January 21, 2023
Written by: James Eckhardt.
At 4:00PM just as Shani and I were finishing the last few hundred feet of a search assignment on an evidence search, we got a call for a rescue. The two subjects had been hiking from Strawberry Junction towards Annie’s junction when one had been hit by two large pieces of ice, knocking her off her feet and 150 feet down the hillside. She was able to crawl to a five by four-foot semi level area downslope of a boulder. The other hiker could not reach her due to the angle and iciness of the slope. We then heard that the injured hiker was becoming hypothermic. The winds were too high for use of a helicopter.
While driving to the command post, we heard that San Diego Mountain Rescue (SDMRT) was camped at Shangri La on a training, so we attempted to contact them. Their approach to the subjects required significantly less elevation gain than the approach from Idyllwild. When I arrived at the command post, we officially called for mutual aid. Due to difficulties communicating with the SDMRT, Tobias and I had already formed a hasty team and started hiking up Devil’s slide before SDMRT was contacted.
We put crampons on once past Annie’s junction. Tobias and I began our traverse and were soon hit by ice chunks falling from trees and rolling down the steep slope. I was hit in the knee, however thankfully received nothing more than a bruise. We encountered more falling ice, but safely reached the uninjured subject on the trail around 10:00PM.
He was located on a very short section of level trail which was protected from falling ice. We quickly assessed him, and since he was uninjured, in a safe location and relatively warm we left and continued downslope to the injured subject. She was immobile, and, while not yet hypothermic, she was cold. While we were assessing her, the icefall increased. She was thankfully protected from most of the icefall from a rock and tree upslope. We anchored ourselves and the subject to a tree, dug a small semi-level platform, put the subject into a hypo wrap to rewarm and made hot chocolate.
Rime was coating all the trees on the steep slope for 1200 feet above us, and, as the winds were increasing, the icefall had become constant on both sides of us. We assessed the possibility of getting hit and knocked down the slope was too high to risk moving back towards the uninjured subject unless roped. But our rope was only 30 meters, a single rope length wasn’t enough to reach the subject. I climbed to the end of the rope but was unable to find any suitable anchors. If I was hit by icefall and injured this would only complicate an already difficult situation. As such, I moved back to the relative safety of the tree and boulder to await more resources.
We notified the SDMRT and RMRU teams heading up behind us that there was significant icefall and that they needed to assess the risk and make their own decision on whether to proceed. Both teams chose not to continue to our location and camped at Annie’s to wait until conditions improved.
(NOTE: It is no good for Rescue Members to put themselves in harms way getting to a subject. This was one of those times and back country hikers need to remember that they may not be rescued if the conditions are unsafe for the Rescue Members.)
In the meantime, the command post had called for mutual aid from many Southern California MRA teams, and upon arrival, they began to hike up Deer Springs, a route that had reduced but not eliminated risk of icefall. Seirra Madre, Orange County, and San Dimas were first to arrive to our location at around 9:30AM.
They hiked in with our sled and technical gear. Once they arrived, they located and secured the uninjured subject and then began to build anchors above our location. When they finished the anchors, the icefall had lessened, but still hit their sled attendant as he was being lowered to our location. As we packaged the injured subject, the winds continued to drop, and the icefall almost completely subsided. From our location, we lowered the sled to the fall line, and the teams above us raised the subject around 150 feet to the trail.
Due to the low winds, Cal Fire 301 was able to fly in, lower two medics and then hoist both subjects out around 2:30PM. We all then hiked out via Deer Springs.
I want to extend my gratitude to all the teams that came to help us: Sierra Madre SAR, Winter SAR Ski Patrol, San Dimas MRT, Orange County Sheriff’s Department MRT, San Diego MRT, Kern County SAR, China Lake SAR. All those involved in the raise voluntarily put themselves into danger; most if not all were hit by icefall. Thankfully, no rescuers received more than bruising. This rescue truly would not have been possible without our fellow MRA teams.
RMRU Members Involved: (Coby Brown, Kase Chong, James Eckhardt, Matt Frenken, Michael George, Shani McCullough, Tobias Moyneur, Vinay Rao, Steve Rider, and Ray Weden)
Other Mountain Rescue Units: (Sierra Madre SAR, Winter SAR Ski Patrol, San Dimas MRT, Orange County Sheriff’s Department MRT, San Diego MRT, Kern County SAR, China Lake SAR)
Other Agencies involved: (California State Parks, Idyllwild Fire, CAL FIRE, Riverside County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit)