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Mt. Jefferson climbing accident recounted

Mt. Jefferson climbing accident recounted
By Barney Lerten
Monday, April 26, 2004

April 26, 2004 - Brent McGregor of Sisters makes striking, functional artwork out of the region’s twisted juniper (and other) trees for a living. But it’s the twist and pop of his broken right leg that made for a long, chilly night with a fellow climber, high on the snowy northwest flank of Mount Jefferson, watching the stars from a unique vantage point while waiting for a rescue that would come by air Monday morning.

“Yesterday (Sunday) marked my completed summit of all the Oregon volcanoes – and the last one bit me,” McGregor, 51, said after arriving back home from his fall during a descent and unexpected night on the peak. That was followed by a dramatic Oregon Army National Guard helicopter rescue and an hour or so at St. Charles Medical Center, being fitted with a temporary Fiberglass cast (the permanent one goes on in about three days, after the swelling goes down).

After it was all over, the climber and his partner, Kara Mickaelson, who waited anxiously at the incident command post near Pamelia Lake, had nothing but awestruck appreciation and gratitude for the many volunteers and Guard members and their professional, expert rescue work.

McGregor and climbing partner Tom Herron, 40, a former Bend resident going to school in Corvallis, had started their climb at 3 a.m. Sunday but didn’t reach the summit until around 5:30 p.m., as heavy, wet spring snow challenged their every step. “The snow was pretty soggy, and we had a late summit – later than we should have,” he recalled. “The snow conditions slowed us way down.”

“I came to this (sport) pretty late in life,” he said before heading off for a long (overdue) rest. “I just started three years ago.” He had attempted to summit Jefferson once before, but didn't make the top, and has scaled peaks from Hood to Shasta.

“I think the more mountains a person climbs, and the more challenging – Mount Jefferson is a challenging climb in a day – the more chance you have for mishaps,” McGregor said. “It’s in the back of my mind all the time, and you try to be careful.”

The pair were ankle-, sometimes knee-deep in snow on their journey. “Once you stepped onto the crust layer, you’re way down to your ankles,” he said. “It’s very tiring, a long haul to the top. The snow was warm, and the freezing level was 11,000 feet” – higher than the 10,495-foot peak.

“We knew that we were going to have soft snow,” he said, and as for the descent: “A lot of people say that’s where you get hurt. My energy level was high. We knew we had two hours to get down the mountain that we would be able to use our headlamps to follow the (Pacific Crest Trail) out.

We were on schedule to do that, reasonably. A lot of time, your approaches are in the dark. We were cutting our timeline close.”

Climber recounts fall – and dreadful pop.

“We would have been fine, if I didn’t slip,” McGregor recounted. “I was going down maybe a 45-degree slope. The snow was really soft, and we were ‘plunge-stepping’ down the mountain. You’re plunging in and able to work your way down,” using an ice ax. (The pair were not roped together.)

“I hit an area where there was a sheet of ice, with two inches of fresh snow on top of it, instead of the deeper snow we were going on,” he said. “The area around me, the surface snow broke loose. Everything came down and took me with it. I was face down to self-arrest – that’s how you stop a fall, you turn to your belly and plunge your ice axe into the snow.”

“When I did that, it ripped through the snow,” McGregor said. “I worked up a pretty fast speed for 15, 20 feet. Then one of my crampon points hit the snow, and they catch. They say never wear crampons if you’re going to glissade,” a controlled fast descent on snow. “They will catch the snow, and you’ll break your ankle. I was going down the mountain, unable to stop myself, and caught the snow. You’re going from a very fast deceleration to a complete stop, and something’s got to give.”

“Then I heard a snap, a pop,” he said, of his fibula (small leg bone), down by the ankle. “I went a few more feet and stopped, because my other foot was buried under the snow. Similar to the friction of an avalanche, it built up a hard substance around my leg.” Once he dug out his other foot with the ice ax, McGregor said, he saw “that (left) boot had been twisted completely around. It looked like it should have been broke, but it wasn’t.”

Herron, who got within 100 feet of the summit Sunday, didn’t see McGregor fall, as he was on the other side of some rocks at that point in their descent.

“As soon as I stopped myself, that’s when the pain hits real hard,” McGregor recalled. “I sort of focus on breathing, calm myself down, try to collect my thoughts, wiggle my toes a little, bend my ankle, then I feel the pain. I called for (Herron), he came over, and I said, ‘I’m not walking out.’”

