon to know what happened — whether Hall was knocked off balance by the wind, the litter or the tagline, whether it was rotor wash from chopper blades, or if he simply lost his balance. He wore crampons and had his ice ax with him, but was unable to self-arrest and stop his fall.
Rangers got to him quickly, but could not revive him. A second chopper was called and the rangers returned their focus to the rescue.
Three of the climbers — Smith, of Waco, Texas, his niece Noelle Smith, and Ross VanDyke — were airlifted off the mountain by 9 p.m. and taken to Madigan Hospital, but deteriorating weather conditions prevented a rescue of the fourth victim.
Rangers spent the night on the mountain with that climber, Stacy Wren, who on Friday descended in near white-out conditions at times before reaching the bottom.
Grim task awaits
Rangers initiated an attempt to retrieve Hall's body Friday, but were pinned down by poor visibility.
Hall had grown up in tiny Patten, Maine, 85 miles north of Bangor, in a place where the biggest mountain is 5,000 feet high, "and I can see it from my window," his father said.
Hall and his older brother, Aaron, grew up outdoors, swimming at a lake near their grandfather's cabin and skiing in winter. They both lived for a time in the Rockies where Nick sometimes took multiday hikes alone near the Delores River. He scaled Colorado's famed 14,000-foot peaks with his dog, mountain biked through Utah with his brother and rafted the Colorado River.
But it wasn't until the two brothers skied together at Crested Butte, Colo., that it dawned on Aaron just how skilled an outdoorsman his brother had become.
"He just sailed down this expert terrain effortlessly, and I realized he and I didn't belong on the same mountain anymore," Aaron said.
Aaron said he was about to go running Sunday when Nick called and the two brothers caught up for about half an hour.
"He was saying things were pretty slow so far this year, that there wasn't much going on," Aaron said. "But he was having fun."
Carter Hall said the family wants to come to Washington and meet his son's friends and get a closer glimpse of the life he led.
"We're just so tearful thinking about what he was doing," Carter Hall said. "We want to do something to promote rescue work."
Associated Press reporter Shannon Dininny in Yakima contributed to this story.
Craig Welch:  206-464-2093cwelch@seattletimes.com

Friday, June 22, 2012

More PNW Falls on Ski Mountaineering Terrain

Unfortunately more bad news from yesterday (Thursday, June 21) to continue the previous theme of falls on ski mountaineering terrain (although this time both incidents involved only climbers, not skiers).


This time the injuries were not at all life-threatening, especially since immediate extrication/evacuation was available from members of Portland Mountain Rescue, who were already on site at the time of the incident . . . to spread the ashes of the well-known climber who died exactly one week earlier from a fall on the same route.

The injured climber was wearing a bike helmet instead of a climbing helmet, and using a ski pole instead of an ice axe.  Another climber who witnessed the fall had already turned back from a summit attempt on account of overly softening snow.  Based on one account, at least the victim's inability to self-arrest at all had the benefit of getting him going "fast enough to fly over a crevasse near the end of his slip" -- all of which would actually be kind of amusing were it not for the events that started about four-and-a-half hours later on a volcano to the north...


Four climbers from Waco TX were descending from the summit via the Emmons Glacier when the two women fell into a crevasse, while the two men were able to arrest the fall.  One climber called in a rescue on a cell phone, and by about three hours later, park ranger Nick Hall had heroically rescued the climbers from the crevasse, and was loading some of them into a Chinook helicopter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

At 4:59, this appeared to be a happy end to an already confusing story.  Some of the as-yet-unanswered questions:

  • Did someone first fall, and then slide into a crevasse?  
  • Or did a fragile snowbridge break?
  • Why were the two men unable to extricate the two women from the crevasse?  (Yes, they were all from Texas, but still, crevasse rescue can be practiced without glaciers, and one of them did have mountaineering experience on other big peaks.)

