JUNE 5, 1999
I remember early in my climbing career hearing Dan Davis, one of these Northwest climbing legends, describe Mountaineering as a "blood sport". He said that if I was serious about it either I would get killed or someone I knew would get killed.. I heard what he had to say but it didn’t have any impact – even at thirty I fundamentally believed that it couldn’t happen to me. Over the last fifteen years a number of guys I’ve known have gotten hurt. The guy I climbed the Adams Glacier with got smashed by a rock the size of a house on Lundin, of all places. A couple of people I knew peripherally have been killed in climbing accidents. I kicked off a rock once on Dorado Needle that nearly got my partner and left me shaken for weeks. I leaned back to start a rappel off Liberty Bell once with only one strand of the rope in my device. Here is the story of the accident that affected me more than any of the others.
I was scheduled to lead an Alpine Scramble to Esmerelda on Saturday, June 5, 1999. Early in the week prior to the trip I called the Cle Elum ranger district and determined that the Teanaway river road was closed at the Beverly Creek campground. I also noted from the NOAA website that the long-range weather forecast was for precipitation with low freezing levels on Saturday and Sunday. Consequently I decided to change the destination to something short and close to Seattle, eventually deciding to go to Kendall Peak near Snoqualmie Pass. On Wednesday, June 2, I called the Club and notified the signup desk that I was changing the destination and had them fax me a roster. I called all of the people signed up and notified them of the change. I had to leave messages for everyone except a scramble student, SW, who answered the phone and told me that she had climbed Kendall the previous weekend with her husband. She said that the snow in the big avalanche track on Kendall was in good shape but that the rock near the top was wet and slippery and that she had a lot of trouble down-climbing it. (She was pretty emphatic about having not liked the rock.) She said that if that was where we were going she didn’t want to come and I asked her to cancel with the Club.
On Thursday there was only one message left on my home phone machine from a scramble participant — PM – calling to say that he had received the message about the change in destination and that he would be there. At 6:00 AM on Friday June 4, I received a call from MT, another participant, saying that he had a cold and would not come. I asked him to cancel with the Club. I later learned that he was PM’s regular climbing partner. On Friday afternoon I stopped at the Club and picked up the final trip roster. It showed me and five participants — one of whom was MT. In the end the party was a strong group consisting of the following members:
|Jerry Scott||Graduate of basic and intermediate climbing courses and of the alpine scrambling course.|
|KW||Student in the basic climbing course|
|PM||Graduate of the basic climbing course|
|EK||Graduate of the basic climbing and alpine scrambling courses|
|RM||Graduate of the basic climbing and alpine scrambling courses|
That evening I mentioned Kendall to a friend and fellow climb leader and he told me that as long as there was good snow it would be best to not try and follow the trail but to go to the head of Commonwealth Basin and straight up the avalanche track. I said that I’d been thinking about the route up the gully leading to the saddle between Red Mountain and Kendall and he pointed out that it was longer. I listened to the weather radio again that evening and noted that Saturday was still expected to be warmer than Sunday, that the snow level was expected to drop from 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet, that precipitation was expected, and that there was no special avalanche statement from the NW avalanche center.
I got to the trailhead almost an hour early and all of the other participants arrived at around 8:00. We gathered at my car, did the introductions and my short statement on leadership style and left following the south side of Commonwealth creek. In addition to my "ten essentials" I had half of a 9mm rope, a bivy sack, a shovel, an oversized first aid kit, and I was dressed for winter conditions. Because of the proximity to all of the development in the Snoqualmie Pass area, I brought a cell phone. I did not designate a first aid leader because of the small size of the group. Only KW had been up Kendall before; the others seemed unfamiliar with Commonwealth Basin.
