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Mt Hood - Falling Rocks - Sandy Glacier

June 19, 2000

Radio Notes - A note on VHF radio use, which (surprisingly) drew criticism following this incident. This criticism came from the Clakamas County Sheriffs office, which did apparently not know who the licensee of the SAR frequency is nor the intent of the licensee that it be used for emergencies such as this.

Report

Two active OMA members were involved in a rockfall incident at 7:30 am on June 20, 2000. This incident generated a great deal of media attention, including many instances of incomplete or inaccurate reporting. The members have asked that the OMA website serve as the central source of accurate information concerning their accident and we have agreed to that. This was not an OMA trip, and the OMA is not acting as a spokesperson in any way. Do not contact us for more information, contact the climbers directly.

The following information is directly from the two climbers involved. It covers the climbers, the route, the conditions, the climb, the descent after the rockfall, assessing the situation, calling for help, the rescue, and the injuries.

Summary

Two climbers were on the Sandy Glacier Headwall route on Mt Hood. At 7:30 am, while traversing above the glacier to the headwall, they were involved in a major rockfall event which initiated thousands of feet above on the upper buttress of the Yokum Ridge. Both climbers were struck by rocks. One had a severely swollen hand which was not broken. The other had a more serious hip injury. The two were initially able to continue, each under their own power, to a previously identified safe area. At that point the climber suffering a hip injury could not continue due to excessive shock. The two climbers assessed their injuries and their situation, hoping that they could stabilize the injuries enough to descend via McNeil point to the Lolo Pass road on their own. By 12:30 pm they realized and accepted that a rescue would be necessary. They attempted to call for help on their VHF radio using the state SAR frequency but were unsuccessful. They then scanned the channels on their Sport Radios and found they could receive a number of conversations on channels 1 and 2. They called for assistance on Channel 1 and received a response from Mike Wold who had been summoned by his sons Fletcher and Parker when they heard the call for assistance. Through Mike Wold the Clakamas county sheriff was informed of the situation and three ground teams were called out. The sheriff also asked the 939th rescue unit (Air Force reserve) if they would accept the mission and they did. Permission was obtained from the USFS for an air evacuation from their property. At approximately 5 PM June 20 the climbers were attended to and transported by the 939th Rescue team. They were taken to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in Portland. As of Wednesday evening June 21 both climbers had been released from the hospital and were able to return home without assistance.

The Climbers

The climbers involved were Iain Morris and Jim Frankenfield. Both are experienced with well over 20 years combined climbing experience. Both had some level of wilderness medical training (in excess of 100 hours between them). They had equipment typical for a climb such as this, including helmets, crampons, ice axes, harnesses, snow anchors and a climbing rope. They carried a hand-held VHF radio for emergency communication and sport radios for communication between them if they needed to separate. Both have rescue insurance as members of the American Alpine Club.

The Route

The Sandy Glacier Headwall route is on the west side of Mt Hood. It is not a frequently climbed route due largely to its distance from any trailheads. Iain and Jim followed the typical approach which is to climb up from Timberline Lodge on the south side to Illumination Saddle, then cross the Reid Glacier to Yokum Ridge. Like most routes on Mt Hood this one relies on snow for travel. It is an alpine climbing, or mountaineering, route. It is not a hike, nor is it a rock climb. The descent is typically down the south side route.

Conditions

The freezing level had been low but was beginning to rise at the time. The snow was refrozen enough to travel comfortably on with crampons. Snow cover on the route was good and only a very small section of the traverse around Yokum Ridge was bare. The headwall above the Sandy glacier which constitutes the main climb to the summit ridges appeared to have very good snow coverage. The climbers saw a couple of isolated rocks fall as they approached the Sandy Glacier, but not more than one at a time and not with a frequency that is unusual for the Oregon Cascades. The pair spent all day Tuesday on the Sandy Glacier and did not observe any further major rockfall events, even in the heat of the afternoon.

The Climb

The climbers left Timberline Lodge at about 1 am on Tuesday, which is a typical starting time for climbs on Mt Hood. They had heard about gaining the Reid Glacier south of Illumination Rock and attempted that but decided to go around the top of the rock through Illumination Saddle, which is probably the more common route. They negotiated the crevasses on the Reid Glacier and gained Yokum ridge at 8600' where it is supposedly best traversed. They found some steep and exposed snow traverses but good snow conditions. It was approximately 7 am when they reached the edge of the Sandy Glacier.

On the edge of the Sandy Glacier Basin they paused to evaluate the route and the terrain. A lower flat area on the other side of the glacier was identified as a safe area from which Cathedral Ridge could easily be gained if necessary. (From there it is possible to ascend Cathedral Ridge or to hike down past the McNeil Point shelter to the Lolo Pass road).

After reorganizing their equipment and making their terrain assessment the climbers worked out onto the upper reaches of the Sandy Glacier and began traversing across it to the headwall slopes. These slopes that are traversed here are inherently exposed to rockfall and the pair made steady progress without stopping. When they were about 50 ft from the end of the most exposed section a large rockfall came down from above. Iain noticed some rocks first and shouted. They both looked up and saw that the number of rocks was large and growing and that they were coming from far above, gaining speed and bouncing. They attempted to minimize their cross section by standing against the slope with their helmets uphill. Many rocks hit, and equipment inside the packs was damaged. Iain was hit hard on his helmet a couple times. His hand was shielding his face and was hit hard. Jim was hit very hard in the left hip.

After the Rockfall

The pair knew they had to move to a safer location. Jim weighted his left leg and found that he could use it with some difficulty. He could lower his weight onto it but could not climb up with it. The two immediately began a slightly traversing descent towards their previously identified safe area. They made good time considering their condition and were only about 50 yards short of their preferred location when Jim could not continue. There was clear blood loss from the hip and the effort of downclimbing had put him into a high state of shock. He felt nauseous and about to pass out. The climbers stopped and sat down and Jim felt somewhat better shortly, without losing consciousness.

