Bemidji’s Mark Morrissey assists in Mount Shasta rescue operation during climbing trip
When Bemidji’s Mark Morrissey headed to California last week, he was hoping for a few good days of climbing on Mount Shasta — what he didn't expect was that he would be involved in a rescue operation for three fallen climbers.
BEMIDJI — When Bemidji’s Mark Morrissey headed to California last week, he was hoping for a few good days of climbing on Mount Shasta — what he didn't expect was that he would be involved in a rescue operation for three fallen climbers.
Morrissey, assistant director of campus recreation and outdoor programming at Bemidji State, arrived at Mount Shasta on Friday, June 3, ready for a weekend of skiing and climbing with his friend.
The mountain, a potentially active volcano with an elevation of 14,179 feet, has long been a destination for climbers, with several climbing routes suited for beginners and experts alike.
“It was a long, rainy, foggy weekend, and we were sort of waiting for good weather,” Morrissey recalled about his first couple of days at the mountain. “It was windy up top, and it was very wet and gray. We just sort of delayed climbing.”
Due to the inclement weather, the pair camped low on the mountain at the treeline, sheltered from the harsh weather that affected the higher areas.
At the low camp, Morrissey said he and his friend went on "little expeditions up the mountain," and did some skiing. Their plan was to climb on Monday and Tuesday, as they hoped the weather would improve by then.
However, they weren’t far into their plan when disaster struck early Monday morning.
“Monday morning was cold and clear," Morrissey said. "I noticed it was a hard, hard freeze all the way down to our camp, and we were low on the mountain. It was like bulletproof, very hard ice."
According to a Wednesday Facebook post from the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, “a late-season storm over the weekend doused Mt. Shasta with rain, snow, fog and freezing temperatures, creating very icy climbing conditions.”
Morrissey, still at the low camp, became concerned about a group of climbers that were going to be heading up to the high camp where the conditions were much worse.
Because of this, Morrissey wanted to make sure he had contact with the group as they climbed.
“I got their radio channel, and we just chit-chatted and talked about the weather,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure they could call if conditions deteriorated, so they could get some help.”
After making sure he had access to the group’s radio channel, Morrissey and his friend began making their way up the mountain.
“We were trekking up, and it’s kind of like a hiking trail before you get to the snow,” Morrissey said. “On our way up, we heard on the radio that (the group) was having some difficulty. They were kind of struggling with the icy conditions.”
At about 8:30 a.m., an hour after the pair began hiking, Morrissey heard over the radio that someone in the group that was hiking to the high camp had witnessed a few climbers fall off a steep drop.
According to a Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post , “two climbers and one guide were tethered together and ascending Mount Shasta, above Helen Lake, when one of the climbers lost their footing, causing all three to fall. The three climbers slid on snow and ice approximately 1,500-2,500 vertical feet down the mountain.”
Morrissey explained that the climbers fell down a slope that was so steep that other climbers in the group couldn't see where they had landed after the fall.
“They fell out of sight, they just rocketed down the slope and disappeared,” he said. “It’s basically down a steep ice chute like a double black diamond ski run."
After the call came in, Morrissey quickly got on the radio and contacted one of the climbing guides who had witnessed the fall. The witness was a lead guide with Shasta Mountain Guides, and as Morrissey realized later in the day, a fellow Minnesotan.
“His name is Mike Madden, and he’s another Minnesota person,” Morrissey said. “I didn’t discover this until later, but after the whole accident we exchanged information and I realized he was someone I knew. We knew each other from teaching climbing courses.”
Morrissey and others helping in the rescue began relaying messages up and down the mountain, trying to decide where to search for the climbers who had fallen.
In an effort to get up to the site of the accident, Morrissey and a climbing guide “basically just double-timed it up the mountain" as fast as possible.
“I had about a mile to travel — it went from trail, to snow, to ice,” Morrissey said. “I just kept going up on my skis, and then I hiked in my ski boots.”
'We did our best'
Once the fallen climbers were found and Morrissey reached the accident site, he sprang into action, doing chest compressions on one of the climbers who was unresponsive. At that point, he recalled, several climbing rangers, guides and other climbers were assisting in the rescue mission.
“We were just trying to take care of the injured patients and the one critical patient,” Morrissey said about the operation.
After performing CPR on the unresponsive climber for about 45 minutes, she was airlifted to the hospital. The other two climbers, both injured from the fall, were airlifted to a parking area and transported to the hospital.
“(The unresponsive climber) was one of the guides,” Morrissey said. “She died and was unresponsive the whole time. We did our best, but it was all we could do.”
The climber was later identified as Jillian Webster, 32, of Redmond, Ore. According to the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, Webster suffered fatal injuries after falling 1,500-2,500 feet. The other two climbers, a boyfriend and girlfriend couple from Seattle, Wash., were still recovering in the hospital as of Wednesday.
Unfortunately, Monday morning’s rescue operation was not the only incident that occurred on Mount Shasta that day.
“It was kind of a wild day, and it’s just a combination of factors,” Morrissey said, noting Monday’s particularly cold and icy conditions. “There was another accident, and then another accident.”
According to another Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post , within a 24-hour period starting Monday morning the sheriff's office responded to “four separate rescue operations involving six injured climbers on Mount Shasta.”
With treacherous terrain and an unusually dangerous day at the mountain, what Morrissey expected to be an average weekend of climbing turned out to be much more.
Morrissey, who has been on the ski patrol with Buena Vista Ski Area in Bemidji for about 10 years, said his rescuing instincts kicked in during the operation.
“Basically, ski patrol training kicked in,” he said, noting the stark difference between Bemidji’s small hill and Mount Shasta's staggering heights. “It’s high altitude and it’s pretty steep. Still, the patient care just felt automatic.”