Unfortunately, the story has a tragic ending, on some terrain whose dizzying exposure made me nervous at the time, and still does looking back it.
Although I don't know what the established route looks like this year on the Emmons, the 2009 route was pretty typical:

The traverse near the summit might seem kind of pointless on the map, but looking at the summit in this picture I took from the Sunrise area while touring a few days area, you can see how the traverse avoids some steeper terrain (and a tricky bergschrund) by heading toward a saddle, from which the summit is just up a very casual non-glaciated hill:

So skiing from the summit starts off with a ridiculously casual descent almost true north, then starting at around 13,600' a still fairly easy ski, cutting to the skier's right (i.e., east) across the fall line.  From a skiing difficultly standpoint, very similar to cutting across Mt Washington's NE Snowfield, toward the lower part of the East Snowfield, when skiing from the summit to Tuckerman Ravine.
The difference though is how I thought at the time that a fall there on the Emmons would be the equivalent of going all the way from the NE Snowfield to Route 16:

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened to ranger Nick Hall, apparently in the process of loading one of the victims into a Chinook.
RIP ranger Nick, a true hero.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

[Suspended] Jail Sentence for Avy-Widowed Husband

Following up on a previous post about Legal Ramifications of Avalanche Deaths, an Austrian court has upheld last fall's suspended jail term for a husband whose wife died on a ski tour with him:


Suspended jail for husband that killed wife in avalanche

A husband has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after he set off an avalanche in which his wife subsequently died as they were on a ski tour in Obertauern, Austria in winter 2010.

The court in Linz, Austria, yesterday found the 65-year-old guilty of the charges after deciding he had set off the avalanche.

His wife, aged 58, had set off first down the slope and then he had followed down the steep off piste slope; but his movement triggered the avalanche which swept his wife to her death on the 2,228 metre high Sichelwand at the Obertauern ski resort.

The man had tried in vain to dig out his wife who was stuck under one metre of snow. When rescuers managed to free her she was already dead. She had massive head injuries and her mouth was full of snow.

In Autumn 2011 the husband was sentenced a three month suspended sentence for involuntary manslaughter.  The court told him he should have realized the danger and should not have gone down the mountain, nor allowed his wife to do so.

The man appealed the sentence, and his legal team argued that his wife took the responsibility herself to go down the mountain and she would have been aware of the danger.  The woman had her avalanche detector switched off in her rucksack.  However the court has now rejected the appeal.

The decision proved very controversial amongst mountain rescue experts who claimed it linked being an alpinist to a criminal offence and took away the element of personal responsibility.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Seven Deaths in Four Days on Ski Mountaineering Terrain

Of these seven deaths over a four-day span, five were climbers, not skiers, and of the four incidents, two were climbing, not skiing.  But all were on terrain that is prime for ski mountaineering (i.e., not technical or mixed climbing). Details are currently rather slim for all of them, but here are some quick summaries with initial attempts at "lessons learned":

June 14, Denali:

Five Japanese climbers on a rope team were descending Motorcycle Hill (a snowy slope with a pitch somewhere in the 30s, so would be nice for skiing) when they were hit by an avalanche.  The sole survivor was swept into a crevasse (from which he eventually successfully self-extricated), and separated from his rope team, apparently because the rope broke.  Subsequent searching located the end of the rope in the same crevasse, and hence the other four party members are presumed to be dead, located further down in the crevasse, their final resting place.  A fairly detailed account is available in the Anchorage Daily News.

Apparently avalanches are quite common on Motorcycle Hill, but these are the first-ever avalanche fatalities on that slope.  According to this blog entry, avalanche conditions were so bad that one party hunkered down for "several days" and descended down Motorcycle Hill only once they heard from an ascending party that all the unstable snow had been avalanche off (by the ill-fated Japanese party, although they did not know this at the time).

The blog entry reports wise decision making by the author's group, but also shows that the Japanese party was not the only one way making unwise decisions:
"During this time several other parties were either climbing or descending the fixed lines.  Two of these groups were caught in separate avalanches.  One group of three was caught just below the fixed lines and lost much of their gear and sustained numerous puncture wounds.  The other party was caught just above camp and sustained relatively minor injuries.  The decision to move higher or lower on the mountain is often a difficult one, but in the conditions that we observed there was no disagreement that our group would not be moving until conditions stabilized.  When conditions were safe for us to descend we had only one meal left, and we were forced to abandon our cache of gear and food higher on the mountain due to safety concerns."
UPDATE:  Many (many) more details from rando racer Jared's blog.