Emergency dispatchers got a call on McGregor’s cell phone around 7:30 p.m., but somehow got the mistaken impression the pair were closer to Pamelia Lake, a popular fishing and hiking area, said Linn County Sheriff Dave Burright. Information that came in during the night made it clear that the pair were higher up the slope than earlier believed, at about 7,900 feet, the sheriff said.

Burright said his agency had “great help, as always” from search and rescue units out of Jefferson and Deschutes counties, as well as Corvallis Mountain Rescue during the night.

Eventually, they decided to call in the Oregon Army National Guard’s Military Air Rescue Team of the 1042nd Medical Company (Air Ambulance), based in Salem, which launched a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter around 9:45 a.m. to pick up the duo.

“One of the reasons we called for them,” Burright said, “is it looked like they were going to have to be lowered down off a steep volcanic slope,” covered with loose rocks known as “scree,” if the rescue was done from the ground, thus adding to the danger for rescuer and rescued alike.

Instead, the chopper, piloted by Greg Schroeder, conducted the operation, as a second Guard Blackhawk went along on the trip to shoot video of the rescue. Other crew members included Chief Warrant Officer 1 Jordan Long, crew chief of staff Sgt. James Tournay and flight medic Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Hoggard.

Mickaelson said “I have never been so impressed” than she was by the volunteers who assembled for the rescue operation, including her friend, Laurie Adams of the Camp Sherman Hasty Team, which at first was alerted, then told they wouldn’t be needed. “She offered to go up as a friend,” Mickaelson said.

McGregor also offered "my deep appreciation to the many people that pulled together to get me off the mountain, and to my wonderful partner, Tom, who stayed with me through the long night and upped my comfort level immensely."

McGregor, a member of the Cascades Mountaineers, a Bend-based claiming (sic) club, said he understood why authorities decided against a ground rescue: “There was a couple really tough terrain features to get over.”

The pair were prepared for their unexpected night out, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable, either.

“Every time I tried to go to sleep, a spasm of pain shot down my leg, jolted my foot and made it hurt a lot, like a muscle spasm” McGregor said. Still he was able to use his GPS unit to give their coordinates, but before their location was zeroed in, “Boy Scout teenagers were on their way to Pamelia Lake to carry me out, when I said, ‘You’re going to have to send a mountain team.”

The pair would have been even better prepared, as “we had stored a lot of water and extra food and extra provisions 1,200 feet (farther) down the mountain, below us. I drank 150 ounces of water that day. We were about depleted. We had all that supply, but Tom was so tired,” he couldn’t retrieve the extra supplies.

“So we burrowed in and stayed there,” McGregor said. “Tom used the ice ax and dug kind of like a small snow cave, wind break. We took the climbing rope and put it on my back, for insulation from the snow, took the foam pad out of the backpack, put all our clothes on, and looked up at the stars and down at the rescue lights.

“It’s a pretty bizarre place to sit up there, in that situation,” he said, “Fortunately, we had everything we really needed. We were comfortable, but cold. It wasn’t terribly cold. I don’t think it got below freezing.”

The mid-morning air rescue was quite a sight to remember, McGregor said.

“That was a pretty interesting thing: to have this big, huge Army helicopter come in, and a guy in Army fatigues comes down on what looks like a quarter-inch cable, straps you on a T-bar, with him on the other side, and starts cabling you up into the helicopter, with the wind blowing you all over the place.”

“They were concerned we were a little hypothermic, and we probably were,” he said. “We had plenty of fluids and food, but when the cold started sinking in, I started uncontrollably shaking.”

So now, back at his 5-acre spread seven miles out of Sisters, the inevitable question arises: Will McGregor return to scaling mountains, when his leg heals?

“When it’s in your blood, how can you quit?” he said. “When it’s such a big part of your life, how can you say no? When – not if – I climb again, I’ll remember the unfortunate lesson of all this, and try to learn from it. Yeah,” he said with a small sigh, “I gotta climb again”.


Note: Brent McGregor and his partner Kara Mickaelson were introduced to the Sport of Alpine Mountaineering in 2000, by a thirty-hour adult education class in Wilderness Mountaineering Training offered for several years at Central Oregon Community College by your Webmeister. Brent was a dedicated student who with Kara, initially asked for extra advice at our home before going on various adventures. He was introduced to Tom Herron and other climbing partners, including locals Bob Sandburg and Tom Michaelis, at Cascades Mountaineers Alpine Climbing Club, co-founded in 1995 by your Webmeister with one of his first students in Bend Oregon. I wish him well. --Webmeister Speik




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