| In memory of Sean Wylam
July 28th, 2011
Location: Upper slopes of Snowmass Mountain, Lead King Basin, approximately 6 mi. ENE of Marble, Colorado
S-Ridge party: Andrew Reed (areed20), Ryan Marsters (monster5), Mike R., Mike Z.
Standard Route party: Dan (Dmccool), Jeff (SurfnTurf),
Rescue party: Mike/Moe/Father + others (Party from Aspen), Aspen Mountain Rescue
Note: This report is not intended as a route guide. It is intended to convey the chance final few hours of a young man who gave his life pursuing a hobby we all love. It has been posted with the encouragement and and blessings of the family in hopes that others can relate to their son, know of him, and reconsider their own preparation.
Sean on the summit of Snowmass
To the family and friends of Sean A. Wylam,
The following is my account of the events occurring prior to the passing of Sean Wylam. It contains descriptions of events not necessarily related to the incident, but I hope it conveys one perspective and allows closure for those who wish it. With difficulty, I tried to trim out the emotion, but some things I could not. It is extremely saddening to see the loss of such a promising young man.
Andrew, Jeff, Dan, and I had only a handful of hours to converse with Sean, but I believe they were crucial enough hours to document and share.
On July 23rd, 2011, Mike R, Andrew, Mike Z, and I drove to the Crystal Trailhead and backpacked into Geneva Lake with the intention of climbing Snowmass via the S-Ridge, a sinuous, striking ridge heading southwest from the summit. The route partially overlooks the standard route, which Jeff, Dan, and Sean (independently) planned on climbing at the same time. The standard route follows the southeast ridge and is gained via Snowmass Lake.
S-Ridge on left, Standard Route Ridge on right (Snowmass Lake is on the other side of the ridge)
On July 24th, our party began hiking at 5:10 AM, about an hour after we planned the night before. We made the hike up to Little Gem Lake, bush-wacked to the base of the S-Ridge, and began climbing the class 4, exposed ridge around 6:30 AM. About a third of the way up the ridge, Mike Z decided not to continue and waited at an approximate elevation of 13,200 ft for our return. Mike R, Andrew, and I continued.
At an approximate elevation of 13,750 ft, around 8:45 AM, our party noticed two pairs of climbers watching us from the summit of Snowmass. One pair was Dan and Jeff from the Colorado climbing site 14ers.com and they began the traverse to North Snowmass. Jeff and Dan had climbed a snow variation of the standard route and Sean followed in close proximity behind them. The other pair immediately left the summit. About 20 minutes later, we saw another climber, Sean, spending time on the summit taking numerous pictures of us on the ridge, the surrounding mountains, and himself.
The climber waited approximately 15 minutes for Andrew and me to reach the summit, where we made introductions and discussed where we were from, peaks, and other small-talk. We joked with him about the identity of the peak (claiming we were from Texas and simply forgot our jeans). The friendly climber introduced himself as Sean and he had just moved to Denver from Albuquerque, New Mexico for work. Snowmass was his 28th 14er summit. We bid good luck and he left the summit around 9:30 AM as Mike R. caught up to us and gained the summit.
Andrew and I began discussing traverse plans to North Snowmass when we heard a thundering crash about 40 ft behind us on the standard route. After taking a moment to realize the implications of the noise, we ran to the south section of the summit and witnessed a large mass of rock and dirt sliding down the south gully amidst a cloud of dust and debris. I began yelling to see if Sean was affected, but I received no response and could not locate him. We turned back, hailed Jeff and Dan from halfway to North Snowmass and looked again. Sean was spotted on a precarious set of rocks about 45 ft down from the summit and I ran for my medical kit and pack, killing my cell-phone battery in the process while trying to call 911. Mike R. immediately left to get Mike Z. off the mountain. I climbed down to Sean while Andrew remained near the ridge to calm himself, relay directions to Jeff and Dan, and attempt 911 calls from his phone.
At an initial glance, I thought Sean was dead. The magnitude of the slide and the scope of his injuries were beyond anything I had ever witnessed. The rockslide occurred on the standard route and several other climbers had gone through the same section that weekend. It appeared, and Sean confirmed, that he fell about 30 ft after a rock mass failed beneath him. As he fell, he hit the side of his head against a rock, deforming one side of his helmet, before his left leg caught in a crevice (facing towards the mountain) and kept him from falling a considerable distance further. However, the force of the fall caused the rest of his body to whip backwards onto two precariously perched boulders, snapping his leg just above his hiking boot. Sean’s well-equipped backpack took the brunt of the force away from his torso and his helmet saved him from what I suspect would have been an immediate death.
