I'm putting this story under Mt. Ritter even though I did not actually attempt Ritter during this trip, which took place during the last week of July, 2011. I was attempting nearby Banner Peak and ultimately got entangled in the fate of 3 people who were attempting Ritter. I hope this story provides a valuable lesson to anyone who considers venturing into the mountains without adequate experience or doing the proper research. I have changed the names of all three family members to protect their identity.
Craig is a 50-year old analyst living in Silicon Valley. He's tall, lean and fit, with chiseled good looks and thinning hair. He reminded me of a typical Himalayan mountaineer (Conrad Anker comes to mind). He's an experienced climber and an avid outdoorsman. Craig has two children who live in New York with their mom (presumably divorced or separated). The eldest is Alice (16), pretty with brown hair and eyes, skinny and very tall for her age, nearly 6-feet tall I guessed. Gary is 10 and considerably smaller, although apparently fit, with light colored hair and a pale complexion. Gary is an experienced gym climber, but neither he nor Alice are experienced outdoorsman and neither have ever been to the Sierras.
When Craig was 10 years old, he climbed Mt. Ritter. Now, 40 years later to the day, he wanted to climb it again with his 10-year old son and daughter. He had been planning the trip for 3 years and one of his family members had even made shirts for them: "2011 Mt. Ritter Expedition". Craig thought this trip would be a wonderful opportunity to share the beauty of the Sierra-Nevada with his children from the East Coast. And what better place to do it than Thousand Island Lake and the Ritter Range.
Me, My Girlfriend and Banner PeakOn Wednesday, July 27 at about 8:00 am, Corina and I left our camp at Catherine Lake, west of Banner Peak to attempt to summit the 12,900 foot mountain. The area was still under heavy snow and ice, so the going was tough from the get-go. We had to protect our route with rope twice just to get on to the glacier, even though we had crampons and ice axes. At about 10am we noticed a group of 3 people passing by our camp below. We had been the only ones at Catherine Lake the previous night, so assumed correctly that they were day-hiking up from Thousand Island Lake.
By noon we reached the Ritter-Banner saddle and noticed the other group was making good time behind us ascending the glacier to the saddle. (On the map our ascent route is marked with a green dashed line. Both parties followed that route up to the col.)
We continued north up the south face of Banner another few hundred vertical feet. At 1pm we stopped to evaluate our progress and eat. We noticed the other party standing at the col and finally, 2 of the group heading south up the very steep (>50 degree) snow field that leads to Ritter's north face route - a series of snow-covered ramps connected by Class 4 sections. We couldn't believe they were going up that route with nothing but a trekking pole each.
A little after 1:00, Corina and I decided to descend. We were not going to make our 2pm turnaround time and the route above was Class 3 on unstable rock.
We were tired and didn't want to risk a twisted ankle at that location. As we passed the col, we noticed the remaining party member (a young woman or girl) sitting on some rocks waiting for the other 2. We returned to our camp at about 3:00. About an hour later, the girl we had seen at the col came down, following our descent route (dashed blue line) and proceeded to wander aimlessly around the area. Finally she asked us if we'd seen a silver pack, which we had and pointed her to. She had walked right passed it and didn't see it. She had been hopelessly searching for it for over an hour. Corina thought perhaps she had been crying, but I couldn't tell.
The Ritter DescentAlice sat quietly about 100 feet away from our camp until 6:30 pm, when she finally said "Excuse me, but do you guys know what time it is?" I said it's 6:30, at which point she immediately burst into tears as she tried to explain that her dad and brother were climbing Ritter and should have been back by 3:30. She was at the col at about 2:00pm when her Dad had shouted down to her from the north face of Ritter to "go back to Catherine Lake, we're descending the back side" (the west slope route). "We'll be there in an hour!" he added.
