Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Wait, You're not Supposed to Die on Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta is indeed a real mountain, but the easiest route is very forgiving of beginners who have some training in the basics (how to stop yourself from falling using an ice axe being the most important) and some instruction in when not to be on the mountain (afternoons being the worst.)

I've always contended that with respect to snow, Mt. Shasta is safer than the very popular Mt. Whitney because there is a nice long place for someone to tumble down if they fall. Whitney's snow has a whole bunch of boulders around. If you fall on Shasta you will likely get hurt, but dying is not common.

But this year has been more than a little exciting on my favorite mountain. First there was a experience climber who got stranded by weather on the summit and subsequently tragically died of HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema).

Then things were back to a more extreme version of normal with rain and then extended cold weather creating a whole bunch of ice and very slick conditions and the week before I was there with stellar weather there were 7 rescues of fallen climbers. Lots of broken bones and teeth and a whole lot of bruises and some serious mental trauma for those who got to see someone tumble past them at 50mph (do not try to stop them), but no fatalities.

Well. I was on the phone to my mother-in-law who lives near there and she asked if I'd heard about the Bay Area woman who was killed on Shasta today. WHAT?! Fortunately the computer was on. Not a lot of details yet just the same short AP article everywhere:


Kathi Jeanne Ludwig, 56, was climbing the mountain when she was struck by a watermelon sized boulder at 11,000'. She later died of her injuries. I am so very sorry, and offer my deepest condolences to her husband and her family.

But there's so much of the story that we don't know, and I hope to learn.
We don't know where she was or what time or if they were going up or down. We do know that it was a group and there were two guides but we don't know the guide service.

On June 26th we were climbing on the "Avalanche Gulch" route which despite its name is the easiest way to climb the mountain. The key is that you need to be climbing in the morning when everything is frozen into place. Climbers start around midnight to 4am (an "alpine start") to maximize their safe climbing time and noon is usually a turn around time.

Because of altitude sensitivity, I don't climb well above 9600' and so had just slogged up to that very same altitude of 11,000'. As my climbing partner and I were talking, above us on the route we hear what you don't like hearing. "ROCK!" I assure you this is not about music. It means that a rock has been dislodged and is now falling towards you. Luckily for us the dislodgers were a few 100' above us and slightly to the right of us. What was impressive was the rock keep falling and falling in almost what looked like slow motion. While it's mesmerizing to watch you have to get ready to take action if you have the time.

I tell my climbing partner that if the rock keeps coming I want her to leap to the left and arrest (lie face down, holding yourself in position with the ice axe pick dug in the snow). She responded along the lines of "I don't remember signing up for this." I respond "Sorry."

Fortunately for us the sub-volleyball sized rock stopped beside us in a glissade track. Which actually did result in some entertainment as then the climbers above did glissade by. I told one of them "There's your rock" hoping he would stop and move it but I don't think he realized it was in a glissade track (he was in a different one) and he kept on going. Then very soon after someone was using that track and "There's a rock in front of you." definitely got a cartoon-like flailing over-reaction.

We then commenced on my favorite activity on Shasta: glissading. Probably the best time you can have on your cold butt. I love it. (Again you have to know how to stop.) Someone videoed themselves doing it here and here.

So 11,000' is associated with fun and frolic and some potential rock dodging, but nothing terribly serious. To think that someone died in the exact spot under similar, but oh so different circumstances, gives me more than a bit of pause.

I await the details and have set a Google Alert so I can track any posted news.
Hopefully I will hear something soon and not have to wait for it to be documented in Accidents In North American Mountaineering for 2010.

I now have more details.
It was on the West Face out of Hidden Valley. An area that has hardly any rock fall.
It was ONE rock.

It is very much in the class of freak accident.

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