Mt. Ritter Tragedy
In Memory of Otto Loenneker
narrative is dedicated to the Memory of Otto Loenneker. Otto was found dead on Mt. Ritter’s
Southeast glacier on August 9, 2004. Otto was a long time business associate,
occasional hiking and climbing partner, but most of all he was my friend. Below
is a recent Photo of Otto and a chronology of the
events of this tragedy. Within the text
are hyperlinks that are blue text that is underlined. Clicking on these links will take you to
pictures relating to the text. Use your
browser’s “Back” button to return to this page.
met Otto in the early 1990s when he was working for ABB System Controls in Santa Clara, CA. I was providing consulting services to
Philadelphia Electric Company to assist them with the purchase of an Energy
Management System from ABB. Otto was one
of ABB’s lead engineers on that project. Needless to say, we each represented our
employers very aggressively and from time to time things could get very
heated. Our business differences however
did not stand in the way of us becoming friends. Even after a day of hot debate across the
conference table, we could enjoy each other’s company over a couple of beers
after work. It soon became apparent that
we shared some of the same interests outside of work too. We both had a deep concern for the environment
and enjoyed physical outdoor activities such as “peak bagging”, hiking,
camping, cycling and running. Our first
trip together was to climb North Palisade’s Peak at 14,242 feet in Kings Canyon National Park, CA.
Otto’s son Erik accompanied us on that trip and tended to the base camp
while we made the climb to the peak. Our
next “peak bagging” adventure was to climb Mt. Darwin
at 13,830 feet. Darwin
was also in Kings
Canyon and my wife Pat
accompanied us on that trip, exploring the rock formations around the base camp
while we “bagged” the peak I also had
the pleasure of running the 1993 San Francisco Marathon with Otto. Neither of us had trained very hard for the
run but we both managed to finish the race.
few years, Otto left ABB to follow his career with other companies in the South Bay
area. My business got me out to Santa Clara from time to time and we kept in touch via email. Otto sent me the pictures from his John Muir
Trail trip in the summer of 2003 and we talked about getting together in the
future for another trip. In November of
2003 Otto contacted me about a trip he was putting together to go back to the
same general area that he was at earlier that summer but this time his goal was
to climb Mt. Ritter, Mt. Banner and spend sometime at Devil’s Post Pile. He was targeting late summer 2004 for the
trip. At the time, I was heavily into
planning a trip to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with my wife, Pat. Our trip would start in April and last
through the summer into early fall so I would not be available, but I told Otto
to keep me posted on his plans and I would do the same as it may work out that
if he were going to make the climb earlier during the summer we would be
passing through that area on the PCT and we could get together for the climb.
months passed and in early 2004, Pat and I found out that we were going to be
grandparents for the first time in early July.
This of course changed every thing so we cut our PCT trip short to be
home in early July for the arrival of our first grandchild. I contacted Otto and discussed his plans for
the Ritter Trip. Otto had targeted early
August, which now fit well with my new schedule. In February 2004, Otto made application for
the permits and it was a done deal that the Ritter trip was set for August 7,
2004 through August 14, 2004.
into San Jose, CA on Friday August 6th and Otto
picked me up at the airport. We went
back to his place in Los Gatos
and spent the afternoon in final preparations and packing equipment for the
trip. We were both very excited for the
opportunity to get back into the mountains for another trip. Alma
got home around 6 pm and we all went out for Sushi that evening, apparently a
Friday evening tradition for them. Otto
prepared a huge breakfast in the morning.
We had his secret recipe pancakes, scrambled eggs, fried tomatoes,
fruit, juice and toast. I do not believe
I ever had a bigger breakfast. I guess
we both knew that we would be living on ramen, couscous, granola, soup, trail
mix, etc for the next several days so we went crazy with breakfast. We said goodbye to Alma and we were on our way about 8 AM
Saturday August 7th.
was not a problem until we got on Hwy120 heading for Yosemite. About 10 miles from the park entrance, there
was an SUV that caught on fire. We were
in a “rolling parking lot” for about 45 minutes. After we cleared the car fire, things went
well until we got to the “typical weekend” traffic in Yosemite. Otto was growing impatient with our progress
and was going a little faster than he should have been when we passed a Park
Police Officer traveling in the other direction. The Officer apparently turned around and came
back after us. Fortunately, the traffic
was so bad going in our direction that by the time he caught up with us, we
were forced to travel the speed limit. He stopped us nonetheless and we played the
“license and registration” drill. After
his lecture, that we both diligently listened to, we were on our way with a
“warning”. We had to go to Mono Basin Visitor’s Center
to pick up our permit. Otto had called
them earlier in the week to let them know that we would be arriving late and
not to release our permit. We got there
about 1:30 pm. There were several people
in line to get information from the Forest Service Agent that we had to see to
get the permit. After yet another delay,
we got the permit and we were on our way.
the Mono Lake
and headed for Mammoth Lakes,
CA. Our entry point into Inyo
National Forest to begin our trip was
just North of the Mammoth Ski Area
near Mammoth Lakes, CA.