Craig had no recollection of the north face of Ritter from his ascent as a 10-year old 40 years hence. He was surprised at how hard it was. Upon reaching the summit he decided that a descent by the west route to Ritter Lakes would be much easier and safer (see description of that route here) and advised his daughter accordingly. Alice had limited to no wilderness experience prior to this trip, but had just seen us descend and knew there was a tent (the only tent) at Catherine Lake near where she left her pack (the groups ONLY pack). She followed our footprints back down the glacier, over the lateral moraine and across some steep (45 degree) snow fields, and down some tricky Class 3 rock stretches to reach our camp and her pack. There she waited nervously for hour upon hour. But nothing happened.
And nothing continued to happen...
Meanwhile Craig and Gary attempted the challenging descent of Ritter's west slope to Ritter Lakes. This route is difficult to follow when one has just ascended it, and should be clearly marked during ascent to aid route finding during descent. Craig and Gary had no such aids. No less than 4 times they downclimbed extensive Class 3 and 4 "routes" only to be foiled by Class 5 rock they could not descend unprotected (Class 5.6 at some points, according to Gary). Each time they had no choice but to ascend the route and try again. They had no water, no food and no additional clothing. By 5pm the sun was getting low and within 2 hours would dip behind the tall peaks to the west. Exhausted and with light fading, they still couldn't find a safe way down. Craig began to short-rope young Gary with a length of parachute chord he had stashed, as the 10-year old was reaching the limit of his endurance. Both began to loose their balance and a disastrous fall seemed imminent.
Back at CampSo we essentially took in Alice, gave her tea, water and food. I told her that the back side route was a difficult one to descend unless you marked it on the way up. They hadn't ascended that route so were probably having a tough time finding their way. They would probably be along soon, I said. By 8pm, we were starting to get pretty worried. (At one point I silently mouthed to Corina "They're fucked", but kept an optimistic tone for Alice, who was hanging in there emotionally, but only just.) We decided we had to assume the worst if they didn't show up in an hour and start working our way down the mountain to a phone. I did have a radio and made some emergency broadcasts from Catherine Lake, but never got a response. Ironically, before the trip I had been seconds away from programming the Inyo USFS radio frequencies into my radio, but never did it. So we decided we would leave shortly after dark and activate a search and rescue response. (In retrospect, I think we should have stayed at Catherine Lake all night, and began our descent the next morning. In the end, it didn't matter).
At about 8:30pm, just as we were loading up and preparing a note for Craig and his son in case they showed up, we heard a whistle from the other side of the lake. Within a few minutes, we saw their headlamps, they saw ours, and there was much rejoicing. They had finally found a route down to Ritter Lakes, but they still had tough hiking (rocks+dark+snow+ice) north to Catherine Lake where they could see us. (Craig later said as he approached Catherine Lake that he couldn't help being reminded of Joe Simpsons desperate struggle to his base camp in the Andes, wondering if anyone would still be there!) Once in sight, it took Craig and Gary another 45 minutes or so to traverse around the lake. With the high snow level, getting around was by no means easy, or safe. We waited patiently, assuming the two were in decent shape, just delayed. As they finally stumbled into our camp, Alice gave them big tearful hugs and we realized how dire their situation was.
EvacuationCraig, the dad, was barely able to speak. They had no packs, no food and no water. He attempted to thank us for staying with his daughter, but his raspy voice was barely audible. The boy, Gary, was a zombie who looked like he was about to pass out. He didn't say a word, just clung to his big sister. Craig asked us if we would descend with them to their camp near Thousand Island Lake, to which we agreed. We gave them some shot blocks, water and clif bars, let them rest for a bit and by shortly after 9pm, we were ascending over the tricky boulders to North Glacier Pass. Despite their near total exhaustion, the two were smelling the barn, and desperately wanted to reach their own camp.
