Thu, Aug 22, 2013
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Diamond Peak previously climbed Sun, May 15, 2005|
Pat Hadley died tragically on the slopes of Diamond North this day, a very sad time for all those connected with this amazing woman. At 54yrs of age, she was a well-respected and much-loved fixture at Valencia High School in Placentia for more than 20 years, serving as the Arts Chair and Boys Cross Country coach for much of that time. She was an accomplished athlete in running and mountain biking, twice as the national champion in her age group. She had taken up mountain climbing in the past few years with the same enthusiasm and devotion that she had for everything else in her life. She joined the Sierra Challenge for all ten days in 2012, reaching 9 Challenge peaks in that time and taking second in the Green Jersey. In 2013 she returned once again, having climbed in the Sierra almost every weekend for many months. Her skills had improved markedly and she was one of the strongest amongst all the participants. This report attempts to chronicle that fateful day in the manner as it unfolded to me during the course of the day. I may get some facts wrong in the telling, but will correct them as they are pointed out to me over the course of time.
This was the first time the Baxter Pass Trail had been used for the Sierra Challenge. Previously, the Bighorn Sheep Closure forbade all cross-country travel which kept the surrounding peaks off-limits after July 1. Now that the closure had been rescinded, we were free to reach any of the summits. Rather than pick just one, I allowed any of the named summits (Mary Austin, Black, Diamond, Diamond North, Acrodectes, Baxter) to count for the day's Challenge peak. I had climbed all of them with the exception of Diamond North, an unofficially named 13er about half a mile north of Diamond Peak. It was to this peak that the majority of the group headed that day.
The sleep was not nearly enough nor as satisfying as I might have liked. I had spent almost 12hrs on the previous day's long outing to Mt. Ickes over Taboose Pass and was still feeling tired. As we had on most of the previous days, Pat and I carpooled to the trailhead and I was happy just being the passenger in her FJ Cruiser. In the past we had finished the day at nearly equal times which made it convenient to ride to and from the THs together. But while I was feeling somewhat beat up over the past week, Pat seemed only to be getting stronger. I had drawn on all my resources to keep up with her on the hike to Taboose Pass and then to Mt. Ickes, but she still managed to get back an hour before me. I felt guilty that she had had to wait so long for my return. My days of carpooling with Pat seemed numbered. I was looking forward to the next three days as relatively easy ones, a chance to recharge the batteries and rest some. Baxter Pass was much like Taboose, climbing more than 6,000ft in about 7 miles, but our peak, Diamond North, was only 3/4 mile from Baxter Pass along the crest to the west. Not having climbed the peak nor read of anyone doing so, I had no beta on the route other than class 3 rating given in RJ Secor's guidebook. It seemed straightforward enough.
There was a large collection of 20 folks at the TH for the 6am start. Tommey Joh, having exhausted himself the previous day, was taking a rest day but still came out to see us off. He was good enough to take the picture, one of the few from the trailhead that has me included. I started from the back of the pack this morning, in no condition for another fast ascent to the pass. This gave me a chance to talk with some of the other participants. Some, like Evan, were old hands that I got a chance to catch up with. Others were new and while I was still learning to match faces to names, the conversation helped cement the recognition software inside my aging brain. 6am was a much better start time than the 4-5am times that had us in the dark at the Taboose and Red Lake THs. The nearly full moon was just setting to the west while dawn was approaching over the Inyo Range to the east. The thunderstorms we had contended with the first six afternoons were nearly spent and the forecast was for sunny skies. The lingering clouds at sunrise would soon fade and leave us with the first clear skies that would last until we returned.
The Baxter Pass Trail had taken a beating over the past years. A fire had swept through the canyon, burning most of the trees in the lower half back in 2007. In 2008, torrential rains caused a flash flood to roar down the canyon and temporarily close US395. The trail fared much worse, but over the past five years it has come to resemble a trail once more, though it is still easy to get lost. In some places there are multiple ducked routes, neither of which seems obviously better. The creek crossings, somewhat treacherous in early season, are merely annoying in late August where we first had to find the trail on the opposite side to even guess where we were supposed to cross the creek. During the first several hours I slowly worked my way towards the front of the pack which by then had broken into smaller fragments. Sean, Eric and Pat had long gotten well ahead of us and were nowhere to be seen on the trail switchbacking up the slopes in front of us. By 8:45a I was alone with Jonathan as we neared the major split in the canyon on either side of Diamond Peak. Jonathan was interested in the SPS peaks Black and Diamond, and so departed from the trail to head left into the broad cirque between those two summits. I continued alone on the Baxter Pass Trail as it headed up the right fork.