It was now about 2 pm and we had not had any lunch so we decided to get
something to eat before we started hiking.
We also found out that between the hours of 7 am and 7 pm, it was
mandatory to take a shuttle to the trailhead.
lunch and Otto dropped me and our gear off at the shuttle pickup point and went
to park the car. The shuttle arrived and
we were off to the Agnew Meadows Trailhead.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 4 pm and started heading toward the
area where we were going to set up a base camp.
Our initial plan was to hike all the way to the base camp but we had not
counted on getting such a late start. We
started off and encountered many scenic waterfalls and
vistas along the way. After a couple
hours of hiking, we passed by Shadow Lake. At this point, it was apparent that we were
not going to make it to where we wanted to set up base camp so we continued on
for a while and decided to stop for the night and set up the tent before the
bugs got too bad. We stopped about half
way between Shadow Lake and Lake
Ediza. We set up the tent, cooked some dinner,
started a fire and settled
in for the night.
morning before we broke camp, we climbed a small ridge near our campsite to get
a good view of Mt.
Ritter and begin the process of scoping out a route for our Ritter
climb. There are three basic approaches
to climbing Mt. Ritter.
One is to approach from the West via the Lake Catherine area, the second
is to approach from the East and climb to the saddle between Ritter and Banner
and then up the back side of Ritter to the summit and the third is to get to
the Southeast pinnacle at the base of Ritter’s Southeast glacier, traverse
North and back West around the edge of the glacier to get to Owen’s chute and approach the summit from the
Southwest. Since we were approaching the
area from the east, we discounted the Lake Catherine
approach. We also did not have the
equipment to attack via the saddle between the two peaks. That left the “Southeast Glacier”
approach. The big question that
remained was, “could we find a quick and easy route from our base camp to the
foot of the Southeast pinnacle?” We spent some time studying the view from our
first nights campsite area and then headed out to find a spot for our base
camp. We passed more gorgeous scenery and
waterfalls and skirted around the Southern shore of Lake Ediza. Initially, we were thinking of establishing
a base camp on the Western edge of Lake
since we arrived at Lake Ediza in mid morning of
our second day, we decided that we would continue on and hike all our gear
closer to the Eastern base of Mt.
Ritter. We eventually found a very nice spot for our
(37.68423 N, 119.17844 W) at 9800 feet about 1/2 of a mile West of Lake Ediza.
about 11 am Sunday morning August 8th when we arrived at the Base
Camp site. We set up the tent, had some
lunch and just relaxed for a while organizing our equipment and filtered some
more water. We discussed our plans for
the rest of the day. Since it was so
late in the day, we decided that we would spend a couple hours looking for a
route to the base of the Southeast pinnacle and return to the Base Camp and
make the climb to the summit on Monday.
The extra day would give us another day at altitude to get better
off to search for a route to the base of the pinnacle about 12:15 pm. We headed toward what was called the “lower gully” in the
literature we had. The gully was just to
the North of a large easily identifiable dome on the extreme South flank of Mt. Ritter. As we got up to the gully, Otto started up a
line farther to the North. Before we
lost sight of each other, I suggested that I thought the route was more to the
South of the route he was following.
Otto said that he wanted to follow the line he was currently on and that
he expected that we would meet up at the top of the gully. We parted ways and continued on separately to
find a route to the base of the Southeast pinnacle.
continued on up the gully. Initially the
slope was quite steep but there was considerably less snow than was shown in
the photos that we had in the route description literature. There was a small snow field, several hundred
feet in length in the gully but it was easy to pass around it in the exposed
rock. Up a little higher, the route
began to flatten out. One of the
landmarks in the route description was the “tree rock”, an area that was a
small collection of trees literally growing out of the rock. The goal was to pass this landmark and
continue up the gully about again 1/3 of the distance already traveled in the
gully. When I got to the point that I
thought was about the area to begin the traverse to the North, I took a short
break and looked back down the gully. I
saw Otto about 500-1000 feet below me. I
assumed that he had continued up the line that he wanted to investigate and
came to a dead end and retreated to a point where he could enter the gully that
I was following. I used my trekking pole
to make a couple directional arrows in a small snow field at the point I
started the traverse to the North. There
was a short wall at the edge of the gully so I built a cairn there to mark the
point for Otto where I left the gully and headed north to find a route to the
base of the pinnacle. I took one last
glance down the gully and saw Otto continuing to work his way up the
gully. As it turned out, that was the
last time that I would see Otto alive.
continued on the traverse to the North, placing cairns along the way to mark the route for
Otto to follow and for my return. I
crossed a couple small snow fields. The
surface snow was soft and with the trekking pole for balance, it was easy to
kick flat foot steps in the moderate slope of the snow fields. I periodically looked back to the South
expecting to see Otto but he did not appear.
I reached the base of the pinnacle and crossed a small snow field to get
a look at the route we would be traveling when we went for the summit on
Monday. I was happy to see a lot of
exposed rock and talus. I took a few pictures at the
base of the pinnacle, made a happy face in the snow to greet us on our climb
Monday and started back. All the while I
was heading back, I was expecting to run into Otto or
at the very least, see him making his own line to the North. I got back to the gully and there was no sign
of Otto. I assumed he had either
returned to the base camp or continued up the gully. It was obvious that he had not followed the
route that I had taken since I did not see him as I returned on the same route
that I had marked on the way in.
I got back
to the base camp around 4 pm. Since Otto
was not there, I concluded that he either did not see the cairns I placed or he decided to continue up
the Gully past the point where I had turned off to select another area to
investigate. I filtered some water, ate
dinner and waited. The later it got, the
more concerned I became! Otto was
experienced and knew when it was time to head back and get off the mountain for
the evening. I was hoping that he was just delayed from a sprained ankle or
something of the sort and
I would see him hobbling down the Gully at any time. Darkness set in and I began thinking the
worst. I put a light out and pointed it
toward the Gully just in case he was trying to travel in the dark. The light would at least let him know where
the base camp was. It got to be about 10
PM and Otto had still not returned. It
was clear at that point that I had to hike out in the morning to get help. I prepared a daypack for the hike out in the
morning and tried to get some rest.
I got up
before first light Monday morning (August 9th) and had some
breakfast and waited for it to get light enough to hike out. I thought I saw something moving up high in
the Gully and waited for a few minutes for it to get a little lighter so I
could see better. It must have been wishful
thinking as the shape did not get any closer.
I took off at a brisk pace and started hiking out. I stopped at each campsite I came upon on the
way out to see if anyone had a cell phone that would work or other radio that I
could use to call for assistance. No
such luck. I got back to Agnew Meadows
Trailhead at just before 9 am and caught a shuttle bus up to the Forest Service
Entrance Station. The attendants there
called their headquarters and were instructed to call the local Mammoth Lakes
Police. Mammoth Lakes Police Department
was notified and they dispatched Sgt. Jon Boyer to the Entrance Station where I
was waiting. Jon arrived around 10 am
and collected some preliminary information about the situation from me. He stayed with me during the initial stages
of the process and provided the communication link between me and those that
wanted to get in touch with me. He also
contacted Sgt. Robert Weber, the Mono County Sheriff Search and Rescue (SAR)
Coordinator. I was asked if I wanted to
formally request that a Search and Rescue effort be initiated. The answer was YES. Sgt Weber informed me that Jeff Holmquist would be contacting me and that Jeff was one of
the Mono County Search and Rescue Team Members and he would be coordinating the
Search and Rescue operation at a Command
Center that they would be
setting up near the Forest Service Entrance Station north of Mammoth Ski
Area. Jeff called and got some
preliminary information from me while they were heading to the Command Center area. I waited with Jon until Jeff and Jutta arrived about 11:30 am with a Search and Rescue
vehicle. They began setting up the radio
antennas etc and started down the call list.
The Mono County Search and Rescue Team is
composed of all volunteers. As team
members arrived, they went about assisting in the tasks that needed to be done
to mobilize the Search and Rescue operation.
I went over the details of the events over the last 24 hours with Jeff
to give him information such as the location of the base camp, the type of
terrain, equipment that Otto had with him, his suspected location, etc. Jeff put in a request to get helicopter
support and it was working its way through the availability and approval
hour of Jeff’s arrival at the Command
Center site, several
additional volunteers had arrived and their skill sets were being evaluated and
they were being briefed on the situation.
Two teams of two individuals each were identified as the initial
resources to use in the actual Search and Rescue operation. Team #1 consisted of David Michalski and Daniel Hansen. Team #2 consisted of Craig Knoche and Barry Beck.
