• Mark (SP member PellucidWombat)
• Casey (SP member bc44caesar)
• Myself (SP member Joseph Bullough)
On February 18, 2005, the three of us set out for a 2-day hike up Mount Nebo via Cedar Ridge. Although it involved considerable elevation gain, the route seemed straightforward and we anticipated a routine hike. At 11,100 feet as we neared the summit in a snowstorm, a cornice broke taking Mark on a 1000-foot glissade from hell, but with an amazingly fortunate outcome.
This is my account of the events of those two days. Mark's report on our trip can be found here.
Day 1 – Friday, 2/18/05
Mark and I met Casey in the nearby town of Mona at 6:45pm, then followed Casey on the short drive to the parking area at the base of Nebo’s Cedar Ridge. Casey had scoped out the area several hours earlier when it was still daylight, so he knew exactly where to go. We went over our gear, prepared our packs, then headed off into the sagebrush just after 7:00pm, guided by the light of our headlamps.
Casey had noticed a number of vertical rock outcrops and cliff bands near the bottom of Cedar Ridge, so we decided to follow a lower sub-ridge just to the south, figuring it would tie into Cedar Ridge higher up. This worked well for a mile or so until we arrived at a vertical precipice blocking our progress. Rather than retreat down the ridge we’d been ascending, we made a short but tricky downclimb to the north, followed by some nasty bushwhacking until we arrived in the narrow gully dividing Cedar Ridge from the minor ridge we’d been ascending.
To climb up to the top of Cedar Ridge would have been short but involved more bushwhacking, so we decided to stay in the gully for a while. The gully contained debris and some downed timber from an old avalanche, but the snow covered much of this debris and made for relatively easy travel. At least for Mark and me; Casey had begun the hike in a pair of light-hikers, and was having a terrible time slipping and sliding on the frozen avalanche debris. Eventually he’d had enough and decided to head up through the brush, until he reached the ridge where he continued climbing.
Mark and I could see Casey’s headlamp up on the ridge, but we were making good progress and fell into a steady rhythm. It wasn’t until we stopped and checked our elevation that we realized we were already several hundred feet above 7,700 ft., which was the elevation of a level spot on the ridge where we’d tentatively been planning to camp. Reluctantly we left the open gully and made the short but hellish bushwhack up to the ridge, where we waited a couple of minutes until Casey joined us. The ridge was relatively free of brush, but for the first time on the hike we now had a stiff cold breeze to contend with.
Casey was beginning to struggle due to lack of sleep over the last several days, and he favored descending back down to the level spot on the ridge, but Mark and I didn’t relish the idea of giving up several hundred feet of hard-earned elevation. Casey was a good sport and agreed to take a chance on continuing to ascend, in the hopes of finding a level spot further up the ridge.
We continued upward another quarter mile or so, where we arrived at a somewhat level area of snow tucked into the trees. It was small but it would suffice, and we all agreed to stop for the night. Casey scraped out a small platform for his bivy sack and immediately crawled in for the night, exhausted from lack of sleep. Mark and I shoveled out a large platform then proceeded to pitch our tent, not a trivial task in the 30+ mph wind gusts and snow which had begun to fall. Satisfied that the tent was secure we crawled inside for the night.
I fired up our stove and began melting snow for dinner and to refill our water bladders for the following day, while Mark kept himself occupied by sampling the orange liqueur which we'd brought to spice up our hot chocolate. Although we’d stopped hiking around 11:00pm, it was just after 2:00am by the time we were finally able to call it a night. So ended day #1.
Day 2 – Saturday, 2/19/05
Our alarm went off at 6:00am; this would have given us 4 solid hours of sleep, had it not been for the vicious winds tearing at the tent all night. As it was, I probably did little more than doze lightly for a few brief periods. The weather forecast had predicted up to 18” of new snow, so I fully expected everything to be buried in white, but when I peered out of the tent the skies were just partly cloudy and only a dusting of snow had managed to fall.
We melted more snow for coffee and oatmeal then emerged from our tent about the same time Casey crawled out of his bivy. Our original plan was to leave our camp and pack up on the descent, but with the strong winds threatening to take our tent airborne we instead packed everything up and cached our gear under a partially buried tarp.
