Friday, December 25, 2009

A Hair-Raising Day on Mt. Baldy

Wimping out low on Mt. Williamson on Sunday, December 20 left me with some unexpected free time. As a frequent (possibly obsessive) browser and sometime contributor to the Whitney Portal Store Message Board, I had been monitoring the growing enthusiasm surrounding a winter climb of Mt. Baldy being organized by MC Reinhardt. The outing was scheduled for Wednesday, December 23 and the weather forecast looked great. I posted some non-sense about The Mountaineering Review wanting me to cover the increasingly publicized climb, and MC said "come along". So I did.

I was looking forward to a relatively relaxed and sociable outing, though anything involving mountaineering boots, crampons, and an ice axe can only be so relaxed. At 3:30 AM my alarm sounded, and before too long I was motoring north toward the San Gabriel Mountains listening to Jon Krakauer's new book about Pat Tillman. At 5:30, I was the first to arrive at the blustery Manker Flat parking area. Shortly after 6:00, our scheduled start time, nine of us began plodding up the gated road toward the ski hut trail.

On the Ski Hut Trail

Chatting amiably with Shin, I suddenly had the feeling I was being ambushed by a bear. Turning around, I saw the tenth and final member of our party, Jeff Scofield, running up the trail in full winter attire. From that point, I pulled up the rear and met everyone at the ski hut. There we snacked and strapped on crampons, noted the windy and icy conditions in the bowl, and decided to follow the buried trail instead of climbing the bowl.
Traversing below the bowl

I was the first to set off across the bottom of the bowl and was promptly blasted in the face with spindrift. The snow on the steep forested slope rising from the bottom of the bowl to the south ridge was mostly consolidated, as it was on the rest of the route. Somewhere on that slope I crossed paths with Sara Berghoff, who, as it turns out, is a guide for Sierra Mountaineering International. Sara and I chatted for a while until strong winds on the upper stretch of the south ridge made walking, let alone talking, difficult. At that point on the ridge, everyone retreated to their own private worlds, cocooned inside balaclavas, hats, and hoods.
For the final few hundred yards, with the wind blowing at an estimated 30-40 mph, I followed a pattern. First, locate the next tree, which was not hard to do, because there was only ever one. Second, force my way to that tree through the wind trying to stay balanced. Third, take a few breaths at the tree and repeat.
At the last tree, I found Shin and Bob Masucci laying prostrate after returning from what they said was a considerably windier summit. Deciding that it would be more enjoyable to go to the summit with somebody else, I waited for the next hiker who happened to be Sara. Sara and I pushed our way up the final one hundred feet and upon reaching the summit plateau were blasted by a steady wind in the 50-60 mph range (according to my crude estimate).
Sara on the summit

They must have felt like they were missing out on something, because before too long Shin and Bob were back! And this time they brought Norma Ryan, Tracie, Blake Miller, and Ron. We stayed up there for about fifteen minutes, doing everything in our power to just remain upright.

Me on the summit

Trying to emulate Maurice Herzog on the first ascent of Annapurna, Norma let her glove blow away. Blake (I think) and I gave chase. After a few misses, Blake expertly lanced the glove with his ski pole, falling flat on his side in the process. With Blake out of commission, I unskewered the glove and triumphantly returned it to Norma, taking full credit while Blake brushed himself off. Alas, it was time to go, and just when I thought everyone was starting down, I turned in astonishment to see Sara striking her signature summit pose during a brief lapse in the wind.

About 500 vertical feet below the summit, we encountered MC and Jeff, who had ascended a chute in the bowl. Somewhere around there, I also caught up with Bob. Our conversation quickly jumped from climbing, to Kilimanjaro, to Amsterdam, to me alluding to things I did in Amsterdam, to me quickly regretting those allusions when moments later I learned that Bob was a retired police officer. But as irony would have it, it was Bob who was being arrested seconds later – self-arrested, that is, with his ice axe after a sudden slip.

By the time I reached the bottom of the bowl, I was really looking forward to having a snack at the ski hut. Because of the high winds, we had kept putting off our food break. But the food break would have to wait even longer. A little earlier I had thought I heard some yelling, but chocked it up to the wind playing tricks on me. Crossing the bottom of the wind-blasted bowl, Sara and I saw three guys standing about fifty feet uphill. Yelling above the wind, one of the hikers asked a question which surprised me:

Hiker: "Do you have any seltzer?"

Me: ["Seltzer?! Why can't they just get water out of the stream?"] "What?"

Hiker: "Do you have any seltzer?"

Me: ["What the hell is wrong with these guys?"] "Seltzer?!"

Hiker: "Do you have a cell phone? A climber just tumbled all the way down the bowl and she is injured."

Me: ["Oh.  He said 'cell phone', not 'seltzer'."]

