The plan for this weekend was simple: climb Mt. Adams twice to get in some good training. So I did. Or almost.
Before we left for the Cold Springs trailhead on Saturday, June 18, 2016, I checked the weather forecast again at 4am. It looked terrible for Saturday, but brilliant for Sunday. We decided to sleep in until 6am in the hope that when we’d get there, the worst may be over. That strategy didn’t pan out well.
In anticipation of the inclement weather, I packed all my heavy winter mountaineering gear, including snowshoes. When we got to the trailhead at around 9:30am, it was cold and windy, but the sun peaked out between the clouds. While Ursina set up camp, I got ready. I wasn’t keen to go particularly light since this was for training, so I packed, as always, the necessary—plus more. Because, after all, it’s the mountains and you just never know. My rule of thumb is that I should be able to safely spend a night if necessary. Thus, besides an emergency medical kit with first aid supplies, I packed a headlamp, spare batteries, hand warmers, a space blanket, and an emergency bivy bag. And of course plenty of layers, food, and hot fluids in thermos bottles. I didn’t pack any uninsulated bottles because I anticipated freezing temperatures.
From the Trailhead to the False Summit
At 10am I was ready. We’ve used our radios on Mt. Adams before and knew they would work great even from the summit, so I grabbed one and left the other at camp for Ursina. I didn’t set up the SPOT satellite transponder, but I had my Suunto Ambit3 GPS watch with the Mt. Adams south climbing route pre-loaded, even though I had been on that mountain countless times.
I felt great and moved swiftly. The south climb route is straightforward: about 6 miles to the summit with 6,676ft of elevation gain. There are no technical sections, although crampons and ice ax are almost always recommended as there can be icy sections. Snowshoes with crampons do the job equally well. That’s what I carried (besides crampons and an ice ax). As the snow started to linger around at about 6,200ft, I put them on and continued to cruise upward on the winter climbing route.
At around 7,000ft the wind picked up and it started to snow. Not the kind of pleasant soft snow, but the icy-kinda that look like styrofoam pieces but feel like nails. Soon thereafter, the snow hurt too much in my face and I decided to put on ski goggles together with a neoprene face mask. My hand warmers were already going and I switched to the toasty winter mitts. So far so good. I felt a bit like being in a protected bubble.
As I climbed toward the Lunch Counter, I caught up with a couple. They turned out to be two rangers. They looked worried when I told them I was going to see how far up I could go. They inquired if I knew the route and had a GPS in case I got lost. I said yes to both questions. They were the last persons I saw for the next couple of hours.
At the Lunch Counter, the visibility was near zero, the wind was hauling brutally, and it snowed. I only saw one tent. It was pretty much flattened by the wind. As I got past the exposed rocks that make up the Lunch Counter plateau, I had to rely 100% on GPS navigation as I could not see any more natural features for a while. Once I started to climb up the steep slope toward the false summit, I had at least the inclination that helped me to navigate. It was hard to move in the wind and snow, but I saw no good reason to turn around (yet), so I continued the grueling climb. There were lots of soft snow slabs, but other parts were hard-packed and swept clean by the strong winds. As I got to 10,000ft or so, I started to notice a faint silhouette of the rock band that was exposed from the snow on the left hand side (West). I kept that in my eyes as well as my GPS track, which I followed closely.
Finally I made it to the false summit (Pikers Peak, 11,700ft). Uff! Besides the last few rocks on the left, there was nothing to be seen. I figured that by following my GPS track, I could maybe make it to the summit, otherwise I could always turn around. So I took a deep breath and continued to move forward. Had I known at that point that my GPS did not properly function, I would have made a different decision.
The next steps were like stepping into another world. A world of absorbent cotton in some sense, but everything else than soft and comfy. As soon as I crossed the false summit ridge and stepped into the flatter part that was fully exposed to the gale-force west winds, I knew I was in trouble. I could barely see my snowshoes. The rest was white. I instantly lost all sense of orientation. I also instantly decided that I needed to go back right away. But “back” made no sense anymore because I had no clue how far I actually had turned. That’s when I wanted to check my GPS. But alas, it looked like a block of ice. I had worn it on the outside of my GoreTex jacked so that I could easily see the route. That was not the best plan. I tried to frantically scrape off the ice with my mitts so that I could read the screen. That failed miserable. I had to take off one mitt and use my fingernails. But the screen would stay ice free for a few seconds only. In the meantime, my ski googles also started to ice up and I had to take them off to read the screen. In the few seconds that I saw the screen I only realized that the reading made no sense.
Without the mitt, my right hand went numb almost instantly. By the time I tried to put the mitt on again, I couldn’t. So I kept it off and continued to scrape the screen as soon as it was iced over again. I figured I might have to move a bit to see in which direction I was going, hoping that the GPS would update and that the track would make sense. So I moved a bit, but I had no clue in which direction and how far I was going. It didn’t help in any case.
