Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Cautionary Tale of Death on Mt Whitney

Probably the last thing on 60-year-old Yukio Kato's mind when he woke up last Sunday was his own demise.  However, that's exactly what happened when Mr Kato fell 200 feet to his death from the Mt Whitney Main Trail on September 1.

According to a member of his party, Mr Kato suffered from altitude sickness for about 90 minutes before  the accident and fell on his way back from the summit.  Published accounts report he fell over a "cliff" at an altitude of 13,500 feet approximately one mile from the summit.

View of trail approximately 1 mile from the summit
Unfortunately, something in this description doesn't match up. The altitude one mile from the summit is approximately 14,000 - 14,200 feet.  It would be impossible to fall 200 feet downward at that location because the relatively mild talus and scree slope prevents a long fall.  There is no cliff.  If the altitude is correct, that places his location just past the junction with the John Muir Trail  where it narrows to four feet wide in spots with a lot of air off your left ear.  My calls to the appropriate agencies for confirmation of the fall location went unreturned so we lose an opportunity to understand exactly where this incident occurred.

The Main Trail at 13,500 feet approximately 1.9 miles from summit.  More trail visible on the sunlit midground outcrop.  Note steep dropoff.
Details are sketchy regarding the exact circumstances surrounding Mr Kato's death.  However, the trail is extremely narrow with exposure in this area because crews hewed it out of solid rock.  An altitude-sick climber like Mr Kato could simply wobble off the trail and suffer a fatal fall.  Thomas Rockwell, a Bakersfield businessman, sat with the body until relieved by Park Service personnel summoned by his personal locator beacon. 

In this article on the website, Mr Rockwell calls for better cel phone service on Mt Whitney in hopes of saving lives.  I will disagree respectfully with Mr Rockwell.  As my colleague, friend, and respected mountaineer Tony Yeary says, "Find safety between your ears, not in your backpack."

backpacking, ultralight backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, alpine-style, ice climbing

Nobody wants to see the backcountry studded with cel phone towers as well as the infrastructure required to service them.  The wilderness is what it is; a wild place preserved as pristinely as possible for the plants and animals living there and for future generations to get a sense of what the country was like before man put his stamp on it.  The wilderness is not an amusement park.  Therefore, we ourselves take responsibility for preparing physically, mentally, and materially to assure the safest journey possible.

I shudder to think about the other consequences of greater cel service.  People don't pay enough attention here in town already.  Imagine someone walking off a cliff while texting, "I'm having a great ti......."

We must also listen to our more sensible side because many of us suffer from what degreed professionals call "non-productive persistence."  Despite our deteriorating physical and mental condition we struggle onward, fixated on achieving our goal.  Unfortunately, we reach a point where we can go no further.  Yet we are still short of our objective and farther from home than ever.  So all we did was place ourselves in more jeopardy and turn a tough day into a potential rescue situation.

Given the sketchy information we have regarding the circumstances, Mr Kato may have pushed through several warning signs of altitude sickness in his desire to summit but did not leave enough reserve for the trip home.  Know this:  80 percent of all mountain fatalities all over the world and throughout history happen on the way back down. As Ed Viesturs so aptly put it, "Getting to the top is optional.  Getting down is mandatory."

Find the latest copy of  Accidents in North American Mountaineering.  The publishers assemble and print a new one each year.  Note how few injury accidents or deaths are due to faulty equipment.  Most injuries and fatalities occur because equipment was used improperly, used past its proper life span, or the users did not have the experience to attempt what they were attempting.  These are all preventable.  Some simply by the addition of experience.  In other words, learn to fix solid belay anchors from seasoned climbers and much practice in less dire circumstances, not from your smartphone while hanging off a cliff.

Even if you never plan to climb class 5, experience and training are important.  Learning how your mind works at altitude under stress cannot be overstated.  We all lose a few IQ points up high.  Knowing that about yourself and making good decisions is a skill acquired with practice.

Rather than more cel service, let's all acquire the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to ensure our safe return.  The best way to signal a rescue is avoiding the need for one.

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  1. My daughter also reached the summit of Mt. Whitney that day. She said that it was hailing, raining, it got windy and then hot. While it was raining with hail the rocky trail became very slippery.

    1. Any of those things, all of them, or none of them may have contributed to Mr Kato's death. If he was in bad shape, a little extra slickness might set up a fall from which he could not catch his balance. Without more info, it's hard to know. My point is preparing as best we can often tips the balance in our favor when conditions become marginal.

  2. I last climbed Mt Whitney in 1989 and distinctly remember a spot between the crest (where John Muir trail heads down west) and the summit of Mt Whitney where we came upon a large hole to the right of the trail that you could walk through and it stopped at a very shear cliff, that is to say, the eastern side of the mountain. I remember looking down at iceberg lake and guessing it had to be at least a thousand feet or more straight down. It was scary as hell looking over that ledge. I dont know if it is still there but my guess is that the park service did something to make it safer or close it off completely in light of the fact that Whitney was really taking off back in the early nineties by people wanting a wilderness experience and worrying that the quota system might shut them out of a chance to tackle the great peak.

    I dont know what happened to Mr. Kato but I feel bad for his loved ones and I hope that someday they get the answers they seek.

  3. I agree! NO CELL PHONE TOWERS! we already have satellites that provide contact. Do not hike out there if you can't! that's it.


OK guys, let's keep 'er civil and mannerly. This is not a political site so diatribes of that ilk are not welcome and won't be published.