A lost boot, broken gear and a locked gate: a self-rescue on...

A lost boot, broken gear and a locked gate: a self-rescue on Forbidden Peak

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Forbidden Peak. Jason Griffith photo.
Forbidden Peak. Jason Griffith photo.

Story by Blake Herrington

tackled my climbing partner and pinned him to a wet rock slab above an ominous moat separating snow from ice. Dan’s boot had disappeared into the gaping maw with the falling rock that had precipitated our emergency. But before retrieving it, we needed to get his bleeding under control – his leg was likely fractured. We saw no sign of the third member of our team who was with us moments before. Miles of snow, woods, trail and road separated us from our car.

Two minutes earlier, we thought we had happily completed our climb of Forbidden Peak, one of the icons of the North Cascades.

Our team of three, all local guys in their early 20s, had climbed the northwest face to the summit and downclimbed the west ridge, ropeless, toward the glacial remnant high in the cirque of Boston Basin. With just 100 feet of rock between the gentle snow slope and us, we got separated. Dan and I got cliffed out above a precipice and set up a rappel by threading our rope through an existing anchor. Aaron, the erstwhile third member of our crew, had descended elsewhere and we could see him already waltzing down the snow toward the prior night’s camp.

Other than the minor separation, everything was going according to plan. Then we pulled our rappel rope, sending a boulder tumbling toward us from the upper reaches of a debris-filled gully.

The boulder hit Dan squarely on the shin, causing his blood to spurt out and mix with the mud, melting snow, gravel and geologic detritus of an actively exfoliating mountain and a receding glacier. As I attempted to stabilize him and improve our anchor, a keg-sized block that had supported our gear gave way and smashed to the slab, crushing our cam and shooting sparks as it skated toward us. My timely tackle took us out of harm’s way, but added another unbelievable close call to a mounting ordeal. After making certain that Dan was coherent and no longer bleeding profusely, I built another anchor and rappelled into the glacial moat, found Dan’s boot and returned to the muddy rock slab to stabilize my partner’s ankle and prepare to descend.

The cam mangled by falling rock. Blake Herrington photo.
A cam that was mangled by falling rock. Blake Herrington photo.

The initial few hundred feet of snow and ice were the easiest part of our miles-long retreat to medical help. I simply wedged myself like a human cork into the gap between ice and rock, made Dan sit on a slippery foam pad from my pack and lowered him down the snow, paying out slack as though fighting a fish I couldn’t hope to control. Below this point, I got Aaron’s attention and together we helped Dan limp and crawl to our high camp, still above tree line and thousands of vertical feet from the car. I had an idea for shortening that distance.

On the approach hike the previous morning, we had to park in a temporary gravel lot 3.5 miles down-valley from the standard parking area for access to Boston Basin. These additional hours of road walking had been on a newly repaved road, which appeared complete and drivable, but was still closed to the public. I told my teammates that I’d race ahead of them once darkness overtook us, and Aaron and I would share Dan’s gear so Dan could limp or crawl without a pack. Dan and Aaron would then struggle down the final miles of rough trail in the dark. At the trailhead, I could stash my half of our gear and run the 3.5 miles down to the car, then return back to pick up the other two in a vehicle. This would save Dan agonizing miles and several hours.

It was 2 or 3 a.m., and we’d been on the go for the past 21 hours when my headlamp finally alit on blacktop instead of muddy woods. I unshouldered my overloaded pack and began running down-valley on Cascade River Road. But as I rounded the final bend leading to the temporary parking area, something shone in my dim LED beam that none of us had counted on: The road was now gated.

The gate was clearly a temporary installation. Maybe it had been there the day before but was left wide open to allow park service vehicles to access the upper valley. We must have walked through it without noticing, but now it was a barrier between my teammates, our gear, and our motorized route to
a hospital.

I lifted the stone overhead as I focused on the chain link. It was a day of consequential rockfall.

Upon cursory investigation, I noticed that it was temporarily secured with a thin metal chain similar in heft and structural integrity to the kind of faux-metal trinkets sold in a Safeway candy-claw arcade machine. I also noticed a convenient, well-shaped and solidly formed chunk of stone – perhaps an erratic from the flanks of Forbidded – laying on the ground at my feet. I lifted the stone overhead as I focused on the chain link. It was a day of consequential rockfall.

Soon I was bombing up the fresh pavement in my station wagon, arriving at the trailhead just in time to load my half of the gear before Dan and Aaron’s voices and headlamps heralded their arrival. Dan had done the entire descent basically on one foot, and we were off to the clinic in Mount Vernon. Just 3.5 miles down the road, the mostly-open gate shone brightly in my high beams. Both partners looked at me curiously. “Don’t ask,” I replied to their un-uttered question. And neither did. But Dan’s grin was the first he’d managed since complimenting my tackle, 12 hours before.  x

Blake Herrington is a native of Washington and lives in Leavenworth with his wife Allison. His new guidebook, Cascades Rock, covers rock climbs around WA and BC. He learned to climb in the Cascades.