I had thought, or rather hoped, that I might reach Baxter Pass in three hours, but hadn't really done my homework on that one. Had I done so, I might have been dejected to find just how much gain was involved on what I'd thought was an "easy" day. Three and half hours had passed and I was still some distance below the pass. I heard a shout from above and looked up to see Matt calling me from a perch several switchbacks up. I waved back. He asked if I was going to the pass and I replied in the affirmative. Matt had started at 5a to get a jump on the rest of us. Though he calls himself Turtle Matt for his slow pace, today I was unable to catch up to him for the final stretch to the pass. I watched him ahead of me for some time, eventually nearing the pass. I looked to my left where Diamond North was located and noticed that the talus slopes found there were only marginally worse than the trail itself. I decided to bypass Baxter Pass and head more directly to the ridgeline with an ascending traverse to the left. I hoped that Matt would not be terribly disappointed that I wasn't joining him at the pass.
It was nearly 10a by the time I had gained the ridge about a third of a mile west of Baxter Pass. I had a fine view looking north over the ridge at Acrodectes and Mt. Baxter. To the south rose Black Mtn and Diamond Peak, and at nearly 12,500ft I felt I was finally nearing my goal. Ahead along the ridge was a continuous talus and boulder slope that rose to a false summit I knew was still a quarter mile from the highpoint. The going was easy at least, even as the ridgeline grew steeper. Around 10:15a I topped out on the false summit with my first clear view of the remaining ridgeline. It did not look easy. Instead of the uniform covering of talus I had been ascending, this last quarter mile was a difficult-looking complex of ribs, pinnacles and steep chutes. The north side of the crest dropped away much faster and steeper, the collective work of ice and glacier sculpting over many eons. The south side was much steeper than one might expect from the class 2 rating, but easier looking than the north side. Nearly a quarter mile away, I spotted Pat in her blue shirt descending from what I had thought was the summit. I was actually surprised that she was that close, having expected she'd be well on the way down or onto another peak by the time I reached that point. Little did I know that the difficulties to be encountered in the last quarter mile would take me much of the next hour. After completing the traverse, it would seem natural that I would have spotted her when I did. She was too far away to hear anything I might shout out, so I watched her disappear behind a rib and began to make my way across.
Later, I surmised that she had not been descending from the summit but merely downclimbing a pinnacle along the ridge that had stymied her. I would find myself on the very same pinnacle looking over the west side at some uncomfortable drop and then descending to find another way around it.
Almost immediately one notices that the ridge and all the rock along it are loose. It was hard to find holds that would not wiggle, sound hollow, or simply pull out. To be sure, there was some solid underlying rock, but there was plenty of debris covering ledges and plenty of rock ready to come apart with only a little encouragement. I stayed as close to the ridge top as I could, figuring the rock there is usually the most solid. At one section where I could not make progress along the ridge, I dropped down on the north side for a traverse of perhaps 30yds on that side. It was particularly unnerving with so much air underneath me and I resolved that the better options probably all lay on the south side where the rock is more broken, but less steep.
About fifteen minutes after starting the class 3 section, I heard rockfall somewhere on the SE Slopes. I couldn't tell if it was below me or to the west, but it seemed some combination. I guessed that Pat was continuing her descent on the SE Slopes and had started some rocks to fall as is often the case on such terrain. I looked down to see if I could catch a glimpse of her before she disappeared, but saw nothing and heard no more rockfall.
In retrospect, it seems likely that this rockfall was indeed the result of the fall that took Pat's life, around 10:30a. I heard no human sounds along with the rockfall, suggesting it had taken her completely by surprise. The sounds I did hear were short in duration, further suggesting the fall was not very long, perhaps 20-40ft. But this is only speculation as there were no witnesses to her fall.
About 3/4 of the way along the class 3 section of ridgeline, I heard someone call out from behind me to the east. Matt was standing high on a ledge on the south side of the ridge. I was fumbling about on the south side trying to find a way around a few pinnacles that had proved too difficult along the very ridge. He was perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of the way across and wanted some hints on where to go. I had been at it nearly 45 minutes and couldn't remember the route that far back in any sort of detail to be helpful. I told him so in just a few words - "I can't remember." Looking for something to help him, he asked if I had been on the same ledge he was standing on. I looked at it along with the rest of the ridge and felt bad replying once again, "I can't remember." I probably said some other things to him but it's likely they were equally useless. As I turned to continue my work, that was the last I'd see of Matt until the evening back in Independence. I continued to take my time, ever conscious of the loose rock and the dangers it posed. I recall telling myself to go slow and relax so that I could still have fun. And it was fun, in a way only a peakbagger might appreciate, but I also recall not wanting to return along the same route and glad I wouldn't have to. I neared the summit while traversing perhaps 20-30ft below the ridgeline, eventually spying what looked like a straightforward staircase up from the SE. I spied Sean at the summit and called out to him, but got no reply. It was fairly windy along the ridge and did not surprise me that he might not hear me. A few minutes later, just before 11:15a, I topped out on Diamond North.
Sean greeted me, having already grabbed the register and ducked off the north side of the summit to get out of the wind blowing over the ridgeline from the south. I joined him for a short break out of the wind, about 15-20 minutes all told. Sean had come over on the traverse from Diamond after first reaching that summit some 45 minutes earlier. Having broken the fifth metacarpal bone days earlier and now climbing with only one hand, Sean was still handily beating me up summits. I photographed the various sheets of loose paper that served as a register, dating back only to 2010. Eric had been to the summit ahead of us to no great surprise - Sean had met up with him near the summit of Diamond peak earlier. Neither of us noticed at that time that Pat had not signed the register. As Sean had reported the traverse from Diamond Peak to be easy class 2, I resolved to return that way while he chose to make his descent off the SE Slopes. I told him that if he got back to the trailhead before me he should tell Pat to head back to town without me - I didn't want her sitting around another hour or more in the hot afternoon sun found at the trailhead. I could easily get a ride with another participant, knowing I wasn't going to be the last one back today. We bade each other goodbye and headed off in our different directions not long after 11:30a.
Pat was lying below us at this time, perhaps 150ft below the south side of the summit. Though I took pictures in all directions from the summit, it was hurried in order to minimize my exposure to the wind. Had we stood up and looked carefully off the south side, it's likely we would have spotted her prone body as others would do later. It's very likely that even if we had noticed the absence of her signature, we'd have chocked it up to forgetfulness - I've several times perused a register and photographed its pages, yet forgot to add my own signature amid the bustle of preparing to descend. Sean must have passed near to Pat's body on his descent of the SE Slopes, but because of the complex nature of the ribs and chutes, it would not be hard to pass within 10-20 yards and still not notice her or the few items of her gear that had come to rest nearby.
I continued west and then around in a large sweeping arc that forms the crest between the two summits, dropping more than 500ft enroute before climbing back up to Diamond Peak. As Sean had indicated, this was a much easier route and in less than an hour I had reached Diamond's summit. I saw another climber descending below to the south, having reached the high plateau about 300-400ft below the summit on the south side. By the red baseball cap that he was wearing (and his signature in the register), I recognized that it was Peter. I photographed a number of familiar names from the register on this popular SPS peak before packing up and following him down. I met up with Peter around 1:15p by which time he had reached the tedious boulders and talus at the bottom of the cirque between Diamond and Black. A few minutes later we heard rockfall and someone calling to us from the south - Jonathan was just finishing his descent from Black Mtn. He hardly spoke to us as he hurried on ahead towards the trail while Peter and I took a more leisurely pace through the colorful canyon heading back. I eventually reached the trail ahead of Peter (who was evidently taking the term "leisurely" more seriously than myself), and started to jog the five miles or so back to the trailhead. I was convinced that Pat would have been back long ago and probably would still be waiting even if Sean had given her my message.
I returned to the trailhead just after 3:30p, finding a half dozen participants, most of whom were trying to stay cool in the shade of the trailhead sign. Tommey had returned from Independence with several coolers full of cold drinks to share with us as we had gotten back, a special treat to be savored. I was quick to note that Pat's FJ was still at the trailhead, but no one had seen her as yet. I surmised that she probably decided to go on to tag Mt. Baxter, another SPS peak I guessed she had yet to climb (the Diamond Peak register had her's, Tommey's, and Eric's name in it from a climb earlier in April). Knowing that Mt. Baxter was some two miles from Baxter Pass with a 1,000-foot drop in between, we guessed she might be some time in returning. As Jonathan was heading back out shortly after my return, I left a note on Pat's car and caught a ride with Jonathan back to Independence.
Meanwhile, the drama was already playing out back at Diamond North. Matt had reached the summit around 12:15p, about 45 minutes after Sean and I had left. 10-15 minutes behind him was Michael C, followed by Chuck another 10-15 minutes later. All three had followed the NE Ridge route. Sometime around 1p Matt happened to look over the edge and spotted what looked like a body below, calling the others to come over to look. 19yr-old Michael immediately climbed down from the summit to examine the body and check for a pulse. He found none, and reported the body as unrecognizable. He noted a map printed from my website that gave them the first evidence that she was of our party. He then found Pat's camera - the same one he had found on the trail and returned to her the previous day - which along with her familiar gaiters allowed him to identify her. Matt immediately called 911 and began the SAR involvement. Michael relayed a GPS coordinate of the body's location to the summit to be relayed in turn to SAR.
