Mon, Aug 7, 2006
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Giraud Peak lies on the south side of Dusy Basin in Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP. It is some nine miles from the South Lake TH, and three miles beyond Bishop Pass. I had gotten a good view of it the previous year when we were climbing Isosceles and Columbine peaks, and had even considered climbing Giraud that day as well. But it was too late in the day and I was too tired at the time, simply commenting to Matthew who was with me, "I'll leave it for next year." Next year had arrived. Michael Graupe had dayhiked it a month earlier, warning me that I may have underestimated its difficulty - it had taken him 11.5hrs to make the roundtrip visit. This made me a little nervous - I figured I could shave some time off Michael's, but might still be a hard day, just when I was expecting something easier.
There was a large and fairly well organized group of 14 folks at the 6a start at the South Lake TH. We got off on time, starting with a more reasonable pace in the front than we had done the day before. Our two fastest hikers were ultrarunners Eric L. and Scott M. Eric was somewhat in awe of Scott as a ranked ultrarunner, and this may have led to Eric pushing himself out front more than he had the previous days. Eric was the first to reach Bishop Pass in not much more than an hour and half, and by 7:50a when I showed up, there were a total of five at the pass. Ryan showed up a few minutes later to make six. Giraud was seen to the south rising up at the edge of Dusy Basin, its North Face making an impressive sight.
The six of us (Eric, Scott, Ryan, Glenn, Tom B., and myself) headed over the pass without waiting for additional participants to join us. I couldn't figure out why Rick wasn't in the front as he usually is, but came to find out later his ankle was bothering him and he had to move at a slower pace. Eric started jogging the down the trail as it made a gradual descent on the west side of Dusy Basin. Nobody was too interested in following him, so he was soon out of sight. We weren't on the trail very long, only about 30 minutes, before it was time to start the cross-country part. Eric was waiting for the rest of us to catch up, and as a group of six we hiked down towards the lowpoint of the route where a creek flows through the canyon west of Knapsack Pass. From a distance it looked like it would be easy crossing through a series of small lakes that dotted the creek. I chose a random path between what I thought were two lakes, but they turned out to be connected as we came across our watery barrier. A few fortuitously placed rocks looked like they might allow us to cross without going around either end of the lake, but it wouldn't be an easy step across, more like doing the triple-jump. It just so happened that Eric was a triple-jumper in high school and he made the leap look like an easy trick. The others followed in similar fashion, though the results didn't always look quite so slick and there were a few wet boots as a result. We gathered on the south side of the lake and took a break to refill water bottles as this would be the last water for a number of hours to the summit and back.
From the lake, the going started to get tougher. Where we were walking a gentle downhill grade across alpine meadows from the trail to the lowpoint, we now had to climb a moderately steep bit of class 2-3 slabs and ledges. Not particularly difficult at all, but if you're unused to such terrain it can get a bit overwhelming. Ryan, one of the youngest participants at 21yrs, was on his first day with the Challenge and had so far been quite happy to be in the lead group. But now he started to flag as it dawned on him what cross-country was all about. Neither myself nor the others knew how much or how little experience Ryan had had on such terrain, and it wasn't evident to us that he was getting a bit over his head. We regrouped at the top of the ridge where we needed to then cross to the other side and contour up to a saddle NE of Giraud. The route we took is that described in Secor's book, and so far it was fairly easy route-finding and went just as advertised. While still half a mile from the saddle I started heading left of the easiest route in order to avoid what looked like a talus slog up to the saddle. The left side made for some good scrambling, but it wasn't trivial and our merry little band started to spread out. Eric, Tom, and Glenn were a short ways behind me, Scott starting to fall further back, and Ryan was lost to us altogether.
