<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Washington volunteer details Colchuck Peak avalanche search-and-rescue effort


SEATTLE — “EMERGENCY CALLOUT! Two injured climbers, one broken leg, one unconscious since yesterday at moraine above Colchuck Lake.”

Craig Gyselinck of East Wenatchee received this request for help via text from the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office at 8 a.m. Feb. 20.

Most Mondays, Gyselinck suits up as manager for the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District. That Monday was Presidents Day, though, and he was looking forward to time with family. Instead, the 37-year-old suited up as a team leader for Chelan County Mountain Rescue.

At the time, Gyselinck did not know an avalanche the day prior had flushed four climbers 500 vertical feet down a steep gully on Colchuck Peak known as the northeast couloir. Seong Cho, 54, of Connecticut; Jeannie Lee, 60, of New York; and Yun Park, 66, of New Jersey died of traumatic injuries as the avalanche funneled them into a narrow chokepoint of granite walls and blue ice. A fourth member of the climbing party survived the avalanche while three others from the group were not present at the time of the accident.

In the wake of tragedy, Gyselinck and Washington’s network of search-and-rescue professionals and volunteers raced to respond to the nation’s deadliest avalanche since the winter of 2020-21. This is how the rescue effort unfolded.

First responders

Gyselinck’s immediate impulse was to reach the injured climbers as soon as possible, then relay an assessment to the Sheriff’s Office. Snow was on the way and winds were scheduled to pick up that evening, with gusts as fierce as 80 mph. A rescue helicopter wasn’t an option. The Northwest Avalanche Center forecast “high” avalanche danger, and Gyselinck resolved to put together a rescue team but set a limit: They wouldn’t ascend into avalanche terrain. Colchuck Lake was as high as they would go.

With no chopper available, Gyselinck braced himself for the worst.

“It was kind of a nightmare situation,” he said. “How are you going to carry somebody out from Colchuck Lake in a litter in the snow?”

Gyselinck recruited three other volunteers via text. He grabbed a pack with his backcountry essentials — harness, rock protection, warm clothing, stove — then drove to a county building in Wenatchee where Chelan County Mountain Rescue keeps extra gear. He picked up three hypothermia kits and hustled up Highway 2 to Leavenworth.

“My thought was to get to the patients, and if they need warmth, we can provide support,” Gyselinck said. “I knew four of us were not capable of getting multiple injured patients down from Colchuck Lake. We went light and fast.”

Chelan County Mountain Rescue provides technical expertise: climbing, ropes, harnesses and backcountry stretchers called litters. While Gyselinck and his teammates responded, Chelan County Volunteer Search and Rescue had sounded its own network to provide snowmobiles as logistical support. By midmorning, both search-and-rescue groups had convened at Bridge Creek Campground on Icicle Road in Leavenworth.

Reaching base camp

Come summer, this campground along idyllic Icicle Creek is thronged with families, hikers and climbers en route to the Enchantments. Up Eight Mile Road at the Colchuck Lake Trailhead, vehicles overflow out of the trailhead lot.

Winter presents a different scene. The campground is shuttered, dormant under a white blanket, and a gate blocks the bridge over Icicle Creek leading into the high country. Few intrepid adventurers make their way into this patch of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to climb or backcountry ski during winter. Still, a seven-person party from the New York Korean American Alpine Club had set up base camp at Colchuck Lake last month for a multiday climbing trip, targeting Dragontail and Colchuck peaks.

In the avalanche a day prior, Seung-chang Park survived but incurred a leg injury — not a broken leg, as the rescue call had stated — while Gab-jong Jang and Tae-gyu “Teddy” Kim had narrowly avoided the snow slide. Now huddled in tents at their camp, three of the group’s seven climbers awaited help.

A fourth survivor from the climbing group, Seung-nam “Sam” Kim, stayed at base camp on the day of the accident. After the avalanche, he had hiked out for help, reaching the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office Leavenworth substation around 7:30 a.m. Feb. 20.

Gyselinck and the other rescuers didn’t know these specifics as they rode four snowmobiles to the Colchuck Lake Trailhead. Gyselinck knows Eight Mile Road well and has climbed in these mountains for over 20 years, including a successful March 2016 ascent of Colchuck Peak via the northeast couloir. His climbing partners had, in turn, become rescue teammates.

At the trailhead, they strapped on snowshoes and hiked 4 miles toward Colchuck Lake.

Around 2 p.m., the group spotted two yellow tents anchoring a well-established base camp just below the lake. The tents sat on platforms that had been dug out to shelter their occupants from the extreme winds above. Stoves, ice tools and climbing crampons rested in the snow. The wind howled, but the snow storm had yet to start. The tents were quiet.

