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#1418 - 10/05/05 12:09 PM Whitney accident
Whitney Zone Offline
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Registered: 09/21/09
Posts: 107
Loc: WhitneyZone
Posted by graham, 10-05-05
Sorry to hear about these type of accidents.
Got this accident report from INYO SAR:

On October 3, 2005 at approximately 12:30 pm the Inyo County Sheriff's Office
received information that there was possibly an injured hiker near Trail Crest
on the Mount Whitney trail. The report was via a text message sent on a
cellular phone but did not give any details, nor was the date and time the
message was sent known.
Inquires began with Sequoia/Kings National Park and U.S. forest service, but
there were no wilderness rangers in the area. A C.H.P. helicopter based in
Fresno was requested to search the area but they were turned back by 50-60 knot
winds over the crest.
Forest Service rangers started in to the area, and Inyo County Sheriff's Search
and Rescue teams also started in with medical equipment. At approximately 3:30
pm rescue base received information from a paramedic and nurse confirming that
one hiker had been involved in a fatal accident. By 4:30 pm three additional
hikers in the victim's party were located and eventually all were reunited in
Lone Pine later that evening.
Witnesses reported that 45-year-old Stephen L. Tom of El Cerrito California,
attempted to glissade down an Ice chute from the switchbacks below Trail Crest.
He lost control during the roughly 1100' slide and impacted large boulders near
the bottom.
On October 4, 2005 an Inyo Sheriff & SAR recovery team flew in with the CHP
Fresno helicopter and recovered Tom's body. He was flown out and delivered to
the Inyo County Coroner at Lone Pine airport.


Posted by Jeff of Arcadia, 10-05-05
My party of four ran into two women coming down on Oct. 2 who were above the ice chute when the accident happened. These hikers said two men attempted to glissade without ice axes, poles, crampons or helmets. One of the men was able to somehow stop at a ledge, while the other slid and then began tumbling all the way down. They were able to get down to the man on a ledge, but they said the man refused to move and asked for a helicopter rescue. They said they were able to convince him to wedge between their bodies and get back up the ice chute. To me, these ladies risked their lives to rescue this guy and I hope he got the names and addresses to thank them. One of my party did get their names, so if he needs the information I know where he can get it. When these women found out only one of us brought crampons and that the rest of us were just relying on ice axes, they gave us their instep crampons. We tried to pay for them but they refused. On the way down, we ran into two hikers without crampons and we passed the crampons along. Maybe this can start something.

A third hiker we met on the way up explained that two other hikers made it to the body at the bottom of the ice chute and determined he was deceased (head injury). On our way up above Trail Camp we watched various helicopters from different agencies trying to battle the winds to land to remove the body. Finally a CHP helicopter landed at the lake and a group hiked back in from there with a stretcher. They must have had problems because they were hours trying to find the body. The helicopter must have left and gone back down the mountain at least six times. We never did see that they found the body.

Monday night we were the only tents at Trail Camp and we all agreed it was the coldest night of our lives (that includes a 64-year-old Norwegian who has been in plenty of cold spots). We all had four season tents and 15 degree sleeping bags, but even with three layers of clothes, it was impossible to sleep. The wind felt like maybe 40 to 50 mph gusts and it was strong enough to lift our tents. None of our party was able to sleep and I ended up doing situps half of the night to keep from freezing. Our water bottles froze in the tent. I had to go down to the lake at the camp and break the ice to pump water. The ice was thick enough that the first rock I threw bounced away like a hockey puck.

On the way up from Trail Camp to the crest we were dismayed to find the snow had melted from the previous day and overnight had turned into sheets of ice. We ran into six French hikers who were without crampons and they were turning back. Cables was pretty bad but it looked worse above there because of all the ice. I thought we could make it with ice axes, but the rest of my party said the slope of the ice leading to the edge of the cliff was too severe. As it was we all slipped and fell at least twice on the way back down to Trail Camp. Probably the worst was one of our party caught one of his crampons on his pant leg and he went down. He was lucky enough to land his knee (instead of his head) on a rock.

All in all,though,it was a great adventure. My friends made the correct decision. It was just enough over their risk tolerance to make the call and that's the way it is. If the snow had not turned to ice, maybe we could have made it with no problems. Then again, maybe not. It's one of those calls that I will wonder about for a long time.
One final comment: I noticed several hikers with bear cannisters tied to the top of their backpacks, just behind their head. I kept thinking if they tripped and fell backwards that they would fracture their skull on the cannister. Somebody should get the word out. Also, I noticed several hikers carrying their ice axes in a way that would viscerate them if they tripped. Again, hikers should learn first how to carry and use them before bringing them on a hike.


Posted by Rick Kent, 10-05-05
Another tragic loss. That brings the number of deaths on Whitney this year to at least three and the year isn't yet over.

Quick question for those who have been up there recently. My guess would be that the snow that is there is a bit too thin and not in a desireable state for glissading. Is that the case or have other parties been attempting to glissade as well?

-Rick


Posted by tomcat_rc, 10-05-05
I looked at the option on saturday since i had equipment - too barren then to do a realistic glisade - not consistant enough for me to plunge step down - i felt the switchbacks were still the better option. i am sure that there were patches that could be glisaded but as bouldery as it was i would never have attempted without arresting equipment. and the reports i have of that day show temps definately dropping to freezing condition. i bet some of those patches were just like an ice sheet launching pad. lets all use wise judgement and especially when going beyond your normal experience level.


Posted by graham, 10-05-05
- Rick, Yeah the snow was pretty thin and there's probably some icy patches under the snow to make it poor glissade conditions. Check my pics on the Oct 2 trip report, there's a lot of exposed rocks. I did notice some tracks going directly below Trail Crest, but I couldn't tell whether it was from going up or down.
Rick Graham


Posted by Ken, 10-05-05
This is sad, and it seems, early.

One thing mentioned that I'd have reservations about: instep crampons. I think that they have utility for situations where one is on a relatively level icy trail. However, when one gets onto any significant slope in any direction, they are no good....they are not designed for that use. I'm often afraid that they allow people to get into situations for which they are not suited.

Another thought: Using an ice axe in the situation described is a serious thing. You probably have to perform the arrest within the first second, to be effective. After that, it is clear sailing all the way to the bottom, and there is nothing you can do. One you have a head of steam, there IS no stopping.

YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHAT TO DO, and you probably need significant practice, beforehand. Then, is not the time to learn.

I suppose that now is possibly the most dangerous time on the mountain, in that the nice conditions down below lure unprepared folks up high. They don't know. In full winter only real fools head up unprepared, and while more objective danger, participants are prepared.

I know the helicopter crew involved, H-40 from Fresno, and will be in a meeting with some of them this saturday. If there is more to know, I'll report it next week.
_________________________
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.



Posted by Dave G, 10-05-05
I agree completely with Ken regarding instep crampons. They are designed for relatively flat glacier or frozen lake walking. I've seen people try to use them going uphill and not only do they slip as soon as they lift their heel, once they start falling the points manage to catch anyway and they wind up with an injury or worse. I would say even the YakTrax thingies would be safer to use, since they at least cover the foot.

Dave


Posted by Jeff of Arcadia, 10-05-05
I posted Oct. 2, but meant Oct. 3. Still fuzzy. I agree with Ken about instep crampons. On a switchback above Trail Camp, they slipped sideways even though I had them tightened as much as I could.


Posted by AxeMan, 10-05-05
I watched a "dude" flounder down the chute on Saturday with no equipment, just an attitude and a prayer. He was lucky he didn't snap an ankle or worse. He did posthole a couple of times up to his waist that I saw, but I'm guessing he made it.

I was more concerned about the people who were just crawling up the Trail Crest at 2pm with the defiant "I'm gonna summit no matter what" attitude. It doesn't make sense, and you can't reason with them. Given the conditions (and the abilities of a lot of people up there) I'm surprised there haven't been more fatalities this year. Doug was saying that there are on average 2 to 3 rescues a week, but I guess the non-fatalities don't make it into the log books that are posted online. I think that might make people at little more cautious if they knew ... but again probably not.


Posted by Sierra Sam, 10-05-05
My experience is that instep crampons can be more dangerous than no crampons. People think that they have protection and venture into marginal situations to find that they have little to none.


Posted by DougE, 10-05-05
Last Sat. (Oct 1st) my partner Terry and I glisaded down the snow gully from Trail Crest - around 3pm. It looked too inviting compared with slogging down icy switchbacks. Few too many rocks at the top so we dropped down about 200' without much problem then moved right into the deep snow in the center of gully. Conditions were perfect for the glisade, not too fast or too slow. No rocks at all. Snow depth was fine. Used our poles to arrest. A few others followed us after they saw how much fun we were having (not to mention that they could bypass the switchbacks). We stopped short of the bottom of the gully and took the old trail back over to Trail Camp. Still didnt get back to the Portal until dark. Great day hike!


Posted by Adrian, 10-06-05
Sliding down a long steep snow slope is only a good idea if you're totally sure the surface is soft with good frictional characteristics top to bottom. You could start on soft surface, run into shade and find ice...The above post relating to self arrest having to be right at the beginning of a fall is right on target; you're not going to do it when you're sliding at 50 MPH. Isn't this the second glissading death this year?
Be cautious and remember that, as with stairs, most mountain falls happen on the way down.

Adrian


Posted by rene, 10-06-05
Sad news; what was the situation in the other 2 deaths on Whitney this past year?


Posted by SAR, 10-06-05
To Jeff of Arcadia, I would like the contact information for the women who witnessed the accident and rescued the second hiker. Contact me at the http://www.inyosar.org Thanks Sgt. Randy Nixon


Posted by Jan6905, 10-06-05
The other two deaths were kind of similar. There were two men who were up in really windy conditions with lots of snow, and one of them happened to slip and fell. The winds were very strong and just rolled right down the mountain. The other man was up, almost at the summit via the mountaineers route. The same thing happened to him. These 2 gentelmen were both very experienced, but the fact that they couldn't self arrest on time and wind being about 70 miles per hour was a very big factor. Even if you are really experienced. Please be carefull. Use good judgement.


Posted by Rick Kent, 10-06-05
The other two deaths occurred early in the year (in March and April) on the Mountaineers Route above the Notch (under winter conditions). I was up there shortly thereafter and saw both names signed into the register. As with this latest accident both occurred on descent with a slip/fall on a steep snow slope.

Prior to these deaths I believe the next previous was in June 2003 which also involved an out-of-control glissade on the chute next to the switchbacks.

More information and reports can be obtained from the Inyo SAR site (http://www.inyosar.org/).

-Rick


Posted by pv209900, 10-06-05
To Sergeant Randy Nixon:

I attempted to find some contact information on the http://www.inyosar.org website but could not find a phone number to call or e-mail address to use. I do not know the names of the two women who rescued the second hiker on the snowfield, but four of my friends were at Trail Crest at the time of the accident. (I was with two others descending below the cables at the time.) Those four witnessed both the fatal glissade and the rescue of the second hiker. After the rescue by the two women, my friends then assisted the second hiker and his wife, both of whom were understandably frightened, back down the switchbacks above the cables to a point of safety. Another member of my group ran 7 miles down to Whitney Portal from Trail Camp to alert authorities, and it was probably a hiker he stopped on the way who was able to send the successful text message at 12:30. I will give you their contact information if you contact me (pogledich@yahoo.com, or call (530) 666-8275 (day)).

