Accident Analysis Archive -October 1999
ANAM - End of Rope accidents, inexperience, exposure
The latest edition of "Accidents in North American Mountaineering"
is out, in time for a Halloween reading. I have not finished it
yet but three types of accidents seem to me to stand out.
The first is a category which could be called "end of rope"
accidents. The editor even inserted at least one comment on the prevalence
of these this year. People rappelling off an end, an end going through
the belay device when lowering, and other misc. variations. This is
carelessness, perhaps along with ignorance in some cases. Remember that it's usually a good idea to
keep the end of the rope tied into something and/or to have a knot in
it so it won't pass through a belay/rappel device.
The second category is what I would call mountaineering inexperience.
Many of these accidents happen on technically easy routes. Fortunately
these often seem to provide a sobering learning experience without being
fatal. To paraphrase a statement about avalanches once made by Andre
Roch, "the mountain doesn't know you climb 5.10 at the sport crag".
Many of the climbers involved in this category are gymnastically strong.
They got into trouble because they underestimated the length of a route,
were unable to move quickly on easier terrain, were unable to implement
even very basic self-rescue techniques such as using prusiks to ascend,
etc. Keep in mind that mountaineering involves much more than raw gymnastic climbing
skill - you need to move quickly through efficiency, be able to navigate
and routefind in a variety of conditions, etc.
The third category is perhaps not all that prevalent but hits home.
This is long falls on easy terrain when climbing unroped. Usually there
is not much comment on these since they tend to occur where this is
common practice and often considered necessary. The results of these
falls should remind us that there is a difference between moving quickly
through efficiency and rushing, and also that care is needed when moving
over exposed terrain even if we are comfortable with the difficulty
level. To some extent this is a risk we take, but we do need to think
about the tradeoff between the benefits and the potential consequences.
This equation is one which is different for each of us.
My partner who fell on Mt Shuksan 14 months ago is still recovering
from what will hopefully be his last operation. And all things considered
he was pretty fortunate. Another accident reported this year occurred
near Nelson BC and when I read it I recalled learning of it this winter
when we met the recovered climber at the Whitewater ski area. He took
a long fall and suffered spinal and head injuries. While his partner
(a guide-in-training) sought help he moved himself and ended up in a
worse position. He only survived because Parks Canada was able to respond
with a helicopter quickly even though it was outside their formal area of responsibility. (They were somewhere nearby with a helicopter on hand, by chance.) Last winter he was skiing and has had a largely
full recovery. Another very fortunate unfortunate climber.