Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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Guiding Newsletter

Accident Analysis Archive - September 2001


Botched SAR Management - Three Sisters, OR
Fall on Ice - Mt Baker, WA

In June there was hiker/climber lost in the Sisters Wilderness in Oregon while reportedly attempting the traverse of all three peaks from south to north. The day he was reported missing I was skiing the Hayden Glacier and climbing Middle Sister with a few friends. At the saddle north of Middle Sister a lone climber walked by without stopping to say anything. It was later established that this was the missing climber.

We were up there on a Sunday, and two days later I heard of the missing climber from a friend on Search and Rescue. I mentioned that we had seen a lone person, and eventually this was passed on to the Deschutes County sheriffs office. I ended up with a phone number to call over there but messages were never answered. Eventually I did describe our encounter to somebody.

This potential last-sighting information, two days later, was entirely ignored by Deschutes County. On Friday I went to South Sister to potentially ski and on the radio I heard they were searching the woods out to the west of South Sister. A very unlikely place. By Friday evening Lane County had gotten more involved, and eventually through members of the SAR teams they learned of my possible sighting. By the time they got a photo to me via e-mail and a friend and I could confirm it a week had passed. At this point there was only a day or so to search the North Sister area before weather moved in.

One result of this is that a volunteer SAR member in Corvallis realized the potential of distributing requests for information to various clubs in the region. (While we were on the mountain there was also a group from the Ptarmigans there. They were larger and set up fixed rope so I felt they may have spoken with the missing guy, and I told both Deschutes and Lane counties that.) Last week a guy wandered off on Mt Hood, never to be seen again. Early on during the search effort an e-mail went out to clubs such as the Mazamas and the Oregon Mountaineering Association to be forwarded to members in case somebody had seen the guy. It's not clear how well or how quickly the different clubs can get this to their members or leaders but it has the potential to help SAR groups get more information early in the search.

Another issue in this search, as somewhat of an aside, was the Forest Service parking pass. Despite the high-profile search going on and being staged from certain trailheads there were tickets issued for not having a pass. Some recipients included SAR volunteers, and even (in an act of incredible insensitivity) people close to the missing climber who were helping search or awaiting any information. Given the circumstances one would think that they could have let up a bit on enforcement of this "demonstration" program for a few days.

(As another aside, this is just one of numerous incidents on both Jefferson and North Sister this year.)

More recently there was news of a fatal accident on Mt Baker in Washington State. A team of three or four (four, I believe) fell on ice and went down the steep ice into a large crevasse. It seems that they must have had either no anchors or inadequate anchors, resulting in a fall by one person pulling the whole team down. Anchors on some ice slopes can be problematic this time of year. A few years ago on the north face of Mt Shuksan in September we were glad for the few sections of hard ice, as far as anchors went. We could use ice screws with some confidence on these sections. Most of the route was between firm snow and ice, too hard for snow anchors like pickets but too soft to count much on screws. Such conditions result in higher inherent risks, and the decisions on roping up and on anchor use can be difficult. I do not know what the exact conditions were on Mt Baker during this incident, but if no anchors were used at all (or if marginal anchors were used) it may have been better to split into two teams of two or even to climb unroped. Or if that was pushing it, to retreat. These are just some thoughts on the options and the challenges we sometimes face in choosing one, not an analysis of the accident.



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