As the fumaroles at Hot Rocks and Devils Kitchen melt out earlier this year, PMR urges climbers to be wary of holes and weak cavities in the snow above fumarole areas. The Oregonian, KGW and NBC provided great coverage of this issue.
Around 8:45 a.m. on May 24, 2014, a 59-year old male climber fell while descending the Old Chute on the south side of the summit ridge on Mt. Hood. The climber fell several hundred feet down the steep slope of the upper crater. A fumarole known as Hot Rocks is located in the bottom of the crater west of the Hogsback. A fumarole is an area where volcanic gases are vented from rocks or soil to the atmosphere. Heat from this fumarole had melted the deep snow pack and created a large hole or sloping tunnel. The climber fell far into this hole and sustained multiple injuries. He was conscious, but was unable to move on his own.
During the peak climbing season, Portland Mountain Rescue tries to field small teams on the mountain (called ready teams) to promote climbing safety and to be prepared for emergencies. That day, PMR had a ready team of four rescuers lower on the mountain. A descending climber alerted the ready team about the fallen climber around 9:30 a.m. They immediately proceeded up the mountain and reached the fumarole around 10:00 a.m. At the same time a group of 11 PMR rescuers were participating in an advanced rigging training course at Timberline Lodge. Through the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, these rescuers also were quickly mobilized to haul equipment up the mountain to package and transport the patient.
From outside the fumarole tunnel, the ready team was able to make voice contact with the patient. Fumaroles in an enclosed area, such as a snow tunnel can accumulate toxic gases that can quickly overcome rescuers and result in permanent nerve damage or death. Based on the patient’s responsiveness, the ready team determined to cautiously send one rescuer into the fumarole tunnel. He found the patient about 100 feet inside the sloping tunnel and with life threatening injuries.
Given the patient’s condition and dangerous environment, the ready team determined to extract the patient without a litter (which another PMR team was still hauling up the mountain). The ready team enlisted technical gear and assistance from nearby climbers to construct and operate a twin-tensioned rope system to gingerly raise the patient from the fumarole tunnel. Shortly after the patient was extracted, additional PMR teams arrived with equipment to stabilize and package the patient for transport. AMR’s Reach and Treat Team arrived shortly afterwards, and PMR transferred patient care to AMR around 11:30 a.m.
PMR then used a rope system to raise the patient to the Hogsback and to lower him to a suitable landing zone on the east side of the Hogsback in an area known as the Devil’s Kitchen. Shortly after 2:00 p.m. the patient was loaded into a Blackhawk Helicopter from the Oregon Army National Guard 1042nd Air Ambulance Company, which flew him to Emmanuel Hospital in Portland. All PMR rescuers were safely out of the field by 4:00 p.m.
The upper crater slopes of Mt. Hood are dangerous and, in most conditions, require advanced mountaineering skills and technical equipment to climb safely. Falls from the upper chutes are far too common. This mission presented an additional complication of unknown conditions in the fumarole tunnel. This climber was fortunate to have survived the initial fall and the fall into the fumarole and that the fumarole was ventilated well enough that toxic gases had not accumulated at fatal levels. Climbers in steep terrain should evaluate the condition of snow to determine how difficult it may be to self-arrest if they fall, and they should consider whether a fall would send them in the direction of even more danger, such as a cliff or a fumarole. PMR sends its thanks to the many climbers who generously donated equipment and who eagerly assisted our ready team during the extraction effort.