Just as I was about to make a Saturday post about backcountry disappearances, Derek Mamoyac, the 27-year-old solo climber missing for five days on a climb of Washington’s 12,276-foot Mt. Adams, was found – alive! It’s very rare that lost hikers make it more than 72 hours.
Mamoyac began his climb last Sunday, October 9th. He traveled light, but had crampons and other gear for a one-day round-trip up Adams’ standard South Spur route, an 11-mile 6,676-foot vertical gain. At 12,276 feet, Mt. Adams is Washington’s second highest peak, located 30 air miles north of Hood River on the Oregon/Washington border. The South Spur is easy, and uncomplicated by the hazardous crevasses found on most glaciated Cascade peaks. It once saw regular mule traffic, is commonly climbed by dogs. Many people make the climb in spring for good skiing and glissading on slopes that max out around 30 degrees. Ice axe and crampons are normally taken, but not ropes.
The climb is often done in a long day, but overnights are also common using bivouacs at an area called Lunch Counter (9,200 feet) located near the base of the Suksdorf Ridge and the huge snowfield below Pikers Peak, a subsummit. Lunch Counter is where Mamoyac was last seen by another climber, heading toward the top at 9:30am on Sunday. The search began late Monday after Mamoyac didn’t turn up for work.
The short story? Mamoyac apparently broke his ankle while post-holing back down the Pikers Peak snowfield. From there on, Mamoyac crawled and dragged himself downhill, eventually scooting on his butt rather than trashing his knees. He spent at least five nights out in high wind and weather that plunged to the teens. The crawling difficulties led him to stick on a downhill course that went roughly SSW (call it 7:00 on the compass clock) rather than SSE (5:00), which would have taken him down his ascent route.
On Saturday, a dog running some last passes before the search was shut down found Mamoyak in the White Salmon/Avalanche Glacier area, a very rugged section of the mountain complicated by a massive debris collapse from 1997. Mamoyac had crawled to the 6,000-foot level, making for the Mountain Trail which traverses the peak’s south slopes. The search was complicated by the fact that Mamoyac, while generally well-prepared and clearly tough, was wearing black clothing and had crawled off-route. He’d been missed by several helicopter passes. Mamoyac told searchers he’d been eating bugs and drinking creek water for several days. His condition was listed as fair, with some frostbite and seriously swollen legs. News reports immediately seized on the bug-eating, saying that’s what kept Mamoyac alive, but I suspect it made no difference in the outcome.
There’s a lesson here, but it’s not about Mamoyac’s preparedness or lack thereof. He was following a style pursued by thousands of hikers every weekend. He was fit, and obviously had the clothing needed. He was on a ‘safe’ route. Friends knew where he was going. He just broke his ankle. This accident just shows how thin a line many weekend adventurers walk without fully realizing it.
Light and fast travelers rely totally on speed and movement to keep them safe and warm. Once you’re disabled, or merely slowed down, the system no longer works and you’re in epic country. So if you regularly do trips like this, carry an emergency beacon and flares, because hunger, pain and desperation are only an ankle twist away.
There’s a souvenir t-shirt at the local stores in my Torrey, Utah hometown. It shows a trail runner leaping a gap between two huge boulders, above the slogan: "Confidence. It’s that feeling you get before you fully understand the situation." Wise words for adventure junkies.
Hike safe. – Steve Howe