Mt. Brewer Region

8 Jul 1998 - by David Harris (view roster page)

Rich Leiker, Maggie Hudson, Craig Clarence, Laurie Price, and your loyal scribe, David Harris, made up the 1998 ABC (Anarchist Brewer Climbers) crew. We spent a very enjoyable, though unexpectedly exciting, week at East Lake in the heart of Kings Canyon climbing whatever appeared interesting.

The crux of the trip was a crossing of Bubbs Creek during peak snow melt with 200% of normal snowfall. Entering from Kearsarge Pass, Craig arrived a day early and was able to use a tyrolean traverse set up by an exiting Outward Bound group. The rest of us managed a challenging roped crossing just upstream of East Creek, followed by a tedious bushwack up the east side of East Creek until the trail crossed over to our side. Since the cross-country was so unpleasant, we stayed on the trail on the return and had to cross Bubbs below its roaring tributary. Maggie describes her unfortunate adventure making the crossing in the attached story.

Craig blew away all the rest of us with his climbing energy. Before we arrived he soloed Jordan and Genevera, using a cam and sling as aid since he could not find the easier 4th class route to Jordan's summit. I spent a day chasing him up South Guard and Brewer, climbing a pair of steep snowy couloirs, while Rich and Maggie took a more reasonable pace up South Guard. We were the first party to sign in on South Guard this year, though with the exceptional snow it would not be surprising if others had made the summit and were unable to locate the register. Maggie and Rich showed up about an hour after us on South Guard, having taken the longer but perhaps easier route up a poor trail to Lake Reflection, bypassing a 30 foot tall cornice on Longley Pass via a short 3rd class rock pitch to the right of the pass. The third day of climbing, Craig ran ahead while Rich and I made the approach to North Guard. North Guard was the most enjoyable climb of the trip, featuring excellent 3rd class climbing to the summit block, a 20 foot monolith which Norman Clyde had described as leaning over the 500 foot east face at "an embarassing angle." Secor and the 100 Classic book disagree whether North Guard is class 3 or 4; we would be inclined to call it challenging class 3 with a 4th class summit block since we never wanted a rope except while scrambling onto the summit. Craig had so much energy that he ran along the ridge and climbed another peak which we had misidentified as Francis Farquhar before returning to camp!

The region was particularly beautiful with so much water. We had to chop the Kearsarge Lake bear box out of a huge snow drift. Vidette Meadow is completely flooded; we were treated to the sight of a baby deer walking across the meadow with her mother on evening. This snow would also explain the lack of other people in the mountain: there were very few vehicles parked at Onion Valley, and we saw no other humans for three days while on the far side of Bubbs Creek.

The Crossing of Bubbs Creek by Maggie Hudson

Packing out after the trip we knew that we were in for a difficult stream crossing. And, sure enough, we got to the crossing point to find the water level around waist high and the river raging. David attempted to make the crossing, assisted by ski poles and being belayed by Craig. However, after just a couple of steps, he concluded that it was not safe to attempt the crossing in this manner. Rich had already scouted downstream for a suitable crossing point to no avail. So David began to search upstream, where the crossing involved traversing many streams that merged just above the trail crossing point.

David managed to get across, although I believe the crossings were not without some hazard, and he soon appeared on the other side of the stream. David and Craig then began the process of setting up a rope looped around suitable trees on either side of the stream so that we could cross with the safety of being clipped on to the rope. David then crossed via the rope to test out the method and got back to the group safely.

We then started the crossing for real, with backpacks. Craig went first and get across without incident. I then ventured out into the stream to begin my traverse. The first problem I encountered was that I could not reach the rope with the carabiner. So we had to quickly change the length of webbing that we were using so that I could clip on. This done, I clipped on to the rope and bagan to cross, moving my hands slowly along the rope. The force of the water was incredible: far greater than I had imagined. I was approximately half way across when I was no longer able to maintain my footing. Up until this point I had maintained contact with the bottom of the stream, although I was using my hands to get across more than I was able to use my feet. But, once in the middle of the stream, the force of the water was just so great against my body that I could not maintain my grip on the rope. So I suddenly found myself with my head under water, struggling to get above the surface to be able to breathe, still attached to the rope via webbing and carabiner. At this point I believed that I was about to drown.

After what was probably seconds, but seemed alot longer, my backpack came off and zoomed off downstream and then I was grabbed by Craig who had come to my rescue from the far side of the stream. I gasped for air only to hear Craig say something like "Someone help, I can't hold her". (This could be a misquote, apologies if it's not accurate but my memory of the whole event is probably somewhat warped!!). Rich then jumped onto the rope and quickly came to assist Craig in his rescue attempt. At this point, I was struggling to stay above water and Craig and Rich were both hanging on to the rope by one arm, holding on to me with the other. Neither of them were clipped on to the rope so they were both at great personal risk. However, they quickly managed to get the situation under control, I got my hands back on the rope, and all three of us made it to the other side safely, although somewhat stressed.

Craig then took off downstream to search for my backpack, which he managed to retrieve from a swirling eddy, but had to cross the stream again to do so (thanks Craig). Meanwhile, Rich had to go back across as his backpack was still on the other side of the stream. The remainder of the group then decided that they would risk crossing the way that David had originally crossed, rather than taking their backpacks across via the rope.

