Below is the (*long*) trip report compiled by the parties involved within days of the incident for submission to Search&Rescue. You may notice a some variations from the much abbreviated NPS version. While this is a long read, it may interest those wishing to understand the situation more accurately. Lessons learned are included at the end. Names have been changed.
There were two teams involved, totaling eight people. During the climb, one of the teams became separated. While members of the two teams were familiar with each other, the two teams were separate and only happened to be in the same place at the same time. The activities of the Other Party will be described only when they pertain to the S&R response.
• Orange Rope – Trish and Tiana
• Green Rope – Molly and Sam
(Green and Orange are Molly’s group)
• Other Party – Abby, Conner, John, Sally
Parties climbing this route must use their own discretion regarding simul-climbing and belayed pitches. For this reason, it can be difficult to pinpoint exact locations and even the length of a “pitch” is difficult to define. Photographs are included with estimated locations labels.
On Saturday, 27 July, all of the parties made their way to Wing Lake from the Rainy Pass trailhead without incident. The two teams briefly chat, and Molly’s team decides to get up at 04:30. Other Party had previously settled on a 03:30 wake-up.
On Sunday, 28 July, the weather was clear as everyone woke up, and after the sun came up around 5:30, the temperature steadily rose from the 40’s into the 60’s and 70’s midday. The weather began to deteriorate midday, and by 16:00-17:00, there were lightning strikes visible in the area. After this squall, the weather cleared up and by sunset, thunderstorm activity had ceased.
Each member of the two teams carried the ten essentials. The Orange Rope is ~40m long, the Green Rope is ~36m long. Sam carried a Spot locator beacon.
Orange Rope and Green Rope – Wake up at Wing Lake
Orange Rope and Green Rope – Walk up toward the route
Orange Rope and Green Rope – Rack up at the base of the route.
Orange Rope – Lead out with Trish in the lead position with a radio, Tiana second. Simulclimbing.
Green Rope – Behind the Orange Rope with Sam in the lead, Molly second with a radio. Also simul-climbing.
3 Pitches In
Orange Rope and Green Rope – Movement stops, Trish explains to Molly on the radio that she is having routefinding troubles and asks Sam to come up for a discussion. Sam arrives near Trish, and Molly arrives near Tiana. It is decided that the Green Rope will move into the lead position with the Orange Rope following. Molly considers that the 1st and 4th persons should have the radios, so she hands her radio over to Tiana. As Molly moves past Trish, she mentions that Tiana now has her radio, but no mention is made of Trish’s radio. This means that both radios are now on the Orange Rope.
Orange Rope – The new route involves downclimbing, which makes Tiana nervous, so Trish anchors in to belay. Then Tiana anchors in to belay Trish up to the ridge. There is some confusion despite Molly explaining the route, resulting in Trish ending up on loose rock that is significantly harder than 5.4, but she eventually makes it to the ridge, near Point ❶. While they were still simul-climbing, Tiana pulls a rock and some dirt down on herself and takes a fall while simul-climbing. Trish does not notice due to the rope drag, and fortunately Tiana is unhurt, but between this and having to traverse a section that Trish admittedly didn’t protect well for the follower, she is feeling sketched out.
Green Rope – Waits about ½ pitch ahead, at Point ❶, for 20 minutes as Trish builds the anchor. Molly tries to explain the route, but as mentioned in previous paragraph, this does not result in faster movement. After 20 minutes, Green Rope continues onward 1 pitch for a better view. Orange Rope does not appear to be moving. Green Rope shouts to Orange Rope and gets confirmation of “OK but moving slow on tough terrain.” Green Rope waits a further 20 minutes at this spot, and then continues onward one more pitch. Orange Rope is out of view, and no response can be heard when Green Rope calls out to Orange Rope. Green Rope waits 20 minutes here, and then continues one pitch. From this location, Green Rope can see Orange Rope, and can see that Trish is looking for the next part of the route. Green Rope shouts to indicate route, and Trish responds affirmatively. Molly gives more route finding tips for the next portion. Green Rope continues on, reassured that Orange Rope is back on route. There is no visibility or contact from here until Green Rope arrives at “False Summit.”
Green Rope – Arrives at “False Summit.” Can see Other Party ahead, proceeding toward summit block. Can also see from this vantage point that Trish has arrived at Point ❶, a ledge with a small evergreen tree where Sam had earlier belayed. Some shouting is possible, and Green Rope can see that Trish builds an anchor and waits until Tiana breaks down the previous anchor and moves out.
Orange Rope – Trish is still belaying Tiana up to the ridge when the Green team reaches the “False Summit.” Now that she is back on the ridge, Trish thinks they should be able to move faster. However it takes a while for Tiana to climb through the difficult off route section up to Trish’s anchor, having to take once. By the time Tiana joins Trish at the anchor, Green Rope is no longer in sight or earshot.
Green Rope – Rain can be seen in the distance. Green Rope continues on, out of view of Orange Rope. Green stops to look and shout after each pitch, but there is no contact. Options are discussed: downclimbing, waiting, getting help, etc., but climbing continues.
Green Rope – Arrives at the base of the summit block. Other Party is rappelling from the summit.
Other Party – Discusses situation with Green Rope. Based on the situation, can only assume that Orange Rope is still moving albeit slowly. Offers food, water, space blanket but Green Rope decides not to take anything at this point. Other Party departs via the South Scramble descent route at ~15:00.
Green Rope – Waits at Point ❸, the furthest back they feel safe going without belayed downclimbing, and closest to where they expect Orange Rope to be coming from. Options are discussed, including sending out SOS via the Spot, but this seems premature and would provide an inaccurate location (Green Rope’s location instead of the Orange Rope). Lots of shouting and looking, but no contact. Green Rope figures that Orange Rope was 1.5-2 hours behind, and the last time they saw Orange Rope was about 2 hours ago at 13:00. Climbing gets easier after the “False Summit,” which is the farthest point back Green Rope can see. Decides that if no sign of the Orange Rope can be seen by 17:00, Green Rope will descend and if no further sign can be seen during the descent, will get back to camp and hike out to get help.
Green Rope – Thunder and lightning in the area. After building many cairns to indicate the start of the South Scramble descent, Molly writes a note and places it in a very large cairn at the northernmost point of the un-roped section. Green Rope begins descent.
Other Party – Arrives in camp, having seen no sign of either Green or Orange Ropes on the descent. Packs up and prepares to hike out. Concern grows due to the weather. Options are discussed, including staying and even having two members re-climb the route, but cannot conclude that help is needed at this point.
Orange Rope – Continues climbing, with Trish making very deliberate moves and spending a lot of time double-checking placements and anchors now that she knows they are separated. Trish hears Molly yelling at one point, perhaps something about cairns, but her response is not heard by the Green Rope. Both Trish and Tiana are nervous, but they continue climbing knowing that the best option is to get up and over rather than downclimbing the route or rappelling the face. Trish encounters more routefinding issues, but they keep going.
Other Party – Departs Wing Lake. Taking a final passing glance at the mountain, John notices figures on the snowfield leading down from the South Scramble route. After a moment, it becomes clear that there are only two figures, so Other Party decides to wait at Wing Lake in case help is needed.
Green Rope and Other Party – Green Rope informs Other Party that they did not see the Orange Rope at the summit after three hours. A discussion ensues, and a plan is made. Other Party writes down relevant rescue information and will hike out tonight. Since no evidence of injury or incident has come up, the assumption will be that the Orange Team is simply moving very slowly but is unhurt. Therefore, Other Party will not call S&R until noon the next day if no further word is received. Green Rope will stay at Wing Lake until either Orange Rope arrives in camp, or rescue personnel arrive. This gives Orange Rope the rest of the evening plus most of the morning to make it out before an S&R request is made. Other Party will also contact loved ones and inform them of the situation so that they don’t make a premature call to S&R and there is only one call being made if at all. After leaving most of their food, Other Party departs, and Green Rope hunkers down for the night.
Orange Rope – Reaches a nice ledge and sees cairns. Still seem to be a long way from the “False Summit.” Trish is having trouble focusing and is becoming indecisive. She’s been lead climbing for 12 hours at this point and it seems unlikely they will be able to reach the descent route tonight, so even though sunset is still an hour away, they decide to stop for the night.
Green Rope – Around 21:00, Green Rope spots a headlamp on the ridge. It seems to be in the same spot where they were last seen at 13:00, Point ❷. This seems to indicate that they have not moved much if at all in 8 hours, so something must be wrong. However, having one person hike out in the dark alone is dangerous and someone should still stay in camp, so Green Rope decides to stay put. At 04:00, Molly will hike out.
Other Party – Around 21:30, Other Party also sees the headlamp on the ridge. A photo is taken, giving the location of the headlamp, Point ❷. Other Party also concludes that based on the position, the likelihood that something has happened has gone up significantly, and S&R should be called as soon as possible instead of at noon. The photo is later emailed to S&R.
Orange Rope – Can see headlamps at Wing Lake and near Heather Pass. Tiana uses her headlamp to signal back, but not knowing any code, all anybody can do is just flash back and forth. Trish keeps her radio on for a while, hoping maybe someone would find another radio back at camp or find another party with a radio, but after a while shuts it down to conserve power.
Other Party – Arrives at trailhead. Leaves a note on Molly’s car informing of the decision to call S&R as soon as possible due to the headlamp sighting. Heads out toward Newhalem.
Other Party – Arrives Newhalem. Sally calls 911 with the rest of the team on speaker in the car, and after about 10 minutes, K.B. from NPS North Cascades calls back. She quickly establishes the situation, and says that the options are to send in rangers on foot first thing in the morning, or to spin up the helicopter. At this point, no decision is made on this. Sally will send the photo of the headlamp on the ridge when she gets home, and will remain the contact person for the time being. Further calls are made to loved ones of the Orange and Green Ropes to inform them of the situation.
Green Rope – Molly departs Wing Lake solo, not knowing that S&R has been called. She packs out the trad gear, trash, one stove, and one bivy. Leaves one stove, water filter, rope, tent, and one bivy at Wing Lake with Sam.