It was about 1:30 PM. Sara immediately began ascending the slope. As I was dropping my pack, I noted that our fun day in the snow had now transitioned into something serious. Fishing out my cell phone, I made repeated attempts to call 911 without success. Leaving my pack on the ground, I too began heading up the slope. After a few steps, I saw Sara and a guy assisting a woman down the slope. They were moving very slowly. As I approached the woman, I saw that her face was covered with abrasions and the skin showing through her ripped clothing was all red. She seemed self-conscious about her exposed hips, so I averted my eyes. I later learned that she had tumbled like a rag doll down the entire face of Baldy bowl – roughly 1,000 vertical feet.

Baldy Bowl

The ski hut was only one hundred yards away, but it was locked. The injured woman, Natalie, was laid down in the doorway. Her friend Ian and a solo climber named Mike, who had descended the bowl to help, were making Natalie comfortable. Meanwhile, Sara began very sweetly, but deliberately and thoroughly, checking Natalie's condition. [You'll recall that Sara is a professional mountain guide.] Bob arrived a few minutes later and immediately began helping Sara perform first aid. Within a short time, Sara had emerged as Natalie's primary caregiver and confidant, while Bob had begun thinking about everything that needed to happen and initiating those things that were not already happening. [You'll recall that Bob is a retired police officer. I didn't mention that he worked in the homicide division for ten years.]

All told, there were probably twenty people in the vicinity of the ski hut. Since there was no cell phone reception at or near the ski hut, about six people headed down to get cell phone reception or initiate a rescue in some other way. In the meantime, Natalie had become very cold and was shivering uncontrollably. She also was unable to walk and looked quite scared. I offered her my down jacket and foot warmers. Other people contributed a variety of items. After Ian and Mike were unable to block a strong draft coming from below the doorway, Natalie was moved to the flat ground behind the ski hut. At that point, I handed over the emergency bivouac bag that I had carried with me on every hike for the past several years but never used.

After a dozen failed attempts to call 911, I blurted out that we should start blowing whistles. Sara immediately started blowing hers. As I worked my way through ten long whistles, I remembered the last time I had blown that whistle. It was ten years ago. My father had just taken a fatal fall on Long's Peak. Starting to choke up, I suppressed the distracting thought and focused on helping Natalie. Bob approached and looked me in the eye. Did he not like my whistling? Was it disturbing Natalie? Bob wasn't sure that the people descending the mountain would reach the search and rescue people in a timely manner. He explained that there needed to be absolute certainty that a rescue would be mounted. He asked me to run down the mountain, drive to the fire station in Baldy Village, and explain the situation to someone there. I was descending within one minute. The time was roughly 3:00 PM.

I ran as much and as fast as I could. My main motivating thought was, "I don't want Natalie to end up like my father". The one thing I could do at that point was to get down the mountain as fast as possible, so that is what I focused on doing. Once the snow and ice petered out, I took my crampons, jacket and hat off as fast as possible and kept running. When I got to the dirt road, I stuffed my glasses, which kept slipping down my nose, in a pocket and took off running even faster. Near the waterfall, I confronted three guys wearing large yellow jackets. They were either tourists in extremely unfashionable raingear or first responders. Thankfully, they were the latter. Someone had contacted 911. I relayed some info Bob had asked me to pass on, and they told me to convey it to the guys in the trucks near the waterfall. One piece of news that seemed to surprise some of the personnel was that the ski hut was locked. I volunteered to help, but they simply, and understandably, wanted the professionals to take over.

I lingered near the waterfall for about one hour, gazing up toward the ski hut wondering how things were going. During that time, a helicopter made several passes of the ski hut, but eventually flew off. As it turns out, Blake, Bob, Ian, Mike, and Sara constructed a makeshift litter and hauled Natalie part of the way down the trail. The search and rescue people arrived in small waves, and it was not until around 8:00 PM that Blake, Bob, and Sara were relieved of duty. At around 8:30 PM, Natalie was airlifted to a hospital.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: Natalie is scheduled to be released from the hospital on Friday, December 25. Merry Christmas.

Sara, Bob, and Blake: the three members of our group who stayed with Natalie until she was in safe hands


Anonymous said...

Sam, excellent write up. I look forward to the next post, although I hope it isn't as dramatic, for everyone's sake. .

Ian said...

One more note, I don't understand the seltzer part? What did they want that for?


Sam Page said...

Ian: I misunderstood them in the wind. I heard "seltzer", but they were actually saying "cell phone".

Crista said...

Thank you for your part in her safe return home!

Tracie said...

Sam, thank you for staying with me at the trailhead, the cheeseburger, and safely guiding me to the gas station :-) GREAT TRIP REPORT! Tracie

Anonymous said...

Excellent write up, with a happy ending (so to speak). That mountain is more dangerous than people give it credit for. I know, I was rescued off of that mountain as well. But - you live and learn and keep going back. Respectfully and more aware. Each day life is an adventure, and we can either watch is pass us by or we can get right into the thick of things. Sometimes the mountain bucks us off, and sometimes we manage our own way down. Many kudos to you and the other climbers for representing the best side of mountaineers!!