The group was soon united on the far side of the stream, although everyone was a little shocked, and my backpack was now almost impossible to carry due to the weight of all my wet gear. So Rich and I had to spend an hour and a half at the stream, drying out the entire contents of my pack. Luckily, the sun was out at full strength so I was able to stay warm and things dried out fairly quickly.

The moral of the story: don't underestimate the power of the water in the stream crossings this year. I for one will not be crossing any more streams unless I am able to wade across. I want my feet firmly in contact with the ground!

Cal French adds:

Maggie's account illustrates why it is dangerous to be clipped in to a fixed rope while crossing a raging stream: the force of the water can hold a person (or anything attached to a non-moving point) under the surface. In this situation, it is difficult to suggest alternatives, but if there are enough strong people, the "crosser" can be put on belay and then dragged out. But, here again, there are many dangers owing to the under-appreciated force of running water.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for climbers to find a suitable stream somewhere that broadens out just below a practice point and, wearing PFDs and helmets like whitewater kayakers, hold a seminar/training session on the various stream-crossing methods recommended by books and supposed experts. Climbers spend a lot more time learning ice ax technique, setting anchors and belays, etc., than they do in learning to cross streams safely.

Steve Eckert adds:

> So I suddenly found myself with my head under water, struggling
> to get above the surface to be able to breathe, still attached to the
> rope via webbing and carabiner.  At this point I believed that I was
> about to drown.

You probably were about to drown. We are very glad it worked out! Thanks for sharing the story so we can all learn from it.

I personally prefer a pendulum traverse over a fixed line. The rope is attached on one side of the stream, and you HOLD ONTO the other end (don't tie in) and walk across in an arc path. Make sure there are no obstacles in the arc that the rope can catch on. If you slip, the rope is pulling at a slight angle, and you are washed back to shore instead of being held in the center of the channel. If that's not happening, you TURN LOOSE instead of trying to unclip (which probably can't be done under the load of the current).

Of course, turning loose doesn't help much if you are above a waterfall or log jam. Think about undertows!

> Perhaps it would be a good idea for climbers to find a suitable stream
> somewhere that broadens out just below a practice point and, wearing PFDs
> and helmets like whitewater kayakers, hold a seminar/training session

Would the Sierra Club insure such an event?

Tom Kenney adds:

Also, when doing a 'Tyrolean-Traverse' style crossing, as Ms. Hudson did, it is best to anchor the 'far side' end to a tree or other object downstream from the 'near side' end. That way, the current helps you across, and if you fall, you are carried toward the bank, as in the above method described by SRE. But, like the above method, you must take care to string the rope so that you will not encounter serious obstacles should you be 'up-ended' and carried across.

Also also, while using a ski pole or stick can help, be careful in your selection of sticks. I tried once to use a stout 3"-4" branch to cross a creek. I was 'up-ended' and had to let go of the stick, which floated on my upstream side and helped the water push me downstream.

Rich Calliger adds:

> then jumped onto the rope and quickly came to assist Craig in his
> rescue attempt.  At this point, I was struggling to stay above water
> and Craig and Rich were both hanging on to the rope by one arm, holding
> on to me with the other.  Neither of them were clipped on to the rope

The one element NOT present here, but what I trained with and was present in successful uses of this method was a safety rope. (An entirely difffent rope tied to an anchor and the person crossing). Then if anything at all should happen to the main modality (rope tied between two trees) the backup safety rope people would have been able to pull her out of the water immediately. This would result in the "arc type" crossing Steve described. However, that has the big disadvantage of allowing the person crossing to let go in a moment of lost balance- your first instinct is to try to stop a fall with your hands. And if you are holding on a rope with your hands, what is the first thing you do?-- - let go of the rope. Therefore at all times the person should be tied into the safety rope. It is more weight to carry of course.

One can "self-cross" a stream safely with the same arc type tie in SRE mentioned using the rope as a safety device only of course.

We always anchored the "far side" of the rope downstream from the nearside so the current can pull you to the other shore if necessary.

(In class we did a parallel rope system which was fun- and them someone got clever and obtained a lightweight pulley and we really started having some serious fun doing stream crossings!. )

So- Maggie- I am glad you made it and we look forward to seeing you on the next hike (today?) and I encourage you to continue your mountaineering and not be demotivated by this incident...

Eric Beck adds:

I know of at least three fatalities from attempted river crossings while tied in. Two were in Yosemite Valley, attempting to cross the lower Merced in the spring to climb on Elephant Rock. On the first ascent of Fitzroy, Jacques Poincenot was killed in similar fashion in an attempted crossing of the Rio de Las Vueltas. A spectacular satellite of Fitzroy, the Aiguille Poincenot derived its name from this incident.

Hal Murray adds:

There was another [fatality] in Bridalveil Creek above the falls. I don't know when, probably a long long time ago. It's the event that I think of whenever I get nervous about a creek crossing or want one of my friends to be more careful.

River problems happen often enough that ANAM [Accidents in North American Mountaineering] has a category for them.


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