We followed the creek up into the basin staying higher than usual on the east side of the valley. I kicked steps for the first half hour then called for a clothing break and asked one of the other participants to break trail. I took up a position at the rear of the group and noted that everyone seemed to be well equipped and in good shape. At 9:15 we reached the avalanche track at 3,800 feet and I calculated our pace at about 1,000 feet an hour. We headed up the avalanche track, climbing pretty much straight up. Any concern I might have had about the condition of the snow was gone since it was well consolidated and there was no new snow on top of what felt like very solid spring snow. KW was in the lead and the weather was a series of short snow squalls with bright sun between. As we neared the rocks at the top of the snow KW bore left. I suggested that we could go right and catch the ridgeline and maybe a higher snowfield but he thought we were about where the trail went across and that the route he knew went up from the trail. We down-climbed a short distance to where he thought he saw exposed trail and traversed on rock and heather for some distance to the North before we were forced to climb up on rock for about a hundred vertical feet. The rock was wet, mossy and loose, but mainly low angled and not difficult scrambling. At about 4,700 feet I saw a steep narrow snow-filled chute that looked like it led clear to the summit and I started up it. After several hundred feet we came to a crack where the snow had separated over a rock step leaving a gap of a foot or two across the entire chute. I exited to the left into a tree and got back onto the snow above the crack. I waited to make sure that no one was going to have trouble with that move then continued kicking steps for another couple of hundred feet. As the party rotated the lead, PM was the second or third to kick steps. I noticed that he took sort of a short turn and I remarked that it had been the first time I had seen him kicking steps that day. As we approached the ridgeline we could see a rounded summit on our right and a sharper rocky point to our left. KW was in the lead and bore left until he got up to the rock and started scrambling up it. I asked him if he was sure that this was the summit and he looked around and said no, that it was the other one. We traversed up over snow and rock aiming for the rounded summit. A couple hundred yards before (and maybe a hundred and fifty feet below) the summit we came to a space where the snow had pulled away from the rock that looked like it was big enough for all of us and I called a halt so that people could put on more clothing. PM was the last one to arrive and hesitated for a while before stepping over the edge of the snow into the moat. I wasn’t sure if he was tired or just didn’t want to step on anybody but when I asked if he was warm enough in just tights he said he was fine. It was just 12:00 so we all ate and rested for a while. (I drank most of a thermos of tea so we probably stopped for half an hour.) We continued along a corniced ridgeline to the top, which was snow free. We found the summit register and signed in as the first party since October of 1998. It was sunny and we had periods of good visibility. I walked along the ridge past the summit and saw that descending the ridgeline to the avalanche track would involve steep rock. I asked the group how they thought we should get down and there were several answers that they didn’t want to down-climb the rock we had come up. We agreed that we would go down the snow a couple of hundred feet to see if we could find a continuous route on snow back to the avalanche track. If we couldn’t, we decided to traverse north to the gully below the saddle with Red Mountain and descend that way since it was easier even if longer.
As we were packing up to descend I noticed that PM had pulled a helmet out of his pack. I also noticed that his pack looked big for a day trip and that he had put on rain pants over his tights. We left the summit at about 1:00 and we descended more or less straight down a couple hundred feet of snow. I plunge-stepped noticing that the snow was crusty and that you had to be aggressive to feel secure. It seemed like the snow softened up as we got a little lower, but the slope got steeper, I couldn’t see a way to the avalanche track that avoided cliffs, and I couldn’t see the run-out below me. I looked back at the party and noticed that the first two guys (EK and RM) were facing in. I decided that if they were feeling nervous about this kind of slope we definitely ought to go the easiest way and I announced that we were going to traverse over to the gully. No one objected and I continued over to our tracks from the ascent, which I followed to the point where they led straight down. At that point we continued a descending traverse to the North staying slightly below the rocks on the ridge top. After traversing a few minutes I noticed something in the snow ahead of me and slightly below me. I was at the top of the first of two parallel ribs with a trough or bowl about 100 yards wide between them. At my level the depression was not pronounced as the tops of the ribs blended into the slope, but below me the trough turned into a wide shallow bowl with distinct ribs on either side. The slope below me was mainly open snow with scattered clumps of trees. I could see something in the snow in the middle of the bowl — perhaps fifty feet below me and fifty yards in front of me. I continued traversing down until I could see that it was a big glide crack with rock showing. I wondered if this might be the cut for the PCT but there was too much snow to be able to tell. My trajectory would have taken me through the middle of the crack and I didn’t want to walk above it for fear that the edge would break off so I plunge-stepped straight down for about thirty feet and then resumed traversing on a descending line that took me closely under the opening, figuring that if there was a slide at least I would be at the very top of it. The slope below me extended at least two hundred