Two 23-year-old climbers were descending the L-shaped snowfield below Mt. Sill’s North Couloir in the late afternoon of October 20, 2019. Both were wearing helmets and crampons and using ice axes to descend the extremely firm, sun-cupped, late-season snow. One of the climbers slipped and tumbled approximately 400 feet, destroying his helmet and sustaining unknown but severe injuries. His partner notified the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office via inReach. A helicopter made an attempt to rescue the patient that night but was unable to land or hoist due to the high elevation (~13,200 feet) and gusty north winds. Sadly, the patient passed away before the helicopter’s arrival.
On October 21 at 12:00, six Inyo County Search and Rescue (SAR) team members were inserted about 250 feet below the patient’s location via California Army National Guard Chinook Helicopter Schooner 15. The SAR team assisted the patient’s partner to the landing zone at the base of the L-shaped snowfield and packaged the patient. The helicopter extracted the patient via vertical hoist, then landed to load the SAR team and the patient’s partner and returned to Bishop, CA.
Late-season snow is typically very firm and can be difficult to ascend or descend safely, even for experienced climbers. Especially on steep snowfields, a single misstep in firm conditions can easily lead to a sliding or tumbling fall that is nearly impossible to arrest. Climbers should be aware of this risk and exercise extreme caution when traveling on snowfields late-season, and should select alternate snow-free routes if they have concerns about either their level of experience or the level of risk.