Mountaineering is an inherently dangerous undertaking that has many underlying risks, including: falls, avalanches, rockfall, icefall, crevasses, seracs, cold injuries (frostbite, hypothermia, etc.), altitude sickness (AMS, HAPE, HACE), weather, etc. So, we do not head into the hills lightly and typically work very hard to mitigate any and all hazards as much as is possible.
That said, this past weekend, I joined long-time climbing partners Craig & Mark and their friend Bob on a climb of Mt. Jefferson (10,497′) in central Oregon. Mt. Jefferson is a difficult peak despite its lower altitude and as a result is not often climbed. It is known for its rotten, volcanic rock that is very loose while it’s ridges and faces are quite steep. It is this combination that makes Mt. Jefferson a tough and potentially dangerous mountain to climb.
After some debate and pre-planning, we decided to attempt the Jefferson Park Glacier to the upper knife-edged ridge route to the summit. The crux, we determined, would be the bergschrund (the large glacier that separates the lower Jefferson Park Glacier from the upper headwall). If it hadn’t melted out too much, we should be able to negotiate it and attain the upper mountain.
We completed the 7-mile hike to our base camp while gaining 4,000′ from the trailhead, so by the time we arrived at our camp in the early evening we were all pretty tired. We ate a quick dinner and went to sleep for an early alpine start. By 4:15am we were climbing and quickly reached the bergschrund at sunrise. Fortunately, it was still in good shape and we were able to negotiate our way up and over it. From there, it was fun climbing up the steep snow of the headwall, on and over the 4th and 5th class NW Ridge and up the final summit block. There was a lot of loose rock, but we moved deliberately and safely to the summit by 8:30am.
We then descended the west face and down to the Terrible Traverse, which is a 50+ degree snowfield that we had to traverse to get to the Red Saddle and the SE Ridge for the safest route of descent. We protected this dangerous section that had a 1,500′ run-out (which would make for a very long, body-mangling fall) with a running belay and made quick work of the rest of the descent to the Whitewater Glacier that we would have to traverse for ~2 miles back to our camp. The hard part of the climb was over and accordingly we all let our guard down a little bit.
With the heat of the midday sun reflecting off the icy glacier, temperatures were hot so we were all in short-sleeves and took our helmets off since we were clear of any rockfall hazards. At this point in the season, the snow of the glacier had melted considerably so the crevasses that were once buried and hidden under the winter snows were now visible and easily avoided. As such, we didn’t rope up, as is standard practice on a crevassed glacier – particularly early in a climbing season.
About 1pm, we were traversing quickly and were only about an hour from our camp when I found an ice axe in the snow and asked Bob to affix it to my pack. He did so, and this put us about 50 feet behind Craig and Mark. They paused briefly as they approached a heavily crevassed area. As we approached them, Bob suggested that we rope-up just as Craig probed a significant looking snow bridge crossing a large crevasse and suddenly the whole world changed…
Craig simply disappeared. With a whoomph, the entire snow bridge gave way and Craig plummeted into the abyss.
I froze momentarily in absolute shock and disbelief. Then my heart sank. I was convinced that I had just witnessed the death of a dear friend.
Then Mark started yelling, “Get the rope! Get the rope!”, which snapped me back to the present. Bob replied that the rope was, in fact, in Craig’s pack… My heart sank again.
As we yelled into the void, we heard Craig’s voice, weak and strained, but we heard it nonetheless. Hope was not lost. At least not yet. Mark was able to peer down into the crevasse and could see that Craig was mostly buried about 30 feet below us, but his right arm was free and he had been able to scrape his face clean with a carabiner so he could breathe as well. We still had time to get to him and get him out of there.
So, we sprang into action and improvised a rope from all of the remaining gear we had left. We girth hitched runners, webbing, web-o-lets, etc. together to form a 40-foot rope. As we went to lower Mark into the hole, I noticed that the lip of the crevasse we were on was completely overhung and corniced. We risked knocking all of that down onto Craig and burying him permanently, so we had to back off and look for other options.
Bob suggested, correctly, that we move to the opposite side of the crevasse where we could set-up safe anchors and avoid knocking anything down on Craig. We had to carefully avoid several crevasses to get to the other side and set up our anchors. By the time we achieved all of that, 30-minutes or so had passed. Time was of the essence. We had to get to Craig immediately and get him out of there before he succumbed to hypothermia.
Additionally, the large snow bridge that collapsed with Craig and then partially buried him was 10′ across by 20′ long and subsequently wedged into the tapering crevasse 30′ down. The snow bridge was dense and held there but it could go at any time since the crevasse was closer to 100′ deep in total. If Craig slipped any further down the crevasse we might not be able to get to him.
Bob and I lowered Mark into the crevasse via a hip belay on our improvised rope. Mark proceeded to dig Craig out of the packed ice and snow around him using an ice axe. By the time Craig was finally freed from the snow, another 30 minutes had passed. Craig was getting increasingly hypothermic.