Mahalo ~

Anonymous said...

Natalie was a complete "Trooper" throughout this ordeal. She was a very cooperative "victim" during her treatment and complied with all that we asked of her. She was very fortunate to come away with only the minimal injuries she sustained. The bottom line here is that God didnot have her name on the his calendar for December 23, 2009!

Jackalopes said...

GREAT trip report on a great day. All things considered, it seems tome that our new friend Natalie is a very fortunate girl. I was blessed to get to tag along and see the pros in action. Have a great Christmas all.

Anonymous said...

Good report: My nephew and I went up the bowl this past Sunday. It was a bit icy toward the top before topping out on the ridge.

Asbufra said...

Well done,nice photos and well written. Sounds like an interesting day, glad it worked out.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so so so much for your part in ensuring Natalie got home safe and sound! She sent us a msg with a link to your blog so we had a better understanding of what happened to her that day. You're a hero!

S Kay Murphy said...

Sam, I was the silver-haired lady who walked up while you were waiting at the falls and asked, "Did we lose someone?" What a great account of the event! My cabin is just below the falls on the eastern rim of that canyon, so I heard the helicopter late into the evening and continued to think good thoughts for Natalie, poor thing. I enjoy your writing! Stop by my blog sometime--I post quite a bit about life in Baldy.
~S. Kay Murphy

Jackalopes said...

I remember you S Kay. You were stsnding next to the fire trucks as MC, Tracie and walked down the road about 4 PM.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for helping my friend Natalie, she means the world to me!

Sam Page said...

Thanks for the kind words, folks.

Alan said...

Great report Sam. Glad she was OK. Sounds like a lot of good people jumped in. Curious if you think a PLB would have accelerated the rescue.

Anonymous said...

Can't imagine someone even standing let alone walking over to the hut after a fall like that. Myself and a group climbed up the bowl yesterday in hard snow/icy conditions. I can tell you that you only have a second or two to self arest and then you are gone like a rocket with zero chance of stopping. Conditions were very hard and icy. Its really great that climbers like yourself and the others stepped up and helped with the resuce and making the injured feel as comfortable as possible. A fall like that, in conditions like that, a person is really lucky to survive.

Sam Page said...

Alan: From the little I know about personal locator beacons, having one on hand could only have helped, since there was no cell phone reception. Considering the number of accidents in Baldy Bowl, perhaps it would be wise to install one at the nearby ski hut.

Justin said...

Incredible story with an even better ending. Kudos to Sara and Co. for helping save this young lady and what a great Xmas gift for her and her family & friends. Another big reason I feel very safe when doing trips with SMI. They are top notch, their track record & guide's experience speak for itself. My only question here is how come out of this many experienced people on the mountain in dangerous winter conditions, not a single person had PLB? They are so inexpensive nowadays and can mean the difference between life or death. Minutes & seconds are everything. Take advantage of the technology that is available to you! You guys should know cell phones don't work in that canyon on Baldy and only at the summit. I carry a PLB almost all the time unless I am doing the walk up trail with a zillion other people. Anyway, glad everyone is safe & sound and happy new year!

Jackalopes said...

I know for a fact that at least one person had one with them but to activate it would notify family about 3 hours away. Not sure it would have done anything to speed things up.

Anonymous said...

Good story with happy ending. Sounds like conditions were very treacherous and icy that day and high winds to make matters worse, though I don't think the winds were the cause since the bowl is protected from the ridge top winds. Seems that it was just an unfortunate slip & fall and icy conditions which makes it nearly impossible to self arrest or slow down. I wonder why the group that was with this young lady was not roped up together for safety given the conditions that day? Thankfully all is well that ends well.

paula said...

Thanks to all of you who helped in Natalie's rescue. She's a wonderful young woman. Paula

Anonymous said...

I used to work with Natalie, and THANK YOU!! Really, thank you.

MightyMouseMountaineer said...

Natalie is incredibly lucky to have survived that fall, and that those folks were there to help when normally there aren't many people up there on weekdays.

On the subject of PLBs; I am a Ham radio operator and have my radio with me at all times, even in the mountains. I make it known to people on the mountain, and in my neighborhood, that I have a radio in case of an emergency. I can reach a live human from the bottom of Baldy Bowl and on the summit. I think it would be fantastic if at least one person from every hiking group would get a Ham license and carry a radio. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities for Hams to practice radio communications and to assist their communities in the event of a major disaster. During and after Hurricane Katrina, when all other means of communication failed (phone, cell, am/fm radio, TV, etc.), Ham radio operators got through. I will be happy to help an interested person find study materials, testing locations, and radio shops. P.S. You don't need to learn Morse Code anymore.