Gyselinck knocked on one; Jang and Kim were inside waiting for rescuers.

Jang and Kim said their partner, Seung-chan Park, was in the second tent, injured. Park relayed that three climbers had perished and their bodies remained on Colchuck Peak.

“At that point I determined we were only hours from the weather deteriorating rapidly,” Gyselinck said. “We needed to get out of there immediately.”

Descending the mountain

The group packed up warm clothing and left the campsite behind. Park, the climber with the leg injury, was in pain but able to walk. The rescuers lent snowshoes to the survivors. Gyselinck said the three-hour return hike was somber, the only sounds coming from the crunch of snowshoes underfoot and the wind swaying in the pine trees, several of which had already fallen off the windblown trail.

“They had a calm demeanor,” Gyselinck said. “The accident had occurred well over 24 hours prior and these guys had time to process.”

Gyselinck provided regular updates via radio and requested that snowmobiles be ready when the rescuers and three survivors reached the Colchuck Lake Trailhead at dusk. By that point, Chelan County Volunteer Search and Rescue had maneuvered a tracked vehicle resembling a small snowcat to the trailhead. Other rescuers drove the survivors down Eight Mile Road, while Gyselinck’s team returned to the Bridge Creek Campground via snowmobiles.

It was dark by the time Gyselinck arrived at the campground, which had become a staging area. Police lights from the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office pierced the darkness. Some 30 people awaited the rescue team, including volunteers from multiple search-and-rescue organizations.

At the staging area, Park declined medical treatment, and all three survivors left in waiting vehicles driven by friends or acquaintances. Sergeant Jason Reinfeld of Chelan County Sheriff’s Office interviewed survivors Tae-gyu Kim, Seung-chan Park, Gab-jong Jang and Seung-nam Kim in the following days.

The winter storm came in as forecast, dropping another 20 inches of snow on Colchuck Peak. The search for the victims’ remains did not resume until Feb. 24, when a rescuer on a hoist and cable from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office helicopter rescue team found Cho’s body at GPS coordinates provided by Seung-chang Park. Despite his injuries, Park had climbed back up to search for his partners. He found Cho’s body, put it in an orange sleeping bag and took a photo.

The bodies of Jeannie Lee and Yun Park were last seen at the base of the couloir, but rescuers on that helicopter flight were unable to locate their remains. They searched mounds of snow that proved to be rocks. At least three avalanches have occurred since the initial accident, making an immediate return rescue mission a dim prospect.

“We have no plans in the near future,” Reinfeld said.

Aftermath of the avalanche

The same day as rescuers retrieved Cho’s body, the New York Korean American Alpine Club confirmed that all four survivors had returned home, according to a situation report on the club’s website (translated from Korean to English).

A representative from the climbing club declined to comment on this story.

The club’s website catalogs an extensive list of hikes, rock climbs and winter mountaineering excursions throughout the Northeast, as well as trips like a 2018 Mount Baker climb, a 2022 Denali expedition and preparation for a 2024 Himalayan expedition. In February 2022, Jeannie Lee, who died in the Colchuck avalanche, and Seung-chang Park, who survived, both reached the summit of California’s Mount Whitney on a winter climb.

Per the website, the group’s original destination was Mount Rainier National Park, but they switched their plans to the Enchantments upon learning the park’s alpine reaches are closed Mondays through Fridays this winter.

The Colchuck climbers were not carrying avalanche transceivers or personal locator beacons. While backcountry skiers seek out terrain and snow conditions conducive to avalanches, winter climbers avoid those conditions. In general, slopes that make for enjoyable skiing usually make for difficult climbing, and vice versa.

Gyselinck said “it’s fairly rare for climbers to carry avalanche transceivers” and noted the victims died of physical trauma, not snow asphyxiation. Avalanche transceivers would not have made a difference in the survivors’ ability to rescue their partners.

“Due to the weather conditions, they climbed into a really dangerous situation probably unknowingly, because it had been very windy and that wind had blown all the snow over the top of Colchuck Peak and settled in the couloir and triggered the wind slab,” Gyselinck said. “Dragontail is the prize, but it’s big and scary. Colchuck is less intimidating. You could easily let your guard down on a smaller, less committing route and get in trouble really quickly.”

Gyselinck noted that the group got caught “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Still, Gyselinck thought back to his winter climb of the northeast couloir seven years ago and remembered a sense of unease.

“When I climbed the route, I was very concerned about snow stability when I got through that bottleneck,” Gyselinck said. “It gave me an eerie feeling. It did not feel like a safe place.”

Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo