SEATTLE — “EMERGENCY CALL! Two hikers injured, one broken leg, one unconscious since yesterday on the moraine over Lake Colchuck.”
Craig Gyselinck of Wenatchee East received this request for assistance via text from the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office at 8am on February 20th.
Most Mondays, Gyselinck fits in as manager for the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District. However, that Monday was Presidents Day, and he looked forward to family time. Instead, the 37-year-old is cut out as a team leader for Chelan County Mountain Rescue.
At the time, Gyselinck had no idea that an avalanche that had occurred the day before had knocked four climbers 500 feet down a steep gorge on Colchuck Peak known as the northeastern couloir. Seong Cho, 54, from Connecticut; Jeannie Lee, 60, from New York; and Yun Park, 66, from New Jersey died of traumatic injuries when an avalanche brought them into a narrow spot in a wall of blue granite and ice.
In the aftermath of the 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 efforts took place.
Gyselinck’s immediate reaction was to contact the injured climber as soon as possible, then pass on an assessment to the Sheriff’s Office. Snow was on its way and winds were slated for that night, with gusts as high as 80 mph. Rescue helicopters are not an option. The Northwest Avalanche Center estimated the avalanche hazard as “high,” and Gyselinck decided to form a rescue team but set a limit: They would not climb into the avalanche field. Lake Colchuck was as high as they could get.
With no helicopters around, Gyselinck braced himself for the worst.
“It was kind of a nightmare situation,” he said. “How are you going to carry someone out of Lake Colchuck on a stretcher in the snow?”
Gyselinck recruited three other volunteers via SMS. He grabbed a bag with his backcountry essentials — harness, rock guard, warm clothes, stove — then went to the county building in Wenatchee where Chelan County Mountain Rescue kept extra gear. He grabbed three hypothermia kits and headed down Highway 2 to Leavenworth.
“My thoughts are to reach patients, and if they need warmth, we can provide support,” says Gyselinck. “I know four of us can’t get that many injured patients off Lake Colchuck. We get light and fast.”
Chelan County Mountain Rescue provides technical expertise: climbing, ropes, harnesses and backcountry stretchers called stretchers. While Gyselinck and his teammates are responding, Chelan County Volunteer Search and Rescue has voiced its own network to provide snowmobiles as logistical support. By noon, the two search and rescue groups had assembled at Bridge Creek Campground on Icicle Road in Leavenworth.
Reach base camp
In summer, this campground along scenic Icicle Creek fills with families, hikers, and hikers on their way to Enchantment. On Eight Mile Road in the Colchuck Lake Trailhead, vehicles overflowed the trailhead.
Winter presents a different scene. Camp was closed, dormant under white blankets, and a gate blocked the bridge over Icicle Creek leading to the plateau. Only a few intrepid adventurers venture into this swathe of Alpine Lakes Wilderness to hike or backcountry ski during winter. Still, a seven-man group from the New York Korean American Alpine Club set up base camp at Lake Colchuck last month for a multi-day hiking trip, targeting the peaks of Dragontail and Colchuck.
In an avalanche the day before, Park Seung-chang survives but suffers a leg injury – not a broken leg, as the rescue call states – while Gab-jong Jang and Tae-gyu “Teddy” Kim barely avoid the avalanche. Now huddled in a tent in their camp, three of the group’s seven climbers await help.
The fourth survivor of the climbing group, Seung-nam “Sam” Kim, was staying at the base camp on the day of the accident. After the avalanche, he hiked for help, reaching the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office Leavenworth substation around 7:30 a.m. on 20 February.
Gyselinck and the other rescuers didn’t know the specifics as they drove four snowmobiles into the Colchuck Lake Trailhead. Gyselinck knows the Eight Mile Road well and has hiked the mountains for more than 20 years, including the successful March 2016 ascent of Colchuck Peak via the northeastern couloir. His climbing partner, in turn, becomes a rescue teammate.
At the end of the trail, they donned snowshoes and hiked 4 miles to Lake Colchuck.
At around 2:00 PM, the group sighted two yellow tents anchored at an established base camp just below the lake. The tents stand on platforms that have been dug out to protect the occupants from the strong winds above. Stoves, ice kits and climbing crampons are placed on the snow. The wind was howling, but the blizzard had not yet started. The tents were silent.
Gyselinck tapped one; Jang and Kim are inside waiting for the rescue team.
Jang and Kim said their partner, Park Seung-chan, was in the second tent, injured. Park said that three climbers had died and their bodies remained on Colchuck Peak.
“At that point I decided we were only hours away from rapidly deteriorating weather,” said Gyselinck. “We have to get out of there soon.”
Down the mountain
The group packed warm clothes and left the camp. Park, a climber with a leg injury, is in pain but able to walk. Rescuers lend snowshoes to survivors. Gyselinck said the three-hour round-trip climb was somber, the only sounds coming from the crunch of snowshoes underfoot and the wind swaying on the pine trees, some of which had already fallen off the trail in the wind.
“They have a calm demeanor,” says Gyselinck. “The accident happened more than 24 hours earlier and these people had time to process.”
Gyselinck radioed regular updates and requested that the snowmobile be ready when rescuers and three survivors reached the Colchuck Lake Trailhead at dusk. By then, the Chelan County Volunteer Search and Rescue had driven a tracked vehicle resembling a small snow cat to the end of the trail. Another rescue team drove the survivors down Eight Mile Road, while Gyselinck’s team returned to Camp Bridge Creek on snowmobiles.
It was dark by the time Gyselinck arrived at the camp, which had become a staging area. Police lights from the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office cut through the darkness. About 30 people were waiting for the rescue team, including volunteers from various search and rescue organizations.
At the staging area, Park refused medical attention, and the three survivors left in waiting vehicles driven by friends or acquaintances. Sergeant Jason Reinfeld of the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office interviewed survivors Tae-gyu Kim, Park Seung-chan, Gab-jong Jang and Seung-nam Kim in the following days.
A winter storm came as expected, dumping another 20 inches of snow on Colchuck Peak. The search for the victim’s body did not resume until February 24, when rescuers with a winch and cables from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office helicopter rescue team found Cho’s body in the GPS coordinates provided by Seung-chang Park. Despite his injuries, Park has climbed back up to find his partner. He found Cho’s body, tucked it into an orange sleeping bag and took a photo.
The bodies of Jeannie Lee and Yun Park were last seen at the bottom of the couloir, but rescuers on the helicopter flight were unable to find their bodies. They searched for a mound of snow which turned out to be rocks. At least three avalanches have occurred since the initial crash, making an immediate return rescue mission a dim prospect.
“We have no immediate plans,” Reinfeld said.
The aftermath of an avalanche
The same day that rescuers retrieved Cho’s body, the Korean American Alpine Club in New York confirmed that the four survivors had returned home, according to a situation report on the club’s website (translated from Korean to English).
Representatives for the climbing club declined to comment on this story.
The club’s website catalogs a comprehensive list of ascents, rock climbs, and winter mountain excursions throughout the Northeast, as well as trips such as the 2018 ascent of Mount Baker, the 2022 Denali expedition, and preparations for the 2024 Himalayan expedition. In February 2022, it was Jeannie Lee, who died in the Colchuck avalanche, and Seung-chang Park, who survived, both reached the summit of Mount Whitney in California on a winter hike.
Per the website, the group’s original destination was Mount Rainier National Park, but they shifted their plans to Enchantment after learning that the park’s alpine mountains are closed Monday through Friday this winter.
The Colchuck climbers carried no avalanche transceivers or personal tracking beacons. While backcountry skiers seek terrain and snow conditions conducive to avalanches, winter hikers shun those conditions. In general, slopes that make skiing fun usually make climbing difficult, and vice versa.
Gyselinck said it was “very rare for climbers to carry an avalanche transceiver” and noted that the victims died from physical trauma, not from asphyxiation from the snow. The avalanche transceiver would make no difference in the survivors’ ability to save their partners.
“Because of the weather conditions, they got into a very dangerous situation probably unknowingly, because it was very windy and that wind had blown all the snow over Colchuck Peak and settled in the couloir and set off a wind plate,” Gyselinck said. “The Dragontail is the prize, but it’s big and scary. Colchuck is less intimidating. You can easily let your guard down on the smaller and less committed routes and get into trouble very quickly.”
Gyselinck noted that the group was stuck “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Still, Gyselinck thought back to his winter hike in the northeastern couloir seven years ago and remembered the feeling of uneasiness.
“When I hiked the route, I was really worried about the stability of the snow going through those traffic jams,” says Gyselinck. “It gave me an eerie feeling. It didn’t feel like a safe place.”