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JasonG

[TR] Lewis Peak - West face(ish) up, down NW ridge 1/27/2014

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Trip: Lewis Peak - West face(ish) up, down NW ridge

 

Date: 1/27/2014

 

Trip Report:

Like most folks, when I was a young climber I thought I was invincible. Accidents happened to the inexperienced, poorly skilled, and inattentive, or so I thought- they weren't going to happen to me. I didn't spend much time thinking about getting hurt in the hills and didn't know anyone that had been killed or seriously hurt in the mountains. Fast forward fifteen years, and a lot has changed for me. I've lost three close friends in the mountains, helped recover the body of one, and had other friends severely injured and nearly killed in "freak" accidents. These are people who are/were every bit as experienced as myself (sometimes much more so)- solid climbers who I would trust my life to. I couldn't avoid coming to the conclusion a few years ago that alpine climbing wasn't so safe.

 

But the problem is, it's a habit I haven't been able to shake, despite the evidence that it might not be good for my health. Perhaps it's because I'm still in denial- I certainly don't think when I head out on a trip and say goodbye to my wife and kids that I won't be coming home in one piece. If I did, there is no way that it would be fun any longer. I've had friends that have stopped alpine climbing after starting a family, and I respect their decisions, even though it is something I haven't been able to bring myself to do. So, I suppose to convince myself that I'm mitigating the risk, I've adopted an approach where I pick my routes somewhat conservatively with an eye towards objective danger (no Price Gl. for me), only tie in with solid partners, carry a PLB, watch weather/conditions closely and change objectives if needed, and stay as fit as I can. And, I've tried to learn as much as possible from the inevitable accidents that happen locally and regionally each season.

 

That was the reason I headed up Lewis Peak earlier this week to check of the site of recent accident involving Franklin Bradshaw. I didn't know Franklin personally, but he was a friend of friends and as solid of a climber as they come. It is accidents like his that really give me pause as I put on my harness in the mountains, and I am always looking for lessons that I can apply to my own climbing habits. Reading an accident report is often helpful, but visiting the scene can drive the lessons home in a different way.

 

On Monday I found the Sunrise Mine road a bit icy for the Civic, even with chains, and ended up leaving it a few hundred yards from the highway and walking the 2 miles to the TH. The trail to the climber's path turnoff was snow free and I was soon in the massive avalanche swath below Lewis and Morning Star Peaks, following melted out tracks up the valley. The map below shows the route I took up (red) and down (blue), a variation from the way that Franklin and his partner went (blue, more or less):

 

Lewis_map.JPG

 

The way I went, went (I had scoped it from a photo taken from Morning Star years before), but it was steeper and icier than I expected (50+ degrees, recently scoured by avalanches). Without the whippet I would have been unhappy, but it was all fairly manageable with plastic boots and steel crampons. I had to scramble a narrow arete to connect the initial gulley with the west face, but the rock was pretty solid and nothing more than exposed 4th class (I was relieved that it went, reversing the gully would have been tedious). The final 700 vertical feet was ascended on the west face on straightforward very icy snow (~40-50 degrees), with lots of small trees to yard/rest the calves on. I arrived at the summit ridge and cornices about 3.5 hours after leaving the car, just in time for a brief break in the high clouds to flood the scene with that wonderfully warm winter sun.

 

The large section of missing cornice with footsteps leading up to it was just a few feet from the highest point. There was a line of rocks and trees marking the ridgeline, and the failure had happened only about 18 inches from the nearest ridge top clue (rocks and a tree peeking out of the snow). I was able to stand on a rock and peer over the edge at the long drop to the steep slope below, and I could see the large debris pile several thousand feet below. I took a few photos and retreated a couple steps below the crest to eat my lunch and think. How many times had I or my partners walked slightly outboard of trees/rocks along a corniced ridge line? What other seemingly innocuous things that we do in the mountains on a regular basis could lead to similar consequences?

 

I had plenty of time to continue pondering these things as I carefully worked by way down the NW ridge, retracing Franklin's ascent route. I often stopped and turned around to look back up towards the summit to see what he surely must have seen on his way up the peak - large cornices hanging over the NE side of the ridge. I took several detours on the way down to stray farther from the ridge crest (the steps were too close for my comfort level given the cornices), even though it meant more annoying icy sidehilling. I was a little spooked, and took extra time and care on the down climb, given the very icy conditions (it didn't help that I had been on the rescue of a badly injured climber on Baker the day before). On the pleasant walk back to my car I continued to mull over Franklin's accident, but didn't come up with anything more than don't walk outboard of terra firma clues on a corniced ridge. Not terribly earth shattering, but I think most of staying safe in the mountains (on moderate routes) isn't that complicated. Plan ahead, pay attention, speak up, always keep your mind open to learning new things, listen to your gut, and don't think too highly of your abilities- habits that serve you well in most aspects of life. I think the problem is usually one of complacency, and I am not immune. I hate that it often takes these kinds of accidents to remind me of that fact.

 

It's unfortunate that Franklin couldn't be writing a TR on Lewis Peak, knowing how much he loved to take pictures and share stories of his trips. Hopefully we can all take the time to learn from the accidents that we come across and not let our guard down in the hills. That said, nothing is guaranteed, and nobody is getting out of here alive. Carpe diem.