There were two scenarios I was most afraid of: if you go too far east, you will fall over a cornice down to the Klickitat glacier. That’s where you die. If you go too far West, you hit the SW Chutes and dangerous cliffs. You may die too. The only way out of this was to get back to where I came from. And it had to be in the next few minutes, or I might not make it.
In the meantime, I realized I could not see anymore on my right eye because it was completely iced over between my eyebrows and the face mask. The ice would not come off. I started to shiver hard. My hand was still exposed to the elements. It did not feel good. Not at all. For the first time I considered radioing Ursina and call it an emergency. But the thought that it would take anybody at least 6 hours to get up there made me quickly give up on that option. If I didn’t make it out there soon on my own, I would freeze to death. I considered putting on the remaining layers I had in my pack, but decided it would take too much time and may be impossible with the strong winds. Later, on the way down, I realized that I could not even open my backpack because the buckles were big pieces of ice. So taking anything out of my pack would not even have been an option.
I still frantically tried to get my GPS to display anything meaningful between scratching the screen and moving around randomly. Needless to say that I was really scared I would get too close to the cornices. It was impossible to see anything. I would simply have stepped into the void. After some hopeless trying with the iced-over buttons on the GPS, I nevertheless managed to change the view to the compass. But I could not see the little arrow that marks north because of the ice. So that was useless. By that time I felt I had moved around quite a lot. Since following the GPS route did not work properly, I remembered the GPS backtrack function, which, thankfully I had tested once before. It took me a long time to activate it with numb fingers and the continuing need to scratch the ice off the screen and the buttons. But finally I managed.
I continued to move around and to try to make sense of the new GPS reading, which—oh wonder—showed me the route I needed to follow to go back to where I came from. Now the GPS at least seemed to react to my movements. So I keep moving, I kept scratching, and I tried to stay on the track the GPS indicated. And I repeated that. After all, what else could I do? I could fall to death, I could freeze to death, or there may be a chance I would find the descent route.
Feeling the wind from the right gave me some confidence that I was at least moving southward. And that was good.
After what felt like hours, I noticed something black in front of me. It was the rocks right by the ridge I came up from. Holy wow. I stumbled and fell several times. Uncontrollably. But I continued downhill. The further I moved, the better the visibility became. And suddenly the clouds lifted and I could see the entire route down to the Lunch Counter. That’s when I realized that I may have made it this time. Unless it was all just a bad dream and I was already starting to freeze to death, not realizing it anymore. That’s also when I was able to put back on my mitt and realized that almost everything on me and on my pack was covered with a thick layer of ice. Looking back, I saw all white only.
I was still shaking and had trouble moving. There was one gel left in my pocket that gave me some of the well-needed energy back. I continued toward the Lunch Counter as quickly as I could. The clouds moved in again, but the GPS backtracking function guided me safely this time. The Lunch Counter was as deserted as before, but much further down I started to encounter folks climbing up to the Lunch Counter with heavy packs. They all mentioned that I had some massive icicles going on on my face. I smiled and wished them a safe night at the Lunch Counter. I figured the night would not be pleasant.
Just past 5pm I reached our camp at the Cold Springs trailhead. We made a huge fire, had dinner, and drank beer. By 8pm I was asleep in my cosy sleeping bag while it started to snow again outside.
The alarm went off at 2am. I quickly got ready and started to climb that mountain again. The conditions were perfect this time: no clouds, almost full moon, with only a light breeze. In 5h I was on the summit, at a time when most climbers were only about to get ready to start. On the way down I checked the cornices where I may have fell to death had I gone too far in the wrong direction the day before. It was not a pleasant view.
GPS Track Analysis
Only when I downloaded the GPS track at home I realized that the GPS had stopped functioning properly well below the false summit. It only started to receive a correct satellite signal the moment I switched it into the backtracking mode, when I was already in deep trouble. The readings I got before did indeed not make any sense. So much for relying on technology.
The following figure shows how I moved around disoriented like a blind pigeon. The straight bright green line indicates that the GPS did not track during the last part of ascent.
On GoogleEarth, it became clear that I had moved dangerously close to the abyss during my desperate search for the descent route.
What’s left over from this mishap is a swollen right hand from one of the falls and minor frostbite on the pinkie (still tingling and numb after 2 days).
So, Lesson Learned?
It’s not the first time I got lost, but this time was different because I realized immediately that I was hopelessly disoriented. Would a traditional compass have helped? Maybe. But it would have gotten iced over as well. And it’s doubtful that I would have found the correct descent location just with a compass.
Would waiting out the weather have been an option? I doubt it. I would have been frozen rock solid quickly without a better protection from the elements. Getting out additional layers and the emergency bivy bag from my backpack wasn’t even an option at that point anymore because of the frozen buckles.
In the future, I will be more careful about moving forward into the unknown, especially when your GPS watch represents a single point of failure. Redundancy is key to resilience and robustness.
Life can change dramatically in an instant. In fact, it almost almost does. We rarely get a warning and can rarely prepare for the things to come. This near-accident was no different. In the mountains, never plan for the best, always plan for the worst. And even that may not be sufficient.
“Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” – Hermann Buhl