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Gonzaga leadership alums save hikers stranded overnight on California’s Mount Whitney

UPDATED: Wed., May 15, 2019, 3:04 p.m.

Saksham Gakhar smiles after being rescued by a group of Gonzaga University alums who were climbing Mt. Whitney. Gakhar spent the night near 14,505-foot peak with almost no warm clothing. (COURTESY / COURTESY)
Saksham Gakhar smiles after being rescued by a group of Gonzaga University alums who were climbing Mt. Whitney. Gakhar spent the night near 14,505-foot peak with almost no warm clothing. (COURTESY / COURTESY)

At 4 a.m., Saksham Gakhar’s eyes were rolling in his head and violent shivers shook his 146-pound frame.

It was only the second time Gakhar, who grew up in India, had seen snow, and now the 24-year-old Ph.D. student at Stanford University was verging on death huddled near this foreign substance far from home.

His boots, sweaty from the hike up, had long ago turned to blocks of ice and his feet were frozen despite wrapping them in his cap.

All he wore on his upper body was a thin T-shirt and a jacket. The rest of his clothing, food, water and headlamp were in his backpack, more than 1,000 feet down an icy slope.

His friend and guide up the mountain, Josh Wiley, was a mile away, stranded on a rocky ledge with a busted shoulder and no way to get down.

And with the temperature hovering around 20 degrees, punctuated by occasional gusts of chilling wind, Gakhar was entering the advanced stages of hypothermia.

“It got worse and worse every minute,” he said. “I was like, ‘Maybe, OK, this is it.’ ”

Gakhar turned to his hiking partner Nick Gloria, who was huddled with him between two slabs of granite about 1,500 feet below and 2 miles away from the summit of the 14,500-foot Mount Whitney.

“Tell my family I love them,” he told Gloria.

“I prayed really hard,” Gakhar said.

Mountain leaders

An hour earlier and about 1,000 feet below, Gakhar, Gloria, 11 Gonzaga University alums and two professors were waking up in the inky blackness of an alpine morning, ready for their own summit push.

They were well prepared. They’d spent the night at Trail Camp, where they’d done all the things you normally do before a climb. Melted snow. Eaten. Organized their summit packs and caught a few hours of fitful sleep.

The group had a staggered departure time, with the slower hikers heading out at 2 a.m. and the faster ones leaving at 4, said Adrian Popa, a professor in Gonzaga’s organizational leadership program and the trip organizer and leader.

Eleven of the 12 were graduates of Gonzaga’s leadership studies master’s program. Some of the participants took another class Popa offers: leadership hardiness. It’s a course that takes students from the classroom to the summit of Mount Adams, one of Washington’s volcanoes.

They’d all flown into Burbank, California, on Thursday and started hiking that night.

Saturday was their summit day, with many of the group flying home Sunday.

The two Gonzaga groups headed out Saturday morning, and as planned, met up about halfway up the Chute.

A note on the Chute: In May, it’s an icy slope that is 60 degrees or steeper in places, and is considered the hardest section of the easiest route up Mount Whitney. It requires ice axes, crampons and basic mountaineering skills, and is the scene of many of Whitney’s accidents.

After the two teams met on the slope, they continued upward. That’s when Kyle Denton saw the first signs that something was wrong.

“As we’re going along leading up to the main incline of the Chute, we saw a black backpack sitting in the middle of the snow field,” Denton said. “We were like, ‘OK, this is really strange.’ ”

They didn’t see any footprints leading to or from the pack. They called out, wondering if perhaps someone had dropped it momentarily while relieving themselves.

No one responded.

About an hour later, Popa exited the steep section and came upon the freezing Gakhar and Gloria.

Jen Brockman, another Gonzaga alum, was behind Popa and remembers him shouting down to the group below, “We’re going to need the satellite phone when you get here!”

“At that point, I knew something had happened. We’re not ordering a pizza,” she said. “My first thought was, I hope it’s not someone in our group.”

Inexperienced and under prepared

At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States. It’s a serious mountain that can produce serious consequences, and yet is often climbed by inexperienced and unprepared parties.

Gakhar first set his sights on the peak in April. The climb was intended to celebrate him passing his qualifying exam for his doctoral program in environmental fluid sciences.

He’d climbed one other peak previously, 11,503-foot San Gorgonio Mountain in California.

That also had been a rough trip, with Gakhar fighting off sickness. Still, he loved the experience.

“I found out how much I could push my boundaries,” he said. “After that trip, I decided I have to do this again.”

He talked to his friend Wiley, 31, a fellow student at Stanford, a captain in the U.S. Army and a more experienced hiker. Wiley had climbed Whitney once. Gloria joined, and the three planned to join up with three others and do the climb in one day as a group of six.