Mark got some warmer layers out of Craig’s pack and put them on him. He also retrieved the rope from Craig’s pack. After securing himself and Craig to the crevasse wall using an ice screw to ensure they didn’t fall any further down into the crevasse, Mark told us to pull up the improvised rope that now had our actual climbing rope attached.
Bob and I quickly set-up the pulley systems and anchors that would allow us to pull Craig and Mark up out of the hole and sent the rope back down to Mark. Mark tied Craig into the rope and we started pulling. With the mechanical advantage of the systems we had built, we got Craig quickly up to the lip of the crevasse. However, the snow at the crevasses’ edge was so soft that the rope bit into it several feet and we could only lift him to the point where we could see his head, but no further.
Fortunately, I was able to flag down the only other two climbers we saw on the mountain the entire day as they descended from the summit near us. They came over and provided some additional manpower as we continued to struggle to get Craig over the lip of the crevasse to relative safety. Another hour passed and we were gaining only inches at a time. Craig was in and out of being lucid and was occasionally unconscious for brief periods.
By this point, Craig was severely hypothermic. He was belligerent (more so than normal), and he had no use of his hands, arms or legs. Essentially, he was unable to help us at all as we struggled to get his soaking wet, shaking, incapacitated, large body back to the surface.
Finally, we were able to get his arms up and over the lip of the crevasse and could pull him up a bit further by his armpits. Inch by inch we made progress until we could finally reach his harness and yank him up and out of the crevasse. He was unbelievably cold by then with a core temperature likely below 90 degrees. This was 2+ hours after his initial fall into the crevasse.
His first words once on the surface, to no one in particular, were “I think I’m going to die.” Not that he thought he was going to die while he was in the crevasse, but rather that he was so cold and injured that at that point he thought he wasn’t going to make it. I quickly assured him that that was NOT the case and that he was going to be just fine (or so I hoped).
We stripped Craig of his wet clothes and got him into some warm, dry ones as well as into a couple of sleeping bags and a bivvy sack. The priority in these situations is always to get the victim out of the crevasse, get them warmed-up and then assess other injuries, since suffocation and/or hypothermia are the most immediate and life-threatening risks. Upon assessing Craig’s other injuries, he was clearly beat-up with bloodied hands and mouth, bruised face and protruding ribs. He was understandably in a lot of pain.
With Craig no longer in immediate danger, we quickly turned to Mark and extracted him from the crevasse. He had been down there 90 minutes or so and was drenched due to the snow melting on top of him in a constant downpour. He was also hypothermic, but still able to assist us with the extraction using his ice axe and we quickly got him to the surface again.
Once everyone was secure on the surface, the other two climbers who assisted us with the rescue headed down to make a 911 call as soon as they attained a cell signal. Soon after they departed for the trailhead to summon help, Mark and I descended to our camp to gather our sleeping bags, sleeping pads, stoves, fuel, etc. in order to set-up our overnight bivvy on the glacier at the site of the accident since we couldn’t move Craig without risking further injury.
Several hours later and an hour or so before sunset, Mark & I returned to the accident site with all of our gear. We dug sleeping platforms for each of us in the icy, 30-degree slope, fastened ourselves to the mountain so that we didn’t roll into a crevasse in our sleep and settled in for a long, cold night.
Unexpectedly, we were awakened at 11pm by the sound of helicopter rotors cutting into the night sky. Soon a spotlight was on us and a blackhawk from the National Guard was overhead. The para-rescuer was lowered to the glacier where I tethered him to my anchor. The metal litter came down next and careened through the air dangerously due to all of the rotor-wash reflecting off of the 30-degree snow slope. Bob was able to secure that and bring it down to where Craig was. We quickly transferred Craig to the litter, secured him tightly, and he was on his way skyward. They finally maneuvered the careening litter and his size 15 feet into the helicopter. The para-rescuer followed next and suddenly the night fell silent and Bob, Mark and I sat in disbelief of all that we had just been through over the past 11 hours.
At sunrise, and after a very cold night on the glacier, Mark, Bob and I packed-up our gear and descended to the trailhead, where we arrived midday to find our friend Todd awaiting our arrival with beer, chips and sandwiches. It was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. We then headed to the hospital in Salem to check on Craig.
It turned out that Craig sustained dislocated & broken ribs, a bruised liver and heart arrhythmia due to the severe hypothermia. His heart returned to normal once his body warmed and had the chance to recover from the shock of severe hypothermia. He is certainly very lucky to be alive, with limited injuries that will heal fully in time, while we’re all incredibly thankful for the outcome given the dire circumstances.
It was a surreal experience… our strong, competent team made the best of a very bad situation and literally saved not just a man’s life, but the life of a dear friend. I am extremely grateful for the outcome and the efforts of so many that made the positive outcome possible. All we can do now is count our collective blessings, learn from the experience, and not repeat any of the mistakes (however small and innocent they may have been at the time) moving forward.