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Schroder
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PostWed Jun 07, 2017 7:29 am 
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Several recent trip reports on Whitehorse have stirred this bad memory I carry of the mountain. I debated whether to share this on a forum but I find that telling this story is cathartic and I wanted to get it down before my memory gets any poorer.
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It was the first week of October 1979.  I was at home and received a call from dispatch at about 10 pm informing me that there was a missing hiker on Whitehorse Mountain.  I started down our membership phone list, either getting no answer or responses that they were unable to go.  One that did answer said he would continue making calls so I left it with him, grabbed my gear and headed to our Mountain Rescue truck in Everett.  I waited about 15 minutes for anyone to show up and when no one did, I grabbed a radio from the truck and headed for Darrington in my car, informing dispatch that I would meet the base commander on the Mine Road.

When I arrived, there were a few young Search and Rescue volunteers and the person who reported the incident.  He had been hiking above Lone Tree Pass when he heard what he thought was someone yelling.  He hiked as far as he could toward the first buttress on the ridge and the voice, but then he heard nothing more.  I asked him if he would go with us to the spot and he reluctantly agreed.

We got to Lone Tree Pass just as the sun was starting to rise.  It was a clear, cold Autumn morning with a thick blanket of fog covering all of Western Washington.  I knew then we would have no air support.

The hiker led us past the meadows on the ridge, pointed to the top of the first buttress where he said he heard the voice and said he was too tired to go further.  I thanked him and he turned and headed back down the mountain.

I did a quick assessment of my team.  There were about eight SAR volunteers as I remember and two of them I knew, but I didnít know their climbing abilities, if any.  We had one rope.  I asked the two I knew to come with me up the ridge and the rest I asked to search around the meadows for anything they could find.

We completed the easy scramble to the top of the first buttress at 5000 ft and found some candy on the ground.  I radioed the find down to base camp and sat down to get some rest after the hard pace we set up to that point.  Base Camp confirmed there was a missing man from the East Coast that was visiting friends in Darrington and he had gone hiking and not returned.  His car was at the trailhead.  They sent someone down to the Whitehorse Store and a few minutes later confirmed that he bought the candy that I was seeing on the ground.

I asked how it was looking for air support.  The reply I got was that everything in Western Washington was still grounded, as well as most of Eastern Washington.  They were able to get a National Guard helo off the ground in Spokane and he was on his way.  There were a few more SAR volunteers that arrived and they were heading slowly up the trail.

The three of us started a slow search around the top of the buttress.  There was a cliff of over a thousand feet off the east side and the west side went steeply for a hundred feet and then had a short cliff drop to the wooded slopes below.  To the south, a short face dropped into a 10 ft wide notch to the next huge buttress on the ridge, technical climbing on the side facing us.

Open this map full screen.

We slowly searched the slopes on the West side and found some fairly fresh tracks leading into the notch.  At that time the Helo arrived and I directed them to look cliffs to the East that were inaccessible to us.  They made a couple of quick high passes by the cliffs Ė so high that I doubted they could see anything on the ground.  They were there for perhaps five minutes and said their fuel was critical so they veered off and left.

We continued the search of the immediate area until it started getting dark and then headed back to the clearing above Lone Tree Pass.  There were about 20 SAR volunteers assembled there and we made camp there.  The only food I had was some trail mix and some dehydrated soups and I carried a quart of water and there was no snow or water in the area.  I had several volunteers gather every container they could and go to some tarns below us to the West and collect water.

There was a temperature inversion that night so it fortunately didnít drop to freezing.  None of us had sleeping gear and my clothing was just adequate to keep me from shivering.  We had a fire going for a while but it was too much work to keep it stoked so I crawled into a low spot in the trees and covered myself with duff and branches for some insulation.

At daybreak I radioed down to base to get a situation report.  There were Mountain Rescue personnel on the way and the forecast was calling for the fog to lift so they could probably get our helo in the air sometime during the day.  I assembled our group and asked if anyone had any climbing experience.  None did.  I decided then to send most of the group West down Gerkman Creek and do a methodical search for anyone exiting the mountain that direction.  I had the two that were with me the day before come with me back up the mountain.

When we reached the notch again, I radioed down to ask how the Mountain Rescue teams were progressing.  I was then informed that they were going up the basin toward the glacier and floundering in heavy brush down low.  It was unlikely they would make it far up the mountain.
We searched the notch again.  I carefully stepped on a ledge that slanted downward across the huge wall of the second buttress on its East side.  I didnít feel comfortable without a belay and I couldnít see very far along the cliffs.  I couldnít imagine an inexperienced hiker heading out there.  I decided to head the other way.

The three of us dropped down the steep gully, traversed some tree bands, and then headed up the long talus slope to High Pass and the glacier.  It took us a long time to reach the glacier with not much sleep and very little food.  It was early to mid-afternoon when we finally got on the snow.  We did a few ascending traverses and could find no tracks whatsoever.