“I felt very responsible as the team leader,” Wiley said.

The trio left Stanford on Thursday evening, arriving at the trailhead around 2 a.m. They’d planned to meet up with the others there but couldn’t find them, and without cellphone service were unable to coordinate. Originally, they’d planned to leave early in the morning, but slept in and waited around, hoping to reconnect with their friends.

Finally, they started hiking at 7:30.

“Which is a lot later than I wanted to leave, and in retrospect later than we should have left,” Wiley said.

Late starts and unprepared parties are a common scene on Whitney, an attractive peak in the most populous state. When compared to other mountains of its size, it offers a relatively easy climb. Many inexperienced climbers see it as an appropriate first ascent.

If there isn’t snow or ice on the route, it’s essentially a 22-mile round-trip hike. But in May, it’s a different story, with ice and snow making the going more technical and dangerous.

Things started going wrong for the three friends from Stanford right from the beginning.

Gakhar had an ice axe and had ordered crampons from Amazon, but didn’t open the package until he was at the trailhead. That’s when he found out he’d received microspikes, not full crampons.

Wiley assured him the stubby metal spikes would suffice.

“I was like, ‘I cannot let this little thing stand in the way of me hiking this mountain that I’ve wanted to do so long,’ ” Gakhar said.

On its own, the microspike issue may have proven to be inconsequential. But as mistakes and missteps piled up, it began to matter more and more.

The three headed out. Gakhar and Gloria had small day packs with food, water, headlamps and layers. Wiley had a larger pack, in which he placed a 7-to-10-pound rock that he wanted to take to the top of the mountain, sign, and bring back to the bottom – a ritual he’d developed on other climbs.

The group took breaks every 30 to 40 minutes, eventually meeting up with the Gonzaga group near Mirror Lake.

Popa, the leader of the climb, noticed right away that the three seemed unprepared and a bit “cavalier.”

“They pretty much had a school back pack with them,” he said. “Very limited on provisions. Also very limited on water.”

The Gonzaga group made camp while the three Stanford students continued up. It was 2:30 p.m. when they reached the base of the Chute.

The sun would set at 8.

“I was like, ‘OK, let’s think about this. Can we do this?’ ” Gakhar said. “I was like, ‘Josh, what do you think, should we back out here?’ And he said, ‘One step at a time. We can do it.’ And that one step at at time strategy seemed to work in the past.”

The rescue

On Saturday morning, when Popa yelled back to the rest of his team that they needed the satellite phone, the Gonzaga alums jumped into action.

“Everyone kind of did what they needed to do,” Bruce Hough said.

Hough placed Gakhar’s feet under his armpits to warm them up. Other Gonzaga alums shed layers, wrapping Gakhar in warm jackets. They fed the two and gave them water.

Denton started collecting snow in black garbage bags and melting it in the morning sun. He knew that they’d need some in a few hours.

Gloria, who was more accustomed to the cold, was doing much better than Gakhar, despite wearing jeans throughout the night. Hough focused on engaging Gakhar mentally.

“One of the key things… was getting his mindset changed from, ‘Oh my God, I’m close to death,’ ” Hough said.

Hough asked Gakhar what he wanted to do for his career. He started challenging him, asking him why he wanted to study ocean flows and how that would help humanity. The two debated.

“It was a fun interaction that completely changed his mental state,” Hough said.

But another problem remained.

Wiley, the trio’s informal leader, was stuck on a rocky ledge a mile away with a injured shoulder and no safe way down.

Splitting up

After the three left the Gonzaga group Friday afternoon, they started up the Chute section of the climb. At the base, Wiley advised Gakhar and Gloria to leave their small day packs behind.

Gakhar, in particular, was lagging, and Wiley thought leaving the extra weight would give them a better chance of reaching the summit. He told them to bring extra snacks and water.

But he forgot to mention their headlamps. Those remained in the packs.

“I should have checked that they had their head lamps on them,” Wiley said.

Originally, they had decided to turn around at 5 p.m. By the time 5 arrived, they were close to the top of the Chute and loath to retreat.

“I remember thinking, ‘The Chute is such a monumental undertaking,’ ” Wiley said. “I really want these guys to get to the top of the Chute. Because that’s an experience they will never forget.”

They decided to keep going until 7.

“We officially shook hands (on that turnaround time),” Gakhar said. “Why did we do that? Because me and Nick left our bags, and we did not have our headlamps with us.”

They made it up and over the steepest sections, arriving at Trail Crest. Now they were about 2 miles and 1,500 feet below the summit, but they were running out of time.

At this point, Wiley decided to try to summit the closer and slightly shorter Mount Muir.

