Agree with Chief on most of his points but not all.
The main one I agree with is, learn from other's mistakes. Study this accident and think what could have been done differently. People have died and if you can figure out why you can avoid that same type of fate. Therefore their deaths may hopefully serve a purpose, to teach others how to stay alive.
It's mostly conjecture at this point but here's a couple possible scenarios. To all affected parties my utmost sympathy. I just want to help other climbers learn from this.
A. Someone fell
B. Objective hazard. Icefall from above etc.
A. If someone fell then they were on a climb that was over their head because this route is not that technically difficult. This is where the winter aspect may have been a factor. Winter conditions mean harder climbing, it changes the grade.
Colder temps mean harder ice. It becomes boilerplate. Your cramps and tools have to be really sharp and crampon fit becomes more critical, they have to be tighter to the boot. And it takes more energy and strength on each stick and kick. Compared to summer styrofoam, on a winter ice face you will get less crampon penetration. When it's steep you will be all on your calves. The cold air is harder to breath and you are expending more energy just to stay warm. The necessary extra winter gear means more pack weight. The total energy expenditure becomes almost exponential.
All this stuff adds up to the same climb being possibly twice as hard physically as it is in summer. And you get half way up a face like this and finally figure this out, it's harder to climb down, your stuck and that's when falls happen.
B. Objective hazard. Icefall etc. If this is what happened then experience and skill may not be as much of a contributing factor to the initial (possible) accident. This is one point I disagree with Chief. Objective hazard is luck. It can happen to anyone. You climb underneath stuff that can fall on you, it can fall at any time. That's just luck. You can maximize your chances by minimizing your time underneath but there's always places where some amount of exposure is unavoidable. Usually (but not always) on the bigger harder climbs the exposure is greater. Winter climbing usually increases the hazard/exposure due to things like unstable snow and ice.
Now let's look at what happened after the (possible) accident, whether it was a fall or objective hazard. This is where it becomes more possible that they were a little on the inexperienced side. This is where you need to learn how to survive in case something happens.
""Nolan lost a mitten. Gullberg gave her his gloves and took the remaining mitten for his descent.""
A glove came off in a fall (possibly). Possibly it was not tightly secured. On a climb like this you need gloves that have a secure wrist closure. Some ski gloves have an elastic wrist band. This won't stay on in a bad fall or marginal glissade. You need a locking wrist strap. You can also have a tether, safer for steep slopes and windy conditions.
In addition the glove exchange tells you that at least 2 of them didn't have any extra gloves/mittens. In winter each person should have one pair of gloves and one pair of mittens. On a winter climb, even with no accident, the loss of a glove/mitten without backup can mean the loss of fingers or a hand. Small problems can quickly lead to bigger ones, like not being able to manipulate critical gear.
""Thompson suggested that Gullberg's path to hypothermia could have begun with the strenuous task of digging a snow cave.""
The conjecture here is that Gullberg dug a snow cave for the other two then descended to get help. On just the first day of the climb, if he had the energy to dig one he should have had the energy to dig three, but this is condition dependent. It's possible but not likely that where he stopped he found it too hard to dig into the ice/snow. Then it comes down to survival without shelter. Looking at the probable glove shortage you might surmise they were short of other critical winter gear.
Two key extra winter items for each climber, in addition to the obvious puff jacket, you need puff pants and a bivy sack. With these items you can survive without shelter at least one night, buying more time to descend or find good snow for a cave. The fact that he, relatively uninjured, didn't survive at least one night tells you he was not properly equipped.
One other possible aspect of this event is that they went up with few or no extra days of good weather. They planned on doing it in a day and that was all the time they had. (Possibly) leaving little or no margin for unexpected events. Combine the probably lack of full winter gear with worsening weather and this is the result.
Things to remember about winter climbing. This info even applies for a day climb of this magnitude.
Extra gear, in addition to the normal 3 season gear. Winter gear per person, extra gloves/mittens, touk (balaclava/facemask), goggles, puff pants, wind/rain pants (bibs even better), bivy sack, 3/4 foam pad, Extra food, remember just staying warm requires more energy. A thicker puff jacket with a puff hood may be called for over a lighter puff jacket.
Party of three should have at least one stove (prefer two), even on a day climb, with enough fuel for melt water for 3 persons for 7 days (approx.) This is to survive being stuck in a snow cave. Party of three should also have at least 2 digging tools, prefer 3. A good stove pot can be used as a digging tool. Think about what happens if the party has to split up, you need one stove and one digging tool for each.
Any given climb of this type will be up to twice as hard physically in winter as it is in summer and remember the extra gear means extra pack weight. You can climb styrofoam or softer snow, can you climb hard ice? Try some WI3 or 4 at the crags before you get 1000 feet up.
Know how to dig a snow cave. This is key to winter climbing. Go out, preferably in a snow storm and dig a cave close to the road and stay in it overnight. You don't want to try and learn during an emergency. You have to learn how and where to dig, how to stay as dry as possible while digging, and how to keep fresh air while maintaining cave warmth. Snow cave knowledge can even apply in summer on a peak like Rainier.
Learn the signs of hypothermia and how to avoid it. Icy hots, screaming barfies. If you are not climbing up or down you are digging a snow cave. If you're standing around for any length of time you are running in place. With a wind chill even puff pants and puff jacket won't keep you warm if you aren't moving.
Keep in mind this is by no means a comprehensive list. Further reading is required, suggest "Extreme Alpinism", "Alpine Climbing, Techniques to Take You Higher", FOTH. Three to five years of summer climbing before winter (at the same grade), or go with someone who's been there done that.
There's nothing wrong with pushing the limits, in this modern leisure society someone has to keep the gene pool sharp. Once you've done a peak a few times in summer and you need more challenge the same routes in winter can provide that additional challenge. But you have to realize with the extra challenge comes the extra difficulty and risk. Be prepared for it.
Rest In Peace fellow climbers. Hope you're climbing the climbs of your dreams.
Last edited by Buckaroo
on Sat Dec 19, 2009 5:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.