Steph's Thoughts: Day 12
Having spent the night at the Loop Brook campground near Rogers Pass, we rise at 4:00, pack camp, and drive to the Illecillewaet campground (1225m ) just a few kilometres along the highway. By 5:00, Matt and I are heading up the valley. We're on a much better trail than most approaches our feet have seen over the last two weeks. The route is quite pleasant as there's no loose rock; we just semiconsiously wind uphill through dirt and talus. A few hours later we're at the bivouac site below Sir Donald (2400m ). Visibility is poor. Instead of heading up Uto right away, we decide to set up the tent, have some soup, and wait for the clouds to clear. Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of Sir Donald straight above our heads. By around 9:30, although far from ideal, the weather seems to have slightly improved and we decide to head to the Uto-Sir Donald col (2535m ). We begin climbing the southwest ridge. Feeling the need for a belay, we take out the rope. The wind picks up, and soon snow is blowing and hail is falling. As we're about to head up a pitch of class 5, we decide to turn back because of the conditions. We return to the tent and spend the afternoon eating, reading, and sleeping. Mostly sleeping.
about to turn around
on Uto Peak
Steph's Thoughts: Day 13
It rains overnight. At 4:30 we rise, amazed to see clear skies above. After a quick fill of cereal, we're off to the Uto-Sir Donald col (6:00, 2535m ). We decide to short-rope right from the col. We notice a pattern that will last most of the morning; clouds form on the Uto Glacier, then rise and stick to the north face of Sir Donald. Meanwhile, the west face remains completely clear. We keep hoping the clouds will break and allow the sun to melt some of the snow. We move quickly. As we rise, the snow becomes more frequent and icier. Close to the summit, we have to sweep away deep powder to look for every hold. The last few dozen metres below the summit ridge require us to belay three short pitches. We reach the summit just after 13:00 (3297m ). The climb from the col has taken us 7 hours. We grab a quick snack and almost immediately begin our descent.
The descent seems to be going well. We maintain our concentration getting off the snowy upper mountain, rappeling three or four pitches, down-climbing most of the way. We had returned below the snow. Since we climbed it in the morning, the ridge had been dried by the sun, much of the snow had melted, and the rock was much more pleasant. We took a quick food break just above 2800m on the ridge a bit before 16:00. Matt and I were descending using a running belay, trying to keep a minimum of one piece of gear clipped between us. The rock was in good condition, the weather was mostly clear, we were not in danger of running out of daylight, and our spirits were good; we were happy to be out of the snow higher up.
Just under this point, the ridge becomes steeper 5th class rock again . I clipped a rappel anchor on the ridge (we were still down-climbing) and decided to descend on the East side of the ridge. Matt and I had about 20m of rope between us with 20m more coiled around each of us. The rope had been snagging in the rock somewhat frequently, so whenever I passed a potential snag, I'd pull all the slack through until I got to Matt. I remember doing this just after clipping the rappel slings. After traversing right (East) several metres, I found the route to be less than ideal and quite exposed. I tried putting in two nuts but the cracks expanded and each nut came out with a good tug. I decided to step down and then put in some gear. I remember thinking that the rock was a bit sketchy. I don't remember anything else, nor do I remember slipping or falling. My next memory is of waking up, staring across at Uto Peak, not recognizing it. I remembered having been on Sir Donald, but that seemed very distant in my memory, as if it had happened days ago. I remembered being with Matt. I called out to him and asked where we were and what had happened. What I did not yet realize was that I had fallen approximately 15m and had been unconscious for close to ten minutes. This happened at about 16:30. According to Matt, we had the same conversation several times, repeating my same questions, "Where are we?" and "What happened?" which I would immediately forget having asked and completely forget the answer to. Of which I am also unaware, Matt tells me that when I first came to, I simply mumbled incomprehensibly for a few minutes, followed by some babbling en français (my first language). While I had been out, Matt had secured the rope to the rappel anchor with a prusik knot on 7mm accessory cord then backed-up with a knot on a biner. He had dropped his coils to down-climb to me. Upon reaching me (as I was regaining consciousness) he set two cams and a solid nut and tied me in to this new anchor. As I became more aware of my surroundings, I was surprised to see so much blood on the rock, on the rope, on my jacket, on my hands, and blocking my vision. I asked Matt where all the blood was from and I seemed surprised when he answered that it was coming from my head. I was still hanging in the harness at this point and I was loosing sensation