It was almost exactly 8:00am by the time we slung on our packs and continued up the ridge. With only a thin layer of snow on the south facing side of the ridge we were able to travel easily without snowshoes. Soon after leaving camp we entered the cloud cover which hid everything above ±9,000 ft.
As we continued climbing the ridge the snow became deeper until we finally decided to go ahead and strap on our snowshoes. Hiking single file we rotated taking turns on lead to break trail. The trail breaking eventually became much easier as we neared timber line, where the ridge became more wind scoured. At around 10,400 feet we stopped for a few minutes for some food and to adjust layers of clothing, but the wind quickly chilled us, encouraging us to get moving again. It was about this time we began to see the first cornices along the left (north) side of the ridge.
It had begun to snow lightly and the wind drove the snow against our faces, stinging what little bare skin was exposed. Everything was white and visibility was quite low, probably 100 ft. or less, making the travel monotonous. We settled into a pattern of hiking several hundred feet, then stopping for a short 30 second breather while we turned our backs to the stinging wind.
At one of our frequent rest breaks I quickly pulled out my GPS which indicated our elevation was 11,040 ft.; only 840 vertical feet and 0.3 miles from the south summit. Putting away the GPS we continued up the ridge, Casey in front, followed by Mark, with me bringing up the rear.
Reaching a short level section on the ridge I looked up and saw Casey moving along the ridge, with another large cornice on left. We’d already passed a number of cornices to this point, but for the first time that day I had the thought that perhaps we should move a little further off the ridge to the south – my initial impression was that we were not in any immediate danger, so I made a mental note to mention it during our next rest break.
A split second later everything changed. Casey was beyond the level section and just starting to climb again, Mark was 15-20 feet behind, and I was another 15-20 feet behind Mark. Suddenly I saw a crack open right between my snowshoes, and I felt the ground begin to shift on my left. I was instantly aware what was happening, and instinctively leapt as hard as I could to my right. As I did so, out of the corner of my eye I saw Mark do the same thing, his outstretched arms on the lip of the ridge. I landed on solid snow and rolled over, coming up on my knees. By the time I looked up it was over, the cornice had dropped and Mark was no where to be seen. Casey had already passed the cornice so he never saw what happened, but apparently he heard because he immediately turned around only to find Mark gone.
Casey and I carefully approached the edge where the cornice had detached and peered down the slope. There was no sign of Mark, just an extremely steep slope dropping down into the clouds below. I also noticed a 1-foot crown to the right where a slab of snow had released from the steep slope. Casey shouted out Mark’s name but we heard nothing in reply. Pausing for a moment he shouted once again; this time we heard a very faint one-word response, but it was impossible to discern what the response had been.
Hearing Mark’s voice was a great relief since it eased my initial fear that he’d been buried in an avalanche, but at the same time we were troubled by the brevity of his response. We paused a few more moments trying to settle down and get our thoughts in order, then Casey shouted to Mark again; once more the only response was a very faint and distant one-word reply.
A few more moments passed and the initial shock began to wear off, so we began to assess our situation. Mark had been carrying our group’s only cell phone, so we had no means of communicating with him, or of contacting anyone for help. Our only other cell phone was in Casey’s vehicle, 3 miles and 5,300 vertical feet below. We decided the quickest way to help Mark was to get down to him.
My first thought was to try and descend the slope down which Mark had slid, but we quickly decided it would be foolish to descend a slope so steep with only a single ice axe each. Not wanting to split up, we decided our only option was descend back down the ridge and look for a more reasonable slope to descend down into the canyon where Mark must have ended up. We took a GPS coordinate to mark the spot where the cornice broke, should it become necessary for a search team to be called in later, then began making our way back down the ridge.
As we suspected, there were no easy ways down the slope into the canyon on our right. We kept looking for a suitable spot to descend but nothing looked promising, and the slopes appeared to be prime avalanche terrain. We finally reached a small fork in the ridge, with the right fork appearing to drop into the canyon below. It wasn’t exactly promising but it was the best we’d seen thus far. The ridge was quite steep in spots so we removed our snowshoes before beginning to descend. (we later learned that this was very near the location where Mark evenutully climbed out of the canyon himself).