When I reached him, I was shocked and momentarily relieved to see Sean’s hand move and his head turn towards me. In my state of stupidity, I asked if he was alright, to which he laughed and said he’s been better. At that moment, Sean had better composure than I did as I went through the first aid motions and preliminary questions. He instructed me on how to find and use his SPOT and I was able to send a “helpsummit” message. I removed his helmet, bandaged his head, and had him apply pressure while I checked his breathing and the extent of his injuries. Sean had several deep cuts near his right temple and one on the back of his head. His eyes suggested that he was concussed and I suspected a possible skull fracture. He believed his left arm was broken, but he was able to move it and his fingers, leading me to guess a possible sprain. Internal injuries were not apparent. Sean’s most grievous injury was his leg, which was nearly severed and graphically exposed. I felt helpless when I saw his leg because I had nothing in my medical kit adequate to help him; however, the leg was elevated above his heart and blood clots stopped the bleeding fairly soon. Initially, I used gloves, but they were quickly shredded on the surrounding rock. Sean was able to move his head and saw the injuries before I could stop him. Surprisingly, he still kept his ever-present composure, friendly attitude, and rarely displayed the pain that must have been affecting him.
At that moment, another party from Aspen reached the ridge on the standard route and I yelled at them to call emergency services and asked if they had medical experience. At first, the climbers did not believe another climber was injured due to Sean’s composure and a lack of screaming. Their names were Mike (“Aspen Mike”) and Moe. A father and a couple other climbers were with them. The Aspen group immediately began contacting emergency services and kept other parties from intruding on the scene. After about 40 minutes of talking, bandaging, and checking for further injuries, Dan reached us and was able to help me keep Sean talking positively, conscious, and shaded. By this time, Andrew was able to compose himself, climb down, and gave Sean two Tylenol while Jeff remained at the summit to flag/relay messages and compose himself as well. The Aspen party was able to contact emergency services and relayed coordinates from Andrew’s GPS and the extent of the injuries to the operator.
We asked for medical direction as to the leg but received none at that time. The leg began bleeding again so Dan and I made the decision to tie a tourniquet a few inches above the wound with a length of cord, which Sean endured with a groan and affirmed that he knew it had to be done.
After SAR was contacted, we knew it would be at least a few hours before they reached us. We all knew that it was important to keep Sean talking, so Dan, Andrew, and I did so while shading him. The Aspen group relayed information from the ridge with better reception and brought us supplies while Jeff stayed on the summit to help direct the helicopter when it came. Aspen Mike re-applied head bandages and instructed us on how to tie a more effective tourniquet below the knee.
Around 11:00 AM, a bush plane made a flyover to spot us and the Flight for Life helicopter was next on site testing air currents and looking for an appropriate, safe landing zone (LZ). The experienced helicopter pilot decided on a lower angle section of Snowmass’s snowfield, which was on the other side of the ridge and out of our sight. We had hoped for a military helicopter, as they are better equipped for high angle extractions, and we were saddened to hear the helicopter landing down lower, though it was expected and we did our best to keep the conversation positive.
The Aspen group was able to give us updates on SAR’s progress. Once the helicopter knew our location, Jeff was able to come down, store our backpacks, and support Sean from sliding down the slick boulder. We didn’t want to move him for fear of causing further injuries we were not prepared to deal with. It would be another hour and a half before the SAR medic and lead mountaineer were able to reach us.
During the wait for SAR, Sean spoke of many things. We learned of his siblings and family, of whom he spoke lovingly and mentioned were in Washington. He spoke of his job and we joked about how it was a secret cover up for an elaborate military operation. We spoke of sports, girlfriends, pets, experiences, and 72 virgins with beer waiting for him at the hospital. Naturally, we spoke of peaks, climbs, and mountaineering adventures. He loved the mountains with obvious enthusiasm and he loved his solo trips.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had met Sean before on the summit of a snowy, isolated Uncompaghre a couple months earlier. During that trip, we only spoke for a minute or so in the chilly wind – he had come up one of the north couloirs (which is unfortunately the only poor picture I have of him) while I came up the standard route. Sean and I were the only people each would see on our respective solo climbs. Each escaping, loving, enduring, appreciating, exploring, and, most importantly, attempting to understand the beauty of the rugged wilderness around us and how it unlocked insights into our own souls. Many ask of hikers, climbers, and mountaineers: “Why do you do it?” The answers are as varied as the hikers, climbers and mountaineers themselves and one may spend a lifetime finding the answer to that question. In Sean’s case, solo trips, which he was prepared to conduct, were a part of finding the answer.