During this time, two more participants, Brad and Shirley were making their way across the NE Ridge. From the conversation Matt was having with the SAR personnel, Brad could tell the discussion was about someone found on the SE Slope below the summit. He continued toward the summit, but higher than where Michael could be seen leaning over Pat's body which was out of view. He spotted her hat and headband, but left them undisturbed in case it turned out to be important for a later investigation. Michael returned to the summit to join the Chuck and Matt. Soon thereafter, Brad also reached the summit to make a party of four. Not liking the looks of the scrambling on the NE Ridge, Shirley began to descend the SE Slopes without going to the summit and possibly without knowing what had been found.
Around an hour later, after several calls with Inyo SAR, Chuck and Michael started down the SW Ridge (the same line I took towards Diamond, along the crest), calling back to the other two that they had found a reasonable way down to the SE Slopes. Sometime later Brad followed, and after awaiting a last call from SAR, Matt departed around 2:15p, about two hours after first reaching the summit. All four took a similar route down the SE Slopes that landed them at the western end of the moraine. Matt met up with Brad and then Shirley in the moraine below, continuing back to the trail and eventually the TH sometime around 7:30p. Chuck and Michael were several hours ahead of them in getting back.
Brad's friend Des had waited at the false summit without continuing on and not knowing what was taking place at the summit. Jim and Jeff came up from the pass and the three of them continued over the broken rock ribs and chutes to Diamond north, arriving around 3p. They did not spot Pat's body anywhere enroute, but were made aware of the tragedy by a note that was left in the summit register by the previous group. This last group of three decided to descend what looked like the easiest route, the NW Ridge down towards Baxter Lakes on the other side of the crest. This would add hours to their return which by now they knew would be well after dark. Jim and Jeff would not return until 1a the next morning. Des would spend the night on the trail and did not return until after 7a. Jim was able to make a call from the pass around 8p to let us know the three of them were all right but would be very late getting back.
A helicopter was noted by several of the participants around 5:45p circling over the the SE Slopes for much of an hour. Because of its proximity to SEKI National Park, Inyo SAR contacted the Park Service and two rangers from Rae Lakes went up over the crest to spend a cold, uncomfortable night with Pat's body.
Around 6p Chuck and Michael returned to Independence and the motel many of us were staying at. Chuck entered first with an ashen face and hugged me before he could say anything. Immediately I suspected something had happened to Pat, which he confirmed in as brief a sentence as he could muster, "Pat's dead." Much of what ensued could probably be best described as a group stupor. We quickly learned that SAR had already been contacted and began to piece together the day's events. I realized right away that I was probably the last to see her alive and had mistaken her fall for a descent down the SE Slopes. I called the Inyo Sheriff's office and eventually got a hold of an officer I could give my name and particulars to, along with Pat's emergency contact information for her husband. When I last talked with the sergeant I was told they would call her husband that evening, though there was some apprehension since the body had not been officially identified. The last thing I did before going to bed was to send an email to the participants canceling the last three days of the Challenge.
The next morning I stayed at the hotel while others went to the Onion Valley trailhead (there would be participants showing up that knew nothing of the tragedy) to organize an easy memorial hike to Kearsarge Pass and Mt. Gould. I checked my email and was dismayed to get one from Bob Hadley, Pat's husband, who was distraught after having not heard from Pat the night before as was their usual practice. My group email had been vague and only mentioned an "unfortunate tragedy", but Bob was fearing the worst. I immediately called the number he listed and broke the sad news to him. He was unbelievably kind in his brief conversation with me. I gave him a phone number for the sheriff and explained there would be a room available for him at our motel in Independence. Bob had to then make some hasty phone calls to family members and organize a quick trip to Independence. Sgt. Richards came by shortly thereafter to interview me and get names & information of the key participants. He explained that a helicopter was dispatching a recovery team at the site and would be back in the afternoon to retrieve the body (the helicopter was doing double duty with the Rim Fire burning in western Yosemite).