Assessing the Situation

Although they were a little short of the intended destination they were in an area with very low hazard, so they stopped to assess the injuries and stabilize the situation. Jim had a major open hip wound underneath the pack hipstrap, harness, and pants. None of these layers were cut through. Iain had a very swollen hand but could still use it to some degree. No further significant injuries were uncovered. Iain attempted to stop the bleeding from Jims hip wound with direct pressure. This was difficult due to the nature of the wound and Iains hand injury. After a while they put the webbing belt from Jims pants over the bandaging on the wound and tightened it. Along with some rest this seemed to slow or stop the bleeding over time.

The two still hoped to be able to stabilize the wounds and get off the mountain on their own. After a couple hours Jim felt much better while lying down and asked Iain to assist him in standing up. The process of standing was painful, although once standing he was ok. However, walking was not possible even with support from Iain. So Jim returned to a prone position which was not painful. As the day warmed there seemed to be a small chance of a rock rolling down to about the area where they were located, so Iain pulled Jim downhill the final 50 yards to the original destination using their emergency tarp .

About 12:15 they attempted to get up again, but it was clear once again that Jim would be unable to walk. At this time they decided that they had allowed five hours for improvement and that it wasn't happening. They were also aware that if a rescue was to be initiated it would be best done well before dark. So they made the decision to seek outside help.

Calling for Assistance

At about 12:30 Jim attempted to call for help on the state SAR frequency. Neither climber new if this was continuously monitored, and no response was received. It is also possible the VHF radio was somehow set up wrong initially. Later it did work OK, but there seemed to be some problems for a while. After calling for assistance at 12:30 they felt it was best just to monitor for a response for a while, and they waited for 10 minutes or so. During part of this time the radio was on scan in order to listen for activity on any of its frequencies.

After getting no response on the VHF radio the two decided to see if anything could be picked up on the sport radios. They could hear broken transmissions on Channel 2 with music in the background, leading them to believe it might be somebody at Timberline Lodge. The transmissions were too broken up to attempt to respond so they checked other channels. On Channel 1 they could hear several conversations, with one or two voices being quite clear.

After listening to Channel 1 for a while they broke in with a call for assistance. There was no immediate response and some conversations continued, so the people the climbers heard most clearly may not have heard them. After a few minutes they did get a reply from Mike Wold in McMinnville, about 80 miles away. Mikes two sons Fletcher and Parker had heard the call for assistance and gone to get him.

Mike was asked to contact the Clakamas County Sheriffs department. He was informed that the situation was stable and that the climbers were in a safe area at 7000 ft. He was also informed that the pair had a SAR channel radio and that Jim, the one requiring evacuation, had rescue insurance. This information was passed onto the deputy in charge of rescue.

Later in the afternoon the climbers did pick up USFS personnel in the Willamette Forest to the south. At that time the rescue had been initiated and no effort was made to contact those people on the VHF.

The Rescue

There were initially some problems using the VHF radio but ultimately the climbers could talk to the deputy, the volunteer rescue groups responding, and ultimately the air rescue team using this radio. Initially, Mike Wold relayed information.

The sheriffs deputy initially called for three ground teams and members of AMR in Sandy and Portland Mountain Rescue were called to the mountain. He then requested that the Air Force rescue team (939th) take on the mission. Meanwhile the sky was filled with media helicopters, most of them in violation of the 5 mile and 9000' air space restriction.

It was 4:30 or so when the 939th came out to the mountain. As they approached they were pretty much on target but requested a bearing from the climbers to them. When that bearing was radioed to them a small change of course was obvious and they approached on almost a perfect straight line. They flew around the area to assess the terrain and plan their rescue, then they lowered three rescuers and a litter onto the edge of the glacier just below us.

The paramedics packaged Jim up thoroughly in a litter on a backboard with a C collar. All personnel and the litter were winched up into the helicopter which proceeded to Legacy Emanuel hospital in Portland.

The Injuries

Iains hand was examined and he was released. Jim was thoroughly examined and tested and nothing in addition to the hip injury was found. An x-ray showed a fragment on the outer edge of the hip broken off. A CT scan showed three unique fragments. The final word, and decision on what to do, was left for the Operating Room (OR). At about 10 PM Tuesday Jim was admitted to the operating room and the wound was cleaned and examined under general anesthetic. There were actually numerous fragments, many of them small. The fragments were picked out and the wound was cleaned and closed. Jim was out of the OR at about midnight.

Due to the possibility of bone infection the hospital held Jim through Wednesday until a course of IV antibiotics was complete. After the last one at 6 PM his anxious requests to be released were granted and he left the hospital. A friend of Iains took both Jim and Iain to Mt Hood to retrieve their vehicles and both drove home on their own.

As of Thursday evening Jim could walk short distances, including stairs with difficulty. Three or four days later he could bicycle locally. No further surgery on his hip is expected. Iain returned to work Thursday. Both were climbing in the Canadian Rockies in mid-August, although Jim had to quit after summiting the two largest peaks in the area while Iain was able to climb a third peak with others in the group.

Thanks

Jim would like to thank everyone at Legacy Emanuel for their medical care, their assistance in handling the media during the 48 hours of hype following the incident, and for their respect of his privacy during this period of initial care.

Iain and Jim both would like to thank AMR for their quick ground response. They were at the trailhead a very short time after our call for assistance went out. Both climbers also appreciate the response and initial care of the 939th rescue team, as well as their refreshing professionalism. They also thank Fletcher and Parker Wold for taking the radio call seriously and getting their father Mike; and they appreciate Mikes efforts at conveying information to the proper authorities.

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