Mount Stuart - Rockfall Hits Solo Climber on Descent

We saw massive bouncing microwave-sized blocks of rock, then screams. We yelled back up asking if everyone was okay. The response we got was: “I am not okay.” West Ridge climbers offer a walk-out assist that evolves to helicopter hoist. Leader - "Only our combined efforts made this such a good response on our part."
David Shema David Shema
Safety Committee Chair
August 16, 2017

CascadIAN Couloir, Mount Stuart - August 13

Team Incident Report

Team member names used with permission

[Rob]
We climbed the West Ridge route in approach shoes, with light bivy gear, a 30m rope, Black Diamond cams #0.3 to #2, a set of nuts, 6 shoulder slings, and 4 double slings, which worked perfectly. We had excellent beta from Paul Bongaarts’ hand-drawn topo, and a CascadeClimbers.com trip report posted by “Cluck” in 2006 gave us exactly what we needed for the route-finding to go smoothly. We summited at 3:30pm, lounged there for an hour, and began our descent at 4:30pm.

We scrambled down from the summit, headed east, and crossed over the ridge below the false summit to arrive at the top of the Cascadian Couloir. Previous times I’ve been here (in early June other years) the top of the Cascadian Couloir was entirely covered in a large snowfield and steep near the top, but glissade-able. This time, it was very melted out. An ugly vertical strip of snow remained, but the preferred descent now was to scramble down the exposed rock beside the snow. The rock was difficult 3rd class, unfortunately very loose. The Cascadian Couloir in general has an accurate reputation for being loose and sandy, but this upper section was considerably worse than the rest of the couloir: it was steeper (about 45°) and had much larger loose blocks, possibly because they are held in place by snow for a larger portion of the year, so they’ve seen less foot traffic in the past.

[Sherrie]
There were several other parties descending, one of whom was a woman who had come up alone via the Cascadian Couloir. She looked out of sorts and shaken, so as we passed her I asked her some questions. She had summited, but it was clear that it was a bigger objective than she had anticipated, and she was worried about getting down. She was wearing a sun hat rather than a helmet, and kept stopping and sitting before slowly making more progress down the rocks. We wished her luck as we passed her. At around 8800', there were a lot of loose rocks ready to dislodge. This area was snow covered until recently, which I think increased the instability. Rob stepped on a loose microwaved sized rock, noticed it was loose, and as he took his foot off, it fell and nearly hit me. His screaming of "rock" allowed me enough time to hug the cliff wall next to me and avoid it.

After Rob and I got past the loose rock area, we heard another massive rock fall above us. This happened at about 5:30pm. We were to the climber's left of it so it didn't hit us, but instead of hearing "Rock! Rock! Rock!", all we heard was loud and agonizing screams coming from a woman. I automatically assumed it was the woman we'd passed, given that I had already had my senses up about her and noted her fatigue to Rob.

[Rob]
Suddenly a similar rock fall occurred, with more massive bouncing microwave-sized blocks. At this point, everyone was a hundred or more feet below the trigger-point, except the solo scrambler. We were also somewhat around a corner, so no one could directly see the trigger point. Again, everyone down-slope managed to avoid being struck. However, we had heard repeated screaming at the time the rockfall was triggered that was unintelligible, and not the word “rock,” so we were very concerned. We yelled back up asking if everyone was okay. The response we got was “I am not okay.”

[Sherrie]
There was another party that was closer to her, but they continued to descend rather than go up to her to check to see if she was okay. Rob, having recently taken a second round of WFR, regained the hundred feet with his first aid kit to check on her. I stayed 100' below, hoping to be out of further rockfall danger. Greg and Vasily, our other team members, were a couple hundred feet below me as they had been going slightly faster down the couloir when it happened.

[Rob]
We were too far away for a yelling-conversation to clearly communicate anything, so I immediately re-ascended to investigate. I met the solo scrambler sitting on a sandy slope in between a few 3rd class moves. She was alert, but understandably quite mentally shaken. I could see abrasions and bruises on her chest and arms, and a few small tears to her clothing (mostly her pant legs), but fortunately no bleeding or otherwise outwardly visible major injuries. We introduced ourselves, and talked about what happened. She said that while she had been down-climbing a 3rd class scramble move, a number of blocks at chest-height pulled out and struck her there, and also struck her legs. According to her memory, the falling rocks did not carry her far and she stopped.