Orange Rope – Sees first light around 04:10, but decides to wait for better light to start moving. Is unaware that S&R has been called.
Orange Rope – Starts moving out. Move up and onto the ridge, continues pitching out routes with both agreeing that it looked pretty mellow, requiring less protection. Ended up simul-climbing a short section because Trish went a full rope length and could not find a suitable place to build an anchor. One radio was dead at this point, and the other appeared to be dying, so they are both turned off.
Green Rope – Molly arrives at trailhead, and sees note from Other Party. She drives E, reaching cell reception near Mazama, WA, and calls Sally.
Other Party – Having returned to Seattle after making the 911 call, Sally remains available on the phone to K.B. as well as others, and acts as impromptu point of contact. Hears from Molly and informs her of the S&R response, and after consulting with K.B., relays that Molly should go back to the trailhead to assist with the rescue personnel there.
Green Rope – Molly arrives back at trailhead. Rescue personnel are just setting up.
Orange Rope – As Trish arrives at the end of the third pitch, just below what she believes is the “False Summit,” the NPS helicopter arrives on the scene. She is upset to see the helicopter, making the situation seem more serious and hating that she was about to be “one of those people that had to get rescued,” and very scared to be short hauled. Trish and Tiana are also unsure whether it is okay to request to be rescued since they are not actually hurt. She gives the helicopter a thumbs up, hoping they could just keep climbing on their own. However, she reaches the top of a wall where she had hoped to see the summit and the way down, and sees only more climbing so she is unsure if they are actually on the “False Summit.” Trish regrets not waving the helicopter down.
11:00 – Noon
Orange Rope – The helicopter returns, and this time, a ranger is hanging from the helicopter. Tiana is lifted out first, and then Trish. They are back at Wing Lake by noon. Despite her initial reluctance to be short hauled Trish is relieved and very grateful to the rescuers. Over the course of two days she had lead climbed for 16 hours and was ready to stop thinking. The longer they climbed the greater the risk of injury so the rescue was very much appreciated and needed. After meeting and discussing with K.B., they pack up camp and start hiking out with Sam, who takes as much heavy gear as he can (both ropes and trad gear).
Green and Orange Ropes – Back together on the trail, as Molly had hiked back in to meet the descending three after learning that they were okay, and help carry packs. Also with her is Sam’s girlfriend, who had driven out in the morning.
Dinner in Marblemount. Everyone is off the mountain safe.
• Many small errors confounded to lead into the situation.
• The rope teams became separated after the Orange Rope started having trouble with routefinding. When a less experienced/slower rope team is leading, the group tends to stay together even though the second team may feel impatient at times. However, when the more experienced/faster team is leading, the group will have a natural tendency to drift apart. They should have discussed what the expectations are in terms of speed and spacing, and how often to wait.
• Once the teams became separated, the lack of communication then became a major contributing factor. Had the radios been properly distributed, the Orange Rope could have let the Green Rope know that they weren’t hurt, but just moving slowly. Having lost contact, the best one can do is make assumptions.
• Team dynamics contributed to the situation in several ways: the four members of the team were not all familiar with each other prior to this climb and this lack of familiarity may have contributed to a reluctance to ask the lead rope to wait/slow down.
• Experience levels may not have been level loaded in the best way. Trish was a competent crag climber, but this was her first alpine lead. Tiana was also on her first alpine technical climb. Molly had alpine rock experience (Ingalls, the Tooth), but is a more nervous leader. Sam had the most technical experience but was the newest to the group and did not know as much of the others’ history.
• The commitment factor of this route contributed to the situation: there was no easy way to bail once on the route. The only feasible way to go, as long as both climbers were physically able, was up and over. Furthermore, it would have been very difficult for the Green Rope to downclimb or rappel back to the Orange Rope to check on them.
• In planning a climb, it is important to choose the right climb for the party, instead of picking a climbing goal and then filling the slots on the team without regard to their abilities, experience, and risk tolerance – arguably a form of “summit fever.”
• There is a very large gradient in the “alpine” world of technical climbing. One cannot rely on a grade and basic route description to understand truly the challenges involved with the climb.
• As a first alpine lead, this climb was a challenge beyond expectations. At the very least, it would have been beneficial to be able to swap leads – being on lead for many hours straight is mentally exhausting. With practice, routefinding, gear placement, and anchor building become more proficient.
• Everyone had the ten essentials (with the exception of one headlamp).
• Orange rope was able to recognize that daylight was short and that they were tired – stopping at a good location rather than having a location forced upon them by nightfall.
• Trish and Tiana did not panic, recognizing that the safest option was to continue up, climbing within their comfort level, even though it was slow.
• The coordination between the Green Rope and Other Party, once established, was good.
• The Other Party was sent out with all of the relevant information (location, parties involved, last known location, known plans, make model license of car, etc.) for rescue personnel.
• Staying at Wing Lake after the headlamp was sighted on the ridge meant that the Molly didn’t put herself at unnecessary risk by hiking out in the dark alone.