June 14, Mt Hood:

Only a few hours later, a climber fell to his death while descending the most popular (indeed, sometimes too popular and hence dangerously crowed) route on Mt Hood.  The victim was well-known in the outdoor industry, and about three decades ago, back when he was in his 20s, he had a number of rock climbing first ascents.

I've skied this route, and it's no steeper than, say, all the standard ski lines in Tuckerman Ravine (and elsewhere in the Presidentials).  Fortunately when I skied it (carefully!), conditions were absolutely perfect, especially since the length and exposure are both far greater than the standard ski lines in Tuckerman Ravine.

Some of the incident accounts mention the dangers of climbing that kind of terrain solo, and hence inevitably unroped.  However, many of the rope teams on that route do not place protection, thereby doing nothing to reduce the risk of a teammate's fall (given the inherent difficult of self-arresting on terrain that steep), yet placing the entire team at risk of being taken out by one person's fall.  (And even worse, one falling rope team can "floss" another -- even into the prominent bergschrund on that route, which happened just a little over a decade ago . . . a tragedy almost compounded immensely when the rescue helicopter crashed.)

Lessons learned?  Advocating that anyone on that route be roped up with protection seems excessive.  We'll never know what caused such a skilled climber to fall to his death on such a comparatively easy route.  Did a crampon part break?  Was he just too casual about such a standard route he'd completed so many times before?  All of that is pure speculation, but if it helps us not to take the condition of our gear or familiar routes for granted, then even such pure speculation can be helpful from a safety perspective.

June 15, Mt Baker:

I have skied only two comparatively easy routes from the peaks of Mt Baker (Grant via Roman Wall & Easton Glacier, and Sherman via Squak Glacier).  I had previously read trip reports of the Coleman Headwall (2007, 2010, 2011), which looked like terrain well within my skiing ability, though well outside the safety margin I prefer.

A recent trip report from another route originally contained the passage:
"Said hi to a few fellas from the great North contemplating the Coleman Headwall.  Big balls if they skied it under really frozen conditions.........TR?"
The "TR" that was subsequently filed by the media doesn't have much on what caused the victim (who leaves behind a son about the same age as my daughter) to ski over a cliff to his death.  However, based on both a video and his Turns-All-Year.com posts, he had at least in recent years been on telemark gear, which drastically reduces the already slim safety margin on such a route. One account indicates that he was simply not aware that he was about to ski over a cliff, which would indicate dangerous lack of familiarity with the route -- that detail could be entirely untrue for this incident, but still, it reinforces the need to ski slowly enough on such terrain to be able to stop in a very short distance if the terrain has the potential to cliff-out if slightly off-route.
UPDATE:  An unnamed "source close to the family" clarifies that the victim first fell while skiing, then could not stop in time to prevent himself from falling over the cliff.
UPDATE:  Pictures of the victim from other tours show him with both telemark gear and AT gear over time, and more specifically an AT boot model that has been available only during the current ski season and the prior season.  A reasonable inference is that during the current season or the prior season he switched over to the TLT5 for tours like this, so telemark gear is probably absolved from all blame for this tragedy.

June 17, Mt Blanc:

Each year the Mt Blanc massif records almost as many fatalities as Mt Washington has experienced in its entire history of outdoor recreation (especially when the couple dozen or so motorized accidents are netted out).

This single death comes as more of a shock though because the victim was Stephane Brosse, a former champion ski mountaineering racer, whose skin>ski transition video has been watched countless times by many aspiring racers.

He was accompanied by current champion ski mountaineering racer Kilian Jornet, on his "Summits of My Life" project.  Perhaps they were both giving the cornice what anyone would have considered a sufficient safety margin.  However, a tour plan that entails the following:
"[...] a series of mountain routes in ground-breaking style - several of them never attempted previously. This spectacular journey will redefine the idea of 'travelling light' with technical equipment and back up kept to a bare minimum.  [...]  The project begins this summer in the Mont Blanc massif, where Kilian will set out on two incredible mountain trips, traversing the massif from east to west (Champex to les Contamines) on skis, and then from south to north (Courmayeur to Chamonix) climbing and running. Neither of these routes have been attempted in previously."
. . . certainly presents conflicts with the "safety > efficiency > speed" guideline.