The team members prepared their equipment while waiting to hear about
the disposition of the helicopter. Anne Knoche, Craig’s wife assisted Jutta
with radio and organizational activities of the Command Center. Word came that a helicopter would be made
available but it would not arrive for a couple hours. Jeff dispatched Team #1 at about 1:30 pm to
hike to the base camp and search in that area.
With their full backs, it would take Team #1 about four hours to reach
the base camp. Team #2 was held at the Command Center
to be inserted by the helicopter when it arrived.
helicopter arrived at about 4 pm. There
was a crew of four on the helicopter.
Jeff briefed the helicopter crew and Team #2 members and the helicopter
was airborne on its way to the primary search area at about 4:30 pm. The helicopter circled the search area and
they saw what they thought might be a climber near the base of Mt. Ritter’s
Southeast Glacier. At about 5 pm, Team
#2 was dropped off by the helicopter as close as possible to the area of the
sighting. Team #2 called back to the Command Center once they were on the ground with
an estimate of one hour to reach the area of the sighting. At about 5:30 pm, Team #1 reached the base
camp and reported back that there was no sign of Otto and they were going to
widen their search around the base camp.
At about 6 pm, all of our worst fears were confirmed when Team #2
radioed back to confirm that they had reached the area of the sighting and found
Otto dead. Otto was found on a lower
portion of the Southeast Glacier at about 11,500 feet. It appeared he fell some distance and the
resulting fall caused severe head trauma.
It was Team #2’s assessment that he was dead by the time the body came
to rest where they found it (37.6842 N, 119.1934 W). The location of the body made it impossible
to extract it from where it was found.
It would be necessary to move the body down hill to a location where it
would be safe to extract it. The
helicopter flew to the area of the base camp to pick up Team #1 and insert them
near Team #2 to assist with moving the body.
There was not enough daylight left to move the body and set up for the
extraction so with the approaching darkness, the
helicopter had to return to its base.
The four Search and Rescue Team members worked into the dusk moving the body down the
mountain for pickup the next morning.
They settled in for the night up on the mountain and would resume
activities on Tuesday morning (August 10th).
other commitments so the Command
Center coordinator roll
was passed on to Greg Enright for the evening. There was little more to be done at the Command Center for the evening so most of the
staff headed home for the evening. Anne Knoche
invited me to stay at their home for the night. It had been a long and
difficult day and I was grateful for the company, shower, dinner and a bed to
morning we left Anne’s and headed back to the Command Center
arriving about 7:30 am. Sgt. Charles
Bump the Madera County Sheriff Search and Rescue Coordinator was at the Command Center
and had taken over the coordination of the extraction since Mt. Ritter
is just across the county line and is in Madera County. The initial word was that the helicopter
would be returning about 9:30 am. In the
interim, the Search and Rescue teams on the mountain did a cursory exploration
to try and determine exactly what may have happened. There were several items that were not found
with the body (trekking pole, baseball cap, etc) so the thought was that if
those items could be found, they may have a better idea of the point of the
actual fall. The body was found in a
location similar to the bottom of a funnel.
There were several places where a fall from above could have resulted in
the body coming to rest where it did. The
search did not reveal any of the missing items.
While they waited for the helicopter to arrive, the Search and Rescue
team erected a memorial
cairn near where Otto’s body was found and said a prayer on his
behalf. The helicopter arrived earlier
than expected and the body and the four team members were extracted and dropped
off at the Command
Center at about 9
am. The helicopter returned to its
base. Sgt. Bump inventoried the items
found with the body and the body was taken to a Mortuary in Bishop, CA.
keys were found with the body and from arrangements made with Otto’s family on
Monday night, I was to pick up Otto’s car and head to Bishop to meet with the
family later Tuesday evening as they were driving over from the South Bay
area during the day Tuesday. Anne Knoche had volunteered to line up some of the Search and
Rescue people to help extract our equipment that was still at the base camp but
during a telephone conversation we had later during the day, another Search and
Rescue operation was getting underway. I
told her I would call her later in the evening after I talked to the
family. That evening I meet with Otto
Jr. and Shirley, Erik and Summer, and Alma at the Bishop Holiday Inn. They had
received little information about the accident from the police and wanted to
get as much information as possible. I shared with them all the information I
had. We discussed the events before,
during and after the Search and Recovery, people to notify and the logistics of
recovering the equipment that was still at the base camp. The family had enough
to deal with, so with their permission, I kept Otto’s car and it would be my
task to extract our equipment
from the base camp.
Craig and Anne Knoche after the meeting with Otto’s
family but got their voice mail. I assumed they were involved with the rescue
operation that Anne had mentioned earlier in the day and informed them that we
would take care of extracting the equipment.
