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Mark Morrissey's unexpected rescue mission at Mount Shasta, California

Mark Morrissey and Mike Madden, Rescue mission
Contributed to the Bemidji Pioneer
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https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/news/local/bemidjis-mark-morrissey-assists-in-mount-shasta-rescue-operation-during-climbing-trip
Mark Morrissey (right) and Mike Madden (left) on Mount Shasta, June 6th 2022.

Bemidji native Mark Morrissey describes the tragic day he found himself on a rescue mission after climbers on Mount Shasta suffered a fatal fall.

Bemidji native Mark Morrissey assisted in a rescue operation at Mount Shasta that involved three climbers who had fallen due to bad conditions. Mark joined Heidi and John to tell the story of that day.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Mark Morrissey
Contributed to the Bemidji Pioneer.
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https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/news/local/bemidjis-mark-morrissey-assists-in-mount-shasta-rescue-operation-during-climbing-trip
Mark Morrissey on Mount Shasta, June 6th 2022.

Heidi: We are excited to have Mark Morrissey back with us. There was a recent article in The Bemidji Pioneer with the headline, Bemidji's Mark Morrissey assists in Mount Shasta rescue operation during a climbing trip. Mark has been with us before, talking about safety and the outdoors. He's the assistant director of campus recreation and outdoor programming at Bemidji State. He's also been part of the ski patrol at the Buena Vista ski area for about ten years. Mark, welcome back.

Mark: Hey, thanks. It's nice to talk to you.

John: Yeah, good to hear from you, Mark. It sounds like quite an experience you had out there. Could you set it up for us by telling us about the whole area and why a person would go there to climb?

Mark: Yeah, I've made some trips out west over the years. I've been up and down Mount Rainier a couple of times. I climbed Mount Hood and Mount Adams with my son. I'd attempted on Shasta years ago, and then we decided to turn around. I wanted to get on top, so I planned a trip with a friend. He's a doctor from St. Cloud and my best high school buddy: Mark Halstrom. It was pretty rainy at the start of the trip, so Dr. Halstrom and I goofed off. It was foggy, rainy, cold, and very windy up high: not suitable for climbing. So, we did smaller missions down low. We went around to the other side of the mountain, drove a washed-out road, went to some glaciers on that side, and to the larger snow fields on the north side. We'd recon and ski around, then eat a lot of good food in town and generally have a good time together. We were camping out down low, at about the tree line.

There was persistent cold and wet weather, but it looked like we'd have an opening on Monday and Tuesday. I got up early and saw that the stars and moon were out. I thought, "Oh great! We finally have clear weather." I also noticed that it froze hard, all the way down to the tree line. So, it went from extremely wet for three days to a hard freeze, so I thought it would be pretty challenging up there. I was thinking about technique, how we should approach this climb, and whether we should be climbing at all.

On Mount Shasta, there's a big headwall. You're trekking on snow up to about 10,000 feet. We planned to use skis to travel uphill, then put crampons on our boots for the big upper headwall. It's a long slope that steepens. It gets quite a bit steeper. I was anxious about that because it's more like ice climbing than hiking with an ice ax, and with the freeze, I was concerned.

Anyway, there was a group the day before that was headed up, and I had my eye on them. I thought they had a lot of equipment, but they were asking funny questions, and I was a little worried about them going up with the bad weather. The winds could blow your tent away: the weekend before, hundred-mile winds were blowing away four-season mountaineering tents like beach balls. So, I gave him little pointers and told him, "make sure you anchor your tent and dig big walls." A lot of people use those little family radios to communicate in the backcountry, so we got their radio channel frequency. I thought that if I had their channel, I could check in with them, ensure they were okay, and get the weather conditions from up the hill. I planned to check in at dinner time and the next morning to say hello.

Campsite
Contributed to the Bemidji Pioneer.
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https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/news/local/bemidjis-mark-morrissey-assists-in-mount-shasta-rescue-operation-during-climbing-trip
Mark Morrissey with another climber at a campsite, June 6th 2022

So, they went up, built their tents, got tucked in, and everything was good. It wasn't very windy that night (maybe 20 mph winds). The next morning, we're making our oatmeal and coffee and getting ready to go. I switched the radio on out of curiosity. They were having some difficulties: one had dropped an ax, and they discussed how to get it back to her. They were deciding whether she should climb up or down, and then she had a slip: that was frightening, but they were doing okay. I thought, "Oh boy, it sounds kind of serious up there."

We were trekking along, still on foot. The mountain had a lot less snow than it should at this time of year; usually, there's 10 feet of snow all the way down to the tree line. But, it was dry, and there was no snow on half the mountain. So, we had to hike quite a bit more on dry ground. As we were going up, I heard on the radio that someone had fallen. She said, "a group just fell past me!"

I know the terrain up there, and there's a long snow chute that's very steep. She said they fell out of sight, so that's a long fall. If you can imagine, it's not like falling off a cliff: you're sliding down something like a black diamond ski run: very steep, very icy, and you just keep going and accelerating. If you're climbing as a roped team, you're all tied together and have big crampons flashing around. If a crampon catches, it can send you cartwheeling. It's just a devastating fall.

There was another person on the channel. I don't know how he got onto the channel, but suddenly I'm talking to one of the mountain guides higher on the mountain. The newspaper reported that I called him, but actually, he got on the channel and must have encountered that group. So, now we're all talking on the same channel, and he had to get his clients down, then he'd book his way to get towards the climbers who fell. He was already calling helicopters because he knew it was a terrible fall.

