An Epic Scramble on Granite Mountain

What happens when a group changes plans, splits up, and someone takes a spill.
Peter Clitherow Peter Clitherow
April 14, 2015

As sometimes happens on trips, successive events combine to leave participants mentally exhausted, and small mistakes can become serious. Though all the scramblers on this trip were relieved to get down unscathed with tales for their families, sometimes group members in these kinds of situations might want to think about turning the party around before circumstances become dire.

The leader and all party members are to be commended for their problem solving in trying situations!

[From the leader's notes]

Where to begin? So many things happened: it was quite a day. This was my first trip as a scramble leader. We made several mistakes, the first occurring at the meeting place where a scrambler discovered that she forgot to pack her ice ax. She decided to accompany us until ice axes would be needed, at which point she planned to turn around. As it turned out, she stayed with us the whole day.

We decided to approach West Granite from the Talapus Lake TH, shortening the trip by about 500 vertical feet. Snow blocked the road at about 2500 ft (elevation) where we met the 7th switchback, about a quarter mile before the TH. The trip started at 8:40am.

We reached Talapus Lake without incident, and surmounted a very challenging creek crossing a bit below the outlet of the lake. From then on, we were breaking trail. The snow was deep, new, very soft, and very heavy and wet, as it rained lightly the entire day. Snowshoes were essential.

We had a slight navigation mishap, which we detected fairly quickly and corrected, but it probably added an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the trek to Ollalie Lake, and it put us on the west side of the lake instead of the east side. We traversed half way around the lake and started climbing to the saddle NE of the lake. We had hoped to find a good place to practice ice ax self-arrest skills, but the snow was too deep and soft. One particular scrambler demonstrated extraordinary stamina, breaking trail most of the way.

When we reached the saddle at 4500ft, we could see  lots of sloughing in the bowl and huge cornices along the ridge. After an extended discussion, we decided that since some members of the party were uncomfortable about continuing up, we would instead change course and head for Pratt Mountain. We descended to the saddle at 4200ft and started climbing Pratt.

We climbed 100ft and then one of the members of the party indicated that she was too tired to continue on. The time was 2:10pm and we had been climbing for 5 and a half hours. The scrambler was content to wait for us while we headed to the summit. She was given a bivy bag, an extra heavy coat, and a foam pad to augment her own gear. We estimated that we could make the summit in another hour and would return to her in less than two.

We made the summit in 50 minutes (3pm) without incident, but we did note that the one short steep section (around 4600ft?) would be treacherous to descend.

Descending the ridge, at about 4800ft, another scrambler took a fall off the south side of the ridge, which started a large slough. He could not self-arrest, as the snow was moving with him. We watched (in horror) as he descended more than one hundred feet, then disappeared from view. At that point, the valley floor was 1400ft below us. When he finally stopped, he was able to yell to us that he was OK and that he would attempt to climb back to us. We later learned that in the fall he lost his ice ax and pole, but was able to stop by grabbing a passing tree. He estimates that he fell 300 vertical feet.

Meanwhile, the five of us left on the ridge had an extensive brain storming session to come up with a plan. We were concerned with wondering whether the fallen scrambler would be able to climb back up, and with getting word to the scrambler who had stopped earlier. Knowing that we still had a treacherous section of ridge to descend, we eventually reached a consensus that the five of us should stay together and focus on aiding the fallen scrambler, reasoning that the other waiting scrambler would wait patiently. We were able to reach the waiting scrambler's husband by cell phone and informed him of the situation, but were unable to reach her cell.

It took the fallen scrambler nearly half an hour to climb up to us (without ice ax or pole. He took one of his snowshoes off and used it belay himself.) However, once he ascended to our elevation, he was on the west or uphill side of the gully created by his fall and we were on the downhill or east side of the gully. It was not possible for him to safely cross the gully, especially without ax or pole.

Fortunately, I was carrying my brand new emergency rope and fortunately I had just taken an advanced scramble class where we covered the use of a rope in an emergency. Luckily, two other participants had enough climbing experience to prevent me from messing up the knots. We tied the a rescue scrambler (who was with the group with us on the east side of the ridge) into one end to rope  and one of the other scramblers belayed him as he traversed the chute carrying an extra ice ax, until he reached the fallen scrambler.

My 75 foot rope was just long enough; we had less than 6 inches to spare. The rescue scrambler secured himself on the west side and the fallen scrambler used the rope as a hand line (using the double arm wrap) and once he was safely across, the rescuer was belayed back across.

The six of us then descended together through the treacherous section, and then I sent a scrambler on ahead to check on the waiting scrambler, who was remarkably mellow about being left alone for three and a half hours.

The rest of the descent was uneventful. We made it to the car safe and happy, but exhausted, at 7:40pm, precisely 11 hours from the start of the hike.

I applaud the calm, level-headed teamwork and the entire party. Every member was an asset to the group.

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