Accident Analysis Archive - July, 1997
Alaska - Fall on Snow/Ice, Group Size, Institutional Problems
Among the numerous accidents which have come to my attention so far this summer there
are two worth commenting on, for different reasons.
The first is the death of long time climber and guide Alan Bard in
the Tetons. Alan was a highly respected guide of the Palisades School of Mountaineering
in Bishop California. He was highly experienced
and there are many who are shocked and sorrowed to learn of his death.
There are not many details, but he was guiding a client up the Owen-Spaulding
route on the Grand Teton and fell. His client was not directly involved
in the fall and was unharmed, but Alan fell a great distance and apparently
died of blood loss from a broken femur. It is possible that the route
was slippery with water or ice given the heavy winter the Tetons had.
Incidents like this shake up much of the climbing community and remind
us all that we can greatly reduce the risks we take but that we can
never eliminate them altogether.
The second accident is one which received a great deal of press attention
because it involved 14 people. While there are things which are not
clear to me about this accident I believe there are a few things to
be learned from it. The group consisted of 2 leaders and 12 students
in an introductory university class on their first climb. They were descending
steep snow or ice when one of the people on the top rope fell. His/her
rope-mates were unable to stop the fall and off they all went - roped
together. They hit the next rope-team, etc. The slope was apparently
about 1000' with a boulder field at the bottom, and the result was apparently
not pretty. Two were dead at the scene and 11 were hospitalized.
There are different reports concerning the steepness of the slope.
Press reports seemed to throw out 60 degrees (pretty steep for a beginners
climb) but other reports are 45-50 degrees. The surface conditions are
unknown to me but obviously were not conducive to beginners self-arresting.
Without knowing more about the exact conditions and the group I can't
comment on the leaders. But there are two aspects which we can learn
from here - group size and the decision to rope up.
The group size here was large and the student/teacher ratio could
have been lower. This was a university group (from Anchorage) and some
(but certainly not all) university programs insist on over-enrolling
their outdoor programs as well as hiring relatively inexperienced leaders in relation to what a reputable guide service in the private sector would expect for comparable work. I walked away from such a University program once because I
simply could not accommodate the number of people which had been enrolled,
and the program director simply could not understand that. If you take
a class or a guided climb inquire about the total group size and also
the client/guide ratio. (If you're not sure what a good answer is then
try to call a few places and compare.)
The second issue here is the decision to rope up. This may be safer
or it may not - don't assume that rope=safety. It is only safer if:
- The team members can stop a fall by someone else on the rope; or
- Anchors are used properly and this does not slow the climb down
to an unsafe rate of progress.
If your group cannot meet one of these criteria you have probably
made a poor choice of route! Remember that whether or not you will be
able to self-arrest and/or stop anothers fall will depend on a variety
of things - the snow/ice conditions, the slope angle, and your experience.
This aspect is similar to the last accident on Mt. Hoods Cooper Spur
in which one climbers fall dragged the rope of four over the edge, through
a cliff band, and onto the upper Eliot glacier. Had they made the difficult
decision not to rope together only one of them would have gone for a
ride. They could also have chosen to place anchors once they roped together.
In that incident two died and two survived, and the rescuers took great
risks. (Their real problem was being much too late in the day, so the
best decision probably would have been to descend the South Side standard
route and worry about the car shuttle problem after getting down safely. Placement
of snow anchors in the conditions they ended up in would have been problematic.)