Solo Climber Survives Avalanche on Mt Rainier
This is just a short and partial account of one of a series of events which happened to me over ten years ago on Mt Rainer while my usual annual solo attempt of the Kautz Glacier route, which started out seemingly as a routine and innocent mountaineering adventure with the best climbing conditions I’ve ever experienced on this mountain, and suddenly turned into a multi-day struggle with constantly deteriorating weather and route conditions which ultimately led to various decisions enabling getting off the mountain in a life-threatening environment.Place
In the middle of Kautz Glacier, there are two parallel gullies divided by a long icy ridge-like formation. The formation consists of various shapes and sizes of rocks, ice and crevasses. One gully provides access to the upper Kautz Glacier and the other (on the way back) to Camp Hazard located at 11,300 feet. Going up the mountain, after reaching Camp Hazard, climbers have to usually descend the first gully a bit (and go around the ice where both gullies merge) to gain the access to the second gully and then climb up the steepest part of this route (up to 65 deg) to the upper Kautz Glacier. Depending on the conditions this gully may be filled in with easy-to-travel snow or, at other times, covered with hard, black ice requiring technical tools and (preferably) ice-climbing skill. The gully closer to Camp Hazard, however, ends with a massive vertical ice cliff, Kautz Ice Cliff, which may be very alluring to ice climbers but in fact, in spite of its shiny beauty, it is the most dangerous passage on this route -- often throwing down rocks and avalanches which appear unexpectedly from the cliff's top. Sometimes on my way up, the gully appeared to be very clean and safe and then on my way down, just a few hours later, disturbed by rocks, snow and ice debris.Conditions
It was late spring or early summer (most likely end of June, I don't keep detailed logs of my climbs). The sky was blue with some clouds appearing around the mountain. It was supposed to be a nice day otherwise. However, I was experienced enough to understand that something unfavorable was most likely possible to happen even though the overall conditions were the best ever I had seen on this route and expected this attempt to be my fastest. Unfortunately, the big storm came very quickly soon after I left Camp Hazard and started climbing up the second gully leading to the upper Kautz Glacier. Whiteout conditions with strong winds and practically constant snowfalls continued over the next few days. I made an emergency camp around 13,500 feet and, while still hoping for the summit, spent two nights in the tent in a very noisy and treacherous environment before making the decision to escape.Escape
After running down across the upper Kautz Glacier almost in a straight line, jumping over any indication of possible hidden crevasses (two days ago some of them were clearly defined or visible), I stopped at the top of the steep gully and strategized. I then started climbing the slope down slowly and carefully while at the same time testing the snow. I felt like climbing down steep but soft stairs. It was very comfortable and as I progressed and gained more confidence and trust in the snow I increased my pace. However, as usual just in case, I held my both ice tools ready for self-arrest to stop a fall if I slipped. It was hard to believe how easily and comfortably I was able to "walk down" the slope which most often required down-climbing or rappelling. My happiness and ignorance did not last too long, however, and was interrupted by a sudden characteristic noisy click.Incident
The abrupt noise below my feet expanding out from one side to the other across the gully's width grabbed my attention instantly. I stopped and instinctively, but with caution, looked down my feet and then to my left and right to examine what was happening around me and could not believe what I saw. The snow below my feet just opened up for about a couple of feet down and about a foot or so depth in, all the way from the rocky cliff on my right to the icy cliff on my left (through the whole width of the gully). The crack in the snow was perpendicular to the direction of my descent.
My heart stopped beating and my body froze. My brain was the only part of me still fully functioning and intensely analyzing the situation. "I stepped on top of a hidden crevasse," the first impression entered my mind. "No, that's not possible. There are no crevasses on this slope. Not here. Not now. And for sure not that wide. I remembered seeing here some icy deep cracks over my previous attempts but in completely different conditions (late in the season). What the f*** is this then? And why I'm still standing on the surface instead of going down in the crack?" I kept speculating trying to figure out what was really happening and thus how to respond. But before I was able to come to any conclusion, an unexpected sensation suddenly interrupted my speculation and inexorable forces rapidly pulled my legs down the slope. It felt like someone had strangled my legs with rope and without any warning sharply pulled me down the slope.
Losing my balance, I instinctively bellowed, "A-va-lanche!!!" while at the same time throwing my ice tools up into air to reposition them and catching them back, firmly grabbing the lower parts of the shafts, turning my body around and then throwing myself on the slope facing the snow with my head up and immediately striking one of my ice tools forcefully in the snow surface which just cleared up above me from the avalanche as it slid down. "F***!!!" The ice tool popped up. "Wrong angle! This f***ing snow is harder than it looks," I realized. "Do it again!" I rushed myself and with desperation tried to place my ice tool in the icy surface above me again and failed once more. "F***ing sh*t!" I screamed in my mind. While picking up speed I realized I was running out of time quickly and had to come up with some solution, do something fast but properly enough to stop the slide. "Swing the axe with a proper angle, the arc!" I screamed at myself with anger and then rushed with hope, "Do it now!" And while sliding on my stomach with my legs down I raised my right arm up again to swing it before the next strike but somehow suddenly my body rolled over onto my back and now I was sliding down on my back, or rather on my backpack, losing precious time. "F***! Sh*t!" I screamed furiously in my mind.
It occurred to me that the situation became very, very serious. My desperate moves proved to be ineffective. I was scared and frustrated at the same time. I felt like I tried everything but the forces were too strong, my techniques imperfect, and there was nothing more I was able to do to save myself from free sliding. And now, while sliding on my back, below on my way I could see perfectly the horizon line getting closer and closer and closer. It horrified me even more. I was aware that after this line the slope was steepening considerably and my chances to self-arrest were dramatically diminished if possible at all.
My imagination of what was going to happen after I pass the line amplified my emotions. I felt really frightened and defenseless. "Do I still have enough time? Is it even possible to self-arrest in such conditions? I'm sliding on the top of a big chunk of snow too thick to penetrate with my ice tool and likewise impenetrable is the snow cleared above me. Perhaps trying makes no sense at all. Perhaps I am not able to do anything effective at all. Or perhaps the slope somewhere down there flattens and my body might be able to get to rest by itself. Perhaps I should let go," the feeling of resignation started slowly filling up and dominating my mind and paralyzing my muscles. "Just wait. Don’t worry. Everything should be fine. Sooner or later you may stop somewhere down there on a soft and gentle slope and the whole terror may end up peacefully. Relax! Let nature take care of it. Soon it will be all over," some voices kept reinforcing my resignation and calming me down and putting my consciousness asleep. I became passive, sleepy, indifferent, and motionless; all background noises started losing their clarity and strength and shortly after became completely silent and my brain locked itself out of the external world. I felt like being in a dream. I was dreaming. I gave in.
To be continued (some day)...
Supposedly two people died on the mountain during that storm. At the TH I learned from the climbing ranger about already one fatality and, on my way back home, at the Ranger Station in OR I was told about the second fatality.
Be always aware, never count on luck in the mountains, and never give in.
It's not the mountain; it's the route. It's not the route; it's the conditions.
© February 17, 2016 Marek R. Damm
If you have no control, hope is the only what’s left.
If you have any control, fight for your life like a samurai.
And never, ever give in!
Glad to stay alive again
© 2016 Marek Rudolf Damm
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