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#2492 - 06/07/04 02:42 PM
Whiteout Incident on Whitney Trail
Posted by Theloneus, 06-07-04I have sent this to many members of the post and several have suggested that it would be educational to others. I will try to post it in hopes that, some day, it may help another outdoor adventurer.
I had been wanting to do a winter ascent of Whitney for several years, so finally decided to do it this year, whether I found a climbing partner or not. I wanted to do it some time prior to the start of the reservation period on May 1. Watching the weather forecasts on the Internet, I decided to leave on Tuesday, March 30.
I left Claremont, Ca. in the morning and arrived in Lone Pine in time for a late lunch. After a hearty lunch I drove to the Portal and parked. I wrote out a brief itinerary and put it on my vehicle dash, readable from the outside. After talking about trail conditions with someone from the Portal Store I was on the trail by 3 p.m. The weather was clear, as predicted, and the snow was soft and deep enough that I was able to hike all day with snowshoes. Just prior to sundown I made camp in a rocky outcropping just above Outpost Camp, overlooking Mirror Lake. The next day I changed to crampons and ice axe and continued up the chute paralleling the "switchbacks" to the North. Part way up, noticing the iron posts on the trail, I climbed up to the trail, thinking that I could make better time there. I found that the snow was so deep and soft on the trail that it was impossible, even with snowshoes, to continue on the trail, so I returned to the chute and continued to climb. As the chute got quite steep below Trail Crest, I encountered three climbers coming down. They had summited and were returning to their camp just below the switchbacks. They reported that the weather had been clear and that the snow on the trail was well consolidated; snowshoes were not required, just ice axe and crampons. They had taken three hours to go from Trail Crest to Whitney Summit. After a very strenuous final approach I arrived at Trail Crest in the late afternoon and made my camp on the East side overlooking the chute. My campsite was on a very narrow ledge off the trail and protected from the wind coming from the West.
The next morning, Thursday, April 1, after a breakfast of tea and cup-o-noodles, I selected a minimum amount of gear to hike the 1.9 miles to the summit and back as light and quickly as possible. I carried a map, compass, cell phone, GPS, Power Bars, water bottle, and camera. I was well dressed for the conditions. The trail was well marked by the three previous hikers and the trip to the summit took three hours, as anticipated and I arrived before noon. The weather was still clear but wispy clouds were blowing by and it was growing dark in the West. I called my wife and told her that I expected to be out by Friday and that I would call when I get down. The weather began to deteriorate quite quickly with very low visibility and blowing snow. The snow was sure to soon obliterate the trail so I attempted to return as quickly as possible to the trail and back to my camp. After several attempts to get to the trail were thwarted by low visibility, I realized I had a problem. I had not picked GPS waypoints on the trail to the summit and my map was not high enough resolution to use for selecting accurate points for my GPS. I called 911 hoping to find someone to give me accurate waypoints back to my camp at Trail Crest. A Highway Patrol dispatcher in Barstow answered my call immediately. After some difficulty explaining my situation and what I needed, she transferred me to the Forest Service in Lone Pine. The person who answered explained that the office closes at 4:30 and that it was nearly closing time. He then transferred me to the Sheriff's office in Lone Pine. Sgt. Randy Nixon answered and I explained my situation and what I needed. He immediately understood my situation. By this time my cell phone batteries were getting low and it was getting dark so we agreed that I would turn my cell phone off and he would call back and leave the GPS points and weather forecast on my voice mail. I would stay the night in the hut at the summit and next morning I would access my voice mail and get the information. I stayed over night in the summit hut which, apparently, is intended for use only as the most primitive of shelters. Half of the floor was covered in ice and there is no stove or emergency supplies. During the night my water froze.
Next morning I found that Sgt. Nixon had left the information twice, in case one version was garbled, and requested that I inform him as soon as I returned. I entered the 4 waypoints into my GPS and started for the first point. I found the going very difficult. The visibility was still very low and because the trail was covered by snow, it was difficult to know if I was on the trail or not. Just a few feet above or below the trail and the terrain is extremely difficult. I eventually arrived at the first waypoint, which was relatively free of snow, and the trail was clearly visible. This gave me confidence to proceed quickly toward the next waypoint. Soon the trail was again obscured by snow and progress again became very difficult. I eventually came to a trail which, unlike the relatively North/South orientation of the Whitney Trail, seemed to be East/West oriented. [This was probably the trail leading to Crabtree Meadow] It began to grow dark by now so I decided to try to find shelter. Near the trail I found an overhanging rock that seemed to afford some shelter. Using my ice axe, I attempted to build a snow wall in front of the overhanging rock as protection from the wind and snow. The wind had been blowing so hard that the snow was the consistency of sugar and was very difficult to compact into a wall. After forming as good a wall as possible, under the circumstances, I crawled into my shelter for the night. I alternated between sleeping and getting up and walking around briefly. The shelter did provide some protection from the wind and blowing snow. The next day I turned on my GPS and got a heading and distance to the next waypoint. The GPS began indication a low battery so I only turned it on long enough to get the information and use my compass thereafter. At this time I must have been affected by the combined factors of dehydration and hypothermia; my only recollection of that day, April 3, was of struggling over very rough snow covered terrain and of nightfall coming again. At that location the terrain was completely snow covered with no rocks, or trees to use as protection from the weather. The snow was still impossible to consolidate and make a shelter. My only option was to dig a trench in the snow to get below the wind and blowing snow. Before going to sleep I stuck my ice axe into the snow to mark my location. This arrangement was very uncomfortable and sleep was difficult. It was quite cold and the high wind and blowing snow continued throughout the night.
When I was at the summit, I had called my wife, Maria, and told her that I expected to be out by Friday and would call from Lone Pine. On Friday evening she called the Dow Villa Hotel, where I would stay if I came out late, and they told her that I was not registered. She called the next morning and they reported that I still had not registered, and they gave her the number for the local Sheriff's office. The dispatcher who answered the phone recommended to wait for the rest of the day to see if I came out on my own and said that he would send a deputy to the Portal parking lot to see if my car was still there. On Sunday morning, April 4, she called and got the dispatcher. She told him that I had not called or checked into the hotel. She felt that it was time to start a rescue. The dispatcher said that the Search and Rescue coordinator Sgt. Randy Nixon would call back. Sgt. Nixon called back soon afterward and, after getting the information he needed, he agreed to start a rescue effort. He remembered that I was the one who had called asking for GPS waypoints.
The next day, Sunday April 4, was clear and my GPS indicated that I was about 0.1 Mi. from my camp. Soon there came the sound of a fixed wing aircraft from the North. The aircraft seemed to be circling and slowly approaching. Finally it reached my location, as did a helicopter. I flashed a signal mirror to attract their attention. The crews of both aircraft began communicating with me using loud speakers. The fixed wing aircraft made a low pass with landing lights flashing. They asked if I needed help and I responded by marking an SOS in the snow with my ice axe. The helicopter made a comment about returning, and left.
Sgt. Nixon called Maria after a few hours and reported that they found me and I seemed to be in good shape and was responding to them. However, he reported that there was a jurisdictional problem -- I was on the Sequoia side of the boundary and she needed to call Sequoia National Forest to request help. She called Sequoia and they took the information and agreed to call her back. Over an hour later they had not called so she called them back. They had decided that to let the Sheriff's department, Sgt. Nixon, continue to coordinate the rescue. The next available helicopter that Sgt. Nixon located was not able to respond because the pilot was not qualified to land above 12,000'. The suggestion was made that they resume the rescue the next day. Sgt. Nixon, feeling that one more day could be serious, or even fatal for a subject who had been exposed for three days, persisted. He found a Highway Patrol helicopter from Paso Robles who was in the area, qualified, and willing to attempt the rescue. The crew advised me, via loudspeaker, to descend the slope I was on to a flat area about 800 -- 1000' below my location [Probably south of Discovery Pinnacle]. As I descended, they advised me on the best route, considering obstacles, steep sections, etc., which they could see from the air. They landed and when I arrived they took me aboard and flew me to the North Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine.
Eric R. and his hiking companion were hiking up the Whitney Trail on Sunday April 4. As they approached Trail Crest they noticed aircraft activity and heard loud speakers in the area of Trail Crest. They guessed that there was a rescue in progress. As they approached Trail Crest Eric noticed something protruding from the snow. They investigated and found a camp, mostly covered by about 2 feet of snow. Guessing that this might be the camp of the person being rescued, they stuffed everything into the backpack and slid it down the chute they had just come up. They then continued toward the summit. On the return they found the backpack on the chute. Using some extra cord Eric was carrying they strapped the backpack onto Eric's backpack and continued to descend. At Outpost Camp it became difficult for Eric to continue with the extra weight so he removed the extra backpack and left it. When they reached the Portal parking lot they removed their packs and returned for the backpack they had left. At Lone Pine they turned the gear into the Sheriff's office.
When I arrived at the hospital they quickly started a rewarming program including an IV of warm fluids, heated blankets, and immersion in a therapy hot tub. Maria arrived that night and drove me home the next morning. That night I went to a Kaiser Hospital emergency room where they started a program of antibiotics and medication for pain and swelling.
Only after arriving at the hospital in Lone Pine, when they removed my gloves and boots, did I realize that I had frostbite injuries. Now, about 2 months later, it appears that I will lose the outer portion of four fingers and 2 -- 4 toes through "auto amputation", i.e. the affected areas will "sluff off" in time. Various estimates by the doctors of the time required to completely resolve the frostbite problems range from 6 months to one year.
I think it is a testament to the camaraderie of the outdoor community that Eric R. and his companions would go to so much trouble to retrieve a stranger's gear under such difficult circumstances. I hope I would do the same.
- Each reader can come to his/her own conclusion about what I did wrong on Whitney. I summarize my mistake in one word -- Hubris. Until this experience I would not have believed that anything could stop me from hiking 1.9 miles and back on a familiar and well-marked trail in one day. My painful experience has, of course, drastically changed my thinking on that matter.
- I find it amazing that a Highway Patrol 911 dispatcher would transfer a call from someone in my situation to an office that has a closing time, in this case the Forest Service office in Lone Pine. In most California counties Search and Rescue is the responsibility of the Sheriff's Office. The Forest Service knew that, even the Dow Villa Hotel knew it; why doesn't the 911 dispatcher know it? One would think that a 911 call about a problem in the area of Mt. Whitney would be a common occurrence and the dispatchers would be accustomed to dealing with them.
- The first helicopter to respond to my location could not complete the evacuation BECAUSE I WAS ON THE SEQUOIA SIDE OF THE LINE! One would think that mutual assistance agreements between all government agencies adjoining the Sierras would be established in advance so that a rescue would not have to be delayed just because of a jurisdictional matter.
- I especially want to thank Sgt. Randy Nixon, SAR coordinator for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department, for his persistence and skill at marshalling the resources necessary to complete my rescue when a delay of another day would have resulted in further injuries or, possibly, death.
Posted by maxlip, 06-07-04Theloneus
Glad you made it back, thanks for the post, good luck on your recovery
Posted by RTSigrist, 06-07-04Wow. We're speachless.
Posted by bigstinky, 06-07-04some of the most important things i have learned;
i have learned reading this site.
Posted by ScottHiker, 06-07-04Great Post!
How did Eric R. know with 100% certainty that the gear they found was yours? As I was reading you post, I wondered if they had made a terrible mistake and possibly picked up somebody else's gear. I suppose you were the only one up there the night before? I am not sure I would have made the same call.
Posted by Jimjoebillybob, 06-07-04Theloneus,
Thanks for posting your story. I truly hope everything works out for you. Some of the best lessons that I have learned have been from other hiker's experiences, weather good or bad.
Posted by Tom, 06-08-04Wow! Glad to hear that you will be mostly fine after some recovery.
Everyone planning to go up there should read this just to help them have some ideas in their minds of how to be prepared. If you hadn't had cell phone, GPS AND Compass, etc. and the clear thoughts on how to use them and how to protect yourself from the weather, you might not be typing this story now.
Posted by end, 06-08-04Thank you for posting your story (and for sending it to me by email). I hope that your recovery is swift and better than expected.
It is truly amazing what Nature can do in such isolated environments. We are all at her whim in these situations.
Posted by Marc, 06-08-04Theloneus,
Thank you so much for writing up your story and sharing it here. Your courage is inspiring, and this is certainly educational to read how a clearly experienced and capable hiker responded to a dangerous change in conditions. All the best in your recovery.
Posted, 06-08-04I think the most important part of your story was the fact that it was only a 1.9 mile hike each way, what could go wrong or happen in that time?
I have to admit, I would have probably thought the same thing and made the same judgements you did.
The best lesson we can all learn is Whitney changes very quickly, and no matter how fast we think we are going, the weather on top changes even faster.
Not meaning to get the whole cell phone debate going again, but you seemed to get reception a number of times from at least 2 different spots. Which cell phone service do you use, and were you surprised to get reception for both your calls and for the calls returned to you?
Posted by Theloneus, 06-08-04My service is Verizon but both calls were from the summit. Until I had the information I needed I didn't want leave the summit and lose reception.
Posted by big sb, 06-09-04Thanks for sharing your experience. I can't believe the "red-tape" involved in a rescue mission. Wish you a speedy recovery.
Posted by Dingo, 06-09-04Theloneus,
As with the others, I'm glad your OK.
It should be no surprise that the coordination of rescue services is not optimum. The 9/11 commission is clearly demonstrating that. I still believe Sgt Nixon did an outstanding job as SAR coordinator.
Being a helicopter pilot in SoCal, I am suspicious about the claim that 'the pilot was not qualified to land above 12,000'. I suspect that the helicopter did not have the performance to conduct a safe landing and takeoff rather than it being an issue of pilot qualifications. Unless insurance rules dictate it, there are no such pilot qualifications in the US that restrict landings to certain altitudes. Keep in mind there are not many helicopters that have sufficient performance to conduct a rescue above 12,000 ft at mission weights. Several years ago I heard the US Navy landed at UH-1N on the summit of Whitney but it had minimal weight on board and practically no gas.
If you need to be rescued by helicopter, get to as low an altitude as you can. There have been numerous helicopter accidents during mountain rescues due to performance limitations, including at least 2 on Rainier and one on Mt Hood (UH-60 last year).
Posted by kevin, 06-09-04Thelonious,
I know when you call 911 from a cell phone anywhere in California it goes to a CHP dispatcher. That dispatcher is NOT used to taking calls from stranded hikers and has no idea what you are talking about when you start asking for way points. You very likely could have been speaking to a dispatcher in Los Angeles or Sacramento. I would not put too much reliance in cell phones and GPS devices. Nothing works better than common sense and as you did leave an itinerary on your car and with someone at home. I have turned around twice on Whitney while solo hiking and skiing. There is no shame in turning around.
Posted by ClamberAbout , 06-09-04Okay, everyone, especially all you seasoned, experienced hikers/climbers: To learn from this experience, what could (should?) this gentleman have done differently (other than simply not be there) to improve the situation or even prevent it??
Yeah, he violated cardinal rule #1 - never hike alone. But it doesn't seem like the lack of a second person was a factor in this case.
"...I selected a minimum amount of gear to hike the 1.9 miles to the summit and back as light and quickly as possible. I carried a map, compass, cell phone, GPS, Power Bars, water bottle, and camera. I was well dressed for the conditions. The trail was well marked by the three previous hikers and the trip to the summit took three hours, as anticipated and I arrived before noon. The weather was still clear but wispy clouds were blowing by and it was growing dark in the West."
All of the above sounds perfectly appropriate.
A fast moving weather change could happen to anyone. So, should he have brought a headlamp? Spare batteries? A stove? Should he have worn plastic boots? Spare socks? Or, perhaps, if one is traveling alone on a winter climb, would you say you should just make a rule to always take your full pack with you - just in case? Or maybe at least, a sleeping bag and a tarp?
In this situation (trapped by weather), what additional things can you do to protect yourself and prevent frostbite / cold injuries?
Not criticizing - sincerely wondering about this. Like I said, any one of us could see an approaching front, start heading down, and suddenly find ourselves in the same situation. I'm curious what suggestions you all will offer.
Posted by Walter Runkle, 06-09-04I'm sorry Theloneus, I'm not going to be politically correct and I'm not going to sugar coat it for you. When it comes to mountaineering, you my friend are in over your head! You can't get back to Trailcrest without a cell phone and a GPS??? If you need a cell phone and a GPS to find your way around, please stay out of the mountains. You are an accident waiting to happen. As Clint Eastwood said, "A man has got to know his limitations." Learn yours! What made you think you could do a solo winter trip?
A map and a compass are part of the 10 essentials, but if we have degenerated to the point where we need satellites and microwave towers to find our way around in the wilderness, then we need to stay home on the couch.
BTW, I have been climbing in the Sierras for about 10 years and have done many winter trips to Mt. Whitney including solo day hikes, but I wouldn't dream of doing a solo winter trip to a peak like say, Rainier or Denali. I would just be asking for trouble. You deserve the Darwin award.
Posted by AlanK, 06-09-04Walter -- If you read the post by Theloneus, one of the main points he makes is that he learned a major lesson -- no, make that several major lessons -- about his limitations. I admire him for posting his story in such detail because it will help other people avoid similar problems. One of them might be me. In many cases, avoiding problems will mean following your advice by staying the F out of the mountains under some conditions.
A minor note -- survivors are ineligible for the Darwin Award.
Posted by MAV, 06-09-04I agree with Clamberabout. Learn from this experience. Think about the "what ifs?" before ever leaving home for the high country. I always prep for my hikes (knowledge of terrain and weather) and carry equipment/clothing for the worst possible conditions for that time of the year. My down bag and Gortex bivy are always in my day pack....
Posted by kevin, 06-09-04I kind of have to agree with Walter. But if you are looking for things he could have done differant besides not going at all I would say LOOK at your watch. At what point did you decide the weather was getting bad and it was getting late. Thelonious has way to much reliance on technology. Evry other sentence was "my GPS this and my cell phone that". A flash light or headlamp is a no brainer. I just cannot imagine how this happened to him? Unless he was staring at his GPS the entire way and failed to see the terrain around him that would give him indications where he was, even in a snow storm. Bottom line I think Thelonious thought technology could make up for lack of experience.
Posted by cjain, 06-09-04First, I'm glad that Theloneous made it though this OK (for the most part) and I think it took a lot of courage to post this so that others can learn from it.
Obviously there are a lot of things Theloneous could have done differently but I found this statement telling:
"Until this experience I would not have believed that anything could stop me from hiking 1.9 miles and back on a familiar and well-marked trail in one day."
The problem is that the trail disappeared under the snow. In my opinion the key mistake was relying on an existing trail and apparently (as best I can tell) lacking the skills and experience to navigate cross-country through storm conditions. Although he had the proper navigation equipment (map, compass, GPS), this wasn't enough without the ability to use it.
To me the "take home" lesson should not be about what extra gear to bring but about what skills and abilities to learn. My impression from the trip report is that Theloneous was actually relatively well-equipped (though he should have had a headlamp if he didn't bring one.) For the length of time he ended up being out, a stove would have been useful in order to melt water--staying hydrated may have been more useful in avoiding frostbite then extra clothes.
Posted by cjain, 06-09-04One other thing:
I don't know if Theloneous did this or not but on impromptu bivys it really helps keep your feet warmer if you loosen your boots and jam your feet and legs into your pack as far as they will go. Those disposable mylar emergency bags really help too.
Posted by gilmayandia, 06-09-04Theloneus,
Thank you very much for sharing your adventure. If you would of had a GPS receiver with "tracback" feature, you could of navigated back to basecamp in low-visibility condition or even at night.
For the backpackers, like my brothers for instance, who don't like to take along their 'heavy' sleeping bags when dayhiking from basecamp, I recommend taking the Extreme ProTech Bag. It's basically a sleeping bag made of multiple layers of Space Blankets. It's super light, weighing only 12 oz, and "provides almost the same degree of warmth as a large and heavy 3-season sleeping bag". It's only $8.50 at http://store.botachtactical.com/mpiexproteem.html
Posted by Adrian, 06-10-04From description, it sounds like you were hypothermic enough after your abortive attempt to leave the summit the first afternoon, so that you were befuddled the rest of the time. What comes through is: you sort of cast around rather aimlessly up there until lucky enough to be rescued before you froze to death. It's easy enough to get that way, especially with some hypoxia thrown in.
You are lucky to be alive and have undoubtedly learned a lot.
Most important of all is: don't try this sort of thing alone!! Remember the young man a year or so back who had to amputate his own arm? he was hiking in good weather, but would have been fine if he'd had a companion when his arm got pinned by the rock. You just never know and you wanted to do this thing so badly that you went alone, even though you knew it wasn't really a good idea.
Best of luck to you and I hope you'll return to the mountains despite the fingers and toes.
Posted by Ken, 06-10-04Several posters have brought up the theme about not going out alone. I'm not sure that I agree, particularly when the specific event under discussion fairly clearly has nothing to do with that assertion. There is always a mix of danger/safety when we venture forth, and there is no doubt that the ratio shifts somewhat, sometimes, when we go alone.
There is a calculation of risk, sometimes a good calculation, and sometimes not.
I'm sure that someone could assert, with many thousands of examples, why it is better to have a companion, if driving and getting into an accident.