Fortunately, nothing struck her head, as her helmet was clipped to her pack at the time. I wanted to give her time to calm down, so I had her remain sitting and we talked for a while, I partially filled out a SOAP note, and gave her a cursory physical examination. Getting her first and last name, date of birth, and emergency contact’s name and phone number for the SOAP note proved immensely valuable later.

[Sherrie]
At first, the woman was very shaken and agitated, but after talking to her and checking her vitals, she and Rob agreed that she could follow us down, we could carry her gear, and she could bivy with us that night (she had planned to do the trip in a day, but we each had sleeping bags and pads and had planned to bivy at Ingalls Creek that night). Rob called me up to help carry her gear down while he helped her stand and stayed at her side as she descended a steep snow slope.

[Rob]
I had the other three members of my party come back up so that we could start helping her down, and one of them would take her pack for her. The other teams present asked if more help was needed, but since I was under the impression at this point that she would be able to walk out with our assistance from there, I told them not to worry about it, they should go on their way. My plan was to move over to the snowfield instead of the rock scramble. There I could take some time to kick really good steps, which would be less likely to break away than the rock, and we would all carefully descend with ice axes in hand.

[Rob]
However, when she attempted to stand up from her sitting position, there was a sudden pain at the top of her right leg, enough so that she was unable to stand, and went back to sitting. This really changed the tone of things, since it was the first time we realized that her walking out, even with a lot of assistance, was not going to happen.

[Sherrie]
I got to her just in time to see her attempt to stand. She let out a scream of pain and sat down. She estimated that her pain level was 8 out of 10 when she stood. I asked if it was okay to check underneath her clothes for additional wounds. I noted a very large abrasion and swelling on her right quadricep and knee, some on her left, scratches and swelling on her chest, and arms. She complained of pain on all of her limbs and chest. I did not note anything that looked like internal bleeding however. We had her sit comfortably and talk to her about whether she could manage the pain and get down. We had her drink some water. At this time, she became a little confused and disoriented, not remembering her age at one point, and complaining of nausea.

[Rob]
I religiously carry a DeLorme InReach satellite messenger, but Sherrie had a Verizon cellphone with intermittent service at that location, so our first move was to have her attempt a 911 call. Initially she did not get through. Rather than wait any longer, I decided to push the SOS button on my InReach at 6:25pm. I got a response first asking to verify it was a real emergency, then asking for the patient’s full name, date of birth, and list of injuries. After some slow texting back and forth, they gave me the number of a local Search and Rescue member named Mike to text instead.

[Rob]
Sherrie was able make a successful voice call to 911 from her Verizon phone. 911 told her they would send a helicopter, but needed her GPS coordinates. Calling 911 on an iPhone does not allow you to switch to other apps during the call, and Sherrie was too far away from the rest of the group to clearly shout a long string of numbers, so I descended to supply the GPS coordinates

[Sherrie]
After about 20 minutes of 911 conversation, my phone died, so I re-ascended to help at the scene. I had given them enough information to know where we were, and they knew a helicopter rescue would be likely.

[Rob]
Meanwhile, Greg and Vasily cared for the patient, tried to make her more comfortable, and chop out a ledge in the nearby snowfield so she could lay down instead of remain sitting up, giving her my down jacket, sleeping bag, and pad.

[Sherrie]
While I was gone, Greg had flattened out an area, provided her with Rob's sleeping bag, pad, and jacket, as she was complaining about being cold. She had her own emergency bivy sack. It was steep 45 degree rock and snow, right on an edge where rock met snow, so we placed ice axes and poles around her side, kind of like a crib, so she wouldn't fall down the mountain if she turned. She started vomiting, which meant that one person had to be right at her head the entire time to make sure she didn't swallow it, or fall down the mountain when she turned her head to vomit.

