Cliff & mountain rescue - taking the high ground
Published: 01 September, 2006
If there’s one major truth which is going to emerge from the following case histories, it’s that the majority of injuries are sustained while people are descending mountains. Typically, these involve fractures and dislocations of the extremities says Greg Emere, climbing and SAR consultant.
He talked recently to F&R about some of the climbing incidents undertaken by rescue teams operating in the Mount Shasta Wilderness area in Northern California, USA and provided us with the following information.
“Majestic Mount Shasta is 14,161 feet high and nestles in an alpine valley of unparalleled beauty. It’s a marvellous place,” says Emere. “However, this is an area which can be tough on the inexperienced where as much as two to three feet of snow can fall over 48 hours.”
Meet the rescue team
The Mount Shasta Wilderness Climbing Rangers generally consist of two seasonal rangers and two full time rangers. They regularly patrol the wilderness, spending approximately 75% of their time on the mountain monitoring the routes, educating visitors, cleaning the bivy sites and restrooms at the trailheads and assisting in searches.
Approximately 70% of their time is spent on the south-side of the mountain where most of the visitors are concentrated. Here the Rangers provide wilderness education classes to various school and special interest groups.
The rangers can provide eight “So you want to Climb Mt. Shasta?” PowerPoint presentations at various REIs in Northern California for around 800 aspiring climbers anually. They regularly provide web information and climbing reports and advise climbers, skiers, snowboarders and other visitors with avalanche and climbing route advisories, plus online weather data and links for Mt. Shasta area.
“Typically, the crowds seem to come in waves in the months of March - May, mainly on the weekends, then the numbers steadily increase through June lasting through the end of July,” reports Emere.
“In 1995, the last full year of incidents, there were no climbing fatalities but there was a plane crash in which the pilot was killed - no other persons were on board - during a severe storm in June 16th-18th and in a remote area. All but one of the year’s climbing accidents occurred on the Avalanche Gulch route and all were male. Several of the accidents included long slides, tumbles and falls.”
The first incident of 2005 occurring on Mount Shasta was recorded as being on January 27th when two male snowboarders (17 and 19 years old respectively) became lost riding below Bunny Flat on what is known as the Kilimanjaro run which ends at the Wagon Camp hairpin turn on the Everitt Memorial Highway.
Emere takes up the story: “They were last seen at 1630 hours. They had never done this run before and when they realized they were lost they tried to climb back up their tracks to Bunny Flat. It was storming and their snowboard tracks quickly became covered.” Travel conditions proved difficult so the boys dug a snow cave to stay warm while a search began with some local snowmobilers and the Siskiyou County SAR.
“Eventually the lost snowboarders hiked up to Bunny Flat and found no-one there. They broke into one of the SAR vehicles to get inside and warm up. They were found at 0400 on January 28th and were mildly hypothermic. This was a good result for everyone.”
Fall victim required a stretcher
On May 29th the SAR authorities were alerted after a USFS Climbing Ranger actually witnessed a male (58) falling in Avalanche Gulch at 0830 hrs. The climber apparently fell and tumbled 1,000 vertical feet. The Climbing Ranger down climbed to the victim at 11,000 ft. and found a suspected fractured ankle and multiple abrasions and contusions on the extremities.
Emere reports: “He was joined by two other Climbing Rangers colleagues and they lowered the injured climber to Lake Helen (10,400 ft.) where he was placed in the Rangers’ tent to be warmed, re-examined and stabilised. Possible rib fractures were identified and the Rangers then re-packaged the injured climber into a SKED and skied him to Bunny Flat (7,000 ft.). He was taken by ambulance from Bunny Flat at 1300 hrs. This was a classic rescue operation: organised, well-planned and well-executed.”
Imagine going climbing without a helmet, with little or no mountaineering experience, without a daypack and with no additional clothing or any eye protection?
In virtually a ‘carbon-copy’ of the previous incident, on June 12th, 2005, this under-equipped male (33) was spotted falling in Avalanche Gulch by another USFS Climbing Ranger. Strong winds had knocked this civilian over while he was adjusting his crampons.
He had fallen and tumbled for 1,100 vertical feet and the Climbing Ranger rapidly arrived onscene at 0835 hrs at 11,500 ft. The climber had suffered multiple abrasions and contusions (not having a helmet) and was flustered. No other injuries were found.
“The Climbing Ranger placed a harness on the injured climber and attached a short rope,” says Emere. “They climbed to the Rangers’ tent at Lake Helen (10,400 ft.) where the injured climber was warmed, re-examined and stabilised by a second Climbing Ranger at 1000 hrs. After monitoring the injured climber, he was determined stable enough to descend to the trailhead on his own (with his climbing partner) without further assistance from the Climbing Rangers. I am sure I don’t have to say any more about climbers who are inexperienced and underequipped. They can be a great problem.”
Another casualty without a helmet
On the same day on June 12th, a male climber (29) while descending Shasta’s Hotlum/Wintun route at approximately 1100 hrs. He had been attempting to put his skis on while on a steep slope (about 40 degrees) when he slipped and fell over 1000 feet - his fall was finally arrested when he struck a scree pile.
Another climber descended and hiked out to call 911 and the subsequent rescue operation took several hours.
“The Siskiyou County SAR co-ordinated a rescue with two helicopters,” recalls Emere. Four USFS Climbing Rangers and four SAR members were flown to 8,500 ft. on the east side of the mountain. “Strong winds prevented landing any higher. The team climbed up to the injured climber where he was found conscious, alert and stable. The rescue party packaged him and prepared for a lowering. The injured climber was diagnosed as mildly hypothermic, had injuries to the head, jaw, lower back/pelvis, right knee and a dislocated right shoulder.
“Fortunately, in the late evening at 2030 hrs, winds decreased enough for CDF helicopter 202 to hover over the scene at 12,000 feet and short hauled the injured climber to a lower elevation where he was transferred to a CHP helicopter with a paramedic on board. He was then flown to the hospital where he remained for several days.
“The rescue party down climbed and skied to treeline by headlamp and continued a 7 mile ski and hike out in the dark. The injured climber had moderate mountaineering experience but this was his first climb on Mt. Shasta. He was not wearing a helmet.”
Helicopters had to be used again for a similar incident on October 10th when an experienced climber (28) fell while descending the Avalanche Gulch route. His fall was at 0830 hrs and began at 12,300 ft. He was able to self-arrest after falling 15 feet, but his left crampon had caught during the fall, damaging one leg. The displacement was obvious and his partners were able to align and splint his lower leg before calling 911.
“Another climbing party assisted in lowering the injured climber to 11,500 ft. Siskiyou County SAR, USFS Climbing Rangers, CHP helicopter H-14 and CDF helicopter 202 co-ordinated the rescue,” reports Emere. “The injured climber was short hauled by CDF helicopter 202 to the search base at ,7800 ft. where he was examined and stabilised. He was then flown with a paramedic in CHP helicopter H-14 to Mercy Medical Center, Mt. Shasta.”
A difficult environment
It’s easy to get lost in this area too. On October 12th a woman visitor (68) became lost below Avalanche Gulch and the Horse Camp cabin. A 911 call was made and Siskiyou County SAR, USFS Climbing Rangers and CHP helicopter H-14 co-ordinated the search. She was found by H-14 and flown to an LZ at 7800 ft. where she was met by USFS Climbing Rangers and Siskiyou County SAR. She had no injuries and was subsequently returned to her vehicle.Mount Shasta’s last fatality occurred in March 2004 on the south side of the mountain and involved the John Muir/Avalanche Gulch route.
Making sure you have a rescue team equipped and available is vital in areas like this. Having the right equipment to hand is a crucial part of good mountain rescue planning.
Emere concludes: “For example, consider an area like rope construction? This falls into one of two categories: dynamic or static. Under weight and shock load dynamic lines stretch more than static lines. Because of their low stretch factor, static rope is most often preferred for rescue work.
“Dynamic rope is often preferred where you have to arrest or absorb the weight of a fall. Static rope stretches very little (1.5 to 2%) under normal loads. Rope construction for these types are laid, braided, braid-on-braid, and kernmantle. So here’s my advice: be well-equipped, stay safe and alert and well-informed about local conditions and no-one should have any problems.”