So, he was working his way down, and I decided to work my way up. I had about a mile to go, so I ditched a lot of extra weight, put my skis on, and just booked it up there as fast as I could. I was basically skiing up the mountain. I have an altimeter on my watch that tells me my elevation, which I can use to navigate. I figured I'd gain elevation up to 10,000 feet, then traverse from there: I was basing that on what he was saying about their locations and approximating where they were by looking at my map. There was another guy as well, about 20 minutes ahead of me. I saw him take off uphill; then I took off uphill two. We had two rescuers from below and one from above working their way towards this accident site. I skied as far as I could, but then it got rocky. I ditched my skis and started running in my ski boots. I kept moving as fast as possible, knowing it would be a shorthanded rescue effort. There were just a few people up there, and it was a multi-casualty incident, so it was time to move. When I got there, there was someone doing CPR on one patient, and they looked pretty tired. So, I took over doing CPR. I think the newspaper made it sound a bit like I was the first responder, but I was actually like a fourth responder. There were some people from that group, but I went to do CPR on that patient. Everybody just finds a job.

The patient we were working on was unresponsive. We were working on her, but we couldn't detect a pulse. I just kept doing chest compressions, and an E.R. nurse was there doing breaths. Climbing rangers had lowered a backboard and other rescue equipment with a winch cable. I did loading and packaging onto a backboard. A couple of rescuers were working their way down. With helicopters on their way, we had to do triage. They flew a patient with an openly broken leg. Then, they flew another person who was a bit more stable. Our patient was flown last because she had no vitals. She was triaged to go last, which was really sad.

You're waiting for a helicopter to come, and then they lower a cable. The patient is zipped into a big basket type of thing, then hooked in and brought up. It's really something. So, we flew all three patients that had been on the rope team. The patient I was working on was deceased at the hospital. They declared she had died.

Helicopter Rescue
Contributed to the Bemidji Post.
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https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/news/local/bemidjis-mark-morrissey-assists-in-mount-shasta-rescue-operation-during-climbing-trip
Helicopter rescue on Mount Shasta, June 6th 2022.

It was a hard day. It was one of the worst accidents I'd ever seen in the mountains. Well, without a doubt, it was the worst accident I'd ever seen anywhere. Then, there were four more accidents that day attributed to those icy conditions. I think people were just overextending their abilities and going beyond the terrain where they were comfortable. It was a very hard day up there. At the end, I exchanged information with the head guide, who was the incident command. The incident command stays out of patient care and directs all the resources: who should fly first and which rescuer should work on which patient. They're in charge of the whole scene. We had goggles and sunglasses on throughout the incident, but when this guy and I exchanged information, it turned out that he's a guy from Minnesota I know: Mike Madden. So, that was kind of crazy. Then, I have a mutual friend of the deceased, whose name was Jillian. Jillian was a 32-year-old guide from Shasta mountain guides. I spoke with her best friend on Sunday. We're just trying to deal with all of the aftermath. It was a beautiful trip, but then this terrible thing happened. It takes time to get through all the emotions you have about it.

John: Mark, you've been through this horrible experience. In hindsight, what errors did these folks make? What would you have done differently to prepare for such a thing?

Mark: I'm unsure how to answer that because I know the guides are very experienced, well-trained, and climb more than I have. There's only one thing I could say: two things are going on at that kind of elevation. One, you want an early start because things melt later in the day, and the snow and rocks loosen up. That stuff can start spring avalanches, and rocks and chunks of ice begin to fall. So, you want an 'alpine start,' where you begin around 3:00 AM. However, that also means that the ground is frozen really hard. So, had they been climbing two hours later, I doubt there would've been as many accidents because the snow got quite a bit softer: there's a huge difference between walking on snow versus trying to edge your way up on ice. So, the timing is very difficult. There was a very narrow window of time between when the ground was frozen too hard and when it got too soft. In a typical year, when there's lots of snow, there's a big boot track. The snow is stable for hours and hours: it doesn't go from ice to mush as rapidly.

So, that combination of temperature factors played a role, and it's tough to judge that. So, I don't have a critical thing to say other than that sometimes it comes down to knowing when to turn around. For instance, other people were heading up that day asking me, "Would it be better at noon? At one o'clock?" and I got kind of angry. I said, "Boys, you're not listening to me. Somebody just died up there. I think you should focus on something else today: go make your camp and practice navigating. The conditions aren't good for snow climbing."

Heidi: So, it seems like a big part of what you do in this sort of instance (and always, probably) is to be aware of everything that's going on: conditions, people, and who's going where. Then you figure out ways to communicate as things happen.

Mark: Yeah. The other thing I'll say is that I always carry some sort of med kit. They'll be different depending on what I'm doing. If I'm leading a trip, I might take a really extensive med kit. If I'm climbing, I might just bring a few things, but I always have at least a minimal trauma kit. After this experience, I'll probably always carry some stuff I didn't before, like a nasal airway and tourniquet. I thought hard about that. You never know when this stuff comes up: it could be car accidents or really anything. Having the right equipment was critical because we had such severe injuries. We practiced and trained for that stuff at our little Buena Vista ski patrol. It's a small hill, but we have serious accidents there. It went exactly like a Buena Vista practice session, but at 10,000 feet.

Heidi: Well, Mark, I know you've got to go swimming now, is that right?

Mark: Yeah, we're teaching kids how to swim this morning. I gotta go in the pool and teach these swim lessons! I've got all these great little kids: they're so fun. I'm going to walk in and swim with the kids now. We're going to blow bubbles and float on our backs. It makes me feel really good to work on that right now.

Heidi: I bet. Well, Mark, thank you for telling your story. Thanks for watching out for folks, and hang in there: enjoy the bubbles in the pool!

Mark: Yeah. I'm going to enjoy being with the kids right now.