We decided to start back down.  Without proper gear or a partner with any climbing ability we couldnít go down the glacier route which would be heavily broken up near the terminus, so we headed back to Lone Tree Pass.

The weather was rapidly changing on our descent.  High clouds were coming in and the fog in the valleys was lifting.  The county helo was able to make one pass along the cliffs before the weather forced them off and by the time we reached Lone Tree Pass it was snowing.
We descended slowly in the dark.  About a quarter mile from the trailhead, the base commander met us on the trail and wanted to talk to me privately.  He was bothered by something he saw in the helo flyover they made below the cliffs Ė an unusually broken snow patch.  We talked about going back there in the morning but the weather was not going to cooperate.

We temporarily suspended the search and all headed home for some food and rest.  It was short lived because we were called to assist King County on a search for a missing hunter near Skykomish.  After a long day in the rain, the hunter was located with a broken leg and carried out.

The next day, five days after he was reported missing, we flew back in our Huey to resume the search on Whitehorse.  We were heading straight in, about a mile out at 5000 feet when I easily spotted him.  The pilot found a small slab to land on and we got out and traversed the smooth slabs below the glacier about 300 feet to the spot where he died.  He was sitting next to a stream of water, leaning against a rock with his pack and water bottle next to him.  He had an obvious femur fracture, but he had managed to crawl there from the broken snow patch. I looked above and saw the ledge system that traversed the face out of the notch and terminated in a 30 foot chimney above the snow patch.  It appeared that he fell at that spot, breaking through the snow and fracturing his leg.

Everything worked against us in finding him and Iíve always looked back on this failure as one that didnít have to happen.

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A footnote - I was a member of Everett Mountain Rescue for a little over 25 years and was Rescue Chairman (in charge of field operations) for about 10 years.
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RandyHiker
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PostWed Jun 07, 2017 10:12 am 
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Thanks for sharing.  What a heartbreak for all concerned.  frown.gif...
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Kim Brown
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PostWed Jun 07, 2017 3:59 pm 
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Wow Randy, gripping story.

I know you said it didn't have to end the way it did; Why?

Didn't the volunteers do the best they could have done? Was the organization as robust as it is now? I'm guessing not, but perhaps I'm wrong. Seems like who could volunteer did, and with the 2nd tour in Skykomish - I see that as a factor, but not criticism.

I'm a bit confused about any critique.

No need to answer if you don't feel like it.

Write more of these up please.

Pack & Paddle magazines had a rescue article in each issue, written by Debra Riel. They were well written, and so interesting. I haven't been able to locate her.

Having these are valuable.
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Schroder
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PostWed Jun 07, 2017 4:50 pm 
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There were several times when either me or the base commander could have changed the outcome:
- when it was confirmed that someone was actually missing and on top of that ridge, neighboring counties should have been called for help when it was apparent we couldn't field a team.
- experienced eyes should have been on board the National Guard helo and later the county helo to look at that wall and ledge system.
- I should have stayed focused at that notch, where it became increasingly obvious that was where he descended.
- our Mountain Rescue team, when they finally arrived, should have been sent up to me rather than up the mine trail. This was a breakdown in communications with base.

I wasn't the only one to beat myself up over this operation.  One of the deputies involved was equally troubled and came to my house frequently afterward to rehash what went wrong.
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Chico
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PostWed Jun 07, 2017 7:28 pm 
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You did what you could with what you were given. Too easy to second guess things when it is over. Mentally I think that is a mistake we tend to make. Far too many "what ifs"!

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http://capitolriders.org
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Magellan
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Magellan
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PostWed Jun 07, 2017 7:58 pm 
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Thanks for sharing Randy. Some people say they have no regrets. I find that disingenuous. So many what if moments in our lives. The SAR I know are some of the most driven people. It must be a letdown when you discover that you can't save them all.
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FiresideChats
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PostThu Jun 08, 2017 4:47 pm 
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Randy, you gave an all-in effort without adequate water or food or shelter in the autumn alpine. That's tough - to be on the scent, but hampered and blocked and unsupplied: with lots of support, but not the right kind. That's tough.

The death of the young always feels false. But the courage of those who sacrifice their comfort and risk their lives for others is the very humane and ennobling attitude that makes death such a tragedy.

Thank you for the many years of service you have rendered and, no doubt, the many lives you have saved.

This young life slipped past you and into the hands of God.

Grace and Peace to him

And you.