in my left leg from having the circulation cut off. I was able to stand up on my right foot and get some of the weight off the rope. After checking with Matt that I was tied-in to the new anchor, I tried to untie myself from the rope. At this point, I realized that both my hands were being quite uncooperative and that I was unable to untie the knot. I asked Matt to help me out and he untied the knot for me. I told Matt I thought my wrists were broken. At this point, I felt I was regaining awareness of our situation along with some of my ability to think. I remember feeling very chilled and concentrating to halt hyper-ventilation and shivers. Matt and I then considered our options. Could we down-climb the remaining 300m to the col? I was standing on a small ledge. Against the wall were some big easy holds. I tried grabbing them. I was unable to clench the rock enough to take any weight. My hands did not hurt; they were quite numb. They just did not have the ability to pinch with even the slightest strength. Matt then suggested lowering me in 60m increments. This would possibly require me to build an anchor in the steeper sections to secure myself where footing was not as good and give Matt a belay should he need one. I concentrated on opening a carabiner; to my unfortunate surprise, my hands could not even open the gate of a biner. We then discussed the last option we could think of, our least favourite option: for Matt to descend solo and initiate a rescue. We went over each option again, I tried using my hands again both on rock and on a biner with similar results. Matt then had the brillant idea to leave me more clothing. The temperature was chilly and we were wearing all our clothes, even now in the sun, during the warmest part of the day. This selfless action by Matt would later enable me to survive the night with only minor hypothermia. Luckily, he did not listen to my doubtful "Uh Matt, I'm already wearing three layers and my wrists are getting pretty swollen." I was wearing a long-sleeve polypropelene shirt, a heavy fleece, a Gore-tex shell, a fleece tuque, fleece mitts and Gore-tex overmitts. Amazingly, overtop of this, Matt outfitted me with his fleece, his shell, and his tuque. He tied a water bottle to a sling and clipped it to my harness. He left his pack next to me. At this point, Matt was wearing only a t-shirt on his upper body. After giving me a hug, he began down-climbing towards the col. By this point, it was around 17:30.
It took Matt one hour to reach the col  and another one and a half hours to reach the trailhead at the Illecillewaet campground , his feet bloodied and blistered from running in mountaineering boots. By 20:30 Parks Canada staff were initiating rescue plans. A helicopter was on its way. Should weather prevent an air evac, rescue wardens in Banff and Lake Louise were notified and put on standby for a technical alpine rescue. From my end, I knew there was a good chance the rescue might not be able to get to me until morning. Luckily, I had enough awareness to realize that hypothermia was my biggest worry at this point. I knew I would start feeling very tired from concussions and hypothermia but that I should focus on keeping warm and awake. I alternated between three "activities". First, I would do squats with my legs, counting out sets of 200 to thaw myself out. This succeeded in stopping my shivering for maybe one or two minutes. Then, I would shove my legs into the pack (after having painfully released the extension to allow it to reach up to my hips). This worked best initially when the pack was dry. The pack eventually soaked through but still protected me from the wind. Finally, I would squat down in a ball, to maintain as much heat in as possible and reduce my exposure to the wet snow. I felt myself getting progressively wetter and colder. The shivers grew more violent and I would repeat with yet another set after set of squats. It snowed during most of the night. The wind picked up at times but luckily, these were short gusts with extended periods of calm. I could hear much more wind close-by, probably along the edge of the ridge. Thankfully, I was sheltered from it. Periodically, the cloud around me would light up from flashes of lightning. At one point, with my legs in the pack, I gave in to the fatigue and cold and laid down on the ledge. The ledge was maybe two feet wide and six feet long at about a 30° angle. I snoozed for what I guess might have been half an hour before waking up very cold, under several centimetres of snow, with the blood on my leg frozen to the rock. My body was telling me to go back to sleep but I knew I had to get my core temperature back up. I forced myself to stand, wiped some snow off, and did another set of squats, now shivering violently. I noticed I had somehow lost one of my overmitts. Twice during the night, I checked my watch. This was a big endeavor, as I had to move two mitts and five layers of clothing out of the way, then press the light button on my watch using two very weak hands. Both times, once at 12:15 and again at 3:00, after struggling to get to the watch, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of hours that had passed.
We begin our descent
of Sir Donald.
