Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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Guiding Newsletter

Accident Analysis Archive -October, 1998


Mt Shuksan, WA - Fall on 4th Class Rock, Personal Account

There are always a number of accidents which could be commented on. Unfortunately I have a first hand account this time. It is a fall taken by a partner on the descent of Mt. Shuksan via the infamous Fisher Chimneys route. It was a simple slip on relatively easy but very exposed fourth class terrain. This simple slip had big consequences. The good news is that he not only survived the fall but is on his way to a recovery which should be essentially full in the end.

We were climbing as partners and were traveling unroped on fourth class terrain at the time of the fall. Neither of us was uncomfortable with this. He fell while downclimbing a short slab along the mountaineers path. At the bottom of the slab the fall-line turns down one of the chimneys towards the Lower Curtis glacier far below. He fell down this about 100 ft before coming to a stop on a small ledge - the last one for a while. Few people who have fallen have been fortunate enough to stop here, and my friend is very lucky to be alive today. There were various trauma injuries but no loss of consciousness and nothing immediately life-threatening. Only very painful.

Some thoughts/conclusions/lessons:

  • Remember that many accidents happen on descent. I consider fatigue and haste to be possible contributing factors here, especially haste. He was in a hurry and felt that we were done with the hard climbing and on the hike out. For this same reason he had just taken his helmet off, an action he is lucky not to have paid a steep price for. (However, a fall could have happened here even with more caution. Numerous falls have occurred here, most or all of them fatal. It is a treacherous spot.)

  • Be prepared to respond to an accident. Getting to my partner involved a rappel. The I had to create an anchor for myself, him, and ultimately two rescuers. It was too late for a helicopter to come in until morning, so we were there for the night. On a route such as the Fisher Chimneys it is possible to travel without some of the gear which was necessary. We had some items from ascending the N Face (such as a few pitons) and some that he or I (or both) carry for emergencies (such as an insulating tarp).

  • Don't risk anyone else. I was in a hurry to get to my partner and debated downclimbing the same slab. Setting up a rappel was much safer, especially since there was another 100' of chimney to descend after the initial slab. It may be unsafe to get to the location at all, and this may have been the case had he continued down the chimney beyond the ledge he landed on.

  • Get some wilderness first aid training. On one hand it was painfully obvious that I couldn't do too much for him. However, had certain injuries occurred my training could have made a difference. I was also able to do a secondary survey (correctly identifying and reporting essentially all injuries) and monitor vital signs through the night. While my ability to help was limited my partner felt that my training was important.

  • Consider carrying a cell phone (or other means of communication). His cell phone made a great difference in the rescue response time.

  • Don't call for help until the scene and the injuries have been assessed. My partner was on the phone by the time I was able to reach him, with the county sheriff dispatch. The dispatcher kept him on the line too long, using up battery life. The information passed on was very inadequate. Call once the scene is under control and the location and injuries have been assessed and even then speak to the deputy who will oversee the rescue response. Or better yet, the mountain rescue crew responding. By the time we did this the batteries were dying.

  • Finally, accept that this can happen. While we work hard to manage our safety we still accept certain risks in mountaineering. Getting "bitten" by this risk may mean a painful night on a ledge, or it may mean worse. Choose your activities and objectives in accordance with the risk and your level of risk acceptance.

Those are some of my conclusions from this firsthand experience. We can always look for improvements and lessons, but fortunately everything went almost as well as it could. The weather was good. Bellingham Mountain Rescue and the Park Service responded in an effective and professional manner and between us we were able to get the patient packaged and short-hauled to Med-Flight.


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