Three of us retrieved Pat's FJ from the trailhead with some helpful hints from Bob as to where we might find a hidden key. Around 4p I was summoned by Sgt. Richards to meet him and the coroner at the Independence airport where the body was soon to arrive. Brother Jim joined me, and following a brief interview with the coroner, the helicopter arrived, Pat's body was unloaded into the coroner's vehicle and then Jim and I both viewed her face for identification purposes. It was not at all as graphic as I had imagined it might be, but it was still a very sad moment. Around 7p Bob Hadley arrived at the motel with some family members following a long drive from Orange County. It was a very somber meeting that took place when he arrived and we shook hands. We talked briefly, during which time I gave him a summary of the previous day's events as I knew them at the time. Bob was grateful for that, having known almost nothing of what took place up to that time, other than his wife had been killed in the mountains. Selflessly, Bob implored us to not stop climbing. To paraphrase, "Pat loved what she was doing. She would hate for anyone to stop climbing because of her." It had been the saddest two days of my life.
Other questions have arisen, and more will undoubtedly follow. I will be happy to answer respectful questions and try not to take umbrage at the more pointed ones. Everyone has a right to learn from such tragedies and ask what could be done to prevent similar ones in the future. Some questions I've fielded so far:
* Was Pat wearing a helmet or any protective gear?
No. None of us were. Helmets are primarily valuable to protect from rockfall from above. On such a ridge traverse, unless climbing with another above you, there is little danger of rockfall from above. I do not know if her injuries would have been lessened with the addition of a helmet.
* No ropes?
On such a loose traverse, a rope would have been more dangerous in causing rockfall than it would have been helpful in preventing a fall.
* Was she perhaps going too fast in order to regain the Yellow Jersey?
A fair question. After five days, Pat had the lead for the Yellow Jersey, which like the Tour De France, goes to the person with the lowest cumulative time on the mountains, having also reached all the Challenge Peaks. Eric had regained the lead after the sixth day with a fast finish, some 2.5hrs ahead of Pat. There are no real prizes in the Challenge and we most often treat the jerseys in a joking manner. The comraderie and personal challenge are far more important than what amounts to bragging rights in a very small circle. Having spent much time over 17 days with Pat, I think she clearly understood this and would not have traded any amount of safety for such a "prize". If she were going to make up time, it would be in jogging down the trail where it is safer and there's more to be gained. Cutting 10-20 minutes off a difficult ridge traverse would be reckless, and I don't believe that was in her character.
* Was she over her head on the terrain?
On at least two previous occasions I had been on more difficult terrain with Pat, most recently on Black Divide. She showed amazing self-possession even when we were both on terrain that we admitted scared us. She was able to talk calmly about such fears even as we were in the midst of it. Afterwards I told her I'd be happy to climb anywhere with her. On this day, I think she was focused and alert as she was making that traverse, much as I was. I think the most likely scenario was that a key hold thought to be solid broke free when she weighted it. This might have happened to any of us making the traverse that day.
* How can a class 3 ridge be so dangerous?
Class 3 in the Yosemite Decimal System takes in a wide variety of terrain and conditions. RJ Secor in his guidebook has this to say about it: "Hands and feet are used not just for balance but to hang onto the rock. Steep or large talus can be rated as class 3. Class 3 is more common on steep faces or along ridges and aretes. Novices may feel uncomfortable but the holds are large and easy to locate. A rope should be available to give a belay to anyone who requests it." Solid rock on class 3 terrain is often described as fun and enjoyable. Loose rock on class 3 terrain is more often described as scary. Both can be equally dangerous if something goes wrong.
* Why was she climbing alone?
That's a personal choice. On any given day of the Challenge, we all start off together, but soon break up into smaller groups depending on pace and ability. Some folks like the companionship of others and converse openly during the hike, others prefer more solitude and are more contemplative of the natural surroundings. Personally I like some of both and often find myself alone for a good part of the day, most often on the return. Everyone is expected to be self-sufficient and take responsibility for their own well-being and safety. Most participants are comfortable alone on terrain up to class 2, many on terrain up to class 3. On more difficult terrain, especially if a rope is to be employed, we do group together to provide safe belays as needed. I believe Pat was sufficiently comfortable on the terrain she was traversing to go it alone, but of course that is speculation.
* Why didn't someone from the group stay with her body?
I don't have a good answer for that. I was back, showered, and comfortably lying in a motel room when I found out. I was not at the summit, tired, sore and possibly not in a good frame of mind from finding my compatriot expired on the mountainside. In any SAR incident, making a worse situation out of an already bad one is something to be avoided. If there was any further risk to life or injury, it would not have been prudent to stay with Pat through the night. In a conversation with one of those that had found her, it didn't occur to him that this might have been the ethical thing to do. I didn't realize this myself until after I was told that two SEKI rangers went up from Rae Lakes to spend the night with her. I've learned something concerning this, though I hope never to have the opportunity to apply it.
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