feet and was not particularly steep (probably about 30 degrees where I was and less steep lower down) but I couldn’t see the run-out. This slope was not as steep as the snow we had descended just below the summit and was much less steep than the narrow chute with the crack that we had climbed on the way up. The snow was very well consolidated with no new snow on top. The surface was soft but not slushy and the sun was bright. Steps went in four to six inches and felt very solid. I think that we must have been at just under 5,000 feet. I traversed until I was in the middle of the bowl and out from under the crack then I waited to make sure that EK and RM didn’t have trouble getting back onto the traverse. I noticed that they had both backed down the place I’d plunge-stepped but that they were not facing in on the traverse. Once they were both onto the traverse I sprinted ahead to the next rib to make sure that I wasn’t leading the party into a dead end. I noticed a second big glide crack further along in the bowl and a little higher than the first one and I decided that I didn’t want to stay in the bowl any longer than necessary. I had just passed a clump of trees when I heard shouts of "arrest." I turned back, yelled "what happened," and heard someone say, "he’s stopped." It must have been about 1:30. I looked forward and saw that I was very nearly able to look around the corner to determine if we were going to be able to get down into the gully. Realizing that it would take some time for whoever had slid to climb back up to the track, I walked a few paces forward to the crest of the rib, saw that except for a potential cornice it led to easy terrain, then turned around and walked back toward the group. When I came out of the trees I saw KW nearly at the bottom of the visible snow slope and I was surprised to see that he was climbing down, face in, very fast. I walked back to EK and RM and asked what was going on and they said that PM had gone down out of sight and KW was following him. By this time KW was also out of sight. I said that I had planned to go over to the gully since it looked much easier and that I didn’t want to go down the way KW and PM had gone because I thought it went into the cliffs. EK and RM both responded quickly that they didn’t want to go down that way either. I had no doubt that I could descend the visible part of the snowfield but I was afraid of getting somebody stranded or hurt in whatever was below it. At this point I felt the first concern that something might have happened, even though I hadn’t seen anything and even though the EK and RM seemed to believe that PM had found a direct way down to avoid climbing back up to the traverse. I had a flash of annoyance that PM and KW might have committed to a route without consulting me, but since leaving the summit PM and KW had been the stronger members of the party and I realized that even if they were able to down-climb the stuff below us it wasn’t appropriate to ask EK and RM to follow them. In an equally quick flash it came to me that whether PM and KW were in trouble or on a feasible route, the rest of us needed to "approach safely." I told EK and RM that, at the risk of splitting the party, I wanted to go over to the next rib and descend it until we could make contact with the other two guys. They seemed reluctant to move — almost as if they were frozen in place – but eventually they followed me on across the bowl. When we got to the rib they wanted to drop over its cornice into the gully but I insisted that we needed to descend the rib so that we could make contact with PM and KW. I coaxed EK and RM down the rib for two or three hundred vertical feet, partly on snow and partly on loose rock and heather. I was never able to spot PM or KW but I could see that the bowl ended in steep rock. I considered sending EK and RM down the easy way and going by myself across above the cliff band to find PM and KW but I didn’t want to split up the group any further, I didn’t want EK and RM to get lost or hurt, and I didn’t want to mess around on any of the rock that I could see. I thought about climbing back up to the traverse and descending the way KW had gone, but RM told me that he wanted to get down quickly and said that he did not think that he would be able to get back up to the traverse.
I convinced EK and RM to follow me around the end of the cornice, down a short steep bank, across a relatively gradual slope and into a steeper forested draw that took us to the basin floor just south of where the gully came out. This didn’t involve more than a few hundred vertical feet but it was frustrating to have to wait as EK and RM backed slowly down slopes that were well within their ability to plunge-step. EK asked if we shouldn’t pull out the map and find a less steep route. I explained to him that I was taking them down stuff that was safe – but as steep as I thought they could handle – so that we could find PM and KW as quickly as possible. At that point I realized that not only was I responsible for a separated party and probably an accident, but that I also needed to look out for two guys who were apparently pretty badly shaken.
When we got to the basin we traversed at the bottom of the cliffs until I was sure that we had passed below the area under the bowl. I couldn’t spot anything that looked like a climber or gear and there was no response to shouts. EK and RM recognized that we would have seen footprints if PM or KW had found a route down and walked out ahead of us. It was also obvious to us that we couldn’t climb back up through the cliffs. At this point RM told me that when they’d yelled, "he’s stopped," what they were looking at might have been just PM’s pack. He also said that he thought he might have seen PM bounce and heard him yell "fuck". I started to say how nice it would have been to have learned those facts up on the traverse, but I stopped as I realized that EK and RM were effectively in shock and that any difficulty they had in relating what they had seen was basically the same as the trouble they were having getting down from the traverse.
