On October 10 Inyo SAR responded to a report of an overdue climbing team of two. The reporting party stated that the two men had entered the Mt. Whitney zone via the North Fork trail the day before, with plans to climb Mt. Whitney’s East Face route. The East Face is a technical fifth class climbing route rated 5.7, with approximately 1000′ of technical terrain from base to summit. They intended to do the route “car to car” in one continuous push, without camping. This is a fairly common approach to doing this route for competent and fast climbing parties (although camping one night at Upper Boyscout or Iceberg lake is perhaps a more popular choice for most.)
After a long day of hiking and climbing, the team got off route at approximately the midpoint of the technical climbing, and decided to bivouac instead of continuing on into the waning light while lost. The next day they resumed their ascent, although still unsure if they were on-route. Unfortunately, the Sierra’s first big storm of the season decided to roll in that same morning. Snow accumulation at 9,000′ was measured at about 8-9 inches that day, and there was at least that, if not more piling up around the climbing party making even easy terrain dangerous and impassable. The climbing party decided to rappel back to a little rock alcove they noticed earlier in the day for shelter. It was at this point when one of them sent a text to his wife, mentioning their harrowing descent. In turn, the wife called the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office. Inyo SAR was notified soon after.
Inyo SAR issued a callout the evening of October 9 for a briefing the next morning at 06:00. A request for a CHP helicopter capable of high altitude flying and winching was requested and granted. A medical team and a technical team were assembled right away and all made their way down to the Lone Pine Airport for rendezvous with the helicopter. As the Inyo SAR members assembled and staged gear at the airport, China Lake SAR was requested for mutual aid, given the potential of a highly technical 2 day mission, at 14,000′ in winter conditions. Simply put, more bodies makes less work. The helicopter was also flying at this time, scanning the face for visual sign of the party, and reconnoitering potential landing zones (LZs).
Once the helicopter described the location of the climbing party to the SAR team, it was determined that two members of the technical team should be ready to fly up to a point at about 13,000′, directly in the middle of Mt. Whitney’s East face. The helicopter would then attempt to touch down with one skid on a snow-covered rock outcropping, where the SAR members would exit the aircraft, hold cover while the helo raised and orbited, and attempt to reach the shelter cave, retrieve the stranded party, assist them back to the LZ, and assist in loading the party onto the aircraft for extraction. Needless to say, while very exciting, this was an extremely dangerous plan, although one we were capable of attempting.
In an attempt to avoid putting our own members at risk with such a maneuver, we contacted the party via cell phone again, and explained the nature of the extraction, where the LZ was, and asked if they were able to get to the LZ on their own. They communicated that they believed that they could. Inyo SAR members stayed at the ready while the helicopter geared up to attempt to pick them up. 45 minutes later, the helicopter flew and visually confirmed the party was about halfway to the LZ. After returning to the airport one more time for fuel, the helicopter was able to successfully extract the climbing party via a one skid landing, without putting any more people at risk.
The climbers were met at the airport by family, friends, Inyo SAR, Inyo SO, Lone Pine Fire, and Lone Pine Ambulance services. After 2 unplanned nights out at 13,000′ and enduring a snowstorm in the open, they were amazingly without cold injuries, illness or trauma, and were released to their families tired and wet, but alive and well.
Fantastic work was done by all involved in our span of control. Special thanks goes out to CHP-H80 and crew, as well as China Lake SAR for responding all the way from Kern County.