This trip report isn’t about the route or the climb since that has been extensively discussed in the past. Rather it is about an unfortunate accident, the ensuing rescue, and the camaraderie of the climbing community.
I was excited to get out into the mountains again this past weekend and so I gave Steve Anderson, my good friend and occasional climbing partner a call. After a brief discussion, we decided to do a fun route in the mountains with his daughter Sydni (age 14) and my son Jacob. Both of these youth have experience in the mountains. We’ve regularly taken them scrambling, cragging, snow caving, and last year I took my son on a fun climb up the Quien Sabe Glacier. But this was their first real “alpine” rock experience.
We woke early on Saturday morning and made the drive to the Blue Lake Trailhead and although it was constantly drizzling on highway 20, the clouds parted to reveal beautiful skies just as we got to the trailhead. The four of us made quick work of the approach. The youth did a great job on the climb and while they struggled a bit on the lower section of P2 and the step across section of P3, the climb went well and everyone had a great time. Along the way, we met two nice climbers. Their trip report is here.
Since we had climbed with 4 of us (I led with two half ropes and then we caterpillered the third rope), we made double rope rappels to get off the mountain. Steve and his daughter rappelled by themselves with backups and I rappelled with my son tied into me. It was about six o’clock and we quickly grabbed a snack and a drink, packed the bags, and headed down the Beckey gully.
As many of you know, the Beckey gully can be quite unpleasant with the loose rock and since we had two youth with us, the steeper snow could be very dangerous. I lowered the youth down the steeper snow slope of the upper gulley while my partner and I down climbed the snow with ice axes and boots. Since I was doing the lowering, I was heading down last while my partner was the first one down. We had just finished lowering through the first full rope length and I had down climbed to a large sturdy boulder protruding from the snow when Steve, who was ahead of me, slipped on the last 50 feet of snow. He attempted to arrest, but wasn’t able to before he hit the rocks below (fortunately, missing the short cliffs to skier’s left).
He immediately sat up and I called out to him to see if he was alright. He didn’t answer. I called again and again there was no answer. I knew he heard me, he was sitting up about 120 feet from me. I called out once more but again there was no answer. I couldn’t get down to him until I had got the youth to safety, so I quickly set up the lowering system and turned to his daughter and told her that when she got down to get check on her father and tell me what is going on. Within a minute or two she was down there and hurried to her dad who was still sitting down (he may have been doing more, but I couldn’t tell from my vantage point). She yelled up to me that he had a “broken foot”. I then set up my son and lowered him down to safety as well.
At this point, another climbing party of two from Everett, the last party up there, had reached the boulder. We chatted quickly and then I rapped down to Steve leaving the rope for the other party to use. I did a quick assessment and found that he had no serious bleeding, no trouble breathing, and that while his pulse was elevated, he was going to be ok for the moment. His ankle was dislocated and he had broken his tib fib. It was immediately clear that he wasn’t going to be making it out on his own and that we were very likely going to be staying the night until we had enough people to get him out safely.
We had two immediate concerns: first, he was still on snow and running water which certainly wouldn’t help him deal with shock and second, we had two youth with us who didn’t have overnight gear and would make an already precarious situation potentially much much worse. I am so thankful that the other climbing party was there and so very helpful. They helped me move Steve to dry flat ground about 20 feet away and get him situated on our three ropes and packs. We then collected all of the extra clothing, food, water, and other helpful items from the youth and the other climbing party wrote down our assessment of the situation as we did a more thorough examine (finding many other contusions and abrasions). They volunteered to take the youth back to the car and call for help while I stayed with my friend and tried to keep him as stable and comfortable as I could given the situation.
Once they left, I finished a more thorough examine of Steve, got him some food and water, and then prepared for the cold and potentially very wet night (clouds had been threatening and we had occasional drizzles). We stuffed all of the extra clothing in his jacket or covered him with it. We didn’t have overnight gear, and so I took my knife and cut off branches from the nearest tree to provide some modicum of insulation for him. While it was better than nothing, it wasn’t much. It looked pretty certain that the night was going to be memorably miserable.
I continued to take his vitals and by this time his pulse had returned to normal and other vital signs looked good too, but he was in awful pain and all we had was ibuprofen. Nevertheless, he took it like a champ and I never once heard him complain. All he did was thank everyone who helped him.
At this point there was nothing to be done except wait and watch. The clouds threatened from the west and our thoughts circled gloomily knowing full well that rain and freezing temperatures could change our already bad situation into a very serious situation. I asked Steve if he wanted a blessing. He said he did. So I knelt behind him very aware of how alone and remote we were and how desperately we needed help. I blessed him and as soon as I laid my hands on his head, I immediately was wrapped in an intense feeling of God’s love for us. I knew he knew where we were and of our circumstances. I felt his love for us and it filled me with hope and courage. I knew he cared for us not in the way that he would just make it better but in the way that a loving parent holds his child and tenderly rocks them expressing empathy with how the child feels. I always knew that God loved me, but I never really felt that he cries when we do and has joy when we have joy in the same way that I feel about my children. I felt that.
The blessing was powerful. I called upon the power of God to stay the elements and keep him safe and peaceful and he was. It rained everywhere around us, but not on us that night. I am so grateful for a God that loves us, but as you will see not only did he give us courage and safety and stay the elements, but also sent angels to help us down below.