Going down the steep and deeply powdered ridge proved to be very strenuous, and our pace slowed drastically. Although we were finally moving downward, we were also moving west and further away from the accident scene. I began wondering if we were really making any progress after all.
A few minutes later nothing was looking any better. The canyon below was still hidden in clouds, and our ridge was taking us down but further away from the accident at the same time. I finally stopped and expressed my concerns to Casey. We discussed the situation for several minutes, finally coming to the conclusion that the best way to get help to Mark was to return to the trailhead and make contact with authorities. Neither of us felt good about leaving Mark on the mountain, but it had become apparent there was no quick way to reach Mark, and we would most likely be putting ourselves in severe danger in the bottom of the steep walled canyon.
We’d only descended 300-400 feet down the ridge, but the climb back up to the main ridge was a nightmare. The powdery snow was chest deep, and we literally had to crawl up the snow in spots, stopping from fatigue after every 3 feet of progress. I led for approximately the first half of the climb up, then Casey took over for the second half. It took a full 45 minutes to return to the main ridge, where we collapsed in exhaustion.
After resting for a few minutes we put on our snowshoes and resumed hiking down the main ridge. With the fairly firm snow we managed to pick up the pace considerably. We eventually broke out of the cloud cover, easing the somewhat claustrophobic feel from being in low visibility for several hours. I’d been somewhat hoping to see a large group of vehicles at the trailhead, which may have indicated that Mark had managed to contact authorities with his cell phone, but all I could see was the two tiny dots of our vehicles far below.
We arrived at our camp from the previous night where we’d cached our overnight gear. Since it was already packed and ready to go we decided to go ahead and carry everything down. We stuffed everything including Marks gear into our packs, making them much heavier than they’d been on the hike up, then headed down the ridge.
With the benefit of daylight we were able to choose our route down much better than on the hike up in the dark the previous evening, but our legs were tiring and the additional weight in our packs tired us quickly. Since Casey seemed to be moving a little faster I suggested he not wait for me and continue down at his own pace to make the 911 call. He slowly got further ahead of me until I eventually lost sight of him
By this time my legs were almost shot, and I fell a number of times as they repeatedly just gave out or I would slip on the tiniest of rocks. The last mile seemed to take an eternity, but I finally came over a short rise to the sight of our two vehicles at the trailhead.
Casey had arrived about five minutes before me and was already on the phone with a local sheriff’s dispatcher, who then wanted to speak with me. They kept us on the phone until the first of numerous sheriff’s vehicles arrived. The first officer on the scene had us call Mark’s cell phone number but there was no answer; not a good sign. They took our information, names, etc., and the GPS coordinate from the location of the accident.
Over the next hour more and more vehicles and officers showed up. We repeated the story and gave information to several other officers over the course of the evening. I was sitting in a sheriff’s vehicle giving more details to an officer when Casey knocked on the window – Mark was okay and on his way down! Casey had tried once again to call Mark’s cell phone, and amazingly this time Mark answered! He told Casey he was around 8000 feet, and was quickly making his way down the mountain.
Understandably the mood at the trailhead lightened considerably at this excellent news. Many of us had been fearing the worst, and the fact that not only was Mark okay but making his way down the mountain under his own power was downright amazing. Several of the authorities at the trailhead had binoculars, and by now they could see Mark making his way down the mountain. When Mark was about 1/2-mile from the trailhead several of the search and rescue team headed up to meet him and escort him down.
Mark was whisked into an ambulance which had been called to the scene where he was attended to for a few minutes, and then Casey and I were invited into join Mark in the ambulance. Other than some cold feet and a jammed toe he was basically unscathed from the incident, but the paramedics still wanted to take him to closest hospital in the town of Nephi, several miles to the south.
Casey and I followed the ambulance into town where we waited while they checked Mark out, then he was officially released. A local news station was waiting in the lobby to talk with us, but the three of us wanted to avoid any publicity so with the help of several of the paramedics we managed to slip out through the emergency exit. I drove Mark’s car the 1.5 hours back to Salt Lake, giving him a much needed chance to unwind in the passenger seat.