At the saddle (actually one of several saddles) on the NE Ridge by 9:40a, we regrouped minus Ryan. While waiting for the others to catch up, I wandered over to the east side of the pass to get a look at the class two route on that side. Secor describes dropping some 400ft, nearly down to a lake far below, before climbing up on the southeast side of Giraud. As a class 2 route, that didn't seem like much fun at all. The NE Ridge itself was described as class 4 in Roper's book which preceeded Secor's guidebook. For some reason Secor dropped it in his book, which had several of us curious. It certainly looked like an interesting route from below, with several knife-edged sections evident along the route. Eric, Glenn, and myself seemed most eager to tackle the class 4 route so it was not surprising that we ended up in front vying with each other for the route-finding. Getting from one saddle to the next was easy enough over a small highpoint, then the class 3-4 began in earnest. Scurrying up the wonderful granite blocks, flakes, and ledges, three of us were looking to find the best way around a large obstacle on the ridge. Low down on the west side I walked out on ledges that ended in cliffs before I could get onto the ridge again. Seeing me backing up, Eric and Glenn climbed higher to the top of the structure only to find themselves looking down 35ft of walls. By the time I could get atop to have a look myself, they were already scrambling down and around the east side, trying as best as they could to avoid dropping too far down from the ridgeline. The two of them did a fine job with some class 4 downclimbing, with Glenn discovering a key ledge (we dubbed it Glenn's Ledge) that led around the obstacle and back to the ridge.
Past this point (the route-finding crux), the rest of the ridge had no route-finding issues, though still some stiff class 4 ahead. Glenn took the lead for good as we reached the first of the knife-edges, this one an exposed but easy dance utilizing some nice horizontal cracks for foot placements on the steeply sloped west side. Another ten minutes of fine scrambling led to the second knife-edge, this one capped by a rock at the far end that was a bit tricky to bypass. Glenn and Eric chose to shuffle around and under on the west side while I preferred a mantle over the top. The latter turned out to be a bigger struggle than I expected and on the return I chose the shuffle instead. Shortly after the second knife-edge, we came to a few hundred feet of crummy talus which we figured marked the end of the excitement. Happily, we misjudged the summit and found it to be several hundred feet higher above where the talus slope ended. I say "happily" because those last several hundred feet were on good rock that extended the enjoyable part of the climbing.
Glenn was atop the summit by 10:40a, myself a few minutes behind him. When Eric joined us five minutes later we took a summit shot while perusing the register, photographing the views, and taking a well-deserved break. Tom continued on the NE Ridge at a slower pace, reaching the summit as we were about to start down a few minutes later. We paused to take another summit shot of the four of us before continuing, Tom remained to enjoy the summit to himself. Scott had decided to drop down on the east side some distance to avoid the spiciest portion of the ridge, and consequently reached the summit some time after we were gone. Reversing the route, we encountered other climbers atop the large obstacle as we approached it from the south side. They were soon identified as Rick and Ryan. Ryan, feeling out of his element on the approach to the saddle, had waited for Rick to catch up to him and the two had continued on together. They had explored the west side and top in much the same fashion as ourselves earlier. We shouted out instructions for them to reach Glenn's Ledge and after a bit of difficulty it was located. We chatted briefly as we all met up on the ledge. Knowing his limits, Ryan commented that he was "scared as hell and not afraid to admit it." He also seemed to be having the time of his life, grateful that he had Rick to help introduce him to his first class 4 scrambling. Curious to know if Glenn's Ledge could be bypassed, I started up the walls that had intimidated us from above. From below they didn't seem quite so vertical, and a lovely hand crack beckoned me to find out. It turned out to be quite easy, maybe class 5.3 or so, and not to be left out, Glenn followed a minute later. Balking, Eric went back around via the ledge, but he didn't lose anytime on us as we all made it down to the start of the route about the same time.
Resting casually at the saddle were Ron Hudson and Joyce Lin. Ron was our veteran 61yr-old Sierra Club climber paying his second visit to Giraud. 21yr-old Joyce was new to the Challenge and the scrambling game, but had shown remarkable determination in getting herself this far. Ron and she had teamed up at Bishop Pass and seemed to be enjoying themselves as they rested and chatted. Three of us introduced ourselves to Joyce, chatted briefly, and gave them a synopsis of the route before continuing our descent. I laughed as I considered who was the brightest of the four men at that short meeting - three of us who raced up and down the ridge, or Ron, who took his time to enjoy the climb and Joyce's delightful company. He was a crafty one, that Ron.
Rather than return to the first saddle, I chose to head down the saddle where the two rested, downclimbing a steep moat alongside a hard snowfield that clung to the west side of the saddle. Below the snowfield was a fan of horribly loose scree and talus, and I cautioned Eric and Glenn above me to wait until I was down and out of the fall line of their inevitable barrage of debris. Another of our group, Robert Golomb, was on another snowfield below heading back - he had reached his comfort limit before getting to the saddle and decided to turn around. David Wright was spotted in the boulder field, nearly to the top of the first saddle. I got down to the second snowfield to meet up with Robert while Glenn and Eric were a few minutes behind and higher on the slope. Robert and I stopped to chat briefly at the edge of the snow while waiting for Glenn and Eric to catch up.