Steph's Thoughts: Day 14
Eventually, dawn came around. This brought some relief along with the visual confirmation that a heavy fog had set it. I realized this would cause problems for an air rescue. I waited as morning came around and I was very happy to hear the distant sound of a helicopter. To my relief, it quickly became louder, reassuring me that this was the rescue and they were looking for me. I was relieved to know that Matt had made it down safely, climbing unprotected. My position was not ideal for easy spotting as I was a dozen metres East of the ridge. I considered moving, but in my state, I decided against detaching from the anchor and trying to traverse on the now snow-covered rock. I was worried the rescuers would be unable to locate me. After several passes, the chopper came within sight and I waved to them with both arms. I was happy to have been sighted and that the rescue team now knew my exact location. The time was approximately 5:30. The chopper left back over the pass and soon returned with a rescuer hanging in a harness from a long cable below the cabin. The weather certainly was not cooperating, and after several passes, one of which had come close, the helicopter was forced to return to the valley and wait for better weather. After an hour, I began to think about my options should the weather deteriorate. Again, I tried my hands to confirm that I could not down-climb. I thought about moving closer to the ridge to get myself somewhere more easily accessible. I unzipped my top two layers and painfully let out the 20m in coils from around my torso. I considered stepping up, reaching as high as I could and cutting the freehanging rope. This would give me about 25m of rope which I could use to belay or prusik myself out to the ridge while remaining tied-in to the anchor in case I fell. I decided I'd wait until noon. If I couldn't be rescued by then, I would move to the ridge. As unappealing as the idea sounded, I decided I would wait one more night before even attempting to lower myself down the ridge. There was an overhanging rock on the ridge that might have provided some shelter from the rain and snow. In the meantime, I put the remaining items into the pack: helmet, slings, rock gear, water bottle. I didn't think I'd be able to get the pack over my shoulder so I clipped a sling into it that I could then clip to my harness when the helicopter came. Sure enough, shortly after 9, the helicopter returned. After a few passes and some amazing piloting, the rescuer hanging below the helicopter made it onto my little ledge. He clipped my belay loop and cut the rope. I released the last point on the anchor. The rescuer radioed to the pilot and flew me out of there. I looked back at the ridge between my feet as it disappeared behind the cloud.
The helicopter landed just below the Uto-Sir Donald col, at the staging area set up by the rescuers . Here, I was helped into the helicopter. The rescuers quickly loaded some gear (including our camping gear which they had packed up for us) and the helicopter headed back up, this time landing at the Rogers Pass Warden Office . I was helped over to the ambulance. The paramedics carefully removed my wet clothes (recall there were many) and placed me under a warm blanket. Given the juxtaposition with the previous night, this was the warmest and most comfortable blanket I have ever felt. Matt came over to the ambulance. We were both very happy to see each other safe. He shook my hand just before the ambulance doors were closed.
After I was transferred to the ambulance and then to emergency in Revelstoke, 34 x-rays and two CT scans confirmed that I had two fractures to the upper left side of the skull, a broken radius and a broken scaphoid in my right wrist, a broken metacarpus in my left hand about one centimeter from the wrist, a puncture wound to my left abdomen, a broken nose, and several obvious good cuts on my face. Also, my vision was impeded, mostly due to my eyes being pushed apart by the nose, and from bleeding in the right eye. The abdomen wound was cleaned and stitched, the cuts on my face were cleaned, and my wrists were splinted. It was determined that my left hand and face would need to be operated on. Since no surgeon was available, I was sent by ambulance initially to Kelowna and ultimately to Kamloops. I spent the night of Friday, August 2, in emergency in Kamloops and was sent to the O.R. early Saturday morning (day 15). A titanium plate was inserted into my left hand to secure the broken metacarpal bone. The surgeon reconstructed my nose. A neurosurgeon was called in since the fracture of the orbit bone above my left eye had broken the protective membrane around the brain, allowing a bubble of air into my brain. The cuts on my face had severed most of the sensory nerves that travel across the nose and forehead. These cuts required twenty-five stitches. The second concussion was just above the left eye, under the forehead, toward the nose. This one crushed some of the bone into many small fragments that could not be reconstructed. Later, my right arm was put in a cast. I spent the next two nights in intensive care and then three more at the hospital. The doctors and nursing staff in Kamloops were wonderful. I was released Wednesday, August 7, and returned to Vancouver where I am now recovering. I am regaining use of my hands. The headaches have gone. My vision is back to normal. I am expected to make a full recovery, except perhaps regaining sensation in my forehead and nose.
I owe a very big thank you to Matt Brown for risking his own safety to ensure mine. As well, I am greatly endebted to Don, Jordy, Brian, Tim, Tamara, Norm, Carrie, and everyone else from Parks Canada and Alpine Helicopters who were involved with the rescue. Thank you for your extraordinary perseverance to get me off the mountain. Thanks also to Andrea and Matt who kept me company in the hospital for the week.
Day 11: Golden
back down at
Click on a to see a photo.|
Blue dot photos were taken by Jordy Shepherd, Parks Canada.