 

Sperry:

2014Lewis7460.jpg

 

Del Campo from the ridge connecting to the West Face of Lewis:

2014Lewis7470.jpg

 

Fluted slopes on the summit ridge of Morning Star:

2014Lewis7481.jpg

 

The slabs of Morning Star already were started to shed the season's snow pack. This usually doesn't happen until the spring, and you need to be careful when timing trips up this valley:

2014Lewis7482.jpg

 

The cornice that took Franklin fell off the left side of the photo. you can see how close it failed to the rocks and krummholz:

2014Lewis7476.jpg

 

North side of Del Campo close up:

2014Lewis7486.jpg

 

West face of Sloan without much ice:

2014Lewis7502.jpg

 

Spire Mountain, Chimney Rock, Lemah (L-R):

2014Lewis7499.jpg

 

Vesper and Sperry (L-R):

2014Lewis7514.jpg

 

Upper South Fork Stillaguamish Valley:

2014Lewis7509.jpg

 

Gear Notes:

steel crampons, helmet, axe, whippet or second tool helpful given icy conditions

 

Approach Notes:

4WD HC (w/chains) should get you to the the TH right now. There is a faint trail that leaves the Headlee pass trail before crossing of the SF Stillaguamish (just a small creek at this point). A few hundred yards from the trail you break out in the avalanche paths of Lewis/Morning Star/Del Campo.

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I think you've got it there 'don't walk outboard of the terra firma clues'. Respect for the trip and the great photo essay. It's the damned cornices every time. I've been here for 6 years & it's the damned cornices, nearly every time.

 

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Amazing photos, as always Jason. But what sets this apart are your reflections on the risks, that so many of us grapple with.

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Thanks Jason. I enjoy the thought provoking TR's the most, and this is a good one.Your pictures as always are really beautiful.

 

I can relate to much of what you write about the continual evaluations we should make on our personal involvement in mountaineering. In my case, I discovered there was an alpine climber inside of me in the mid 70's, only after I had a beautiful wife and two kids. Climbing was not just an activity I could discontinue once I got into it. My wife and I have found ways to deal with it. She is not a climber. It helped that I have always been able to return to her. One concession I made was getting a GPS a few years ago. I go back and forth on the technology vs adventure issues… I've certainly had my share of close calls and have had the mountains take friends and acquaintances over the years. And I know I've had my share of luck too.

 

The mountains have given me so much, and at the same time I wonder how much longer I should pursue, what is definitely a young man's (and woman's) game. I am in my 60th year now and continue to train, and plan for the upcoming season. My family includes grandchildren now. Seems like I read stories about good, "experienced" climbers dying on climbs more frequently than I ever have before. Usually guys in their 50's somewhere...

 

The challenge, and the fun, is pushing ourselves to grow as human beings and for me the mountains provide a way to facilitate that. So, for now, I will continue.

 

d

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Thank you Jason. Stellar photos; I would that they weren't somber. They help to make it more real. Thank you for making the trip.

 

Your photos and photos from others who have returned to Lewis' summit all show the same view of a fractured cornice with a single set of footprints nearby. Can you help me make that fit with the accident narrative?

 

After taking photos, I descended 50 or 60 feet to the west side of the crest to a spot next to a couple of small trees in order to reduce being buffeted by a westerly wind. I opened up my backpack to put on more clothing and to get out some food and fluids. As I was doing this, Franklin descended next to me. He remarked that he needed to get out of the wind. I vaguely noticed Franklin moving off to my right, as I continued to fuss with getting more clothing on.

 

Next I heard a sharp crack and quickly looked up to my right towards the south ridge line of Lewis Peak and to my horror Franklin had disappeared.

 

As I read this, it sounds like they were descending side-by-side, with Franklin closer to the ridgeline. Did you see a second broken cornice down-ridge from the summit?

 

Thanks again!

 

--Charlie

 

 

Franklin's accident catalyzed a short essay on risk for new climbers, it is here.

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Charlie-

 

The way I read it is that he dropped down to a small group of trees about 50' from the summit (there is a spot that matches his description up there). He got there first, and Franklin joined him a short time later. Since this is on the west side of the summit, it was not sheltered from the stiff west wind and Franklin went back up to the top to see if he could get out of the wind on the east side of the summit (a guess), perhaps thinking the that the cornices ended on the south side of the summit. He might have been trying to peer over and see if there was a sheltered spot just over the edge. However, to my eye the whole ridge seemed pretty corniced, so I wonder if he would have thought he could dodge the wind on that side safely? Or, maybe he wanted to get some more photos?

 

In the end though, I don't think that the exact circumstances are that important for us trying to learn from it.

 

It looks like the footprints below the fracture are from the partner trying to get to a good vantage to see what happened. That said, at least two other parties went up to the top of Lewis between Franklin's party and myself so the prints may be from one of the other parties as well.

 

No other broken cornices up there.

 

Thanks for the link to your essay. I'm going for 90 though (well past 30 already); when Dallas left us at 71 on the Pleiades, it was far too young.

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Great pictures as usual Jason! Risk management in the backcountry is something that I could be better at.

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Well done Jason, great pictures and a thoughtfull write up. I quit Alpine climbing altogether even before we had our kids. The wife and I had some very close calls...we saw the writing on the wall. Like you, we had a number of friends die alpine climbing.

 

We still do some backcountry skiing, but cautiously. Cragging is good enough for me. I do miss the photos up high.

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