Who is going to stop driving alone for safety reasons?
Are we more likely to have an auto accident, or a mountaineering accident?
I could as easily make a silly assertion that backcountry travel with companions put one at risk, then every accident that happens involving more than one person, I can use to back up my claim.
Like the guys who had the accidents on Rainier "SEE! Traveling in groups is dangerous! You don't see any of the solo travelers on Rainier getting killed!"
So, I'd be careful of that kind of logic.
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.
Posted by Marc, 06-10-04Ken, I appreciate you focusing on this aspect because I've been thinking about it as well with regard to this incident. I do think being alone/not alone bears on the outcome of Theloneus' experience. Would he and a hiking partner have made different decisions? Would they have read the weather differently, given the chance to "put their heads together"? Would one have been able to render physical assistance if the other was struggling?
I go back and forth on this, and have broken the "cardinal rule" myself many times. I prefer hiking with someone when I can, but often go alone if plans are set and a buddy isn't available. I personally wouldn't do it in winter conditions because my own experience is lacking in this area. But I presume Theloneus did have more than a little winter experience, and I may have chosen the same course. (I remain impressed with his calmness through this ordeal). On the other hand, even in the summer I have benefitted from a partner turning me around in questionable conditions as we weighed the options together. I also thought of the comparison of driving a car, but that doesn't completely clear it up for me because you'd also have tweak the hypothetical conditions to be similar, i.e. driving alone in stormy weather across a long and isolated stretch, bad road, etc... I continue to read the thoughts posted here with interest, for my own future hiking decisions. Thanks
Posted by rosabella, 06-10-04I've hiked solo and I've hiked with partners - I know from my experience that when I'm alone I'm much more aware of my surroundings, looking and listening for possible dangers, and the weather. I think that's why I like to hike solo - I'm totally in the present.
Reading Theloneus's report won't discourage me from hiking alone, but does reinforce my own guidelines of not going solo in an area I'm not familiar with or in seasonal conditions I know I'm not experienced in (winter mountaineering).
"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." Albert Pike
Posted by whitneyaddict, 06-10-04Thanks for posting, that took a lot of guts. I hope you recover quickly.
For those of you that are interested check out the INYO SAR website...
INYO SAR's phone # is on the website. I would suggest having that number in your cell phone if you are going to go to the trouble of carrying it with you.
Here is a link to Randy Nixon's write up of the mission...
On April 1, 2004 at 1800 hours 63 year old Ted Wootton telephoned the Inyo County Sheriff's Office from the summit of Mount Whitney. Wootton reported that he was in the stone cabin on the summit, and the weather had turned to white- out conditions. He had left his base camp at Trail Crest, and was now sepetated from his gear and provisions. He had a GPS with him and requested waypoints that would help him locate his base camp once the weather improved. Wootton had almost no battery left for his cell phone and contact with him was lost after that point.
Weather conditions did not improve for the next two days. Wootton left the cabin on saturday, in poor visibility, attempting to find his camp. He was unsuccessful and ended up spending Saturday night on the Sierra Crest, sleeping in a snow trench that he dug, in order to shelter himself from the wind. On Sunday, April 4 at 0700 am Wootton's wife reported that he had not returned from his trip yet.
The weather was clearing and the C.H.P. air unit in Fresno was requested to assist in the search.
A fixed wing airplane and helicopter began a search of the summit. They were joined by a second C.H.P. helicopter from San Luis Obispo. Wootton was located on the summit at 13,500 feet, too high for the helicopters to safely land. They directed Wootton over the loud speaker to hike to a lower elevation. Wooton traveled down the deep snow of the west slope towards Hitchcock Lakes, where the C.H.P. helicopter was able to land and pick him up. Ted Wootton was flown to Southern Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine where he was admitted and treated for exposure.
Posted by Adrian, 06-10-04I was sure someone would take me to task for my point of view on solo hiking/climbing, but the point can often be that people do get into trouble sometimes when through group effort they might do better. This of course doesn't apply if the group consists of people of inconsistent ability and strength. Nevertheless, sometimes you need someone else along to steady that ladder for you!!
I don't want to start a war with anyone over this issue, but I have some background in winter trips with severe weather conditions where having someone to watch your back can be a life saver, in situations where a lost glove, broken zipper, or sprained ankle could be the end for you without someone to help. Helping with morale is another aspect of having a well matched companion. Again, if you're fit and you pick your couch potato friend as your companion, that won't help either.
I'm getting a bit old now and don't do this stuff as much as I did years ago, but I recall a couple times when I helped companions in various ways, not the least of which was to call a halt in sketchy weather when my more gung ho companions wanted to press on. When clouds drop down and wind stirs up loose snow, things can go down hill faster than people who are used to living in the lowlands can anticipate.
a final note on group endeavor. There's a fine short story written by Wallace Stegner called "Genesis" about cowboys on the Canadian High Plains caught in the open by an Autumn blizzard. The protagonist comes to realize that what the crew leader was urging them on in flight from was actually right in amongst them all the while.
Posted by Ken, 06-10-04As for contacting the SAR team, I do not think that the procedure is to try to contact them directly, but through the county Sheriff. I don't think the SAR teams can officially just start rescues, without the Sheriff's office initiating the process. I don't think the SAR phone lines are set up to record, nor manned 24/7. You might get a recording of who to call for that day, or activate a beeper, or something.
perhaps others with more knowledge of the process can say. Inyo SAR webpage does not actually say.