This is where the wheels fully came off.

Wiley pushed ahead while Gakhar and Gloria lagged behind. It was 6:50 when Wiley started to climb Mount Muir. Meanwhile, Gakhar and Gloria stopped near the base of Mount Muir, yelling at Wiley to stop, but to no avail. Gloria decided to go ahead and try and get Wiley to stop climbing.

Soon Gakhar, who remained on the trail, lost sight of both. At this point, it was well past 7.

“My panic is increasing,” Gakhar said. “Every passing second, I don’t know how they are. The sun is gone. And I was like, ‘No way. I’m the only one here at 13,000 feet. I’m the only one here.’ ”

Gakhar decided to head back to the Chute and try to get help for his friends. He ran down the trail, but when he got to the icy slope, he realized it was too steep. He’d never glissaded before, had no headlamp and was wearing cheap microspikes.

Meanwhile, Wiley was scrambling up Mount Muir. Gloria was close behind him when Wiley decided to climb the final 40 feet up a series of challenging rock ledges. He advised Gloria to try an alternate path.

Wiley came to a large ledge. As he lifted himself up onto the ledge, with his backpack still on, he felt his shoulder pop.

“I suddenly realize I have an arm that was in very high pain and I could not use it,” Wiley said.

Wiley was on a ledge that sloped gently down toward a vertical drop. Moving gingerly, he crawled to a flatter area while calling out to Gloria and telling him what had happened. He urged Gloria to go get help.

Forty-five minutes after injuring his shoulder, Wiley situated himself on a flat spot. He turned on his Garmin inReach, a emergency contact device, and started texting his friends, asking them to contact search and rescue.

He prepared to spend the night on the peak, fully expecting Gakhar and Gloria to make it back down.

“I was still no more than 3 feet in any direction from a huge dropoff,” Wiley said. “If I had turned around at 7 p.m., I would have had a more boring weekend.”

‘Angels dressed as mountaineers’

As Wiley settled in for the night, Gloria made his way back to the top of the Chute and found the panicking Gakhar. The two attempted to glissade down, but without headlamps or experience, they deemed it too dangerous.

They huddled between two slabs of granite, trying to stay warm and praying throughout the night.

That’s how the Gonzaga alums found the three spread across the upper slopes of Mount Whitney, dehydrated and frozen, the morning of May 4.

“I think he (Gakhar) had another hour and we would have come upon someone maybe who was gone,” Hough said. “If the weather had not been good, he probably would have been dead when we came up.”

“They were on their final lap,” said Popa.

As the sun rose Saturday, the GU alums, Gakhar, Gloria and Wiley waited for rescue. A helicopter circled twice during the morning, eventually dropping off two rangers. Wiley was stranded in a place where no helicopter could land. Instead, officials had to fly a larger Chinook helicopter from the Seattle area.

The Gonzaga team sent some of their group to where Wiley was stranded. While they couldn’t climb up to him, they could speak to him. Wiley, who had more gear than than the other two, fared OK throughout the night. Once the sun rose, he said he was relatively warm.

Meanwhile, Gakhar was recovering with the help of Hough and others. It became apparent that the helicopter would not take Gakhar or Gloria off the mountain. They would hike out. The rangers asked the GU alums and some other climbing parties on the mountain if they would escort the two back, Hough said.

They agreed and got the two down safely. At 6 p.m., the Chinook arrived and lifted Wiley off the peak, just as a storm rolled in.

By dusk, everyone had made it off the mountain and back to the trailhead.

“I call them angels dressed as mountaineers,” Gakhar said of the GU alums.

‘The leadership school does its job well’

The rescue itself, Hough said, is something any mountaineer in that situation would have done.

What sets the Gonzaga group apart, in his opinion, was how the sequence of events illustrated what they learned at Gonzaga.

Everyone played a different role. While Popa and others certainly directed things, it was a collective and organic effort, one in which everyone contributed to a common cause.

“I think it was a really clear representation of what the program encourages us to be in the first place,” Brockman said.

Wiley said he’s “heavily indebted” to the Gonzaga alums. He said the events had taught him an important lesson. He’d become “selfish” in his own pursuit of reaching the summit and had not considered the abilities and skills of his partners.

“The leadership school does its job well,” Wiley said.

Gakhar, who was the closest to death of the three, has recovered, though he still gets the occasional bone-rattling shiver. Still, transitioning back to the day-to-day routine of school, work and friends has been disorienting.

“It’s a big deal. You know? I just escaped death,” Gakhar said. “Last night, I was not even thinking I’m going to be alive, and today I’m back here in the routine.”

Corrections: This story has been updated to correct three mistakes regarding the details and time line of the climb.

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