Ski Mountaineering

Treasure Lakes, Dade Couloir

May 22-23, 1999

Reiner Stenzel

This trip was meant to be a leisurely skiing and fishing trip but turned out to be anything but relaxing. Yes, we did ski and fish but we also had a nerve-wrecking search and rescue action due to a potentially fatal mountaineering accident. Here is what happened:

On Sat, 5/23, 7 am, ten skiers met at Rock Creek Lake where the road was closed. There was Owen Maloy from Mammoth Lks to assist me, Alvin Walter and Reed Moore from San Diego, Ruth von Rotz from Reno, Eric Lane, George Crosland, Danny Sommer, Michael Bratkowski, and John Kornak from the LA area, and my faithful K9, Tatanka. We hiked up beyond Mosquito Flats to find more or less continuous snow near the Lakes. By midday we made it to the Treasure Lakes (11,200') and set up a snowcamp. The Lakes were still frozen over and there was plenty of snow in the bowls and chutes below Bear Creek Spire and Mt Dade. The long haul in caused the group to be spread out but with my little Motorola radios I kept in touch with Owen in the sweep.

After lunch we had three separate plans: Some wanted to relax and ski near the camp, four of us wanted to ski Dade Couloir, and three wanted to do some climbing. Since climbing was beyond the scope of the trip Alvin, Reed and John signed out for their afternoon ascent of Bear Creek Spire. Ruth, George, Danny, and I contoured around the upper Treasure Lake and climbed into the Hourglass (Dade Couloir). The snow was soft, a hazy sun was out, and we earned our turns by climbing up this 1400', 35 deg slope. By 4pm the snow began to crust up and it was time to enjoy the run down. We left some nice tracks and were down all too fast. After rejoining the others at camp, the fishermen/women went to work and pulled two trout out of Long Lake. The weather had deteriorated and, as predicted, localized thunderstorms were building up. By 6 pm there was hail and lightning all around us. We were wondering where the mountain climbers were.

Alvin and Reed were safely back at dinner time and said that John should be just an hour behind. As the weather let up we enjoyed our dinners. The most decadent one included fresh trout, fried potatoes with onions, a bottle of Chardonnay, and frozen ice cream. The mood was great but something was wrong, John was still not back. By nightfall, we knew that John must have had an accident.

On their private outing, Alvin had soloed Bear Creek Spire (13,720') and described it as a challenging class 4 climb. Reed wisely turned back just below the summit, and on their way down both met John who looked tired and slow. Worst of all, John had left his pack at the skis in the snow below the ridge to make a quick, light ascent. He was improperly dressed in a cotton flannel shirt and had no ice axe or 10 essentials. They tried to talk him out of the climb pointing out the approaching storm but John brushed the advice aside and pushed forward.

By nightfall we knew that we had to initiate a search and rescue action. Since only Alvin and Reed knew John's route they volunteered to look for him. They left by 9 pm with emergency supplies retracing their earlier route by flashlight. With my Motorola radios Alvin and I stayed in constant radio contact for their own safety and in case they would need a backup for a rescue. They found his skis and pack untouched which meant he had an accident on the ridge. They followed in darkness and snow storm to about 200' below the summit calling his name and searching in vain. The search had to be called off and Alvin and Reed returned by midnight completely exhausted. They gave John little chance to survive the stormy night at 13,700' without proper protection and possible injuries. We decided to contact the sheriff first thing in the morning to ask for a professional Search and Rescue Team. Everyone was deeply disturbed about the likely possibility of a fatality and had an awful night.

Owen luckily carried a cellular phone with him. It did not work from our basecamp but in the morning I climbed a peak overlooking Little Lakes Valley and succeeded to make a 911 call. The sheriff contacted a Search and Rescue Team and called for a helicopter. While we waited in a depressed mood a lone skier slowly came down the mountain. We could not believe our eyes but it turned out to be John. He was totally exhausted but without a scratch! I rushed back to call the rescue action off, just minutes before the helicopter took off.

According to his later account he did reach the summit as the thunderstorm moved in. He was struck by the ground currents of a close lightning strike and got temporarily paralyzed, took a fall down a snowchute and could barely arrest with his hands. The shock from these events left him disoriented, he was in a whiteout, it was getting dark, and without flashlight he could not find his way back. He managed to dig a cave into soft snow and stayed up all night to avoid getting hypothermic.

John's first comment after returning was that he had a wonderful experience with death. Then he took out his trumpet and blew a tune into the sky. We were relieved about the outcome, fed him with warm fluids, packed some of his gear out, and returned to the cars by early afternoon. He called the sheriff and had to explain his actions. Understandably, Search and Rescue was upset about this entire incident. And so were we. His disregard for advice got him nearly killed, required us to perform a rescue action into the middle of the night, to call a professional Search and Rescue Team which only had to be called off in the last moment, and finally spoiled half of our trip by scaring the heck out of everyone. John has been advised to get more training before ever being accepted on another trip.

I want to express my gratitude to Alvin and Reed for their heroic rescue effort in a stormy night on a hard mountain, for Owen's good advice, and everyone's assistance and concern. Leading trips is never dull, especially not this last one.

Comments by the Assistant Leader
Safety Implications of Signing Out

It's clear from the mountaineering literature that just having a leader with the authority to make decisions goes a long way. It seems to be more important to make a decision and go with it than to make the very best decision. Many serious accidents have happened when the group did not follow the leader's direction. We had little concern about Alvin and Reed, because of their experience, but it was clear John was not experienced. In this case several people tried to keep John with the group, but he did not listen and was lucky to survive.

When you sign in to a Sierra Club trip, it is presumed that you will stay with the group and cooperate with the leader. The SMS signin sheet contains a specific promise to that effect. Those who violate that promise may be excluded from future trips, at least until they obtain more training.

Owen Maloy, SMS Outings and Safety Chair (1996-99)

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