Phil
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Schroder
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PostFri Jun 09, 2017 5:54 am 
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There were a lot of lessons learned in this operation and on several others that following winter.  We also had the setback of crashing our Huey on Glacier Peak a short time later.  Up until this incident, we were primarily climbers with a lot of first-aid training.  The techniques we used were learned in climbing courses and adapted for our use and worked fairly well for over 20 years. In the years that followed, we began to have more frequent technical rescues but our membership remained at about 20 steady volunteers and 30-40 SAR volunteers so we saw the way forward by providing more intensive training in everything from driving emergency vehicles to technical rescue rigging on high walls.  We sent people to train as instructors of rescue rigging in Invermere B.C., and to General Motors Proving Ground for vehicle training.  Members that were interested were sent to EMT courses.  We brought outside instructors in for helicopter training and developed short-hauling techniques to drop in and extract people without a winch on terrain where we couldn't land. Eventually the Helicopter Rescue Team was created with personnel specifically trained in those complex situations.  We also did a massive equipment upgrade.

Five years after this, we had a rescue for 2 climbers overdue on Exfoliation Dome.  We flew in and spotted them just above the middle of Witch Doctor Wall, probably the most difficult rock climb in the state.  Our small team was able to drop onto the top of the Dome, rig a complex raising system, lower 2 rescuers to the subjects and raise all back to the top and evacuate everyone (except me) in about an hour in marginal weather.  I had to wait out a rain shower before they came back for me, but it was still one of the smoothest operations we ever had.  We came a long way in a few years.
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Seventy2002
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PostFri Jun 09, 2017 7:21 am 
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Thank you for sharing this.
Femur fractures have a high mortality rate under primitive condition. The "golden hour" for treating trauma had long since passed by the time SAR was notified. It appears the best chance to spot the victim was when the helicopter made its brief appearance. At that point, how much time had elapsed since the hiker was reported missing?
I think it likely that, under the circumstances, this was not a survivable accident.
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Schroder
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PostFri Jun 09, 2017 7:24 am 
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He was alive after we suspended the search - 3 days after his injury.

In 1972 we rescued a climber on the North Peak of Mt Index with a femur fracture and he was there over 24 hours before anyone knew he was up there and another 12 for the rescue.
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Bird in Hand
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PostFri Jun 09, 2017 3:08 pm 
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Thank you for sharing this story. And, thank you for being a part of SAR for so long. My own loss is coming up on its third anniversary. No one, no one could have done more, or been more dedicated to finding Karen than the SAR people. The Park Rangers threw everything they had. Dog trackers were on scene. Fog and clouds kept the air search grounded until the afternoons but people walked and searched, some for 18 hours a day, in spite of orders. They brought her home. Teams and personnel came from as far away as Montana and California. It broke my heart to lose her but the outpouring of support and kindness brought me to my knees. It's a debt I can never repay.
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Schroder
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PostFri Jun 09, 2017 4:38 pm 
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Thanks for your comments.  We all miss Karen.
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ale_capone
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PostSat Jun 10, 2017 8:48 am 
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Not entirely bad. Sounds like you guys put yourselves out there, and no rescuers got hurt.

Sad outcome, but sounds like you gave it your best.

Thanks for sharing.
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Yana
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PostMon Jun 12, 2017 7:18 am 
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Thank you for sharing this story, Schroder.

There is, of course, nothing that I or anyone else can say that will magically make you or anyone else involved in the rescue suddenly stop feeling guilty/bad about it.

A few points:

Quote:
There were several times when either me or the base commander could have changed the outcome:

There's a reason the saying "hindsight is 20/20" is so often used. It's easy to figure out what you "should" have done once you know the outcome.

Quote:

- when it was confirmed that someone was actually missing and on top of that ridge, neighboring counties should have been called for help when it was apparent we couldn't field a team.

True, but not your call.

Quote:
- experienced eyes should have been on board the National Guard helo and later the county helo to look at that wall and ledge system.

That would have been ideal, but given the weather only allowed for air support from SPOKANE, not really something that could be controlled. You either get lucky or you don't.

Quote:
- I should have stayed focused at that notch, where it became increasingly obvious that was where he descended.

What more could you accomplish there? As you pointed out multiple times, you had limited resources. What are three climbers with one rope going to do there? Looking at the terrain between the subject and the notch, I sure as hell wouldn't send anyone on those ledges.

Quote:
- our Mountain Rescue team, when they finally arrived, should have been sent up to me rather than up the mine trail. This was a breakdown in communications with base.

True. Breakdowns in communication remain by far the biggest issue on SAR missions. Still haven't figured out how to iron that wrinkle out nearly four decades later.

Quote:
I wasn't the only one to beat myself up over this operation.  One of the deputies involved was equally troubled and came to my house frequently afterward to rehash what went wrong.

Generally speaking, we're all in this to help people. It haunts us when we "fail" (where fail means we don't find someone in time). I would expect nothing less than for lots of people to beat themselves up about that mission, along with many other missions. That's what makes for good rescuers, but it is also unkind to us in the long run.

--------------
PLAY SAFE! SKI ONLY IN CLOCKWISE DIRECTION! LET'S ALL HAVE FUN TOGETHER!
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HermitThrush
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PostTue Jun 13, 2017 8:19 pm 
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Sobering story. Thank you for sharing.
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