To others:

There's not much to add to what previous posters have said about the accident. From later conversations, I came to understand that the victim may have been somewhat inexperienced and got in over his head. Apparently, he and the second glissader were too frightened to descend the switchbacks above the cables, which have snow and ice in spots and significant exposure. A third hiker mentioned to them that he intended to glissade down. He then continued on toward the summit and they decided to attempt the glissade, essentially trading a known risk (descending the switchbacks) for an unknown risk. I'm told the victim had two trekking poles when he attempted the glissade, but they were apparently of little use. The second glissader was, somewhat remarkably, able to self-arrest with a stick.

I'm certainly more of a hiker than a mountaineer, but I'll agree with other posters who've said that the snow is too thin for glissading. Looking back at my pictures from the trip, it's hard to see a way down that would avoid the rocks, even if one was able to control speed and direction fairly well. I understand that another hiker was able to safely glissade down earlier that day, but that may have been more luck than skill based on his comments to a hiker in our group. So it might be a good thing to avoid unless you really know what you're doing. The post that said it was a good glissade on Oct. 1 may be accurate as far as conditions that day, but there were 70 mph winds up there on October 2 and some of the powder may have been blown away.


Posted by wingding, 10-06-05
Another terrible accident - so sad. Self-arrest doesn't always work with an ice axe - I can't imagine it's any easier without one or with trekking poles.


Posted by Jeff of Arcadia, 10-06-05
I also couldn't reach anyone at http://www.inyosar.org because they don't list phone numbers or e-mails. The two women who rescued the second hiker are Amy and Carolina Lund of Scottsdale, Arizona and can be reached at mentaldental1@yahoo.com.

We ran into pogledich's friend as he ran down the mountain looking for someone with a cell phone. We never were able to get through with our cell phone, but someone must have. Even though the hiker died, that guy who ran down the mountain for help is also a hero, as far as I'm concerned. My hat's off to him. What is his name and where is he from? How did he get his backpack down the mountain?


Posted by Mark A. Patton, 10-06-05
There are all kinds of phone numbers at the bottom of the Missions page....

http://www.mmarray.org/cgi-bin/SAR/SARmissionView.pl

Independence Sheriff''s Office 760-878-0323 or 760-873-7887
Bishop Sheriff''s Sub Station 760-873-7887 or 760-873-7414
Posse Hut(SAR Compound) 760-873-5535
Interagency Dispatch(Forest Service/BLM) 760-873-2405
Symons Emergency Specialties 760-873-8904
Randy Nixon (W)760-873-6431 or 760-873-7887, (P)888-421-7243(10022)
Keith Hardcastle (W)760-878-0321, (C)760-878-0323, (P)760-243-7243(8600)


Posted by Jake Sanderson, 10-07-05
I was with the Pogledich party. I think just about everyone on the mountain that day deserves a hat's off. Mike, the runner down the mountain, is from Santa Rosa, CA. His phone call was, I believe, the first concrete information received by Inyo S&R about the accident. Dan in Santa Rosa received a text message sent from the ridge above Trail Crest and quickly got through to Inyo S&R around 12:30. This got the wheels turning until they received Mike's telephone call. Ken, also from Santa Rosa, descended quickly from above the cables and was the first to reach the body. Then there were the other two hikers, one a paramedic, who stayed with the body for an hour and a half waiting for the helicopter before finally heading down, and of course the two ladies who have already been mentioned who descended to help Mike (the second hiker stuck on the slope) without hesitation after I told them what was happening below. They looked to be already very tired after their summit, and really deserve kudos for risking their own lives to head down that steep slope, and then slog back up again to Trail Crest. One of them had a bit of a fall of her own on the way down, and broke her trekking pole. Jeff from San Francisco, CA, another member of our party, met me at Trail Crest and gave up one of his trekking poles and stayed with Mike(second stuck hiker) and Brenda(his girlfriend) while they descended.

Based on what we'd heard from rangers and other hikers at Whitney Portal, all of our party had instep crampons and trekking poles. We saw many hikers descending the switchbacks with no crampons, and quite a few without even poles. To be brutally honest, I think the rangers at the Lone Pine station dropped the ball a little. After talking with them, we did not have an adequate appreciation of the dangerous conditions. I can see why some people made the attempt with inadequate equipment. I hope the Inyo Forest Service learns from this week's experience and maybe lean more toward hiker safety when providing information. My message to hikers that plan on attempting Mt. Whitney is to get additional information from other hikers, this message board, or wherever before deciding to attempt the summit, and of course always err on the side of caution. A lot can change in a few hours up there.

Jake


Posted by mtn_climbr001, 10-07-05
"To be brutally honest, I think the rangers at the Lone Pine station dropped the ball a little. After talking with them, we did not have an adequate appreciation of the dangerous conditions. I can see why some people made the attempt with inadequate equipment"

BS! Take responsibility for your own equipment, knowledge, experience, etc. Yes, it's the popular mule trail, but it's also a 14K peak in the fall. Be prepared for everything


Posted by Andrew., 10-07-05
My experience with the forest service is that they tend to be over cautious. I would not have expected this accident to happen given the current conditions, nor could they have.

Unfortunately, people sometimes make unexpected choices which lead to tragedy. There is no way anyone could have seen that ahead. As we have seen in the past, a choice one day is safer then the same choice on a different day.

It is a lesson to all of us to not underestimate the experience of going to Mt. Whitney when the weather is like it is.


Posted by Jake Sanderson, 10-07-05
"BS! Take responsibility for your own equipment, knowledge, experience, etc. Yes, it's the popular mule trail, but it's also a 14K peak in the fall. Be prepared for everything"

I agree with you that we should be taking responsibility for our own equipment, etc. Does that mean that the people we look to as "officials" shouldn't be responsible for keeping us adequately informed? I think not. If they're not there for us, we might as well close the Lone Pine station and just let Mt. Whitney be a free-for-all. If all our rangers are doing is carrying bags of human waste down the mountain, and cleaning up the corpses of the unprepared, I think we should just stop wasting our money...

If one of the rangers had said "be prepared for anything" when issuing our permits, I would have not made my remarks. The fact that several minutes were spent explaining how to **** in a bag and carry it out properly, but virtually nothing on safety and proper equipment leave me a little miffed.

That said, in general I have a great deal of respect for FS and other rangers, and really do appreciate the job they do. I hope they see my comments as constructive criticism, and strive to play a bigger role in PREVENTING this type of tragedy, rather than simply cleaning it up. I would much rather have made the summit than helping clean up a mess that may well have been preventable with some stern cautioning from a ranger in town.

Jake


Posted by 67brickie, 10-07-05
"Does that mean that the people we look to as "officials" shouldn't be responsible for keeping us adequately informed? I think not."

Yeah, yeah, right. And the "officials" should be able to tell us exactly where a hurricane will hit, how hard the wind will blow and for how long, and how high the water will get. C'mon, man. The primary person respnsible for protecting yourself is YOU. "Adequate information" is very subjective; anyone with enough snap to be attempting a Mt. Whitney hike this time of year, with the recent weather conditions as they have been involving snow and ice, IF they've been paying attention, should already have "adequate information" from their own intake to be able to make informed (and safe) decisions. No matter what time of year, Whitney ain't no stroll in the park, and that's especially true whenever the weather gods take hold of her, even during the warmer months. It's your job, not government's, to take care of you and yours.....
my $.02
Brickie


Posted by jasonb, 10-07-05
I agree Brickie. Plus, I'd image (correct me if I'm wrong) but that rangers won't give you advice even if you ask for it. It's a liability issue. Sure they'll tell you the conditions. Although when I was there a few weeks ago I knew much more about the conditions from this board than they had available at the ranger station. The reports at the station that I saw were on the conservative side, which is good at least. They can't sit there and tell you how dangerous it is or what you need to bring or what routes are safe. That's not what they are there for. They are not tour guides.


Posted by dstempke, 10-07-05
There is a list of things that are not allowed given to you on your permit. It includes disposal of waste, food storage, cutting switchbacks, etc. The ranger goes through this checklist with you to initial showing that you know and understand those rules. I think it would be beneficial to put a warning regarding glissading on this sheet. There have been three deaths this year all related to glissading.

It could read:

"Glissading should not be attempted without an ice ax and prior experience and it could result in death."

This is definately not a time to point blame, but it could be a lesson we can learn from.

Darrell


Posted 10-07-05
I have to agree with Brickie here. It's your own responsibility to know what you're getting into each time you head into the mountains and to be prepared for the worst. As far as I know, the rangers do a fairly good job of reporting the current conditions on the mountain, almost on a daily basis. I stopped by the Whitney ranger station early July to pick up permits for Kearsarge Pass, and they had actual pictures of Trail Crest and Trail camp (showing the still frozen lake) taken from a few days earlier clearly posted, warning people of the well above average snowpack for this year, and to be adequately prepared. I don't know how much else they could have done to warn people, other than certifying every hiker for the ability to self-arrest and knowledge of how to use crampons. I've summitted Whitney 3 times, once in the spring where an ice axe and crampons were mandatory equipment, and I can't imagine somebody trying to glissade down that chute this late in the season (especially without an ice axe), even with the deep snowpack we had this year. Its a tragic accident, but I don't think its at all fair to blame the Forest Service for their lack of warning. People need to know their limits, and know when to turn back when the conditions are beyond their comfort/skill level.


Posted by Jan6905, 10-07-05
I totally agree with brickie. And yes natureboy. I also agree with you. If people call the phone tree(same number as the R.S) and listen to their recordings which are updated every single day with new conditions and weather, it clearly states " Depending on your comfort and skill level you May need crampons and ice axe." This means it is up to YOU if you want to bring them or not. ONLY YOU know how experienced you are and you should know when it is dangerous and time to turn around. The rangers can't go out there and babysit everybody. Our fee does not include that. Everybody should know what they are getting into. ANYTIME you go into the mountains. You need to come prepared for the worst. And of course this message board has more info on it. People post things right after they get home. So everything they saw, they will post. Rangers are on the mountain everyday and give thier reports but they are not going to risk their lives by going up really high to a point to where they think they are not capable of doing just to give people exact reports on conditions. They don't get paid millions, you got to understand that. They do as best as they can. The rest is up to you!!! You need to come prepared for everything. The R.S just tells you regs. and most recent weather conditions and then issue you your permit. Then your on your own.


Posted by graham, 10-07-05
When I picked up my Whitney day permit on Oct 1, the rangers described the trail & snow conditions above Trail Camp and had pictures of the cables and the switchbacks posted. They mentioned that conditions had gotten worse since the pictures had been taken. They mentioned taking the appropriate gear such as trekking poles, ice axe, etc.

I believe the Lone Pine rangers acted appropriately and can't prevent or be held accountable for every accident in the backcountry. I'm glad they're around when accidents do happen to help with rescues. Hikers are responsible and must be accountable for their own actions. I accept the backcountry risks once I start at the trailhead. I don't want it to get anymore bureaucratic than it already is.


Posted by Jake Sanderson, 10-07-05
You know, you guys are really sounding like a bunch of elitist poopers(had to find a word that would make it past the filter) at this point. Sorry to be so direct. Essentially it sounds like you're saying that unprepared and inexperienced hikers deserve to die on the mountain. I for one disagree, if for no less selfish reason than not wanting to ruin my own trip. I too don't want to add any more bureaucracy than there already is, but simply a little more cautionary advice. There was so much information about wag bags and closed toilets along the trail, I felt like I could handle almost any toilet emergency that might arise. But what another poster suggested, a warning about the often fatal effects of glissading, was nowhere to be seen, even on these message boards. My point is, how hard would it be to add a few simple warnings to the back of the permit, or verbally on the end of the lengthy description of proper excrement etiquette? I am not advocating requiring all hikers to carry ice axes and certifications of mountaineering training.

