Due to the steepness and the wind, I couldn't even face out from the mountain for descent until after down climbing the first 3,000 ft or so. As I got lower on the mountain and the slopes occasionally eased up, I periodically faced back out again to take a break from daggering. The ridge was less defined at this point so I needed to start navigating with my map, compass, and altimeter to make sure I started angling to the east to intersect the shelter of the 9,800 foot camp.
I attempted to check my altitude but found that my altimeter was covered in a half-inch block of ice. I really shouldn’t have left it attached to the shoulder strap of my pack, exposed to the elements. I chipped off the ice enough to see that the screen beneath was dead, so from here on out I would have to navigate with only a map and compass. By this time I couldn’t see my map as it had become dark – the sun had set at some point during my down climb but I hadn’t noticed.
Because my zippers were choked with rime ice, I had to take off my mittens to get out my headlamp, and each time I took out my map or compass. Luckily I was wearing liners beneath the mittens, which protected my hands, but the tip of the middle finger on my right hand had come open. I didn’t think much about this at the time as I was focused on other things.
As I moved downhill I took occasional compass bearings and matched them up with the map to get a sense of which direction I should go, but as the slopes flattened I began to have other problems. The wind had begun to shift across the fall line, and based on my compass readings, I was traveling west across the slopes rather than straight down them. Because it was dark and because I had to lean so hard into the stronger winds gusts, sometimes as much as 45 degrees, I couldn’t tell which way was down. I had to use my compass to guess where the fall line went. Even knowing this, the wind was forcing me west ever harder and I needed to go east into the wind to get to camp. I attempted to head back east over and over as I descended, but the winds actually became stronger from this direction as I got lower.
I learned later that sustained winds on the high mountain that night were forecasted to be between 80-100 mph. Considering the temperatures I was descending in, this put the wind chill temperatures at somewhere between -15 to -25 degrees Fahrenheit, which according to the NOAA wind chill chart estimates is within a frostbite exposure time of 30 minutes.
At this point I was cold, wet, and feeling exhausted. I would sit on the snow slopes to rest, but even when I faced away from the wind, the high wind speeds created enough suction in front of my face that spindrift would still circle around and blow a steady stream of ice crystals into my face and jacket. The stronger gusts were exhausting me and sometimes paralyzing my ability to move as I was overcome by gusts buffeting me one direction and then another. It happened with such regularity that it seemed as if the Whitney and Bolam Glaciers were acting as large chambers of restrained air, each one taking turns to fill and then release energy as the pressure of one side of the ridge overcame that of the other.
Eventually I clued into the fact that the gusts would only last about 30 seconds to a minute and then I would have a break of about 30 seconds to a minute where the winds were only blowing 60 mph or so. I decided that when the gusts hit me it was better to lie down on the slope and get blasted by the blowing snow than to attempt to stand against them. Eventually the gusts would pass and the winds would ease to a speed that I could climb with again. I would go through the motions of lying down in the winds to be blasted in the face for a while, then walking for a few seconds – over and over again.
Based on my headings, I was heading towards the moraine of the Whitney Glacier. Eventually I began to see bushes and small trees sticking up through the snow which indicated to me that I had descended below the camp by this point. I tried in vain to ascend back up slope and to the east, but was blinded, gagged, and knocked back by the wind as I had been so many times this day. Although the winds had begun to feel lighter lower on the mountains, it was still impossible to climb against them.
I was taking more and more rests, and they were getting more frequent and lasting longer, so I could tell that I was wearing down. It almost felt better to let snow begin to pile up over me than to continue walking down into blackness while fighting the wall of wind. Psychologically I was wearing down too as I lost any sense of where I was or how far I had to go until I had shelter.
I looked at my map to decide what to do next. Continuing to descend was becoming a bad idea. Continuing to head in the direction the wind was blowing me would spit me out into the nether regions of the northwest side of Mount Shasta, far from our car and from where SAR was likely to be coming in from, and in a flat cross-country area that had no good features to orient by. Basically, I would just have to wander down slope until I hit the I-5 or Highway 97.
I decided that I needed shelter, which meant snowdrifts, but the high winds had scoured all of the fresh snow away. I needed trees to block the wind and maybe collect windblown snow for a cave. The problem was that tree line on the Whitney Glacier moraine begins about 800 ft lower than by the Bolam Glacier where we had ascended, so I had further to descend. Also, I knew from earlier talks with climbing ranger Eric White that that area of the mountain did not have old growth pine forests, but instead was covered in Manzanita, which I knew would not make good shelter.
I had no choice but to keep moving with the wind north and west as the strong gusts of wind continued to buffet me. I kept an eye out for snowdrifts and eventually larger rocks and more trees began to appear. Occasionally I would find a pathetic wind break or patch of snow to try. I would pass it by to look at more promising rocks and bushes down the slope only to find that they were only worse. I expended significant time and energy attempting to walk the hundred feet or so up slope to second-guess my decision to bypass the earlier spots. Ultimately I decided that nothing was adequate to recover and that I should continue down.
At one point the ridge dropped off into a cliff to my right (o). I could barely look that way as the wind was especially strong as it accelerated over the crest. I stayed close to the cliff and picked my way down a broad ramp. Eventually I saw some trees and a large snowdrift piled up against the cliffs on the ramp. The snowdrift was blown into a steep and narrow crest that broadened out into the tree-filled corner. I took out my shovel and started digging into the crest, which luckily faced downwind, making for an ideal entrance as the wind would not blow directly into the cave. To my relief every branch I hit was a small broken one and I could rip it out of the snow and keep digging.
Soon I could crawl inside the cave as I enlarged it, and finally I could lie down and rest free from the wind blasting my face and blowing snow into my jacket. I finished the cave, crawled sopping wet into my backpack bivy setup, and put my ice covered anemometer and saturated mittens inside my jacket to dry out overnight.
I felt that I should cry for Tom, but I was still in too much shock over the suddenness of everything and the trauma of the descent to fully absorb what had happened. I was exhausted but warming up, and I quickly fell asleep.
- - - -