[Rob]
Via the Delorme InReach, Mike from Search and Rescue said he was “sending a hoist capable helo in soon. Will take an hour or so.” We were so greatly relieved to hear that!

[Sherrie]
We continued checking her vitals and talking with her. She became calmer over time, falling asleep at several points.

At this point, it was clear that we were not going to get off the mountain that night. We walked around the vicinity and determined that there were no safe bivy spots out of rockfall danger for our own party. We did not know when the helicopter would be there, so we started to make a plan to rotate who took care of her and who got to sleep, even if sitting upright. At around 8pm, we received a message from the InReach that a helicopter had been dispatched and was on its way. From that point, we changed our focus from finding a suitable bivy spot for us, to securing our packs and selves to the mountain. We used one of our ropes and some cams to put up a hand line on the steep snow slope so that we could more safely walk around the patient. We put on our harnesses and used personal anchors to stay attached at all times.

[Rob]
It was good to know a helicopter was coming, and we waited eagerly for it. Our patient stayed laying down and in the sleeping bag, intermittently dozing off, probably from the exhaustion of everything. During the time we waited, we prepared. We kicked down a number of large and  still precarious rocks preemptively so the area we were working in had fewer hazards. We melted 2 liters from the nearby snowfield to supplement our own dwindling water supply.

[Rob]
Since there was no guarantee of when (or even if) the helicopter rescue would succeed, we considered our options for all of us bivying in place here to stay with the patient, mostly trying to flatten out sandy ledges that would accommodate at least a sitting bivy. Vasily had the brilliant idea of anchoring a hand-line that stretched horizontally across our working area, using his rope and a bunch of our cams in the few solid cracks we could find. We put on our shell jackets, harnesses, headlamps, and had sunglasses ready to go as eye-protection. We had her put on her helmet, and pull her hat down over her eyes to protect them. We stashed our packs deep in a snow-moat well away from the pickup location, and anchored them to more cam placements.

[Sherrie]
The helicopter made its first appearance at around 9(ish)pm. Then it went away. A text message from the DeLorme InReach indicated that the helicopter was too heavy and needed to drop some weight. Finally, at 10:3pm, it did reach us. A rescuer came down, and we tried to protect the patient from additional rockfall with our bodies, and keep her attached to the mountain as much as possible. The helicopter rescue was one of the most violent things I have experienced. Loose rocks toppled down over us, luckily none of them were large.

[Rob]
Suddenly the guy from the helicopter was there, none of us saw him coming because we couldn’t look up. It was an extremely difficult environment to work in, but somehow he and Greg managed to get this sort of body-suit-harness onto the patient, which required painfully lifting different parts of her at different times, but it was the only way. He could not take her pack, but that was okay, we would carry it out. Eventually they were ready to go, the helicopter lifted them, but it was also partially a sideways drag in the dark.

We saw the rescuer and the patient smack into another rock wall above us, and then they were fully up and away.  Bodies had been colliding, knocking Sherrie and I down like dominos. Being clipped to the handline that Vasily set up saved us both from taking potentially serious falls at that point.

[Sherrie]
When the helicopter left, we checked to make sure our team was okay, took down the hand line, and made a plan to descend in the dark until we found a suitable bivy spot. We found one at around 7700', near a snow slope, so we could melt water. We ate dinner and were asleep by about 12:30am, making for a 23 hour day.

We woke up at 8:30am Sunday and had an uneventful hike out.

[Rob]
Monday after the climb I was able to get in touch with the injured woman by phone. She had been flown to Harborview and stayed there for a day, but was soon able to go home. She had a fractured sternum, but luckily the right leg was not broken, just very badly bruised.

[Rob]
Tests at the hospital showed she also had dangerously low electrolytes, which can happen on hot days where a lot of water is consumed without eating a proportionate amount of foods containing salt and potassium. In hindsight we can see this was the cause for her disorientation and nausea. She’ll be out for a few weeks, but she’ll make a full recovery, and is looking forward to when she can get back to the great outdoors again.

Lessons Learned

[Rob]

The fact that we all had sleeping bags and pads is partially what allowed us to respond to the rescue the way we did: our team could spend a night if need be. Other parties, like some light and fast "North Ridge in a day" parties were present at the time of the accident too, but they were not as free to stop and assist because they would have been putting themselves in more danger by opting to spend a night that they really were not prepared for. Part of why I told them to continue descending rather than stop and assist is because I did not want to have to take care of them too that night.

Other takeaways:

  • Satellite Messengers are priceless. The Delorme InReach that allows 2-way communication of detail even more so.
  • Before Sherrie's 911 call, we wrote down key talking points on some scrap paper, which was good. However, we really should have written down our GPS coordinates on that paper too.
  • Rescue services wants to know the patient's first and last name, exact date of birth, list of injuries, altitude and GPS coordinates, and the patient's emergency contact person and phone number. Write all of those down before making the call (or pushing the button). We did well on all but the GPS coordinates. Making an explicit statement of what form of help you are asking for helps too (in this case, we knew a helicopter was the only way she was getting off the mountain, so we should have said so earlier.)
  • Interestingly, everyone remembered different parts of what to do in an emergency situation. Only our combined efforts made this such a good response on our part. If I hadn't had the team, I would have forgotten key things under the pressure.
  • This reinforced the value of having at least a light sleeping bag, pad, and stove somewhere in the group. We had those things because we planned for an overnight. However, after this experience, I'm increasingly likely to have one of each along during single-day trips in the future, they matter more than the first aid kit.

[Sherrie]
I think our party handled everything as well as we could have. I am thankful that we were there, because I don't think our patient could have made it out of there on her own, and she did not have cellular reception or an emergency locator beacon.

Things that worked well:

  • The rescue beacon. Every party should carry one. The Delorme InReach Explorer did its job well.
  • Getting the patient into a comfortable, warm, and secure (as possible) location as soon as the initial assessment was done.
  • The focus on taking care of ourselves as well as the patient. The handline, breaks to eat and drink, attempting to think through suitable bivy locations for ourselves are examples of this.
  • Communication and teamwork were very effective.
  • Rob's recent WFR training was helpful, but even those of us with WFA all knew what to do.

[Rob]
The patient did a lot of things right (well equiped, good technique), but there are two things that stand out to me:

  1. She should have been wearing her helmet in that terrain, not just carrying it. She was very lucky nothing hit her head.
  2. Never go solo on any trip that's more than class 1 easy trail. What would have happened to her if we weren't there?

[Sherrie]
Suggestions for our patient that could have mitigated risk are:

  • Always scramble/climb in parties of more than 1.
  • Be okay turning around if an objective is larger than you anticipated. You still need to have the energy (both mentally and physically) to get back down!
  • Wear a helmet on class 3 scramble terrain (she was wearing a sun hat at the time of the accident, but had a helmet in her pack)

The patient is a member of The Mountaineers and a basic climbing graduate. I think that all of the lessons above are things that we teach, but maybe we can emphasize these to a greater extent?


Add a comment

Log in to add comments.
Patricia McDonald
Patricia McDonald says:
Sun, Aug 20, 2017 2:04 PM

Well done. Kudos to this team for pulling off a complicated rescue with such professionalism.

Daryl Greaser
Daryl Greaser says:
Fri, Sep 1, 2017 8:38 AM

Excellent outcome; she was lucky to have you guys there at the time. I disagree with Rob's comment: "Never go hiking alone in anything more than Class 1 (a trail) terrain" - it's all about your personal acceptance of risk. I have solo climed and skied all over the Cascades and Rocky Mountains, and I always carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Sure, if I get knocked unconscious, I won't be able to deploy it, but that's a personal risk I'm willing to take. (Also, I don't have dependents, that's another serious consideration). That said, Good Job!!! (wear that helmet!!)

Monty VanderBilt
Monty VanderBilt says:
Fri, Sep 1, 2017 9:20 PM

Thanks for all the work it takes to put these rescue articles together. They are very helpful reminders about what can happen and they will probably prevent some future accidents and/or make the response more efficient.