Jake


Posted by SAR, 10-07-05
Thanks to PV209900 and Jeff of Arcadia for the witness information, and I will have our tech guy move the contact information to the appropriate page on our website.
Randy Nixon


Posted by graham, 10-07-05
Jake, Don't be absurd. I never said that inexperience hikers deserve to die. I'm always willing to help hikers that have gotten in trouble and have helped many a hiker over the years. And I'm sure most hikers feel the same way.

My point is that all the glissade warnings, posters, consent forms, etc. would not prevent these types of accidents from happening. Unfortunately accidents happen even to the very experienced (e.g. Secor's glissade on Mt Baldy in April-05). I believe that any adult that enters the backcountry should understand the inherent risks (weather conditions, lightning, getting lost, glissading, animals, etc) and be willing to accept it. If they get in trouble hopefully there are people like yourself, me rangers, SAR, etc. that can provide help. But I don't expect the rangers to supervise or guide my hiking trips.

- Rick Graham


Posted by Memory Lapse, 10-07-05
Jake,

Don't be naive.....the mail trail does not require one to glissade and this unfortunte person made a decision to take this route and place himself in danger. I was not there and cannot speak to the conditions but should they also warn about snakes, slipping on scree and breaking an ankle, and any number of other life and health endangering acts?

This environment is inherently dangerous and should be approached with caution. One of the earlier deaths this year happened to what was described as a very experienced mountaineer who was glissading an area that has been described by many as an area where this method can be successfully practiced.

There are numerous warnings and helpful information everywhere you look at the MWRS and the portal trailhead. When does blaming others stop and taking personal responsibility start?

Just in case no one has heard, it is dangerous to put a cup of McDonald's coffee between your legs while driving.


Posted by asbufra, 10-07-05
It is not a popular point of view but I agree with Jake on this. I am sure that this is a horrible accident and no one, including the Forest Service, is at fault,
But, once the Government regulates the trail they have culpability. We refer to it as "wanting the authority without the responsibility".
If they write tickets and tell you how and where to c*r*a*p and put up all those stupid "Don't cut switchback" signs they can certainly put up a "Glissading can be deadly "sign.

If he did not know the danger of glissading on that icy slope it is tragedy.
I think they put up the lightning warning signs after people in the Hut got struck several years ago. In Southern California when mountain lions are spotted near Park areas they immediately place signs at all the entrances and we all know how many fire danger signs there are when it is hot and dry and windy.

Why not make it a point to let everyone know how dangerous glissading down a 1,000 foot slope can be?


Posted 10-07-05
Many people were hiking over their ability on the Monday the 3rd. Winds were gusty, trail was icy and people moved on and upward with regular boots even tennis shoes. We spoke to the young fellow who was impressed with his slide down the same site where the unfortuante fellow fell to his death. We estimate he went down about 10 to 20 prior to the fatal slide. It doesn't take a 1000 ft fall to cause serious injury. Putting rescue teams at risk also.


Posted by jasonb_dup1, 10-07-05
No signs! Are you free-kin kidding me? You want a sign put up everwhere there are dangerous spots on trail? It's the WILDERNESS!


Posted by oskar, 10-07-05
Dear Everybody and SAR,

Since Whitney seems to be the Disneyland of big mountains in California, you are going to get inexperienced hikers. Add to that a permit system where everyone isn't going at the optimal time of the year, and trouble will happen. Because this is a unique situation I suggest the forest service put up two signs.

One at trail crest that says people have died trying to glissade down this slope with a big red X.

Mike, the guy the two girls rescued, said fear of going down the icy switchbacks motivated them to slide down. He also said they debated it for awhile. Maybe the posted threat of death from sliding down would have caused them to take the relatively safer path of slowly descending the switchbacks.

The second sign is somewhat optional. At the base of the switchbacks above trail camp, there could be another sign that reminds people that snowy slopes icy over in the afternoon/evening and that going up is easier than going down.

Obviously, many people ignore signs, but I really think the trail crest sign, right at the point of the decision to glissade, could dissuade people from attempting it. I also doubt it posses any legal issues.

Oskar


Posted by blaze_whitney, 10-07-05
Does anyone remember versatile fred's post from May, 2005? He was furious that a ranger asked him if he was aware of the dangerous conditions and that anyone who was not experianced with winter hiking conditions should turn around . Unfortunately the post was deleted. Possibly because of the negative things he said about the rangers warnings. Maybe he could chime in on this discussion. I wonder if he would have a different opinion now. My condolences to the hiker who perished, his family and everyone else on the mountain.


Posted by pv209900, 10-07-05
I'm no fan of signs in the wilderness--the experience is already diluted enough by hordes of hikers, tame wildlife, occasional trash on the trail, etc. But like others have said, Whitney is a place where time and time again, inexperienced hikers get in over their heads. Ideally, all hikers would have sufficient experience, common sense, etc., to avoid all of the natural hazards that can reasonably be avoided. But that's simply not the case. For example, I noticed on the internet (I believe the Inyo SAR page has a report) that a man and woman also had problems on what sounds like the same snowfield a couple years ago--he died and she was injured. Even if it's not the same snowfield (at a minimum, it's quite close to the site of the 10/3/05 fatality), it's the same type of mistake that led to the accident this week.

Maybe a sign is warranted, maybe not. I think the original point was that because this hike is difficult, sometimes dangerous, and extremely popular, the USFS could do more to educate people about the potential hazards of this hike and perhaps other popular hikes with similar hazards. A quick review of the "Missions" page on Inyo SAR proves that this point had merit. So many of the injuries and deaths covered on that page were errors of judgment, often where it appears that the victims simply failed to appreciate the danger of taking a certain course of action. Everyone knows that stepping off a cliff is bad, but not everyone can readily appreciate that a snowfield that may be safe for glissading one afternoon could be dangerous the following morning. And some who hike Whitney simply aren't going to have the experience to understand that. No doubt I've made some dumb mistakes in the mountains in the past and simply been lucky enough to avoid the consequences.

So should there be a sign? There are several signs at the beginning of the trail next to a scale for weighing your pack. I can't remember what they all say--perhaps one covers hazards in a straightforward and helpful way. But if not, it would be an easy thing for the USFS to put up another sign noting places on the trail where hikers have been injured or died in recent years. This is clearly something they care about--they have a newspaper article posted in this location regarding a pair of fatalities on the Mountaineers Route. Yeah, everybody should have the common sense and experience to make such a thing unnecessary. But even experienced hikers make errors of judgment, and one sign at the trailhead warning of the past mistakes of others could go a long way to avoid similar future mistakes. If something regarding the 2003 fatality on that snowfield had been posted, there's some chance the October 3, 2005 fatality would have been avoided.


Posted by Memory Lapse, 10-07-05
I have a much more ridiculous suggestion.

Before you can be issued a permit into the Whitney zone, you must have at least 100 hours of instruction on mountaineering skills, taken and passed a written certification examination, passed a skills test for proficiency in rappeling, route finding, glissading, ice climbing, walking, bouldering, and demonstrate proper use of snow shoes, crampons, ice axe, hiking poles, water filters and propane stoves. You must also have been guided up into the zone by a qualified mountaineer a minimum of three times, summitting at least two of those attempts, without use of oxygen, Ginko-Bilboa, Diamox, Advil, Tylenol, Aspirin, water or food. In addition, you must also have an IQ of at least 135 and have never been accused of doing something utterly stupid.

I can think of at least a thousand ideas of where warnings and instructions could be posted in our everyday lives to avoid injuries and death. But at some point, a person must recognize those things that are common sense and only require minimal good judgement.

This message board is one of the best sources of information and guidance offered by some very qualified mountaineers and yet some of the advice and experiences minimized the dangers that exist. I have enormous respect and admiration for the people who can fly up and down this mountain with ease in unimaginable times but they are not the rule people, they are the exception. Do not be fooled by this mountain's quiet, serene appearance. It can be a killer. Let that be your warning sign.


Posted by jasonb, 10-07-05
I don't think anybody (except possibly the dumbest person on the planet)ever went glisading down any of those slopes without realizing the risk and considering the consequences. It has been stated that the injured party debated for some time before deciding to try the glisade. So obviosly they knew the danger. The decided they could handle it. A sign is not going to convince them that they can't.


Posted by ClamberAbout, 10-07-05
Well, I must qualify for one of the "Dumbest Persons on the Planet" then...

About 20 years ago I glissaded down the chute. Perfect conditions fortunately. Didn't have an ice axe or even poles. Switchbacks were completely filled in, so we hiked up the chute, hit the summit, and then were back while the sun was still high in the sky so nothing iced up. Snow was deep and fluffy. It was the highlight of the trip.

I had no clue that there was any danger involved. Seems like you would; I mean, look down and you can see the rocks, but nevertheless, the thought that I could crash into them and die never occurred to me.

It seems like it takes time and experience for people to gain an understanding of some of the hazards present in the wide outdoors. I had certainly hiked before, but at the time had never even heard of glissading. If folks haven't spent time on a board such as this (to my defense, didn't exist back then), or with other more experienced mountaineers, then they very well may honestly be unaware of how dangerous their actions are.

People die and are injured on Mt. Baldy every year too. It's not necessarily particular to Whitney; it's just that people don't comprehend the dangers of what they're doing. Sad. Apparently on the way down these guys finally realized they were in over their heads and just chose the wrong way to try and get out of the situation. I doubt that they had any idea that they could hit an ice patch and go out of control.


Posted by Ken, 10-07-05
PV, I am having difficulty understanding your reasoning. You state:

"So should there be a sign? There are several signs at the beginning of the trail next to a scale for weighing your pack. I can't remember what they all say--perhaps one covers hazards in a straightforward and helpful way."

That would seem to indicate that your experience is that a sign does not get read. I agree with you. Further:

"But if not, it would be an easy thing for the USFS to put up another sign noting places on the trail where hikers have been injured or died in recent years. This is clearly something they care about--they have a newspaper article posted in this location regarding a pair of fatalities on the Mountaineers Route."

WAIT!! So there IS a cautionary posting!!!

"..... and one sign at the trailhead warning of the past mistakes of others could go a long way to avoid similar future mistakes."

WAIT!! Apparently NOT! You state that there IS a newpaper story posted there, and it sure didn't stop these guys!

"If something regarding the 2003 fatality on that snowfield had been posted, there's some chance the October 3, 2005 fatality would have been avoided."

I don't believe that. I think that anyone who would glissade down a thousand foot snow slope, without any gear, without any knowledge, without having read about it, is not going to be stopped by a sissy sign.
_________________________
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.



Posted by Richard P., 10-07-05
Have a look at page 1 & 2 of this album to see the signs at the Portal Trailhead. (Click on the images to see them in a larger format.)

My take on what I see in these posters is that they are trying to warn hikers that there is the potential to get into a dangerous situation if you are not careful.

Getting more specific, I'd say Photo 9 is ample warning.


Posted by scotthiker2, 10-07-05
When you hike to the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls in Yosemite, they have those graphic signs showing what will happen if you swim in the water and lose control. It is very simple and to the point. don't even think they contain any words - well maybe a few.