At first the going was okay, but as we got onto the snow and the adrenaline faded, our two patients began to fall apart. Corina and I shadowed Craig, who was walking fast, but looked as if he could go down at any moment. Alice shadowed her 10-year old brother and also acted as the go-between for us (acting as rescuers) and the 2 patients. We would tell Alice what to do, and she would get her family to do it. She was strong and took complete control over her family. We were lucky she was there.
Within a short time, Craig began to wobble and loose his footing on the sun-cupped snow. Three times we watched his towering form keel over and collapse like a felled redwood. There was nothing we could do. When we stopped for breaks, Gary the boy would collapse in the snow, seemingly unconscious. We had a short foam pad handy and would place it under him at every break. Alice and Corina would revive him, feed him water and he'd get up and do it again. Meanwhile I mentally refreshed an improvised litter technique that I assumed we would soon be employing for Gary. But the boy was mentally with it, and although physically wasted, he never gave up. Craig was physically wasted too, but also starting to lose his grip on reality: occasionally walking off randomly away from us, mumbling incoherently. Alice would keep him in check "Dad, where are you going? We need to GO DOWN!" All we could do was get them down to their camp, where they had supplies to properly rest and a cell phone which they already knew had service.
By 1AM the GPS' were saying we were right on top of the camp, but finding it proved difficult. We wandered around for almost a half hour before finally Craig stumbled over it. Again there was much rejoicing. At this point, Corina, Alice and I were getting pretty spent too. As they prepared to bed down, Corina and I moved off to find our own camp. The dad thanked us profusely for "rescuing" his family and took all my contact info (although I have not heard from him yet). We knew they had good cell service here and could call 911 if there were additional problems, so we didn't feel the need to stick around. They were safe now. They just needed food and rest - a lot of rest!
AnalysisThis was a serious near miss that could easily have become a major SAR operation and possible recovery operation*. In my opinion there were several mistakes made that future Sierra visitors could learn from:
1) The decision to bring very inexperienced children on a relatively challenging hike in abnormal summer conditions (i.e. record snow year) was probably a mistake.
2) The decision to split the group is a big wilderness no-no and has contributed to a lot of back-country problems. Had we not been out there, Alice may not have found her way to our camp, may not have found her pack at all, or may have decided to go look for her family by herself instead of seeking help (she did want to go look for them and we said no). Had she been disabled during her solo descent from the Banner-Ritter col, the odds are she would not have been found alive. She had no food, water or warm clothing on her person (it was all in the pack at our camp).
3) Lack of research may have been the root cause here. Craig apparently did not realize how challenging Ritter was and clearly did not know that a descent by the west route is extremely challenging without some sort of navigational aids. I've never been on Ritter, but research on summitpost told me that if Craig and Gary were descending to the west, they were probably having a hard go of it.
4) Craig was a big ultralight enthusiast. I understand that light means fast and speed equals safety in the mountains, but that can be taken too far. In this instance, three people shared 1 small bag, a few liters of water and a few clif bars for the hike from Catherine Lake to Mt. Ritter and back. No additional clothes and no safety gear (like a rope). This is an acceptable risk for 3 adults. I don't have kids but it seems like an excessive and burdensome risk to place on an inexperienced 10 and 16-year old.
5) For my part, the decision to leave after dark without our query was a mistake almost made. We couldn't have gotten far that night anyway and the rangers wouldn't have mounted a response until the next day if we had. We should have stayed the night at Catherine Lake with Alice (who did have a bivy sack and sleeping bag) and leave at first light if Craig and Gary didn't return. We likely would have found a cell phone with service at Thousand Island Lake within a few hours. In the end the decision was not executed, so it didn't matter. But still, I don't like to think what would have happened if Craig and Gary arrived at Catherine Lake and we were gone.
Craig and Gary had a lot of luck. They had no inclement weather, they had a long summer day, they had a strong savvy sister, they had another group high on the mountain willing to help, and of course, they did successfully summit Mt. Ritter...so cheers to them for that!
*Rescue is for live subjects, recovery is for dead bodies.