I decided at that point that I would extract the equipment myself. I felt a very strong need to get back to the
base camp and spend sometime alone there to get my mind around the events of
the last couple days.
Bishop at about 4:30 am Wednesday (August 11th) so I could drive
directly to the Agnew Meadows trailhead and not be forced to take the
“Mandatory 7 am to 7 pm Shuttle”. Since
I would have to make a couple trips to extract all the equipment, having the
car at the trailhead would be very convenient to have a secure place to leave
the equipment between trips. I arrived
at the Agnew Meadows Trailhead about 6 am and hiked into the base camp arriving
about 9:30 am. The first thing that I
noticed was that the tent fly had several large tears,
a couple broken poles and the tent had been turned into a “figure 8”. I assumed that the damage was caused by the
prop wash of the helicopter when it picked up the Team #1 members
to airlift them up the mountain Monday evening to assist Team #2 with Otto’s
extraction. Equipment had been blown
about and I found the ground cloth about 150 feet from the tent. I spent the remainder of the day Wednesday repairing
the tent and collecting the gear and getting it ready to take out. The plan was simple. The tent would be the last thing to go. I would hike out half the equipment Thursday
morning and return to the base camp
Thursday afternoon and
prepare to hike out the remainder of the equipment Friday morning. After dinner Wednesday evening, I was
surprised by two guests. Craig Knoche and David Michalski
stopped by the base camp about 7 pm. They had been in the area doing a follow
up on another rescue operation. That
operation concerned 6 climbers on Mt Ritter that were reported “overdue” on
Tuesday. As it turned out, all returned
safely. Since they were in the area
doing a follow up at the six climber’s base camp, they decided to see if they
could haul some of the equipment out that they knew was still at our base camp. Craig apparently did not get my message and
was as surprised to see me there as I was to see him and Dave. We chatted for a while. Craig mentioned that
he had the pictures that the Rescue Team took of the extraction and I could
pick them up at his house. It was
getting late and they still had to hike out that evening. We discussed the possibility of hauling
everything out that evening but with their gear and all of our gear, there was
too much for the three of us to get out in one trip so I would have to return
for the rest anyway. I convinced them it
was not a problem for me to get all the gear out. I thanked them again for their assistance
with Otto. We said our good byes and
they headed down hill toward Lake
and the trail back to Agnew Meadows.
day and one-half went as planned. I made
the trip out and back on Thursday and packed the tent and remaining equipment
up Friday morning and hiked out by noon.
I called Alma to let her know that I had
completed retrieval of the equipment and that I would be on my way back to the South Bay
area later in the day after I had notified everyone else that I had completed
the extraction of the equipment. Alma told me that the
service for Otto would be held on Sunday.
I called back to the Midwest to make
sure that the word about the service had reached Otto’s friends there. I called and talked to Sgt. Weber and Sgt.
Bump letting them know that all the equipment had been
extracted and thanked them for their efforts on Otto’s behalf. I also left a voice message for Sgt.
Boyer. I called the Knoche’s
to see if anyone was home to pick up the pictures. Anne was there so I had the opportunity to
thank her again for all her support and assistance. I picked up the pictures and headed back to
the South Bay area.
headed North toward Highway 120, a severe thunder
storm was moving in from the West. It
hit Tioga Pass about the same time I did. The storm combined with the Friday afternoon
traffic made for slow going. Finally
about 7 pm I had enough and stopped for the evening near Manteca, CA. I called Alma to let her know that I would not be back
at Otto’s home about 2:30 pm Saturday. Alma was preparing some of the flowers that Otto grew at
the house to be used in the Memorial Arrangement that the family constructed at
the funeral home in Mountain View,
CA. We took the flowers to the funeral home in Mountain View later that
afternoon. Otto’s sons had constructed an alter that supported a large picture
of Otto and the Urn that contained his ashes.
The alter was surrounded by many beautiful wild
and traditional flowers.
service was held Sunday August 15th at noon and was attended by many
of Otto’s friends and relatives. It was
a very informal service which Otto would have greatly appreciated. Friends and family had the opportunity to
share and reflect on the impacts that Otto had made on their lives. The funeral home put together a video
chronology of pictures of Otto with friends and family over the years.
of Otto’s family and friends, I would like to thank all the law enforcement and Search and Rescue
personnel who assisted in Otto’s recovery.
certainly be missed but he will not be forgotten!
after the tragedy, I returned to Mt Ritter and placed a plaque on Mt. Ritter’s
summit in memory of Otto. The climb to
the summit and a picture of the plaque can be seen at http://dickinsonadventures.com/y-t-c/ritter/ritter.htm.