The Chair Peak Incident (or Why I Joined SMR) by Drew Fletcher
I watched, a bit confused, as the earth began to turn. In slow motion. First one way and then another. The sun was suddenly blocked out. First by the boulder and then by the wall. The boulder crushed my head, face first, against the wall. I heard a snap as a couple of teeth shattered. I remember a slight pause in time. I wondered if I would be alive or dead in the next second. This is it. One more second to live. And then everything went to fast forward…spinning, falling, snap, ouch, snap, bang, confusion. And then the world was still. Silence. Everything stopped. All was still, serene, and calm. I felt nothing. Just floating.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The summer was lingering and the nip of autumn was just barely noticeable as the September sun began to melt away the morning mist. Kristy and I had been dating for about six months and had fallen in love. I decided that a perfect ending to a perfect summer would be to take Kristy on her first alpine rock adventure. So on this perfect autumn day we set out to climb Chair Peak in Washington’s Alpine Lakes region.
We were both in good shape and had no problem getting ourselves up into Chair Peak basin, which is just North of the Alpental ski area at Snoqualmie pass. I knew the area well. I had summited the mountain a few times and had skied the basin numerous times in past seasons.
Kristy had spent a reasonable amount of time outdoors and while she had done some indoor rock climbing, she had limited experience on outdoor sport climbs. And she had never spent any time in the alpine. At the approach to the ridge, just above the basin, the terrain becomes solid 4th class, with lots of talus, scree and all the crap you’d expect to see in the Cascades. Soon after reaching that point, I noticed that Kristy was starting to sketch out…just a bit. In hindsight, I often wonder if she had some intuition about what would happen later that afternoon.
I thought. “I love her so much.” And I wondered “what can I do to make her feel safe and to make this day memorable so that she’ll want to come back and climb with me again some day?”
We put on our harnesses and roped up. I attempted to play the role of mountain guide and I short roped her up to the ridgeline as safely as I could. The climbing wasn’t difficult, but it was definitely exposed. An unprotected fall at this point would certainly end badly. So we just took our time. I used every bit of protection I could find to try and help Kristy feel safe and confident. I remember loving life at that moment. The sun was radiating heat off of the rock back into my face and arms. The view was spectacular; the air had that alpine quality, the endorphins were kicking in. And I was experiencing this magical moment with someone whom I adored.
After a short scramble we reached the top of the ridge and took a look at the chimney, the first pitch of 5th class climbing on the route. Kristy’s intuition again kicked in and after a brief discussion of the route, skill levels and safety, we decided not to summit that day. We already got what we came for – a beautiful introduction to alpine climbing.
We ate our lunch and started our descent. There are a series of gullies along the ridge that empty into the basin. I decided that rappelling down one of those gullies would be more fun than scrambling down the chossy route we had climbed earlier. Kristy had never rappelled before, so I decided to lower her off of a belay on the first pitch and figured I’d show her how to rappel on the next pitch. I demonstrated to her how the lower would work, tossed the rope around a large boulder and slowly put some weight on the system.
The earth moved. I fell. I was hurt. And finally BANG!!! The sound of the boulder crashing into the basin far below reverberated throughout my body and echoed throughout the mountains.
I was alive. I took inventory of myself. My teeth were in pieces. My head hurt and was bleeding. I noticed some moisture in my boots, and realized they were soaked with blood. My left leg was clearly broken in a few places and was bleeding. It looked nasty and unnatural. “Oh shit. I’m going to need some help.”
I looked up and saw Kristy on top of the ridge, maybe half a rope length away. I was perched on a tree at the edge of a large cliff. The slope above me to Kristy was 50 – 60 degrees and full of loose rock. Below me was a sheer cliff. She looked scared. I remember how much that shook me, seeing this ultra confident woman looking shocked and frightened, as if something really bad had just happened.
“Kristy – are you ok?” I screamed. “You have to get down here!” Somehow. Shit, the rope came down with me, she has no rope. “You’re going to have to figure it out. Be careful, there’s no protection.” Tears welled up as I said “I can’t help you.” The pain began to beckon and told me that I needed to focus on me. “Kristy. I love you. Get down to me. NOW!!! I need you!!!”
Cell reception in that area is iffy at best. Had I fallen on the other side of the ridge, towards Snow Lake, there would be have been none. My first calls were to my climbing partners – Garth and Dave. I knew that Garth was a member of Seattle Mountain Rescue and he’d know what I should do. But his answering machine turned out to be of little help. But I was able to reach Dave, and then was able to get through to 911. I didn’t have a GPS device with me. In my confused state it was difficult for me to describe exactly where we were. I told 911 that we needed help and that I would find a way to get myself to the Thumbtack, a known landmark where I knew the rescuers could find me. Dave knew exactly where we were and how to reach us.
Getting back down into the basin wasn’t easy. Kristy had never rappelled before. She had to do that alone, as I wasn’t much help. Through a long series of often comical, mostly painful maneuvers, we made our way through the rocks and snowfield and arrived at the Thumbtack a couple hours later.
My climbing partner Dave arrived shortly after with another friend (Martin from Pro Guiding). I was so happy to see them, I’m sure I started to cry. They gave me some warmer clothes, did some triage on my injuries and made me as comfortable as they could.
It wasn’t too much longer before I heard some shouting from below. “Drew – is that you? We’re from Seattle Mountain Rescue. We’ll be with you in a couple of minutes.” It’s difficult for me to communicate the sense of relief I felt when I heard these guys and gals. I knew at that moment that everything would be ok. I just had to sit back and do what they told me. I could relax. I could let them take over.
Wes and Ben from SMR and ESAR were the first of the rescue team on scene. Wes took over as the medical lead and helped get the bleeding under control and splinted my leg. More importantly, he flooded me with a sense of confidence as I knew that I was in good hands and everything would be ok. Ben began to formulate the technical plan for how the rescue crew would get me down the mountain. These guys were the real deal – they knew the terrain, they exuded competence and I knew I could trust them to get me home safely.
They wrapped me in the litter like a human taco and maneuvered me down the mountain. I couldn’t see, but I could tell there was a lot going on – ropes, gear, commands shouting, lots and lots of sweating and grunting. They worked incredibly hard. Eventually we reached the Snow Lake summer trail where there was a brand new team of rescuers with fresh lungs, legs, and enthusiasm ready to wheel me down the mountain. I later learned that these folks were mostly from the ESAR unit of Search and Rescue. I just couldn’t believe how many people were there working so hard to help me. It was quite overwhelming. Meanwhile, Wes never left my side. He monitored my medical and mental condition the entire trip down.
A couple of hours later the entire entourage arrived at the Alpental parking lot. I was unfolded from my taco and could finally see what was going on. There were somewhere between 50 – 75 people, all there to help with the rescue. There was a food tent set up and serving well deserved meals to the rescuers. There were a bunch of official looking vehicles – a SAR command truck, communications, police SUVs, fire & rescue vehicle, ambulance…I mean, it was a thing. I was so grateful, humbled, tired, and very much in pain. They put into an ambulance and whisked me away to the hospital.
Exactly one year later I submitted my application to join Seattle Mountain Rescue, and I’ve been an active member ever since. I am passionate about helping others in the mountains. I know what it feels like. I’ve been there.