In late May the plight of a Canadian teenager stranded on a mountain ledge at an elevation of 13,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park attracted international media attention. A major and risky rescue effort ensued, resulting in the teen's eventual return to safety. The park has now released additional details, including the cost of the rescue.
The stage for potential disaster was set on Tuesday, May 27, when Samuel Frappier, 19, from Quebec, Canada, and a friend decided to climb to the summit of Longs Peak. At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest mountain in the park, and a popular summer destination for climbers who are properly prepared for the trip.
It's not, however, a casual hike, and the risks, especially of an early season hike, were confirmed by the sad news of a fatal accident on the mountain earlier this week. The dangers clearly explained on the park website:
"In the summertime, when conditions allow, thousands climb to Longs' summit via the Keyhole Route. The Keyhole Route is not a hike. It is a climb that crosses enormous sheer vertical rock faces, often with falling rocks, requiring scrambling, where an unroped fall would likely be fatal. The route has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs.
For most of the year, it's winter on Longs Peak
"For most of the year, climbing Longs Peak is in winter conditions, which requires winter mountaineering experience and the knowledge and use of specialized equipment. Disregard for the mountain environment any time of year has meant danger, injury and even death."
It's not known if Frappier and his friend obtained any current information about conditions on Longs Peak, but it seems unlikely. Frappier was dressed in cotton clothing and wearing sneakers, and later realized he was not prepared to spend the night at an elevation with temperatures in the 30s and conditions that often include significant snow and ice.
The pair set out on their trip on May 27, intending to go to the summit of Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route, but mistakenly headed to Chasm Lake instead. From Chasm Lake, they climbed into the Chasm cirque and ascended The Flying Dutchman couloir, where for unexplained reasons, they decided to separate.
Frappier’s friend continued to head up The Flying Dutchman, eventually made it to the top of a formation dubbed The Beaver, and then turned around and headed back down to Chasm Lake.
Frappier chose a different route, came down The Flying Dutchman, ascended the Camel’s Gully to Mount Lady Washington, and reached the summit of Longs Peak via the north face.
Stranded at 13,000 Feet
Having achieved his goal, Frappier decided to descend via a different route, eventually crossed the Notch Couloir, and found himself at an extremely precarious, narrow location along Broadway Ledge. He was stranded at an elevation of about 13,000 feet, with a sheer 1,000 foot drop-off below.
At about 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 27, Frappier contacted rangers at the park via cell phone, indicating he was stuck, unable to go either up or down. His friend heard Frappier’s shouts of distress and hiked out to the Longs Peak Trailhead to get help.
Although rangers correctly caution visitors not to count on cell phones to summon help in remote locations, this was one situation where technology saved the day, at least for Frappier. Still unclear about his navigation, the climber advised he was stranded on the Keyhole Route, but cell phone GPS coordinates allowed rangers to narrow his most likely location to the east side of Longs Peak.
Frappier was reported to be physically fit, but he had no technical climbing equipment and was not an experienced mountaineer. He said he was not prepared to spend the night, but at that point he had no choice. A park spokesperson noted later that although overnight temperatures were in the 30s, he was very fortunate there were no significant storms on Tuesday.
"If I slipped just one more foot..."
The stranded teen later told CBC news, "I spent all night shivering on a small rock. If I slipped just one foot more, then I would have fallen to my death."
Rangers began organizing a response, and late on Tuesday night, the initial park technical rescue team arrived at the Chasm Shelter, at the base of the east face of Longs Peak. Their task was to stage for Wednesday morning, and try to confirm Frappier's location.
On Wednesday morning, May 28, the field team was able to use spotting scopes to determine Frappier’s exact location. A Trans Aero helicopter assisted with aerial reconnaissance and prepositioning of supplies, and rangers aboard the helicopter were able to further assess the man's location and condition.
There was no landing zone near the victim's position for the Trans Aero helicopter, so the park’s Search and Rescue team requested assistance from the Teton Interagency Helicopter from Jackson, Wyoming. This helicopter and crew are able to perform short-haul operations, which is the ability to transport persons suspended beneath the helicopter to or from the scene. While a short-haul eliminates the need for a helicopter to land, that capability can be hindered by weather and other conditions.
The helicopter and crew from Wyoming arrived at about 1:15 p.m., but strong downdrafts of wind along the side of the mountain hampered the use of the aircraft. There were also concerns that if the helicopter were brought too close to Frappier's precarious perch, the downdraft from the aircraft rotors themselves could endanger his safety.
Sunny Skies Hampered the Rescue
Throughout the day on Wednesday, the park’s Search and Rescue team continued to stage additional personnel and equipment in the Chasm Meadows area. Ironically, sunny skies and warmer daytime temperatures created serious problems for the operation: the intense sunlight increased melting of ice and snow on the east face of the mountain, creating active ice and rock fall and making the area dangerously unstable.
During the late afternoon, as the east face passed into the shade, melting slowed, conditions began to stabilize, the rescue teams prepared to move to reach Frappier. Unfortunately, Frappier’s cell phone battery was drained and rescuers were no longer able to communicate with him.
At about 4:00 p.m., Frappier, concerned that he would be spending a second night on the mountain, started to move on his own. A park spokesperson noted that he was extremely fortunate that he had waited that long, allowing the snow and conditions to become more stable. Frappier moved down toward rescuers who were staged at Chasm Meadows, and was able to link up with team members; he was given initial medical care and flown to Upper Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The climber was taken by ambulance to the Estes Park Medical Center for further medical evaluation, and he was released later than night. Due to fading light, most of the rescue team spent the night on the mountain, and were flown out the following day.
A Costly Operation
In response to numerous requests, officials at the park compiled and released statistics from the incident. The final tally: "Forty-six people and two helicopters were involved with this incident. The final cost is estimated to be $41,000." Those expenses will come from NPS operating funds.
A park spokesperson also noted, "The National Park Service does not charge for search and rescue services."
For his part, Frappier at least admitted the climb was a bad decision. He told ABC7 in Denver, "I imagine people saying that I'm stupid, and they're right. It was stupid, and I'm never going to do that again."