Then it happened.
A shout, a scream, some combination had us all stop and stare up at the saddle. Something was moving down the hard snowfield at the second saddle. It took only a fraction of second to recognize it as a body. It slid in an upright position on its left side, picking up speed as it slid down the 100-150-foot snowfield inclined at something like 40 degrees. When it reached the end of the snowfield it hit talus and began tumbling down the loose fan three of us had just descended a few minutes earlier. It was an awful sight. I wasn't sickened by it, but an immediate feeling of dread came over me. Without averting my eyes, and even as the body tumbled lifelessly like a rag doll, I commented to Robert simply, "This isn't good." I could see that the person was wearing shorts as they tumbled, and my next thought was that Ron had fallen - I recalled that he was wearing shorts when we met up. The body had tumbled about 150ft over the rock and talus before falling to rest around a corner and out of our view. All of those who watched the fall simply assumed the person must have died.
Voices were heard screaming from above. Most of the screaming was from Ron, and it was soon apparent that it must have been Joyce that fell, not Ron. "Joyce fell! Joyce fell!" he screamed over and over. He may have thought those of us below were still heading back, not realizing we had witnessed the tragedy, and was trying to get our attention. He had our attention. Eric was less than 50 yards from Joyce's body and immediately ran over towards her. Glenn, further below did likewise, but having the uphill to contend with, moved slower. One of my initial thoughts was a complete dread of viewing a mangled and bloody body up close - I'd never in my life witnessed such an accident. No one else there had either, for that matter. As Robert and I headed towards the scene as well, he shouted that he was an ER doctor, and I recall thinking that was a very good piece of luck. We heard Ron shout about a helicopter, asking for someone to send for one, about the same time that Eric reached the body and shouted out "She's alive!" Alot happened in less than thirty seconds. Robert and I stopped to take it in. We were far from any trailhead or anyplace where we could get cellphone coverage, a really long way. A Search and Rescue (SAR) call was needed to get a helicopter to the scene whether it was for a rescue or a recovery. As Robert and I were the lowest on the mountain, we were the most likely candidates to run back. Since Robert was a doctor, I suggested he should go to the scene while I jetted back to the trail - that would keep me from having to stomach the view of a mangled body. Robert gave me his cell phone in case I might be able to get a signal around Bishop Pass. Ron was shouting for me to make sure and ask everyone on the trail if they had an emergency radio. And with that, probably only two minutes after the accident, I was away.
I briefly considered dropping my pack, but I had very little in it - a lightweight jacket was the biggest item, and then just small items like a camera, headlamp, and sunscreen. We had carried no crampons or axe or other gear and it weighed hardly anything. I didn't even have any food or water on me. I jogged off across the boulder field heading back to the intermediate ridge and then down to Dusy Basin. I had never had to run with someone's life on the line, and it wasn't very comforting position to be in. If I ran too fast and tripped or twisted an ankle, that would be a huge mistake and could cost a life. But as I jogged along trying to be somewhat careful, I had guilt about not putting in enough effort. What if I took too long and she dies only minutes before rescue? I had to reassure myself that I could only do the best I could - I had no cape and no Superman act to turn to.
I had no idea what condition Joyce was in, other than she was alive. How bad it was I could only imagine, and it was easy to imagine her expiring only minutes after the fall. Horribly twisted appendages and a broken skull came readily to mind. Any kind of brain hemorrage or internal injuries or other serious complications could finish what the initial fall didn't. Out of water, I stopped when I reached the first lake to fill a water bottle. This 30 second delay would have to be endured as I couldn't see myself running the rest of the way out without it. I jogged cross-country on a slight uphill grade to intersect the trail not far from where we left it in the morning. The accident had ocurred around noon, and it was now 40 minutes later. I started jogging up the trail but found myself quickly winded. Moving fast across boulder fields was one thing, but uphill was much more tiring. I realized I was pretty exhausted from the day's outing, something less noticeable when walking back as opposed to running. I came across the first of many backpackers on the Bishop Pass Trail. Realizing that valuable time could be lost explaining the whole story to each party, I tried to keep it as simple and direct as possible.
