Intense video capturing an avalanche rescue on Mt. Whitney back in 2017. The guy who posted the video had only recently completed his level 1 avalanche certification and this was his second trip ever into the backcountry. He wrote a complete description of the events that can be found below the video:
“This video was captured April 22, 2017. I was not very experienced at the time being that this was my second trip skiing in the backcountry and I had just taken my AIARI 1 course a few months prior. I was always hesitant to post this video becasue I believe we could have done a better job with the rescue and I didn’t want to get a bunch of flack on the internet. Regardless, I think this is some pretty interesting footage and a good learning lesson for those going out into the mountains.
The brief summary is that my buddy Matt and I were hiking up to ski the Mountaineers Couloir on Mt. Whitney. Less than an hour into the approach, a wet avalanche (mainly ice and dense snow) was naturally triggered by the sun around noon. We were directly in the path of the slide and ran for cover behind a huge boulder about 30 feet away from us. Two men in front of us were directly hit by the slide and one was missing after we came out behind the boulder. We found him partially buried under a refrigerator sized block of ice after a brief search. We dug him out, search and rescue came, and he got helicoptered out due to an ankle or leg injury. Matt and I continued up, camped around 12,000 ft, summited the next day, and I skied the Couloir.”
The thought of skiing Mt. Whitney has been in my head since I first got into skiing the backcountry. After asking a handful of friends if they were interested in attempting the mountain, no one seemed to bite. Less than a week before the permitting system began, I was finally able to procure a partner. Matt Tuffs, is the kinda guys who would say yes to just about any outdoor adventure and after climbing Shasta with him this summer, I felt he could handle the task.
Work ran late on Friday so I wasn’t able to head out of the Bay Area until 6 pm on my 7 hour solo drive to Lone Pine, CA. Feeling tired and realizing I was getting sick, I decided to stop in Mojave for the night for a quick 6 hour sleep in my car. I made it to Lone Pine by 9 on Saturday and after picking up a PCT hiker in town, the three of us headed for the trail head in Matt’s truck. After checking all our gear and packing up, we were finally able to hit the trail just after 11 am. Starting at 8,400 ft, we wore approach shoes with the intention of changing into ski boots once we got to snow.
20 minutes into the hike, we ran into the intersection marking the start of the mountaineers route where we happened to see two split-boarders coming down the trail. Excited to see two other riders, we eagerly asked them how their trip was. Looking them in the eye right then, I could tell they had been through something serious as they informed us that someone had died after falling over 2000 ft. at the Notch (The very exposed last 400 ft of the climb to the summit). With them was the backpack of the man who fell which they said came tumbling down on them on their descent.
We knew the route was dangerous and that the Notch is a true “no fall zone” but hearing about a fatality 20 minutes into our journey really put things into perspective. Nevertheless, we continued on and eventually made it to snow at around 9,200 ft after passing a group of guided climbers. At this point, we found ourselves in a gully as we continued to hike over snow in shorts and shoes. We crossed a stream and were on a pace to pass two other climbers when I stopped Matt to discuss an avalanche problem I observed. It was almost noon on a sunny day and there was clear evidence of wet loose slides on the south side of the gully. I told Matt that we were in a terrain trap but I downplayed the danger of the avalanche problem predicting we were only in for some small snow and ice balls heading our way. That conversation lasted less than a minute and we continued hiking over the snow about to overtake the other two climbers when we heard the boom.
I knew exactly what it was but the sound was louder than I could have ever imagined. I looked up the slope and yelled AVALANCHE! as Matt and I ran for cover. There was a huge boulder about 15 feet tall to the left of us and we ran and dove behind it just in time. With my pack and skies still on my back, I threw my arms in front of my face in an effort to make an air pocket in case of burial. I could feel the earth moving around us as snow and ice flew down the mountain on all sides. The boulder broke up and distributed the majority of the debris on either side of us but a few chunks made it over and fell on top of us. I came out with a bloodied knee and a few minor scraps, and Matt came out with a bruised shoulder after an ice chunk the size of a soccer ball fell right on it.
