Life is a risk. Everyday, we head out of our homes into the world where risk awaits. Some of us choose to encounter these risks during daily activities, like our drive to work. Others of us choose to meet these risks in the wilderness backcountry. This past weekend, I chose the later and realized what those risks can entail.
Mount Rainier has a special place in my heart. It was my first “big” mountain and the impetus behind the direction my life has taken. I have more stories that begin with “So this one time, on Mount Rainier….” than I can remember. I was aiming to create another such story on Saturday when our climbing party set off from the White River Trailhead to head up the Emmons Glacier route to the summit. My sister, Carolyn Kresser, my climbing partner, Jeremy Jackson, and his
girlfriend, Erika Kelly, rounded out our crew. It was Carolyn’s and Erika’s first time up Rainier, so Jeremy and I were excited to experience their Rainier virgin summit vicariously.
The weather looked great for our trip with clear skies and warming temperatures. The approach and Inter Glacier climbing was a good warm up for the next day’s adventures (even cached some celebratory beers for the way down in the “mountain fridge” i.e. glacial stream). We rolled into Camp Schurman mid afternoon to an astounding view of the mountain. The first warning sign of trouble was viewing the tiny specks of climbers as they descended, still very high on the mountain and late in the day.
We started off the next morning for our climb at 1am and soon ran into another climbing team coming down. Turns out they were searching for a team who hadn’t returned the previous night. More alert, we continued our climb on the lookout. At 11,400′, we began traversing a super sketchy area with a crevasse parallel to our direction of travel. As I was considering this, Erika heard shouts from nearby. Down in the crevasse, I could see a headlamp shining up at us. It was the missing climbing team, thankfully conscious enough to signal to us. It was 3:30 am, eight hours since they had fallen into the crevasse.
After evaluating the situation, I lowered myself to their position to assess their conditions more accurately. As crevasses go, this one was a mumble jumble of ledges, overhangs, and depths that would have made a simple rescue difficult. All the victims had signs of hypothermia, as well as severe head injuries, a dislocated arm, and respiratory difficulties. Thankfully, the one victim was only moderately bruised up and was able to communicate with us throughout the rescue. But there would be no way the victims could walk off the mountain themselves. After giving them water, extra coats, and hand warmers, I returned up top.
Despite the situation, one of the wonderful parts of the day is the cell phone reception. Erika was able to call 911 to report the incident and request an air evacuation. The next five hours were spent standing on a cliff edge, trying to stay warm ourselves, reporting to the dispatcher every hour, and waiting for the climbing ranger SAR team to get assembled and flown in. Our main priority was communicating to the victims on the rescue team’s progress and keeping their morale up. I was very proud of our team and how well they stayed cool, maintained effective communication with all parties, and stayed positive throughout the experience. Even more kudos to the victim’s leader, who kept both his friends alive throughout a long cold night, and maintained a calm demeanor through all the delays. He is to be credited with saving two lives that night.
Another private climbing team with two doctors made their way up from Schurman late morning. They further assisted with the victims as hypothermia was definitely setting in and time was running short to extract them. The National Park ranger team showed up around 11am, and I was glad to hand over control of the situation to them. I was very impressed to watch the rangers work very efficiently and speedily. The other private team and ourselves decided to descend since it was too crowded in the area. While it was sad to not see Carolyn and Erika make the summit and ruin my perfect streak with Rainier summits, saving three lives held much more of a satisfaction. On our way down, we saw the helicopter hover over the crevasse, hook each of the victims up to a 150′ cable dangling underneath the bird, and fly away to Sunrise, one by one. As we heard today from the head climbing ranger, all three patients were stabilized and are going to pull through just fine.
The rest of our climb down was uneventful (and our beer was still in the river!) and filled with a lot of contemplation of what just occurred. I have been mountaineering for five years now, and never came across a situation like that. This was Erika’s second mountain ever. Every year, about 10,000 climbers attempt the summit of Rainier, and only half of them make it. Every year, there about one to three deaths on the mountain as well. Climbing mountains, you never expect something like that will happen to you until it does. I am thankful for all my training on rescue and I am now motivated to further my wilderness medical training.
Risk is a factor of daily life. It is increased by certain decisions we make. While mountaineering can be a risky business, it can greatly lessened by making smart choices. Having this first hand experience was a very valuable lesson to demonstrate what impacts decisions can have. I will continue mountaineering, but take these lessons with me. As with all things in life, we must not let fear and risk control us, but instead use them as a valuable tool to shape our choices.