When I was younger (30 years ago) people swam in those waters all the time. Every time I have been back since, I rarely see anyone in the water. I believe those signs are effective.

I really don't understand why there is so much resistance to a sign at the top of the snow run. I don't see anyone complaining about the Hut on top of the mountain. Who could possibly need that?

Mt. Whitney is not a wilderness experience. A long time ago - Yes, but not today. It is challenging only because of the altitude and length of the trail. I have met very few hikers (outside of the Pacific Northwest) that really understand the dangers of snow. There are many on this board who I am sure have read "The Freedom Of The Hills", but most Whitney hikers do not fit into this category.


Posted by Fred98, 10-07-05
Scotthiker and others:

Scott, interesting that you mentioned two things I can relate to.

I was at Vernal/Nevada many years ago when the calm was broken by a jackhammer. They were installing the signs to warn of the waterfall dangers. Altho, I guess they still do not work - I believe someone again died there this year, while I was there.

Second, I'm from snow country and own an older copy of Freedom of Hills. And in the pacific northWET (as we affectionately call it) they occasionally post signs at trailheads telling current info like good wildflowers, terrible mosquitos or still snow on trail. Or they might post one like this:

I don't think we can be warned about everything and I'm not even advocating the type of sign shown above.

I think many of us lucked out over the years learning through some pretty poor decisions but with few injuries. We've learned from friends or maybe reading or taking courses. What if the glissade had not been fatal but the poor chap just broke through the relatively thin snow and smashed his head on a boulder or just found too deep of a hole in the soft snow. As others have said, the warnings could be unlimited and cables, chains, hand rails, etc might be supplied.

But I also agree with someone above, that occasionally a poster asks questions about this trail and and a response indicates it is a "walk in the park" and not a big deal. We know folks have gone down the wrong way at the John Muir Junction and frankly, there were a few areas at switchbacks (above or near Mirror Lake????) where the trail is vague altho I did figure it out. But some folks do walk this in the dark, exhausted, etc. It is a MAJOR walk and for dayhikers, 22 HARD miles for many, if not most hikers, and altitude can add another dimension. Yeah, some guy does it barefoot and others in under 3 hours - they are unusual. Actually, anyone who summits Whitney, even as many as who do, are unusual. Most Americans and others do not hike up to 14,000+ feet. It may be very easy for a modest few but it is work, strenuous and challenging, for many.

Good luck to all - including those who plan on doing it this week who are still asking the same types of questions about equipment, experiences, etc. BE PREPARED.


Posted by Mark A. Patton, 10-07-05
"Sign Sign everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign."

Five Man Electrical Group

* * * *

Frankly, I don't need a cross or sign at every switchback to tell me its dangerous. I see enough of that driving to my cabin and no one bothers to slow down.

I've been up the main trail four times now and turned around 3 out of the 4 times.

I skied off the Cornice at Mammoth a couple of years ago, lost it, and slid all the way to the bottom. I was tired of intermediate runs. I wanted a challenge. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Sign or no sign, I was going and I realize now that I'm lucky there were no rocks and I didn't hit anyone.

This accident was a tragic error in judgment and the only person responsible is the deceased.

Kind regards,

Mark A. Patton


Posted by VersatileFred, 10-07-05
Fred,
You need to add some height and width attributes inside your tag. I provided some examples in the How to Post topic, but I stopped propping the topic a month ago. You probably forgot that it was on the message board.
_________________________
Orientation Notes for Whitney First Timers



Posted 10-08-05
In response to the tragic accident of Steve Tom, there will be a celebration of his life held Sunday, 10/9 at 6pm at Wilson & Kratzer, 825 Hartz Way, Danville, CA 94526. There will be a funeral mass held Monday, 10/10 at 10am at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, 11150 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530. His family requests in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be sent to the Red Cross National Disaster Relief fund. You can check out his obituary at contracostatimes.com. He was really an amazing guy.


Posted by kazz, 10-08-05
Marguerite, thank you for the information. I read the obituary and the touching messages people have left in the guest book. It sounds like Stephen Tom was a wonderful human being who made the world around him a better place.

Whenever something like this happens, it's human nature to want to find a way to distance ourselves from it out of a simple need for psychological reassurance ... that we wouldn't have made this or that decision, or that there was some external factor at fault. I think it's because deep down we know that none of us is ever fully in control of anything. When we venture into the wilderness, at whatever skill level, we already know that. And let's not forget that altitude can affect reasoning ability and judgment ... we know that too.

But some things are accidents, pure and simple. I glissaded that chute in June. It was my first time glissading (w/ice axe and a more experienced partner) and I was plenty scared, as well as very aware that any loss of control would have been potentially fatal. But I'd gotten myself up there, the switchbacks were buried, and there was no other realistic way down. You weigh the options, plot your strategy, say a little prayer and go.

My ego would love to think I made it down safely because gosh darn it, I'm a fine mountaineer. My heart, though, knows the bigger factor is that luck that day was on my side.


Posted by beachdude3a, 10-08-05
Jake is simply another person who wants the government to take responsibility for our individual actions. Whatever happened to "I did it (or failed to do it), therefore it is my responsibility?" When I first wanted to climb this mountain, I google searched enough and discovered this board. Prior to heading up, I read this board for six months and learned everything I could about the Mt. Whitney trails. I eventually summitted via the MR. I am truly sorry this gentleman perished, but as another poster said, glissading is optional and not required. Even with a "ranger warning" one who glissades could get in trouble. Especially if one is foolish enough not to have proper equipment. When I undertake any new activity, it is my responsiblity to research like heck and do everything in my own power to make the activity as safe as possible for me. I have skydived from 24,000 feet, gone hanggliding, gotten in a shark cage surrounded by great whites off the Farrallons off of SF, gone bungee jumping, etc. Any mishaps in some of these activities could well have been fatal, but that is my choice. If anyone takes the time to read this Board for a few hours prior to going to Mt. Whitney, he will have all the info he needs to avoid some of the pitfalls which have been experienced by many of us. The one exception to this of course is the weather. As we all, or I guess I should say, as most of us know, it doesn't matter what the rangers say about the weather on the mountain. It can change any minute. It wouldn't matter to me if a ranger told me that it was 70 degrees on top because I'd still be ready for it to start snowing or lightning due to how weather can change so quickly. Most of the people on the this Board are individualists who acknowledge that their own safety depends on their own individual actions, not that of others such as the Rangers. That does not make us "Elitist Poops." Jake will probably next suggest that a fence be put up on more dangerous parts of the trails, or if he goes to the Grand Canyon maybe he wants a fence around the canyon to keep people from falling in. Or how about nets in the ocean up and down the California coast where I live to stop the occasional and rare shark attacks on surfers? Sorry, Jake, but you will find that on this Board there are many more individualists who take responsiblity for their own actions than there are people who want the government to be their Mommy and Daddy. Call us elitist poops if you will, but I wouldn't have it be any other way.


Posted by Doug Sr, 10-08-05
Hi Thanks everyone for posting I will leave the topic open, it looks like some things are about signs , "don't slide if there is not enough snow to cover the rocks" and "stay in control if you do go down the chute" .
The sign thing is how this message board got started a person came into the store and said a sign at the trail head stated Ice AX and crampons needed, I said thats not right. They said no thats what the sign said , I walked to the trailhead and read the sign they were correct trail report dated Oct said Ice Ax and Crampons needed , this was the Fourth of July weekend and the trip report had not been changed, quietly I started doing a weelky trail report taking pictures and E Newbold would type the text and Mike Harris would print the report and scan the photo of the conditions and we would hand them out at the store, Now with the internet A much greater amoung of information can be found from trips in the last several hours with many photos posted and daily conditions.

Be safe Be kind Thanks Doug


Posted by AsABat, 10-08-05
For those wanting the USFS to protect us from all dangers, be careful, you might get what you ask for - a forest closed whenever there is any danger: rain, wind, snow, ice, fire, dust, pollen, a paper cut from picking up your permit. Sorry, but I've seen trails closed because they were not perfectly maintained and someone could get hurt. Be prepared.


Posted by jasonb, 10-08-05
I can't remember if this has been mentioned yet:

http://www.mmarray.org/~rick/html/SAR/Missions/2005Oct05.txt

October 5, 2005

Two climbers had sumitted Mt.Whitney via the mountaineers route. Upon
descending the main trail, they decided to glissade an ice chute to save time.
They both lost control of their glissade, striking boulders which caused
injuies which disabled them from being able to walk. Their fall was witnessed
by three other climbers from Trail Camp. These climbers found and assisted both
injured men with advanced first aid. They were able to safely move them to a
the extra clothing they could spare and went for help while the third stayed
and assisted the injured men through the night. Early the following morning,
CHP helicopter H-82 out of Victorville flew into the area and extracted both
injured men. They were flown to Southern Inyo Hospital where they were treated.
Full recovery is expected for both victims.
If not for Doug Aubushon seeing the two men fall in the ice chute, and he,
Warener Dozier and James Dixon all from Shaver Lake Ca. taking immediate proper
action, the outcome of the victim's condition would have been different. Their
action is commendable and credited for saving the lives of Alexander Selover
and Leland Grant

I'm not advocating 'No Glidssading' signs. Just pointing out to new (and I guess veteran) board members that many people are getting injured glissading on Whitney.

1128539340.24026



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#1419 - 10/08/05 07:20 PM Re: Whitney accident [Re: Whitney Zone]
Whitney Zone Offline
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Registered: 09/21/09
Posts: 107
Loc: WhitneyZone
Posted by Chucky, 10-08-05
I will enter some comments at my own risk as several of my friends refuse to post commetns to this site despite it being an outstanding source of information. I think the snide commments are sad and Doug Sr. has the right attitude.

First, I was up there Monday night through Thursday morning. I had my 11 year old daughter there in case the weather and her abilities were up to the challenge of a visit to the summit. (Her 13 year old sister was not up to the challege in June of 2004.) We saw the helicopters Tuesday and Wednesday. Due to the cold temperatures up there and the reports of the iced up switchbacks we never went above the Portal despite my "guide credentials."

As a federal government employee the last thing I want to see is MORE regulation of the Whitney Trail. That includes no more signs.

Having climbed in South America and Europe I can tell you that both continents have the attitude of "climb at your own risk." The French even put it in multiple languages around Mont Blanc. Ultimately, if you get into life threatening trouble they will attempt to resuce you but they will bill you too!

Hence, the good idea to join the American Alpine Club and get the free rescue insurance.

Mount Whitney is often scoffed at for the challenge factor by many people wrapped up into macho egos and they will tell you other mountains are tougher despite being at less altitude. The point is not which are toughest but that ANY mountain can kill you if you let it. Whitney, due in part ot the reputation of the hiking trail to the summit is greatly underestimated.

Any person who is a responsible wilderness adventurer will take it upon him or herself to gather facts and information prior to entering, whether it be the Darien Gap jungles of Panama, crossing the Sahara in Algeria and Mali, or attemtpting to visit the summit of Mount Whitney. The fist time I went to the summit in 2000 with my buddy we had the heaviest packs and the slowest movement of anyone who made the summit that day because we were laoded with gear for the unexpected. September 17, 2000 was a wonderful weather day and none of the extra gear was needed, but we planned for the worst and got the best.