About an hour later, we saw two climbers coming up. When they got there they told us that they had met the others going down and had talked with them about the situation. They had a team of 3 climbers (mentioned here ) who had done the west face of NEWS early that day. Originally they had planned to bivy and climb the next day, but due to the threatening storm they had fortunately decided to go down. When they heard of our plight, they concluded why not spend the night out after all helping some other climbers and I’m so grateful for that!
They came up with three sleeping bags, two tarps, three sleeping pads, a bunch of food, and drinks The third climber in their group raced down to call for help since he could move much faster without helping the youth down. We moved Steve onto a real sleeping pad and put a warm sleeping bag and tarp over him. The branches were then used to prop up his leg in a more comfortable position. From this point on, Steve was warm and the immediate danger of weather abated. And not only did they bring protection from the elements, they also brought some much needed good cheer to an otherwise dismal situation. We had fun chatting with them as we passed the time.
A few hours later, the third climber arrived with more supplies and told us that SAR would arrive early the next morning. After some more talk, we settled in for the night. Fortunately, even though it was pouring rain as close as the parking lot, we never had any rain at our bivy, just passing clouds. For most of the night, it was clear and the full (or nearly full) moon on the night after the summer solstice was unbelievably bright. I don’t think Steve slept at all and I’m pretty sure the others didn’t sleep much as well, but things were comfortable enough for the night.
As dawn came, I was anxious to hear the sound of coming rescue and before too long we saw a group of 7 from Okanogan County Search and Rescue coming up from the basin below. As they approached, we got up and organized our things as best as we could to be ready for the rescue.
When they arrived they quickly assessed the situation, gave Steve pain medication and a splint, and moved him to a litter so they could lower him to a more level open area about 1200 feet down the mountain where a rescue helicopter could evacuate him. The search and rescue people are wonderful and very professional. We are so grateful to them and their dedication to helping those in need in the wilderness. It was great to watch them work and I had a great time talking with them.
It wasn’t easy lowering Steve through that loose and steep gully with a large team and an immobile man, but they did a great job. All the while, a group of mountain goats milled around watching us with amused interest. At one point, a baby mountain goat repeatedly ran into one of the rescue ropes bouncing off it with a twang each time.
By about one o’clock on Sunday, they had lowered him to the intended pickup area and before too long we heard the approach of the King County rescue helicopter. It circled the basin a couple of times before coming in and dropping off a guy who got my friend situated and then lifted him into the helicopter before they headed out to Wenatchee hospital. I was so glad to see him go.
We quickly packed up and headed down the trail to the cars. Again, I was grateful that the team of 3 helped me carry one of the extra packs while I carried my own and the other extra pack.
At this point, I heard that the group of two climbers which escorted my son and Steve’s daughter down the night before had driven to get help and food the night before and then drove our kids home. I am very grateful to them for the help.
It was strange having driven the day before to the climb with four people to drive home alone now. I was surprised that despite not eating much, drinking much, or sleeping much, I felt absolutely fine. Instead, I was thinking about the experience and my friend and his family for the three hour drive home.
As for the accident: of course we could have done something different. Perhaps if he had crampons he wouldn’t have slipped or if we had all rapped the snow section then things wouldn’t have unfolded like they did. I heard from the SAR team that people get hurt there often from a combination of loose rock, steep snow, and less experienced parties often being in the area. So I’m sure we should all exercise more caution there.
But Steve is experienced and until the fateful slip happened everything was going just fine. We were managing the risk by lowering the youth and down climbing ourselves. A few more steps and we wouldn’t have thought twice about it all. But sometimes unexpected things happen and sometimes people get hurt. Sometimes they get hurt badly.
No, for me the biggest lesson that I have taken away from this is how much I love our climbing community. From the kindness of the first party we met on route, to the party of two that took our children to safety and called for help, to the wonderful party of three that brought warmth and cheer to our desperate circumstances, and the competent SAR team that rescued my friend, each group pitched in to help us in a very real way.
I was thinking about it again last night as I lay in bed. Often, we lament how in modern society that people will look the other way or continue to go about their business while someone stands in need. We shout and curse at each other as we drive to work. But up there on that mountain, we experienced the best side of humanity. Each of us doing our best to help someone. It made me think, perhaps it is the ease of our lives that leaves us so cold to each other. Maybe the fact that out in the wilderness, we all know that we could be that someone helps us act better. But in any case, I hope we never lose that. It restores my faith in humanity to interact with people like you.
So as I hear about terrible stories of selfishness and ego from around the world that threaten that camaraderie, I hope we can remember to keep together and help each other reach great heights in the mountains and in life. And most of all, I hope that we will always remember that God loves us and is with us wherever we go. There is no place so remote that prayer cannot reach heaven and a loving God.
Jacob on the summit of Liberty Bell
Beautiful alpine views of Washington Pass peaks from the summit
Jacob and I on the summit
Sydni making the last double rope rappel
Steve about as cozy as you can be with a broken tib-fib
My friend at sunset at our bivy spot
The injury – not very pretty
The SAR team getting my friend ready to be lowered down the gully
One of the intensely interested goats
The SAR team lowering my friend down the last section before the evac
King County SAR Helicopter arriving
Loaded in the bag
One of the Canadian climbers who helped us out
Finally Steve is getting out of there