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North Sister tragedy shows dangers of alpine mountaineering

The primary purpose of reports of alpine mountaineering tragedies is to aid in the prevention of accidents -

Martina Testa on Sunday, July 5, 1998

Martina Testa was a German national living in the United States, who had been climbing in Oregon for less than one year. She had had some snow climbing instruction from a guide service. She had recently summited Mt. Shasta and Mt. Adams, both long moderate snow climbs.

She had been weathered off North Sister a month before with a friend and decided to try for the summit again, solo.

“We stopped to talk because she was beaming so much,” said Jon Specher, an experienced climber from Bend. “She appeared well equipped and confident when we passed on the trail the day before her climb”.

She died the next day attempting the summit, of major injuries after sliding and tumbling on surface softened hard steep snow, then sliding again on moderate snow to the Thayer Glacier at about 8,700 feet, 1,100 feet below the summit ridge. She was wearing dark clothing and came to rest in shadows, so she was not found for some time.

Crampons, an ice axe and a helmet failed to save this climber.

Approaching the summit on the South East Ridge one must contour around a large gendarme called the Camel’s Hump. The contour to the west is less steep; on the east side, the Thayer Glacier headwall forms 40 to 45 degree loose rock or snow chutes down which Testa slid out of control.

The past experience of this novice climber did not prepare her for this peak.

Taking basic and advanced seminars and clinics and climbing with trained and experienced partners is the best way to learn advanced skills and judgment.

Experience tells us that warm spring weather can soften a steep snow slope, making a slip likely and an arrest impossible.
--Robert Speik

Copyright© 1998 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.



Albany woman died after fall during solo ascent of North Sister

By JENNIFER MOODY, Albany Democrat-Herald
The Associated Press contributed to this story
July 11, 1998

SISTERS-A body found Tuesday afternoon on the north face of the North Sister has been identified as Martina Testa of Albany, who has been missing since Sunday.

Searchers found the body at about 4 l p.m. on Thayer Glacier, about 8,900 feet up the mountain, said Deschutes County sheriff's spokesman Rick Meyers.

Testa, 35, set out to climb the North Sister by herself on Saturday. The mountain is about 20 miles southwest of Sisters in Central Oregon.

Testa's husband, Nicholas Testa of Corvallis, reported her missing Sunday evening when she failed to return home. He identified her body Wednesday morning.

Meyers said the climber found Tuesday probably slid down the glacier and stopped when she hit a rock ledge. Possibly dazed by the fall, she removed some of her camping gear before falling another 15 to 20 feet, striking her head on a rock. It is believed the impact caused her death.

The gear on the ledge consisted of a solar blanket wrapped around her camping equipment, Meyers said. We're just guessing that she was disoriented, because it made no sense to wrap a blanket around a camp kit."

The climber was missing a crampon, which may have been the cause of the initial fall, Meyers said. Searchers don't know how far that first fall was.

The first searchers began their ascent about 7:15 a.m. Monday. They found no trace of Testa and no one who had seen her. Searchers in helicopters and on horseback in the wilderness below continued the efforts.

The body was found about an hour after two climbers-Jonathan Sprecher and Scott Phillips, both of Bend- approached search and rescue teams to ask about their efforts. Upon hearing Testa's description, the two said they had seen her about 4 p.m. Saturday, going up as they were climbing down.

Bill Good of the Deschutes Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team spotted the body from an Oregon Army National Guard helicopter. The body was on about a 33-degree incline amid ice that was breaking up, Meyers said.

Meyers said the area is not far from where the body of a University of Oregon climber-Frank Allard, 19, of Carmel, Calif. - was found in October 1996.

Allard and fellow U of O student Michael Casey, 19, of Chico, Calif., disappeared Nov. 5, 1995. Allard's body was found on a rocky slope known as "The Bowling Alley" for boulders that often fall there. Casey's body was never recovered.

Testa, a German national, was head of the engineering department at Celwave in Corvallis. An athletic woman who liked to run marathons, she had been climbing for about a year.

Meyers said family and friends strongly objected to his description of Testa as an inexperienced climber but said he stands by that assessment. The fact that Testa was climbing alone after only a year's experience and took her gear with her instead of establishing a base camp on the mountain points to a lack of experience, he said.

Also, she had visited the wilderness area only once before, about a month ago, he said. She apparently had attempted the North Sister with a climbing partner, but bad weather forced them to turn back.

Although a popular climbing spot, the mountain is dangerous even for people who have climbed for many years, Meyers said. "We're emphasizing skill level in this incident," Meyers said. It's apparent it's not there. It's extremely unfortunate, and we're just trying to keep people from doing it".

Nicholas Testa could not be reached for comment.


Additional notes/clarifications
The following was posted by Jim Frankenfield, a professional guide familiar with the mountain.

There are a few glaring inaccuracies in the press coverage of this accident.

The Thayer glacier is on the East side of the mountain, not the North as reported in some accounts. I believe the elevation was also mis-reported.

The Bowling Alley is a couloir which leads to the top of the summit pinnacle from the west. It is not particularly close to the Thayer Glacier as reported. The un-recovered body of the U of O student who presumably fell in the Bowling Alley is most likely part way down the West Face Direct couloir, on the opposite side of the mountain from where Testa was found on the Thayer Glacier.

While the Bowling Alley and the traverse to access it are difficult for inexperienced climbers, it does not appear that Testa ever reached that area. While it is not clear exactly where she fell from it was most likely not a difficult area. This was probably a matter of slipping at the wrong place and time rather than trying to climb above her ability.




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