Having visiteed the summit previsouly, a group of us tried Whitney in January 2001 and were turned back by the patheticly slow progress in the powdery snow. Despite the rigors, we had a great experience. We planned for the worst and got bad, but we never once expected outside assistance.

We went back in June 2001 with lighter loads, but had the "quartermaster arsenal" ready at Trail Camp. Again, much was not needed but we planned for the worst and got the best. On the return from the summit we glissaded down the chute, with me guiding a 16 year old directly behind me. I was amazed to encounter a couple at the start point who had never glissaded and asked me how to use their ice axes. Demonstrating with mine they "caught on" and went on ahead of us! All 5 in my party made it fine, as well as the two who had the 30 second lesson. I still think the "couple" used terrible judgement, but it was their life.

More government regulation can quickly destroy Whitney. My guide certification from Chile will have little meaning in our bureaucracy. I can only cringe when I hear of more regulations. If our brueaucracy takes over with a GS-4 interpreting the regualtions Ed Vistures, R. Messner and E. Hillary will never quaify to go to the summit alone.

As for the rangers in Lone Pine, in think they do a fine job. When a person walks in their office they have NO idea what the experience or training is behind each individual or people in their parties who never go into the office. With the crowds it is unrealistic to expect the rangers to "interrogate" each climber for their background.

When I visited the office this time, I picked up their brochure ((2 sided piece of paper) THE MOUTN WHITNEY TRAIL. It covers "Climbing, Trailhead Location, Trail Difficulty, Wilderness Risk, Weather, Season, Equipment, Water, Toilets, Wildlife, etc..." It more than adequately explains the seriousness of mountaineering. All you have to do is read it and apply the knowldege or seek out a "professional."

In the end, I am against another sign and more regulation. If one more sign must be posted it should be at the trail head entrance and state, "Mountaineering can be fatal, proceed at your own risk."


Posted by dstempke, 10-08-05
Forgive me, but I think a lot of the earlier points are being blown out of proportion. I still like the idea earlier of adding a checkpoint to initial when getting your permit to include something regarding safety or glissading. Let me expand this idea:

After I reserved my permits, I got an envelope in the mail that included a few pieces of paper. It included a lot of information regarding proper food storage, minimum impact regulations, directions on packing my bear canister, and there is also information on grazing regulations in case I'm bringing 20 llamas.

I don't think it would hurt to have a sheet in there to go over some safety tips. From looking at the information sent to me, it would seem my biggest worry would be where to poop and how to pack my food. We all know that this isn't the case...but not everyone would. This sheet could go over AMS, hydration, snow and ice, etc. I would even be happy to help put it together, although I'm certainly not an expert.

I have my wilderness permit in front of me and it has 8 things that I had to initial and the ranger went through them with me. It includes "Proper method of food storage," "Fire Closures," "Campsite selection," and others. I think here would be a good place to add a line that simply states something to the effect of: "Glissading without proper equipment and/or training can result in death." I choose "glissading" out of all the potential dangers because this is the most common result of death I know of.

The suggestions given earlier were to add something like this or a sign, and everyone jumped all over us thinking that if this were to happen the next logical step for the NPS is to put up a fence in every dangerous spot and 15 more signs on the way up the trail. I understand the slippery slope argument, and in a case such as this, I don't think anyone logically thinks it would apply in this situation. If you do, please understand that this is not what is being suggested.

I was told how to properly pack my food, and I followed the rules. That is the most that the rangers can expect of me. I don't expect rangers going campsite to campsite checking everyone's bags for lotion bottles and trail mix not packed correctly for the safety of our nourishment and survival.

Likewise, I think it would be beneficial for people getting their permits to initial that they were told glissading is potentially fatal. From that point, it is their choice on how they get down the mountain. I don't expect 10 more signs to remind me or to have a ranger checking for equipment at trail crest. Will it prevent future deaths? Maybe, maybe not. But my having to initial another line on a wilderness permit certainly won't ruin my next trip.

Best regards,
Darrell


Posted by dstempke, 10-08-05
And just to make sure its clear...I also think the rangers do a great job and I hope my suggestion doesn't imply otherwise.

Darrell


Posted by Memory Lapse, 10-09-05
Darrell,

I understand your reasoning and your opinion is noted.

The items listed on your permit are guidance and regulations for those activities that you will more than likely HAVE TO perform on your hike.

Glissading the chute is not required to navigate this trail. It is a personal choice that carries with it personal responsibility. I have read numerous accounts on this board of people glissading with crampons, should this also be included in your warning? Should warnings not to wear cotton fabrics in winter conditions becuase they can promote hypothermnia? Should we warn that taking pain killers such as Advil and Ibuprophen may mask symptons of AMS?

I wouldn't object to your suggestion but I venture to say that some other issue will arise where a similar solution will be suggested. Where does it stop?


Posted by dayhiker., 10-09-05
In Sunday's edition of the S.F. Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/

Hiker's caution turns into cautionary tale
East Bay man's death points to danger of sliding down snow

Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Shortly before he died on the icy and rocky slopes of Mount Whitney on Monday afternoon, Stephen Tom told his hiking partner that the conditions were too treacherous to reach the mountain's summit and he would descend back to the base camp.

"He said, 'I have nothing to prove,' " said Jim Kramer, recalling the words of Tom, a 45-year-old El Cerrito resident, after they had finished a section of the trail that ascends more than 1,700 feet up switchbacks from Trail Camp to Trail Crest.

But Kramer continued to Whitney's 14,497-foot summit, while Tom -- whom friends and family describe as a cautious and calculated risk taker -- and another hiker they had met on the mountain decided it would be safer to sit and slide down a snow chute used by some people during their descent.

The technique, called glissading, could cut an hours-long hike to Trail Camp to as little as 15 minutes and avoid the nearly 100 icy and treacherous switchbacks on the trail. They had watched a hiker glissade the chute earlier in the day, and Tom was an experienced skier and snowboarder.

But the early fall snow was shallow, and after sliding on their backsides for a few hundred feet from the 13,777-foot crest, the snow-covered top portion of the chute gave way to ice.

"It was mind-boggling to me how quickly he could pick up speed. He went from in control to out of control almost instantly," said Michael McEntee, 44, a Mountain View resident who was descending with Tom.

Tom had hiking poles that he tried to use as brakes. He turned on his stomach, facing up the mountain, and tried to slow himself with his feet. At the bottom of the chute, Tom was moving so fast -- at least 50 miles per hour, the accident investigator estimates -- that he could not stop. He hit a refrigerator-size boulder on the edge of the snow meadow and died from the impact.

"You're up so high your perspective is skewed," McEntee said. "I don't think either of us imagined it would be possible to slide across that flat part into rock."

McEntee climbed to a rocky area after he saw Tom lose control. He called for help, and other hikers on the trail guided him to safety. He was uninjured.

The next day, two other hikers glissaded down the chute and lost control, said Sgt. Randy Nixon of the Inyo County sheriff's department. One hiker broke a leg, and the other was knocked unconscious after hitting rocks; both were rescued by helicopter.

"(Glissading) is one of those things that experienced climbers probably won't do," said SP Parker, an internationally certified guide who is a partner in the Sierra Mountain Center, a guiding company in Bishop. Several years ago, Parker led a group on the trail and saw five people injured -- two seriously -- in one day from sliding down the chute.

"It's tempting because it looks so easy," Parker said. "But it's one of the most dangerous things in mountaineering."

Anyone attempting the technique, which can also be done while crouching or standing, should be experienced and have equipment, such as a helmet and an ice ax for braking, Parker said. Tom, who had glissaded once before, 20 years ago, had no equipment besides the poles, his family said.

In the past 12 years, three people have died while glissading on the chute, and about a dozen have suffered injuries requiring helicopter evacuation, Nixon said. He said he does not know how many people have suffered minor or moderate injuries.

Many people have been known to perform the maneuver successfully. Kramer, who descended the chute later in the day, is one of them. He avoided injury by going slowly down the mountain -- it took him an hour -- though he sped up at the bottom and caught air off a boulder. To his horror, he said, he landed near Tom's body, which was not recovered until Tuesday.

In the summer, no special equipment is required to reach the peak of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. Some people make the nearly 22-mile round trip from Whitney Portal to the summit in one day if conditions are optimal, but others prefer to backpack to one of the camps along the trail such as Outpost Camp, where Tom's group stayed, about 7 miles from the summit.

While weather conditions were good when the two started out Monday, two storms in the past few weeks had made for a slower and more treacherous ascent. The hike from Outpost Camp to Trail Crest had taken about five hours before Tom and McEntee decided to turn back.

At Outpost Camp the night before, Tom had been in typical form -- generous and caring, according to family members -- sharing his tent with a day hiker who was unable to descend the mountain by nightfall. The hiker's girlfriend, who had snow blindness from the trek, was invited to share the tent of some women at the camp.

"Stephen immediately asked if they wanted something to eat or drink, and he gave them miso soup and hot cider," said Mark Kramer, a close friend of Tom and cousin of Jim Kramer who initiated the trip but elected to stay at the base camp that day with a fourth member of the group.

"He was one of the most generous, thoughtful people you could meet. He was a solid, solid friend and a good person," said Mark Kramer, who met Tom when they went to college at UC San Diego 25 years ago.

Tom grew up in Oakland and Danville, graduating from Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. He later graduated from UC San Diego and received his master's degree from the Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz. He was employed in real estate management for General Electric in Concord. He enjoyed outdoor adventures and was excited to climb the mountain, Mark Kramer said.

"Stephen was doing three of the things that he loved most -- spending time with friends, challenging himself in physical endurance and roughing it in the wild -- when he died," said his brother, Daryl Tom of Danville.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his parents, Leonard and Katie Tom of Danville; and brothers David Tom and Stuart Tom.

A memorial service for Tom will be held today at 6 p.m. at Wilson & Kratzer Chapel of San Ramon Valley, 825 Hartz Way in Danville. A funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at 11150 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito.

The family asks that donations in Tom's memory be made to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.


Posted by Ken, 10-09-05
It is a small point, but deserving of being said.

The people who staff the "ranger station" are, in fact, not rangers. (Although that may happen from time to time). They are administrative people, I'm not sure how to characterize their titles, but generally, you will not find someone working there who has the knowledge and skill of a ranger.
_________________________
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.



Posted 10-09-05
Preface for those reading the Whitney Portal Store Message Board:

The San Francisco Chronicle, October 9, 2005, has a cautionary front page article about the accident. It can be found at
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/10/09/MNHIKER.DTL

On Monday, October 3, 2005, my hiking partner, John, and I, attempted to assist Stephen Tom of El Cerrito, CA, who attempted to glissade from Trail Crest down to Trail Camp. As previously reported, he was fatally injured in that attempt. This is my account of our experience, the conditions we encountered, and what we learned of the circumstances surrounding the accident. It also reflects my effort to process this tragedy, learn from it, and offer some thoughts that I hope will help others avoid a similar fate.

I have intentionally included as much detail as I could recall about trail conditions and the accident. The report is long. Please skip the report if you're not interested. Others, I hope, will find the details helpful.

Some details differ from this morning's Chronicle article and previous reports posted here, which is to be expected. Nevertheless, this is the information we gathered on the day of the accident.

Finally, as others have noted and I am glad to concur, the response from other hikers to several dicey situations was admirable. There could easily have been several fatalities that day. --Glen

My report:

This was to be my first ascent of Mt. Whitney. I had heard stories from many other runners about their treks up the mountain, and was eager to experience whatever it had to offer. What Whitney offered was grandeur far beyond my capacity to describe. The brilliant yellow aspen seemed to be lit from within. The granite walls soaring thousands of feet into the crystal blue sky were truly humbling. My cares and concerns vaporized as the horizon of the high country opened before me.

Although I felt physically equipped to make the one-day, 22-mile trip to the summit and back without an exhausting effort, I knew from past experience that the higher the mountains, the more suddenly storms blow in. Shirt-sleeve weather can change to a freezing white-out in less than an hour.

Wilderness medicine classes had taught me this, as had years of trail running that frequently took me to higher elevations--though none higher than 11,000 feet. This hike would take me 3,500 feet higher than I had ever been. It would also test my capacity to cope with high altitude hours longer than ever before.

I knew that trekking up Mt. Whitney in early October was stretching the envelope a bit. Fortunately, John and I were well advised by Ben and Denise Jones of Lone Pine on current conditions and on planning a late season trip. Two storms in the previous week left much of the trail above 12,000 ft. elevation covered in snow and ice. We took their advice to heart, knowing that it came from years of running and hiking in Death Valley, on Mt. Whitney and around the region, and helping many others to safely do the same.

John and I knew before our 4:30 a.m. start on the trail that it was unlikely we would reach the summit. We had hiking poles, but no crampons, to help us through the snow and ice we were told to expect on the 100 or so switchbacks up the 1,800 foot climb from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. In fact, we encountered tricky ice patches from Outpost Camp (10,365 elev.) to all the way up to Trail Camp (12,000 elev.).

Unhurried, we reached Trail Camp at 9 a.m. and could see that snow had drifted into the first 40 or so switchbacks above Trail Camp. This was confirmed by others who attempted to navigate them, but turned back because it was too icy. Hikers descending from the summit told us that crampons were a must for safe passage to the summit. As we suspected, north-facing trail sections were especially treacherous and, we were told, became more so on the narrow trail near Trail Crest.

To our surprise, the 40 some switchbacks visible from Trail Camp proved easier than expected. Some of the straight-aways were nearly clear. It was easy to find safe footing on dirt or scree. However, where boulders cast a shadow in the low morning sun, the snow was icy. Still, with careful placement of hiking poles and deep-treaded running shoes, we felt safe.

As soon as we rounded a corner at the base of a high, vertical nose of rock and stepped from east-facing to north-facing trail, everything was in shadow. It was mid-morning and warm enough, despite the approximately 12,600 ft. elevation, that our running shoes still found purchase in the snow. The first 30 or 40 yards up the noticeably steeper slope still seemed safe enough, particularly since those constructing the trail had the presence of mind to install a two-strand cable fence along the precipice.

Three steps further uphill, beyond the end of the cable, I realized I no longer felt safe. I called out to John, who was several steps ahead, that I was going to turn around. I was all too aware of the heightened exposure--greater risk. With no cable between me and the cliff to my right, a slip might mean a fall of 100 feet or more to a steeply sloped snow field below that would surely have sent me slamming into rocks at the base of the switchbacks a few hundred feet further down slope.

Past experience flashed through my mind in a millisecond. It had taught me that descending was always more hazardous than climbing. The degree of slope, coupled with the snow, dictated either stepping downhill sideways or leading with a heel strike. Anything other than a forefoot strike always leaves me feeling off-balance, not fully in control.

Time to get back to terra firma. Gingerly, I turned around. I very slowly planted my poles in the snow before each small, downward step. Spotting foot-deep footprints in the snow along the inside edge of the trail at the base of the rock wall, I angled toward them. I hoped that stepping into those holes would keep me from slipping. Concentrating on every step down, I drew even with the cable. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I knew I had made the right decision.

I clung to the cable, descended a few more steps, then turned to watch John return to relative safety behind the cable. We quickly agreed, it was better to be safe and hike another day.

Moments later, we rounded the rock nose into the sunny side of the cliff and began our descent of the switchbacks. John, with vastly more mountain experience, was more surefooted and pulled away. Since this was my first time using hiking poles, I forced myself to consciously select each pole placement. I had no experience to guide this process, to make it second nature. As I paused for a breather, I looked up just in time to see John skid to his butt. No damage done, but a quick reminder that the ice was still an issue.

Around another icy turn and I, too, lost control. I flailed to regain balance. There were no cliffs here, just plenty of sharp rocks. Terra firma was not to be confused with having both feet planted firmly on solid ground.

Halfway down the switchbacks, John, I, and several other hikers were stopped in our tracks by shouts from high above. The shouted words, however, were lost in the wind and rocks. I could distinctly hear just one word: "climber." Did someone shout "injury," too? I wasn't sure. I scanned the surrounding cliffs and slopes. No climber in view. The hikers above were waving--maybe to their friends below? I watched the hikers near me, but no one else seemed alarmed. Instead, the focus was on getting safely off the ice.

Our focus shifted quickly, however. From the bottom of the switchbacks, several of us noted a hiker rapidly descending and calling out. Soon his words were distinct. "Fall. Not moving. Over there. Above the rocks. "

Ken, part of a seven-man contingent that John and I had traded places with as we hiked up, had seen a man sliding on the snow out of control. We could all see slide marks beginning at the top of a steep chute near Trail Crest, nearly 1,800 feet above. A member of Ken's party who had turned around at the cable and was now with John and me, dropped his pack and headed down until he could either get cell phone reception or report to rangers what had happened. Ken, John, and I set out to see what aid, if any, we could render. The situation did not look good.

It took Ken, John, and me an hour to negotiate the moraine north of the main trail. We found a very rough trail through the lower half of the moraine, but finally had to resort to boulder hopping for the final several hundred feet. We were now at about the same elevation as the cable, but the climb had been straight up. No switchbacks here. Ken was first on the scene. He looked back down to John and me and shook his head. John, a paramedic licensed in California, loosened the man's clothing around his neck and palpated for a carotid pulse on both sides. He found none.

We estimated the victim's age at mid- to late-30s (the SF Chronicle reported Tom was 45) . Evidence of bleeding from his mouth, nose, and one ear indicated probable head injuries. His position also indicated a possible back injury. On the snow field above, two distinct tracks suggested the man had controlled his slide with his heels for several hundred feet. (In retrospect, those tracks may have been those of another man who safely glissaded down.) What happened next was less certain to us, because signs of the downhill slide disappeared at the top of the moraine above us. Closer to us, the trajectory changed, veering to our left as we looked up slope. Then it changed again, and continued straight downhill to where the man came to rest. The tracks in the snow suggested the man tumbled out of control after clearing the top of the moraine.

How had this tragedy occurred? At first, we surmised he had fallen. Everything we had heard about conditions higher up supported this theory. Signs of a controlled slide, however, pointed to an intentional descent on the steep snow field--a glissade. Controlled or accidental, the result was fatal.

Ken headed down to provide an update on the victim's status. John and I remained on site to assist with an air evacuation effort, should conditions be favorable in the next couple of hours. An hour and a half later, about 2 p.m., as gusts started picking up on the ground, we were sure wind speeds aloft would prevent any air evacuation, so we hoisted our packs to head down. A short while later, we spotted a helicopter coming up the mountain, then turn around. Later we learned it had been stopped by high winds from the west.

After talking with witnesses on the way down, we learned that Tom had lost his life in an attempted glissade. He and another man had reached the summit, hiked down to Trail Crest, then became worried about the icy condition of the trail below. They had hiking poles, but no crampons. One man, I'm not sure if he was the victim's hiking partner, attempted to glissade, but immediately changed his mind and stopped his slide. At least two women witnessed this and pulled him back to safety from 20 feet or so below the trail.

I do not know if Tom witnessed this. In any event, he chose to attempt a glissade. Rangers familiar with the chute said this would have been about a 1,500 foot drop. Witnesses said he had no ice axe to control his descent. John and I noted that he wore what appeared to be rain paints, which may have accelerated his slide.

I have since wondered if Tom knew on how to change his course as he approached the moraine. Was that even possible, given that he had no ice axe?

Rangers informed us that, much to their chagrin, hikers regularly glissade down this chute. Rangers variously reported to us one or two fatalities in this same location earlier this year. (The Chronicle reports three fatalities in the past 12 years; I suspect this is a typo and that it should have read 12 months.) One ranger we spoke with was dismayed that there are Websites encouraging glissading down this very chute. I do not have specifics.

I have glissaded twice--on slopes with a much lower angle than this one--and found the experience both frightening and thrilling. But to glissade down the chute from Trail Crest, in my opinion, is positively death defying. I would never recommend it. It is hard for me to imagine that it could be done safely by anyone lacking superior mountaineering skills.

What might be going through the mind of the man who started, then abruptly stopped, his glissade attempt? And through the minds of those who witnessed this tragedy? I would argue that there are lessons here for all of us.

When I opted to turn around on the shaded, snowy slope above the cable, with the same snow field below me where another man's life ended less than an hour later, I never doubted my decision. I don't mean to sound smug: the risk was obvious. Friends and people we met on the trail had provided us with valuable information well before we encountered the hazard, so I had time to consider what I would do. My hiking partner, John, and I agreed ahead of time that safety came first. I was not driven to achieve a life-long goal of reaching the top of Whitney. Then again, Mt. Whitney is only a day's drive from my home, so I am free to return and try again.

The mountains challenge all who venture onto them--both the expert and novice. That is part of their appeal. Steep mountainsides, swollen streams, and sudden weather changes are conspicuous risks to be anticipated, though not always easily assessed. Other risks, though less conspicuous, should also be anticipated. As Doug Thompson and Elisabeth Newbold observe in their guide book, Mount Whitney: Mountain Lore from the Whitney Store, high altitude illness, dehydration, exhaustion, and hypothermia are all common conditions. Indeed, these conditions dictate that sufficient food, water, and clothing must be taken to survive all conditions Mt. Whitney and the Sierras might throw our way.

But still we come, many of us again and again, to drink in the astounding beauty, yes, but also to test ourselves, to learn about ourselves in ways that modern life, for many of us, as least, does not prepare us to learn.

Venturing onto the slopes of Mt. Whitney forces us to go back to basics. Even with high tech synthetics, light-weight sleeping bags to insulate us from freezing temperatures, electrolyte drinks, and high carb energy bars, we must still contemplate survival. How will I weather a sudden snow or thunder storm? What will happen if a bear devours all my food? What is the safest way for a group of three hikers to help one of the group who has an immobilizing injury? Two hikers? A solo hiker? How can I guard against the potentially lethal effects of high altitude illness?

Answers to these questions may be easy for you. But certainly there are other scenarios that, when coupled with the impaired reasoning ability that accompanies hypothermia and exhaustion, would challenge any of us. The point is, we owe it to our families, friends, hiking companions, and ourselves to carefully consider which risks we feel prepared to accept and which are beyond our abilities.

Perhaps the best way to prepare for a wilderness mountain trek is to have frank discussions with our trekking partners. Does everyone have ample food, water, clothing, and shelter? Do we have the necessary first aid and survival gear called for and the knowledge to use it? Do any members of the party have pre-existing medical conditions? If so, do they have their meds? Is everyone fit to tackle the trip planned? Illness or injury to one--or the poor judgment of one--can imperil everyone else in the party. At the least, until you know the symptoms of high altitude illness, dehydration, exhaustion, and hypothermia you are not ready for the wilderness.