"There's been a serious accident - do you happen to have an emergency radio?"
Not surprisingly, the answer came back, "No, I'm sorry I don't." or some variation. I followed that up with a succint, "Thanks anyway," before jogging on. Even before I reached Bishop Pass I left half a dozen parties wondering what the serious accident might be. Pressing on, I grew weaker, a bit dizzy, then nausea crept in. I stopped to catch my breath, but the nausea overwhelmed me and I threw up the bit of water I had drunk, then a few dry heaves. Not having eaten in the last 7hrs, there was no food in my stomach. I felt better afterwards. Thinking better of jogging, I turned to a fast walk for the uphill. That worked better for my legs, my stomach, and my head, and it wasn't much slower than my jog. At 1p I reached Bishop Pass where I came across two parties taking a breather. I explained the situation again, but again no radio. One of them had a cell phone, and together we walked over to the north side of the pass to attempt a call. Not owning a cell phone myself, I stumbled a bit with Robert's before I figured out how to use it. Though neither of our phones displayed "Out of Range" indicators, we were unable to make any calls, trying first 911, then the Operator, then random numbers stored on the phones. No dice. I thanked the gentleman for his efforts, packed up Robert's phone, and started off down the trail, resuming the run.
Downhill was of course much easier and I had no more bouts of nausea. Not far from Bishop Pass I came across a party that indicated they had already heard about the accident. Huh? How was this possible? I asked for more detail and was told the accident was near Isosceles Peak. Wrong peak. I began to worry that there were two accidents and this would add much confusion to efforts to organize SAR. Other parties I ran into below also said they had heard - two persons were running down the trail fifteen minutes ahead of me looking for an emergency radio as well. One person said it was a woman who had been injured, and I began to think we were down to a single accident again. But how did they get ahead of me? Near Long Lake I got my answer.
Resting on some rocks by the trail were Scott Hanson and Monique Polumbo, two of our Challenge party. They had been attempting Mt. Agassiz near Bishop Pass with others, but turned back before reaching the summit. Near Bishop Pass, Monique had gotten a call on her FRS radio from Tom Becht. Tom had come down from Giraud's summit after the accident, but had reclimbed part of the ridge in order to see if his radio could reach Monique. It did, but only for a short time, and long enough to provide the location (north side of Giraud, in Dusy Basin) and her condition - broken arm and head trauma. They had begun jogging down from Bishop Pass, and like myself, stopped to ask everyone they came across if they had an emergency radio. At Long Lake they had found a 70yr-old gentleman with a satellite radio and they had contacted SAR using it. I asked a lot of questions of the two of them, many of them repeated requests for information they had just told me. Partly I wanted to make sure the information given to SAR was accurate and not missing any crucial details, and partly because I was rather slow on the uptake of information, having jogged myself out of breath and clear thinking. All that they told me sounded correct. Where the one party had come up with Isosceles Peak was a mystery, but it wasn't conveyed to SAR. Resting with Tom and Monique for five minutes or so, I decided to continue down to the trail - perhaps SAR would be coming to the trailhead and I could offer additional information.
It was 2:30p by the time I had jogged the remaining distance to South Lake. There were only empty cars and a few fisherman near the trailhead. I hung around there a few minutes before I concluded that since the accident was so far from the trailhead, it was unlikely they would send a team in on foot to back up a helicopter. Now that SAR was initiated, my thoughts turned to notification. No one on the Challenge knew Joyce any more than I did, she had just joined us that day. I might have her emergency contact information back in Bishop on my website if she had provided it to me. I drove back to the motel in town and fired up the laptop. I had an email from a Richard Browne, asking me to contact him about the accident. That was surprising - how did someone get my name and email address so quick. Using Robert's phone, I called Richard. He was with SEKI Search and Rescue. I gave him all the information I could about the location, admitting I had no first hand knowledge on her condition since I had started back before it was assessed. Richard could give me very little information about the progress of the SAR, other than it was underway. He asked me where I was, asking that I remain there until an Inyo County Sheriff could pay me a visit. I hung up and looked for Joyce's emergency contact info. Thankfully, she had provided her father's number and address. I called, but no one was home. I left a message explaining briefly what happened, that there daughter had had an accident, was known to still be alive, and provided the SEKI SAR phone number. I had no idea what Robert's cell phone number was, nor how to find out, so I couldn't leave a return number to reach me.