Each of us on Snowmass affirmed that in a year, we would return to celebrate a successful rescue. We continued to ask Sean the same appeals: “Speak to us, you’ll be alright.” “Okay” he would reply in an amused, patient, youthful voice. Dan and Andrew would ask him if he knew what time it was, to which Sean would playfully respond “Water time” before taking a few gulps of water. Throughout it all, Sean bore the pain and discomfort with a handful of grimaces and considerable friendly cooperation and solid endurance. He stunned us all with his composure in the face of his wounds and we had no doubt of anything except a successful rescue. He was prepared for that mountain and any outcome – mentally, physically, and practically in terms of having the right gear and knowing their usage. Sean was simply a victim of bad timing, bad luck, practical nature, or divine will, whichever is easier to understand, blame, or justify.
The first SAR pair arrived around 1:15 PM. The medic administered fluids and painkillers before moving progressively to each wound, splinting, bandaging, and evaluating. In addition, he set us to completing other tasks, likely to keep us out of the way. Each question the medic asked was professional and to the point. The lead climber began setting up ropes and studying the terrain. He had the practical, commanding attitude of a man who has seen it all, seen too much, and would risk life and limb not to see anything more. Both heroes worthy of fame, fortune, and medals, but still referred to as “volunteers.”
After Sean was under the effects of the medicine, we lifted him into a litter and strapped him in. Mike, Moe, and a couple other volunteers helped to relieve SAR members of gear and carry them to us. With most of the gear in place, the lead climber decided the easiest extraction method was to lift Sean back up to the summit ridge and then rappel him down the near-vertical northeast-facing ridge to the snowfield and waiting helicopter with flight nurse, blood, and oxygen. After Sean was brought to the ridge, I left to relay more SAR gear for another pair of ex-special forces volunteers and returned to the medic re-bandaging Sean. The effort of the extraction caused the leg clots to re-open and Andrew reported that Sean was losing a lot of blood and becoming pale. At this point, all that could be done was to get Sean to the waiting helicopter and blood as quickly as possible.
The last my party saw of Sean was the lead climber lowering him down the face and warning the SAR members down below of considerable rockfall. Andrew and I returned to the summit with the Aspen party and down-climbed our route while Dan and Jeff helped SAR clean up the site, return down the standard route, and make arrangements for Sean’s gear.
As we were standing on the summit a second time, ensured of a successful mission, I avoided looking down towards where the SAR mission was still occurring. I don’t know why. We descended, focusing on our own route, and took our time testing each and every hold, nerves frayed, minds whirling, and listening to the ever-present rock-fall. No longer looking for fun and adventure, but simply hoping to get down safely.
Back at camp, we found that our partners had left since they had no idea what was happening, figured we’d get a ride with SAR, and needed to drive the 4wd road out while it was still light. They noted that they would meet us in Crystal, which we arrived at too late. Andrew and I made the long trek back to Marble by headlamp and arrived weary, stressed, and fatigued at the barbeque restaurant after-hours, where the owner provided us with phones and water and a local firefighter escorted us to the firehouse to let us sleep and hang out until we could find a way back to Denver.
At the shack, we learned that Sean died en route to the hospital from multi-systems trauma. One of the best SAR outfits in the country came close. So very close, and the toll exerted on the well-trained, unspoken volunteers cannot be ignored. As for us, despite the long day and many miles we had endured, sleep could not find us lying on the fire station floor as each and every memory with Sean over the past several hours played on a continuous loop inside our heads.
Once our partners found out we were in Marble, they made sure one would turn around to pick us up. We arrived in Denver around 5 AM, shook hands, and parted to piece through the day on our own.
I am deeply saddened at the loss of such an enthusiastic, prepared, and friendly young man. It strikes home for many mountaineers as it shows that one can do everything right and things can still go tragically wrong. I hope that Sean rests peacefully and may the family have my sincere condolences.
This past Saturday, Jeff, Andrew, Dan (in spirit) and I were able to meet with Sean’s family in Snowmass over drinks and food. We shared a touching conversation and witnessed firsthand the impact Sean had on a number of lives and the amazing support the family provided for each other. The path to healing is difficult, but the family was on track and proved to be gracious, friendly, and considerate hosts in the face of a heavy-hearted conversation. Today, they will be making a trip a few miles up the Snowmass trail in order to spread Sean’s ashes and remember the relative they have lost.
One question in particular was posed by the family that may or may not help future climbers (the debate belonging elsewhere): “How has Sean’s death changed your preparation for climbing?”
Perhaps Sean’s death as a chance victim of the game we enjoy could encourage others to invest in an emergency device, proper gear, take a few more first aid courses, seek training, exhibit caution, or be as well prepared as Sean was to give the rescuers and themselves a chance. That is the family’s hope.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):