Posted by Alpine Swine, 06-11-04While ffejola certainly did not help his or her case by the abundant profanity, I like the energy and willingness to respect Thelonius for his initial decisions regarding this ill fated trip. The book, after all, is call FREEDOM of the Hills.
Thelonius, I read your open post quite a while ago and didn't feel the need to respond as it seemed that you were coming to the right conclusions on your own. We've all make mistakes on trips and the consequences are usually only minor and inconvenient.
Being rescued though, is somewhat akin to an intervention for substance abuse or otherwise poor decision making. In the mountains especially a rescue/intervention can put other people's lives at risk, which impacts MANY people through just the use of resources. And don't forget that rescuers have families too who love and don't deserve to lose them.
If I had to debrief your trip I would first praise you for doing lots of things right...After all you are still here with us! Beyond that I would suggest leaving the GPS behind and focusing on compass and natural navigation until they are second nature. ALWAYS LOOK FOR LANDMARKS ON THE WAY IN...THESE ARE THE ONLY 'WAYPOINTS' YOU NEED!
Also, and this is something I am working on myself: SNOW SKILLS. There is alot more to winter travel than crampons and snowshoes. Especially when traversing (like the entire upper Main Trail on Whitney) it is good to have an understanding of slope anchors and avalanche triggers. Since you were solo, forget about being dug out and leave the transceiver at home...Another risk to accept.
We could come up with more stuff, good and bad and over a beer but now that you are on the mend it is probably better to start concentrating on the things you will be doing RIGHT on your next trip to the mountains. I'd be happy to go with you when you are ready and if you are interested in a partner.
Take care and thanks again for allowing us to learn from your experience.
Posted by cjain, 06-11-04In real life Theloneus is a very experienced SAR volunteer. You may not agree with the post and you may find it rude and aggravating but in my opinion many, many SAR people would be pretty much in agreement with the sentiment of his post even if most would be too polite to say so.
Posted by Memory Lapse, 06-11-04May I first say to Theloneous, glad you made it back and are recovering. Thank you for the courage to tell your story.
Second to Adrian, you accurately captured the essence of solo hiking and the rewards it offers to those willing to invest in that unique experience.
I have solo hiked about 6 times over the past 15 years and have had both good and bad experiences. I once thought I would freeze to death on a snowshoe excursion into Bridalveil Campground in February but was rewarded with magnificent views and memories of the west face of the Tetons along the Teton Crest Trail one August. On all my solo efforts I thought in the beginning I was well prepared and willing to face any challenges thrown my way. I started a Southbound effort of the JMT in 2003 only to stop 3 days in after experiencing some of the worst three days of Sierra storms. I have a good feel for my limitations.
I am sure hubris was part of what motivated me each time to engage in these adventures as well as every time I wander away from pavement. What strikes me reading this string of messages and Theloneous' original posting is the lack of recognition by most of the respondents of their own motivations. Hubris drives all of who venture past the safety of our fabricated world.
I read with interest the SAR report and was shocked and impressed to see that Theloneous is 63 years old. I am assuming this was not the first time he had strapped on a pair of boots or downed an energy bar. I feel certain he has evaluated his own limitations prior to this most recent trip.
I am also reminded that in every great tragedy there are stories of people who risked more rescuing someone than the person injured. Every time we strike out on a new adventure, we call upon a wealth of personal traits and human emotions to motivate us. If you have not examined your own strengths and weaknesses, you have been irresponsible to those you may call upon in your time of need.
Belittle Theloneous if you will but think about this, " Egotism is the one thing nobody will forgive in others, and which everybody forgives in himself."
Posted by Richard P, 06-13-04Ted,
Please don't take this the wrong way, but I have a couple of questions (I'm kinda curious) for you, and a general comment to the board readers:
Is Inyo planning on billing you for the rescue?
Are you planning on suing over the delay caused by the jurisdictional issue?
Although some people would disagree, I don't understand why people use the Main Trail to attempt the summit under "winter" conditions. The Mountaineer's Route is much shorter, with only slightly more "technical" difficulty. If you don't have the skills necessary, or haven't been up there previously, don't go solo! (I've been up there plenty of times by myself, but on multi-day trips, if I don't hook up with someone, or at least let them know that I am there, I bail.)
There are plenty of us who like to have company (I doubt that there are many of us who prefer to climb solo - it's just a convenience thing.), and are willing to give a few pointers, so it isn't that difficult to find a climbing partner.
(I know, it's more a lecture than a comment, so go ahead and flame me!)
Posted by Mr_Man, 06-14-04alone or with friends during winter
thou shall not get separated from sleeping bag!
thou shall not get separated from shelter!
thou shall not get separated from stove!
Posted by Theloneus, 06-14-04I can see that the "lessons learned" from my incident were not very clear to some of the readers of my written account, so let me be more specific:
1) This was NOT a case of too much reliance on technology, if anything it was just the opposite; maybe I should have been more up-to-date and aware of later technology. I carry an ancient Magellan Blazer 12 as a BACKUP device. I did not even turn it on until my problems started, same with my cell phone.
2) Those of you who are so proud of your "cross country" navigation have learned nothing from this account! My point was that there are weather conditions that can come on quickly and can result in conditions so difficult that even Nathanial Bowditch would not be able to navigate them. So... even if it's a mere 2 mile side trip, be prepared to "hunker down" and wait out a storm, one which may last for several days.
3) My minimum survival gear is and always has been (except when overconfidence overcame good sense in this incident): space blanket/poncho, candle lantern and matches/lighter, headlamp/flashlight.
Posted by Theloneus, 06-14-04Theloneus responds to
"Is Inyo planning on billing you for the rescue?"
They have not indicated that they will. In any case, the evacuation was by a Highway Patrol unit from Paso Robles. I presume they do not charge for that any more than they do when they respond to a highway incident. If you find that subject interesting, a couple of years ago a friend of mine did a study for the NPS to help decide if they should charge fore rescues from Denali. They concluded that they should not. I don't have the study but go to crevasse.com and Mike will help you to find it.
"Are you planning on suing over the delay caused by the jurisdictional issue?"
No, those delays were annoying but not critical to my survival. Perhaps if the delay had extended for another night my estate would have considered it.
"I don't understand why people use the Main Trail to attempt the summit under "winter" conditions. The Mountaineer's Route is much shorter, with only slightly more "technical" difficulty. If you don't have the skills necessary, or haven't been up there previously, don't go solo!"
1) I went up the chute. The difficulty was not in getting to the summit in winter conditions, I did that with no problem. The problem was being stranded in whiteout conditions. Surely you aren't suggesting that under those conditions it would have been easier to descend the Mountaineer's route than the traverse trail to the Crest?
2) I've been there twice before, and passed by once in a High Sierra Trail trip; I'm not convinced that going solo, in this case, had anything to do with the outcome -- see previous posts for more on that subject.
RP -- For further correspondence on this feel free to contact me by e-mail
Posted by kevin, 06-14-04Thelonious,
You said that if you had spent another night out and I am assuming you meant died, your estate may have considered a law suit? That just blows my mind! Why is someone else responsible for your well being and safety, especially in the winter and going solo. So do the many who are left dead on the flanks of mountains around the world have the right to sue if there adventure did not turn out the way they planned? What is adventure? Some of the best trips in my life are what I would call epic. Being caught unexpectedly overnight on a river while kayaking and spending the night freezing and hungry or an unplanned bivy on the east face of Whitney with no water and puking my guts out. These are just a few of the stupid situations I have gotten myself into but have learned the most from. Don't blame anyone else for delayed rescue but yourself, you are the one who decided to put yourself in that situation in the first place.
Posted by Richard P, 06-14-04In response to:
"Surely you aren't suggesting that under those conditions it would have been easier to descend the Mountaineer's route than the traverse trail to the Crest?"
Yes, I am! But with the understanding that the person(s) are familiar with the route. If you can find the "outhouse" on the summit, you can find the route down.
I've been in "whiteout" conditions on Whitney, both on the Main Trail and the Mountaineer's Route. Neither time was solo. (I guess I'm lucky!) And, the descent from Trail Camp (that's right, we encountered the nasty conditions much lower than Ted) was much more difficult (again, this is my opinion) than the descent down the MR couloir. We ended up off-trail above Trailside Meadow and had to do some third class descending to get to the meadow (not fun when the rock is wet).
(And, yes, I carry a compass and GPS on most of my trips. I've got waypoints for most of the "critical" sections of both routes now. What I don't know is whether heavy cloud cover blocks GPS signals. Anyone?)
P.S. Ted, please don't take any of this as a personal attack. I'm just stimulating conversation.
Posted by mrcs, 06-21-04I'm not such an extreme climber (like some other Board members sound to be) and my experience related to snow climbing is mostly limited to Washington, Oregon, and California. So the highest mountain I've ever been on is Mt. Whitney, which I climb every winter (for the past 4-5 years) to keep my snow experience current. I am afraid of winter climbing due to avalanches but found this area reasonable safe. This year I did two unsuccessful (did not summit) attempts. There were many discussions at this Board about difficulties this winter brought as well as successful and unsuccessful attempts through both the Main and MR routs. By reading the posts I had an impression that there was an ongoing competition among winter climbers, something that might suck someone in to the dangerous game.
I was among those Ted asked for a companion to climb Mt. Whitney. Unfortunately, I had another arrangement for climbing Casaval Ridge on Mt. Shasta, not to mention having a memory of the previous trips and, especially, driving 500 miles each way. So having no partners he decided to go solo. And there is nothing wrong, scary, or even risky of solo climbing. I've been doing this for years and years. Of course, no one is invincible, and, as it has been mention many times, one should be experienced and know his/her limits. Unfortunately, the only way to gain the experience and learn about the limits is by, in this case, climbing, and climbing solo. But even climbing is useless if conditions are perfect. Of course, you may polish your technical skill and/or practice navigation and reading the weather, but once again, what can you learn if everything goes right?
On my last winter trip I had an occurrence I 've never had before through my whole climbing experience (you may read my previous posts). Does it mean I was inexperienced or should have not done the climb at all? I don't think so. That's the way we learn and progress, by trying unknowns. Sometimes the lessons may be too costly but even then beneficial to others. I do not believe that any of us going to mountains is sure he/she would have an accident. We should/must consider such a probability and therefore prepare accordingly, for example, by taking a First Aid, GPS or Cell.
Weather plays an important factor in climbing conditions. We often hear about bad weather, storms, and whiteouts. However, the meaning of bad weather is relative to a personal experience. "I survived a big storm... I was in whiteout..." We like to dramatize our experiences. We have tendency to be "better" than others. However, as it sounds "whiteout" is something that you may most closely compare to be a blind person with the only difference seeing white instead of black color. No gray, no footprints, no rocks, no ridges, no any indication of the terrain. Just white. Period. You may, sometimes, be still able to see your boots.
Snow level and consistency play additional critical climbing factor. It is easy to hike or climb on firmed snow with crampons or in relatively soft and deep snow with snowshoes. However, it is almost impossible to walk in deep fresh and dry snow. It takes forever to overcome every meter of distance. Raising one leg up and moving it a bit, making another step, or even trying to crawl over the surface burns out quickly all the energy you have. Add to it a wind and whiteout factors and you are in a senseless situation.
Current mental and physical conditions may influence you climbing significantly. Once you are tired and scared of the weather and snow conditions, not to mention dehydrated and lack of water, the likelihood of misjudging the terrain and making a wrong decision increases. Even if you are able to see some contours, it's difficult to recognize them and even worse to be confident of the climbing direction, especially if you know there may be steep slopes or cliffs.
Is it possible to predict everything bad (including the weather) that may happen over the trip? From my experience, no. Even if you "expect the worse" you still may encounter something that you would have never imagine. Ted did not go there to have an accident, not even close to it. He wanted to do what many of us do, have a good workout, challenge, and adventure. Was he prepared? Sure he was; he set his camp so high; for the summit day he took more than he needed. Most people, you do not hear bad stories about, are real ignorants especially day hikers/climbers, counting on luck rather then skill and proper equipment. Of course, they were lucky and therefore able to summit and get down successfully; I don't mean only Mt. Whitney but also glaciered peak such as Shasta or Rainier. Ted was unfortunate to encounter conditions he was not able to predict, something that stroke him without much worming and time. (Even the best world mountaineers die.) He was, however, able to manage saving his life in an extreme weather conditions. Of course, his wife Maria and Sgt. Randy Nixon, SAR coordinator for the Inyo County Sheriff's Department, were the two main characters that lead the rescue to succeed. In spite of all bad weather obstacles as well as running out of strength, Ted, however, managed to stay and be rescued alive.
To learn something from this story is not to criticize Ted but to look the overall picture. First of all, see how the system works and fix it, regardless if Ted did or did not make any mistake(s) putting himself in that situation. Similar outcome may happen to anyone at any time and not just because of the weather. Someone, for instance, may get seriously sick and "the first helicopter to respond to [the] location could not complete the evacuation BECAUSE [IT] WAS ON THE SEQUOIA SIDE OF THE LINE!" Would you like to see a helicopter flying away while, for example, on the summit surrounded by hundreds of other helpless hikers watching you slowly dying? On the other hand, anyone attempting mountain climbing must be aware of its inherited risk. Accidents happen everywhere; no one intend them. Most people who die in mountains are not solo but group climbers. Check two fatal accident reports on Mt. Rainier and one on Mt. Shasta just in this year. Do not think that you are safe or safer while climbing with others. Never count on luck and "always expect the worse to be never disappointed." Mountaineering is a challenging and rewording activity. Fortunately, just in case if something bad happens, some of us may be rescued by courageous SAR people, but never count on it.
We should be thankful Ted has shared his story we may conclude something from. It's not easy to write unsuccessful stories about ourselves, so this board proves. After reading and analyzing this story you may stop hiking/climbing solo, you may stop hiking/climbing at all, you may never do summit day again (without full backpack), you may consider taking technological tools with you, you may think he made a mistake or several of them, you may stay indifferent, but don't think it would never happen to you because you are too good, experienced and skilled, climber. Such an approach may lead to your disaster. And remember, he is still alive; that's a success.
Posted by rosabella, 06-21-04Well said, mrcs!
Posted by Alpine Swine, 06-21-04mrcs:
Thanks for perhaps the best post on this thread. You may not consider yourself an 'extreme' climber but you certainly come across as competent and self-reliant enough to undertake winter mountaineering. I especially like the fact that you had the good sense to back off on your two attempts this year instead of getting in 'over your head'.
A couple of the references in your post were interesting in light of recent events. The Casaval route fatality this year was due to a slip and subsequent failure to self belay and/or arrest. Also, the fatality count just for Liberty Ridge on Rainier is at least 3 and probably 4 (they found two packs with the first body). Two other climbers were pulled off the Ridge because they were in 'over their head'.
After reading Ted's responses to the posts here I think it would have been better if you had driven the 500 miles and went with him. It is pretty obvious that he wasn't ready to undertake this sort of trip on his own. Comparing a mountain SAR response to the CHP 'rescuing' someone who didn't monitor their gas gauge is pretty telling. Perhaps if he did receive a bill for the actual costs generated by his 'hubris'...Helicopter flight hours are not cheap and this still wouldn't account for putting others lives at risk in the process.
For the life of me I can't understand getting separated from your stove and fuel in those conditions. If he had the ability to melt snow for water he could have waited the weather out in the hut. And while I'll admit to the same difficulties we all have at times with 'cross country route finding' I can't agree that the Main Trail on Whitney falls into this category.
How about the Needles and Mount Muir as 'waypoints'? And forget about North/South East/West trails...You are on a long traverse. Was uphill on your left or right as you proceeded to the summit? Use neighboring peaks as a reference point for elevation. This is all basic stuff when it comes to mountaineering, if not hiking and backpacking.
Bottom line though about winter trips: Snow covers trails and tracks and produces low to no visibility conditions at times. Winter conditions also make basic survival much more difficult. If you aren't fully prepared to deal with them, winter conditions are much more likely to get you injured, dead or in a position where other people's lives are put at risk to save your ass.
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