I got out my cell phone and called 911. It was about 2:15. The dispatcher told me that she had just received a report of an injured but conscious climber on Kendall. She told me that mountain rescue was en route and that there would be a fire truck waiting to rendezvous with mountain rescue at the PCT trailhead. EK and RM and I debated having the two of them walk out alone while I climbed back up the rib and descended the same way KW had gone down. I decided that nobody would want three separate groups on the mountain, that there was a risk I would get stranded or hurt and become an additional rescue problem and a risk that the other two guys would get lost or fall in the creek, so I decided to keep us together and walk out with them. I hoped to get to the trailhead before the mountain rescue ground team went in so that I could guide them in and take them up the easiest way. Just after we started I realized that I hadn’t called the Club’s emergency pager number so I dialed it and left a message and my cell phone number. I left the phone on as we walked out and it didn’t ring until just as we hit the Alpental road at 3:30 — an interval that pretty much killed my battery. The only vehicles at the PCT trailhead were PM’s and KW’s cars. We waited by our cars on Alpental road just around the corner from the PCT trailhead until we saw a helicopter near Kendall at about 4:15. When it landed in a parking lot at the Snoqualmie Pass ski area we drove over to it and found that the meeting place was at the Snoqualmie Pass fire station and that the first ground team had bypassed the trailhead and already gone in. One of the physicians in the parking lot was in radio contact with the helicopter and we showed him on the map where we thought the accident site was and helped him guide the helicopter to the correct side of the ridge. Once they had spotted PM and KW we went to the fire station, checked in with the Sheriff, and sat by the radio.
The first helicopter was not able to land near the accident site so the physicians aboard were put in below the cliffs and had to hike down to the avalanche track and up our ascent route. The first mountain rescue ground team got above the accident site by 5:00 but had difficulty getting down to it. The predicted storm arrived at the Snoqualmie Pass area at about this time, bringing rain in the parking lot, snow a little higher, wind, and dense rapidly moving clouds. At about the same time the first mountain rescue team made it to the accident site, a helicopter from Ft. Lewis arrived and lowered a medic. I heard PM’s condition described as fading in and out of consciousness at that point. They got PM into the Stokes liter but before they could winch him into the helicopter the weather obscured the view of the ground from the helicopter and it left the scene. The weather stayed ugly the rest of the night as another helicopter was summoned and several sorties were made attempting to take advantage of windows in the clouds. PM’s condition was described as deteriorating until the medic was no longer able to detect pulses. When one of the physicians got to PM at about 8:30 and intubated him I was no longer allowed to listen to the radio and EK and RM were sent home. Also at that point KW was sent out with one of the members of the first mountain rescue team. PM was winched off the mountain at 11:30. I was told that he "coded" in the helicopter, was transferred to an ambulance in the Snoqualmie Pass ski area parking lot, and was declared dead en route to Harborview Hospital.
I waited at the Snoqualmie Pass fire station until KW arrived at a little after 1:00 AM. I was allowed to speak to him very briefly before he was hustled into a debriefing and before I was hustled into a car for Seattle.
The USGS 15 minute Snoqualmie Pass quad has a point labeled "Kendall Peak," which, I believe, is where we found the summit register. The point on that map north of the "Kendall Peak" label with the elevation 5784 is, I believe, the rock that KW started to scramble up on our route to the summit. This is significant because on our descent we followed the tracks from our ascent back to a point directly below that rock. Then instead of descending the narrow chute with the crack in the snow, we started on a descending traverse paralleling the ridgeline and the accident happened only a few minutes later. The 7.5 minute Snoqualmie Pass quad has the Kendall Peak label near the 5784 point and shows two parallel troughs that start below that point and widen as they descend. I believe that PM’s slide started near the top of the northern trough at about the elevation of the PCT and must have ended two hundred to three hundred feet lower.I think about this accident every time I lead a trip for the Mountaineers and every time I find myself descending on steep snow. I can’t stop climbing since it is part of who I am, but the accident has changed how I climb. The week after the accident Odette and Will were away and I was a wreck, surviving only with the generous support of friends. It is a measure of my alienation from my job that no one there ever knew that anything had happened.