Then I waited.
I showered, had a drink, and waited. It was very disconcerting. Here I was back safe from the accident, showered and resting while eight or nine others were still in the backcountry waiting and wondering where SAR was. Guilt permeated almost all my thoughts. Guilt for being the organizer of an event where someone was seriously injured and might die. What would her parents and family think? What would the climbing community think? How would I live with it should she die?
I was outside the motel room when the sheriff drove in. He introduced himself as Terry Waterbury, deputy sheriff, and soon set me at ease. He was a member of Inyo County SAR. Terry explained that since the accident took place in SEKI NP, it was within the jurisdiction of SEKI, and essentially "their" rescue. His was solely a supporting role, collecting information and doing what he could to help, but all the logistical decisions were theirs to make. He could guess what they might do and what hospital they might take Joyce to, but could not be certain until he had been told by SEKI. He produced a binder of topo maps and I showed him the exact location of the fall and as much detail of the terrain/slope/distances as I could remember. With me for about 45 minutes, he gave me phone numbers to reach him and promised to call or stop by when he had more information.
I called SEKI SAR again around 4:30p to see if I could get an update. None was to be had. Richard said he'd call me when he got more updates, but it didn't sound reassuring. Some of the other participants who had gone to easier peaks had started to return. I filled them in and we all played a game of speculation. There was just too much unknown at that time to piece together the cause or outcome of the accident.
As promised, Terry stopped by and gave me more information. They had flown Joyce out from the scene at 5:30p and was expected to be flown into the Bishop airport at any time. From there she'd be taken to Northern Inyo Hospital in Bishop. The good news was that she would certainly live. They would have to run a battery of tests before they could assess the damage more accurately. Those participants who had returned to the motel went out to get dinner around 7p, not surprisingly it was a somber affair. Afterwards, I drove over to the hospital to see if I could get an update on Joyce's condition. They were still in the process of stitching up her head wounds after setting broken bones and cleaning out as much debris as possible. She had been conscious the entire time during the accident, a good sign indeed. No internal injuries were found, no brain damage, almost no injuries at all to her lower torso. The damage consisted mainly of two broken wrists, a broken chin, and significant superficial damage to the scalp and face. When made aware I was in the waiting area, she asked to see me. The nurse cautioned me before going in, but I was almost relieved to see that it wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined it would be after witnessing her fall some 300 feet. Having doped her up for the surgery, Joyce wasn't yet aware of the magnitude of her accident. She talked about driving out of the hospital the next day and wanted to know if I could retrieve her car. She wouldn't be driving anywhere anytime soon, but I could certainly get her car. She gave me very precise details on where to find her food stashed in a particular bear box near the trailhead.
Returning to the motel, I found Eric had returned. He had been dispatched as a second runner shortly after I had left, attempting to reach a ranger at a station deep in LeConte Canyon. He had swiftly descended several thousand feet to the canyon's bottom, only to find the ranger station locked and deserted. He had then climbed all the way back up to Bishop Pass and out, over thirty miles for the day in 12hrs. He and Mike Larkin joined me for a drive up to the trailhead to retrieve Joyce's food and car. We brought it back to the hospital and left the keys with Joyce who was still being worked on by the doctors and nurses there. Fortunately she was the only patient in the ER at the time and had the full attention of four nurses and a doctor. Back at the motel I waited up past midnight for the others to return weary from the trailhead. We exchanged stories, second guessed our decisions, speculating on past and future events. I planned to return to the hospital the next day to check on Joyce and meet with her parents who had contacted the hospital and made plans to drive up from Los Angeles. Joyce's prognosis was good and was likely to be discharged to her parents' care the next day. We were all relieved to have avoided a more serious tragedy, somber in the deeper realization of the risks we take in our mountain endeavors.
Joyce experienced a remarkable recovery in the weeks following the accident. Recuperating at her parent's home in the Los Angeles area, her facial injuries began healing quickly, attested to by regular photos or herself that she posted on the Internet. Undoubtedly, both her young age and postive outlook on life contributed to this success. Others that witnessed the accident wrote accounts of the day's events from their own perspectives. If interested, see reports by David Wright, Robert Golumb, and Eric Lee.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Giraud Peak
This page last updated: Wed Mar 26 22:35:10 2008
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