Overall, we were okay, but after brushing off the light ice and snow covering our bodies, we looked over to see what happened to the other 2 climbers who were no more than 30 ft in front of us. Emerging from behind the boulder, one of the men was standing in the exact location he was when the avalanche slid, but the other man was nowhere in site. The debris field was huge, probably about 500 wide and 300 feet long. I yelled out to the man asking where his friend was while simultaneously grabbing my avalanche beacon and turning it to search mode. I grabbed my probe and shovel, telling Matt to do the same and headed out to the location we saw the man last. The man still standing was in complete shell shock, disoriented and confused. I yelled at him “where is your buddy” and “is he wearing a beacon” multiple times until I finally was able to get a “yes, yes, yes”. We quickly realized he didn’t speak much English at all, but we continued the beacon search. I wasn’t picking up any signal as I walked through the debris field heading back and forth down down the slope in the pattern I memorized from my avalanche course I took earlier this year. There was no signal then all of the sudden, 1.8 popped up and I thought I had him, but that went away. I was furious and confused but continued the search. During the start I had handed my probe and shovel to the second man and told him to follow me but after a minute I realized he wasn’t even moving. After about a minute of traveling further down the slope, I heard a voice and ran over to find the man lying on his stomach partially buried by a piece of solid ice larger than the size of a refrigerator. His arm looked completely crushed by the ice but when I asked him if he was okay, he responded that his arm is cold… I was in relief. If cold is his biggest complaint then he must be okay.
There was no way we could move the ice block on top of him so with the shovel, I started digging under his chest to dig him out from below. By this time, another climber had come to the scene and we were able to dig him out in only 3 minutes. We unrolled his sleeping pad and put him on his back to assess the damage. He was scrapped up in a few areas and there was blood all over the snow but he was in one piece. At this point, He told us something was wrong with his leg and we took off his boots to find a swollen shin and presumably a broken bone. Two more climbers who were about 500 ft up the hill had made it down by now and they thankfully happened to be from Placer Country Search and Rescue and just happened to be climbing Whitney for fun. Another climber close by turned out to be a nurse and the situation was quickly under control.
After the situation was stabilized I ran up the debris field to look at the crown of the avalanche and assess further slide potential. Perhaps this should have been done sooner because it only took one glance to realize further danger was imminent. The crown of the avalanche was located on a sloped rock… clearly the warm temperatures, and water running between the rock and ice slab were the cause of the avalanche. Not all the ice and snow on the rock had slid and with temperatures warming further, I knew we had to move. I ran back down and it was decided that we would move the injured man behind a large boulder for cover. It was also next to a reasonable place he could be airlifted from and it was out of further avalanche hazard. After about an hour and half, Matt and I realized that if we wanted to continue, we had to start climbing soon or else we wouldn’t make our object to camp at Iceberg Lake. Multiple parties that had come across the avalanche chose to turn around but after talking amongst ourselves, we decided we could continue up the gully safely if we crossed to the north side to the stream to continue up. Making fresh tracks and bushwhacking our way through the north side wasn’t fun but the decision was absolutely worth it. At about 3:30 pm we were out of the gully but we heard another huge boom. At first we thought it was the helicopter coming into airlift the man out but when the noise ended after only 10 or so seconds, we knew it was another avalanche.
Despite everything we had already gone through on day one, morale was surprisingly high as Matt and I continued to climb to a decent looking camp spot just below 12,000 ft. We could see the peak from our tent and even though we didn’t make it all the way to Iceberg Lake, we were stoked. We boiled snow for water and after a brief altitude sickness episode by Matt, we ate some delicious freeze-dried meals and attempted to sleep. Id say I got a solid 2 hours which is great for me for 12,000 ft.