Be safe and hike another day. --Glen


Posted by Jim in Huntington Beach, 10-09-05
Can't wait to see the resulting lawsuit that blames the government for "negligence" (no signs/no safety talk/equip. check/etc.).

Jim


Posted 10-09-05
Glen and I were the two of the three who made it over to check on Mr. Tom after his glissade was witnessed by other hikers above us. Ken got to him a minute before us, stayed for a few minutes and headed down. As a CA paramedic, I was able to assess his injuries and determined he was expired. This was important as on our way down (after determing no helicopter would make it up that afternoon), rangers making their way up trail were able to accept my 'determination of death' and change the search and resuce into a recovery effort.
I have read the discusions on this incident and the heated back and forth on how much we vs. the 'goverment' need to be responsibe for our actions. I respect everyone's opinions but suggest when a bad choice is made, especially on Whitney, others are put at risk. The two women who helped the other hiker back up to the trail after he aborted his glissade, the hiker who went for help, the helicopter pilots who tried to get in for a rescue, and everyone who helped the two hikers who glissaded down on Tuseday and were both injured, and more who will be put at risk thenselves when they see the seat marks in the snow and assume others have made is so why can't they--and then those who are put at risk in rescuing them.
Glen and I talked abut the importance of correct and timely information from the rangers when you pick up your permit. We asked about conditions and were told no technical gear was needed to summit. A word in time there could save a life--and it cost nothing. Me? I vote for a 'no glissade' notice on the paperwork given with permits AND signs at the start of the switchbacks and at Trail Crest. I saw Mr. Tom up close and personal. I don't want to see anyone else in the same position with the same injuries.


Posted by oskar, 10-09-05
re: John Vonhof's post

AMEN!


Posted by Ken, 10-09-05
for those in the audience who don't know him, John Vonhof is the author of the famed book, Fixing your Feet, who contributes a lot to the hiking/climbing community. I don't recall him posting here, before. Welcome, John, and good on 'ya, for what you tried to do.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0899973...=books&v=glance
_________________________
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.



Posted by AxeMan, 10-09-05
Two things:

In support of the people in the Ranger's office (at least on Friday, Sept. 30) they had current photos of the switchbacks and were warning hikers that the conditions were extremely icy on north-facing sections and completely covered in others, plus a majority of people were turning around at the cables. Those summiting were using poles and/or axes and crampons. I can't see how their responsibility can, or should, go beyond that.

Second, the last time I glissaded down the chute (first week of June), I was fully equipped and kept my pace slow and steady. At one point I did hit an ice patch and accelerated; as I flipped and started digging in, the axe popped right out of my hands from the speed. Luckily, I was able to retrieve the axe (a good leash, obviously) and arrest. But again, this was accomplished from experience. Some have made points about self-arresting "with hiking poles" which is extremely misleading. Mr. Tom's fate is a truly sad event, but for those trying to glean some helpful information, poles won't save you on an uncontrolled glissade. Given the conditions now, even with full gear, I wouldn't attempt the chute. I think those bragging about it are only making the situation worse.


Posted by Ken, 10-09-05
Although I think the point is being made, somewhat, let me be overt: Glissading is a technical mountaineering skill, it is NOT part of backpacking, and is done with proper gear.

Think about this: One of the premier hang-gliding spots in the world is just off the road to Cottonwood Lakes, Walt's Point. If someone decides to try to glide using a couple of kites, and dies in the foolish attempt, should we expect signs at Walt's Point advising against jumping without a hang-glider??
_________________________
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.



Posted by ChrisClark, 10-09-05
Glen & John,

What a terrible trajedy and story to share with us. Thank you for what you did on the mountain.

Chris


Posted 10-09-05
My God, I've read most of the posts, and I've gotten the impression that most of you are highly inexperienced and don't belong on any mountain. Please do yourselves a favor and take a mountaineering course or you too may end up dead doing something as stupid as glissading w/o an ice axe. This is a tragedy.... for the sport of mountaineering; when someone dies doing a "darwin award" stunt, it will only complicate matters for the people that have taken the time to learn the craft and do it safely (red tape, fees, trail/mountain closures). Why does it always seems like people expect to get their hand held by the forest service? get realistic! There are hazards in the mountains, even on the Mt. Whitney Trail, duh!!! Read about them before you go. Learn about mountain safety and skills. Don't be a lemming. Anyone that doesn't seek proper training is the one dropping the ball, not the Forest Service.


Posted by Poly2002, 10-10-05
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/10/09/MNHIKER.DTL&hw=whitney&sn=001&sc=1000

Hiker's caution turns into cautionary tale
East Bay man's death points to danger of sliding down snow
- Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Shortly before he died on the icy and rocky slopes of Mount Whitney on Monday afternoon, Stephen Tom told his hiking partner that the conditions were too treacherous to reach the mountain's summit and he would descend back to the base camp.

"He said, 'I have nothing to prove,' " said Jim Kramer, recalling the words of Tom, a 45-year-old El Cerrito resident, after they had finished a section of the trail that ascends more than 1,700 feet up switchbacks from Trail Camp to Trail Crest.

But Kramer continued to Whitney's 14,497-foot summit, while Tom -- whom friends and family describe as a cautious and calculated risk taker -- and another hiker they had met on the mountain decided it would be safer to sit and slide down a snow chute used by some people during their descent.

The technique, called glissading, could cut an hours-long hike to Trail Camp to as little as 15 minutes and avoid the nearly 100 icy and treacherous switchbacks on the trail. They had watched a hiker glissade the chute earlier in the day, and Tom was an experienced skier and snowboarder.

But the early fall snow was shallow, and after sliding on their backsides for a few hundred feet from the 13,777-foot crest, the snow-covered top portion of the chute gave way to ice.

"It was mind-boggling to me how quickly he could pick up speed. He went from in control to out of control almost instantly," said Michael McEntee, 44, a Mountain View resident who was descending with Tom.

Tom had hiking poles that he tried to use as brakes. He turned on his stomach, facing up the mountain, and tried to slow himself with his feet. At the bottom of the chute, Tom was moving so fast -- at least 50 miles per hour, the accident investigator estimates -- that he could not stop. He hit a refrigerator-size boulder on the edge of the snow meadow and died from the impact.

"You're up so high your perspective is skewed," McEntee said. "I don't think either of us imagined it would be possible to slide across that flat part into rock."

McEntee climbed to a rocky area after he saw Tom lose control. He called for help, and other hikers on the trail guided him to safety. He was uninjured.

The next day, two other hikers glissaded down the chute and lost control, said Sgt. Randy Nixon of the Inyo County sheriff's department. One hiker broke a leg, and the other was knocked unconscious after hitting rocks; both were rescued by helicopter.

"(Glissading) is one of those things that experienced climbers probably won't do," said SP Parker, an internationally certified guide who is a partner in the Sierra Mountain Center, a guiding company in Bishop. Several years ago, Parker led a group on the trail and saw five people injured -- two seriously -- in one day from sliding down the chute.

"It's tempting because it looks so easy," Parker said. "But it's one of the most dangerous things in mountaineering."

Anyone attempting the technique, which can also be done while crouching or standing, should be experienced and have equipment, such as a helmet and an ice ax for braking, Parker said. Tom, who had glissaded once before, 20 years ago, had no equipment besides the poles, his family said.

In the past 12 years, three people have died while glissading on the chute, and about a dozen have suffered injuries requiring helicopter evacuation, Nixon said. He said he does not know how many people have suffered minor or moderate injuries.

Many people have been known to perform the maneuver successfully. Kramer, who descended the chute later in the day, is one of them. He avoided injury by going slowly down the mountain -- it took him an hour -- though he sped up at the bottom and caught air off a boulder. To his horror, he said, he landed near Tom's body, which was not recovered until Tuesday.

In the summer, no special equipment is required to reach the peak of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. Some people make the nearly 22-mile round trip from Whitney Portal to the summit in one day if conditions are optimal, but others prefer to backpack to one of the camps along the trail such as Outpost Camp, where Tom's group stayed, about 7 miles from the summit.

While weather conditions were good when the two started out Monday, two storms in the past few weeks had made for a slower and more treacherous ascent. The hike from Outpost Camp to Trail Crest had taken about five hours before Tom and McEntee decided to turn back.

At Outpost Camp the night before, Tom had been in typical form -- generous and caring, according to family members -- sharing his tent with a day hiker who was unable to descend the mountain by nightfall. The hiker's girlfriend, who had snow blindness from the trek, was invited to share the tent of some women at the camp.

"Stephen immediately asked if they wanted something to eat or drink, and he gave them miso soup and hot cider," said Mark Kramer, a close friend of Tom and cousin of Jim Kramer who initiated the trip but elected to stay at the base camp that day with a fourth member of the group.

"He was one of the most generous, thoughtful people you could meet. He was a solid, solid friend and a good person," said Mark Kramer, who met Tom when they went to college at UC San Diego 25 years ago.

Tom grew up in Oakland and Danville, graduating from Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. He later graduated from UC San Diego and received his master's degree from the Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz. He was employed in real estate management for General Electric in Concord. He enjoyed outdoor adventures and was excited to climb the mountain, Mark Kramer said.

"Stephen was doing three of the things that he loved most -- spending time with friends, challenging himself in physical endurance and roughing it in the wild -- when he died," said his brother, Daryl Tom of Danville.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his parents, Leonard and Katie Tom of Danville; and brothers David Tom and Stuart Tom.

A memorial service for Tom will be held today at 6 p.m. at Wilson & Kratzer Chapel of San Ramon Valley, 825 Hartz Way in Danville. A funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at 11150 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito.

The family asks that donations in Tom's memory be made to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

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Posted by 67brickie, 10-10-05
as Forrest Gump said "Let me say this about that."

Mark Patton has it right - too many signs already. Just think about all the ones which are summarily ignored every day, let alone about things which can be considered "hazardous". Do signs saying pavement is "slippery when wet" stop people from driving too fast in such conditions? Do warnings about the chemical noxious vapor hazards of mixing household cleaning liquids stop people from trying their own combinations? Though everyone knows guns can be (possibly) inherently dangerous and should always be regarded as loaded, "unfortuante accidents" happen every day with consequent loss of lives. Warnings abound in nearly every aspect of our lives - from the possible contraindcations printed on prescribed or OTC medicines, to the innane printed warnings on your plastic dry cleaning bag about not letting it get into the hands of youngsters or around pets 'cause it could smother them. Who pays any attention to them? Rather, the personal risk assessment and judgment factor is what typically dictates what we do and how we do it. Earlier this summer, a few weeks before my Whitney summit, I drove a scaled-down Indy race car around a mile and half oval at speeds up to 160 mph. Before I did it, I was (as someone here stated about glissading) both excited and scared. I signed the proprietor's disclaimer and waiver and so the decision was all mine, not government, or the track owner or the proprietor who supplied the race car - MINE only.
I absolutely dumb-lucked into the three day permit time period I was assigned for the Whiteny Zone. Had those dated been any earlier, I had already made up my mind I would not subject myself or my hiking companions to the potential dangers of snow-packed, icy switchbacks or anything above them. Getting to the summit was the goal, but staying alive was paramount. I am a hiker/backpacker. I do not and did not have any desire or need to attempt to experience a dangerous slide-down-on-my-rear technique just to descend from someplace I had no business being in the first place. That stuff is technical mountaineering, not hiking. Like all others posting here, I don't want to see anybody die or be injured on Whitney or any other outdoor or wilderness venue. But when they make the judgment to go in the first place, then they better also have informed themselves of what they will and will not do if faced with unsafe conditions. Mr. Toms did that, without the requesite skill. I'm terribly sorry for him and his loved ones and friends.
Ben Franklin is noted as observing "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn by no other." Let all resolve to learn from previous mistakes, and not be fools.
Brickie


Posted by MattW, 10-10-05
I was at the ranger station to pick up our permits on 10/7 for a 10/9 hike. I was looking at the maps that they had for sale and asked one of the rangers which was the best one. He told me that since I was going to be on the main whitney trail that I didn't need a map. I found this strange since I expected the rangers to be extra cautious. Also, when talking to them about the conditions of the trail, they underestimated the difficulty/danger versus what folks were saying on this board. I didn't realize, as someone mentioned earlier in this thread, that these rangers in the staion are not rangers but administrators.


Posted by Nextdrink, 10-11-05
I tried this year in July and found it to be one of the harder things to do.I thought the 12000ft. level was good.The other people I hiked with both got ill so we turned around.Why anyone would do it in Fall or Winter is beyond me.Sure I am going again this year and I am going to make it up to the top.But I can say its not worth my life.I have seen a couple of post commenting on attitudes.Im sure we all have our on ways of dealing with stuff.Maybe an attitude is what we need to kick that Mountains butt.BE SAFE.....
Good luck to all who try!!!!!


Posted by joeldgold, 10-11-05
Very sad to hear that another life was lost on Whitney. I was part of an 11 man team up the chute in June, wherein plenty of time was spent ensuring that everyone had the proper equiptment and some experience on the snow. Fortunately the conditions were perfect and everyone summitted safely.
As I was decending down the chute, even with 10 Whitney and 7 other 14er's completed, I remember thinking how dicey a glissade could be in the wrong conditions with the rock band to the right and many other boulders at the bottom.
I also remember my 1st ascent 17 years ago, looking down the chute (but taking the switchbacks) and thinking how terrifying it would be to go directly down it.
Those two guys must have been sketched to attempt to glissade as they did. My condolences to the family of the victim, Mr. Tom.
In my opinion the manner in which Whitney is being challenged these days invariably will lead to this kind of tradegy. Unlike other mountains that I've climbed where people generally won't try a summit,like say Mt. Williamson unless they are competent, Whitney is viewed by most as a physical challenge and not mountaineering one. With the mule trail up to 14k, many will continue to attempt the summit with nominal skills.
It is a very tough call on what can be done to mitigate number of rescues and fatalities. I agree that posting warning signs at any place where a hazard exists wouldn't be plausible. There's just too many places even on the trail where you can be injured. I also feel that the Forrest Service does plenty to push safety. There always been literature at the stattion advising of the risks involved and they've even placed a large kiosk at the trailhead showing some poor guy apparently involved in an accident to make a point to be cautious. A few times they have been way off in their advise, but I never presumed it was there job to provide that information. This year on another mountain they were advising people that a route was impassable. Having a fair amount of experience, our group tried it anyways and found it to be 100% clear. Other people we met at the summit were angry at the information when they found out how we summitted. My point being the rangers are damned if they do and damned if they don't and we shouldn't expect them to be mountain guides.


Posted by mark, 10-11-05
After following this column now for the better part of two weeks, I can only offer my sincere sympathy to the family of Whitney's latest casualty. However, with every wilderness calamity, afterwards it seems that people always look to point fingers, blaming someone, and trying to somehow relieve the injured from admitting that the complete responsibility always belongs with the individual.
Mount Whitney is, in many ways, unique. The peaks close proximity to Southern California civilization and with this relative easy access and the availability of valuable forums such as this one; the mountain calls out to many and entices the masses to try. Internet campground reservations for the Portal are just a click away, as well as a lottery system being in place for possible and free admission to the trail. Gear outfitters such as REI and the like, tout their wares, bombard us with color advertisements, and make available all the equipment to dream of, and then perhaps, even surmount a trophy that can be either an easy walk or a trap, depending on the conditions or weather. TV commercials tell us to "just do it" regardless of the risks and they never mention any possible ramifications of failure. SUV owners can picture themselves driving across perilous terrain, without any training or better yet, without any preparation or even a care. We live this life in 2005.
Then something goes wrong and instead of admitting ineptness, carelessness, or perhaps acknowledging that it could just be a horrendous accident, we always want to assess blame - somewhere:
  • We need signs!
  • It is the Ran gers fault!
  • The equipment was faulty!
  • Nobody warned us!
  • The weather changed!
  • It snowed!
  • Too steep
  • Too hot
  • Too cold
  • Ice
  • Too high
  • The water
  • The cables
  • The burgers


Well people wake up. This is a big mountain, it is high, and things change on it constantly. There are obvious dangers -- ice, exposure, altitude, climate, etc... and maybe we should realize that before making the attempt, we all must prepare for these dangers adequately, and then take the responsibility for our own actions. On one hand, we get angry at the Ran gers for taking too much of our valuable time when picking up permits or curtailing night permit availability, and now we want to blame them for not warning us? How many signs, letters, phone calls, or emails do you need before comprehending that a 14,500 ft mountain can be somewhat dangerous?
With freedom comes risk -- with wilderness comes responsibility. I am truly sorry for the human loss -- a sad tragedy -- but I take umbrage in knowing that he was probably doing what he wanted to at the time. Nobody forced him onto the mountain -- nobody said he could not go -- nobody made up any outrageous rules for his adventure. That is the way it should always be.


Posted by VersatileFred, 10-11-05
This topic is beginning to sound like Hikers Walking Into Lightning Storm. Someone Tell Me Why! That topic was posted a couple of months ago.
_________________________
Orientation Notes for Whitney First Timers



Posted by Wes B, 10-11-05
Mark, Thank you! I admit that I have to agree that individuals bear their own responsibility when they take on any outdoor experience. And I mean "any outdoor experience"! After following this thread for the past week, I must say that your response definitely says it all. The ran gers are definitely not there to hold our hands. And I certainly wouldn't want them to myself.


Posted by jfkstuff, 10-12-05
I see many have opined who weren't present that day, and some have inaccurately speculated about the mountain conditions and the decisions made. I would like to provide a first-hand perspective since I ascended to Trail Crest with Stephen Tom on October 3 and then glissaded down the same chute four hours after he did, unaware of his fate until I found his body at the bottom. My name is Jim, and I hiked to Trail Crest and had lunch with Stephen and Mike before I ventured on alone to summit. On the way up to Trail Crest Stephen demonstrated amazing hiking prowess, endurance and sure-footedness; he was an accomplished hiker who had hiked many times before. On the switchbacks he commented that we were lucky to have such a gorgeous day and if it had been as cold, snowy and windy as people said it had been the previous day we wouldn't have ascended past Trail Camp.

Before I left Stephen and Mike at Trail Crest for the summit, we had a lengthy, detailed discussion analyzing the safest way to descend, including whether it would be safest to retrace our steps along the switchbacks or to glissade (as we had seen someone do on our way up, and as we'd heard others had done safely the previous night when conditions were much worse). I wasn't sure what route Stephen and Mike had ultimately chosen until I returned from the summit and saw their glissade tracks. I peered down the chute, saw a powdery snow trough without any sign of trouble, so I proceeded as well.

I should mention that before I headed up to the summit I encouraged Stephen and Mike to join me. Stephen responded that he didn't have anything to prove by summiting and felt it was safest to start heading down at that point since the weather conditions were ideal, he was rested, could take his time and he didn't want to chance that the weather and daylight might deteriorate over the next few hours. He was a cautious, calculated hiker.

While at the summit I noticed the plaque in the cabin doorway that warned of the potential hazards of lightening. I suggest that a notice at the chute would save more lives. I know some of you are adamantly against signs. Please don't get me wrong; I'm not recommending that a sign be placed everywhere on the mountain where someone can twist an ankle. However, there is already a sign at Trail Crest with the marginally useful information that it's at an elevation of 13,777 feet. If that existing sign were simply amended to include a more useful statement to the effect that the majority of fatalities and serious injuries on Mount Whitney were inflicted glissading down that particular chute, and that conditions at the bottom were often considerably icier than one can determine from Trail Crest, I "guarantee" you than none of us would have chosen to glissade. We were not out for a joy ride or to take the easy way down; we wanted the safest route. Some have suggested that people don't heed warning signs; I disagree.

I felt safe enough partway down my glissade that day to take a photo that shows there is nothing but Stephen's deep, powdery snow trough in front of me for as far down as you can see. Unfortunately, while descending, very abruptly and without warning, the trough disappeared and turned to an icy sheet. Stephen and I both had hiking poles. I used mine and kicked my heels into the ice to descend slowly and made it to the bottom unhurt. I wasn't with Stephen when he descended so I can't say what he did differently. However, two other hikers were badly injured the following day glissading the same chute "with ice axes!" Possibly they saw the deep, snowy troughs at Trail Crest that we did and were also lured into thinking it was an advisable way to descend. Again, an addition to the existing sign would clarify any uncertainty for future hikers unfamiliar with these tragedies.

Although I knew Stephen for only 24 hours, I went to his memorial service, which was "standing room only." There I saw ten other hikers whom Stephen also met for the first time during the same 24-hour period and befriended. When my time comes I hope I have even a fraction of the admiring friends stand up at my service as Stephen had at his who publicly proclaim what an honor it was to know me and be my friend. Clearly, he will be sorely missed by many. Stephen, buddy, I look forward to meeting you again at the ultimate summit.


Posted 10-12-05
There is a simple fact to this unfortunate accident and that is that a judgment call was made and the results were catastrophic. It seems that there are a lot of posts about inexperience or poor judgment or just simply being stupid but the fact is that a fellow hiker made a decision on the information he had and unfortunately it cost him his life. If you spend much time in the outdoor world whether on a mountain or on a river or any where else you will inevitably loose friend or at least acquaintance. And the response seems always to be the same- CRITICISM. I agree that in almost every case of serious injury or death a poor decision was made and that the rest of us should learn from the unfortunate event. Poor decisions similar to ones that we all (at least any of us who spend a good amount of time outdoors) have made at some point. I am sure that the criticism and critique is to make the ourselves feel like the accident won't happen to us because we would not have made that "dumb of a decision." We rationalize the death so we do not have to internalize to ourselves that death is waiting for us. We should all learn from this unfortunate accident and the decisions made, but for any of us to pass judgment seems to tempt the inevitable. Good climbers, boaters, and friends die and often because of bad decisions they made. What we should learn from this accident is that none of us no matter how experienced are above making a poor decision in the wrong moment that may cost us our life.


Posted by scotthiker2, 10-12-05
gistme,

You are right on the money. I suspect Mt. Tom was evaluating (to the best of his ability) whether it would be more/less risky to slide down the slope or hike down the icy switchbacks. He made a decision after deliberating for a while and it turned out bad. No one can say for sure that he would not have met a similar fate on the slippery switchbacks.

I for one am very greatful that I do not hike with some of the posters on this thread. On this thread alone, I have observed the following:

1) The "slippery slope syndrome" for what would happen next iff a warning sign is posted.

2) Criticism of "posters blaming rangers" when I have seen no post of that kind. There has been some recommendations put forth, but nobody is blaming the rangers for this tragedy.

3) Presenting one's "resume" in an attempt to gain acceptance of your beliefs.


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