Accident Notes Archive - August 2002
Mt Rainier - Liberty Ridge - Poor Planning, Weather
Red Rocks, NV - Rock Climbing - Fall (Experienced Professional Guide)
There were two accidents earlier this summer (2002) which are worth commenting
on. Both hit a bit close to home, in different ways. One, on Rainier,
involved some college students I knew. After the accident there was a
news story which quoted somebody to the general effect of "life can
be short or end unexpectedly and it's important to tell those we love
how we feel before it's too late". After the accident there was an
inspiring outpouring of emotion among the campus community and especially
among their club. One can only hope that these students knew beforehand
how much so many people cared about them.
The second accident killed Randall Grandstaff, a well-known guide at
Red Rocks, Nevada. While I did not know Randall personally news of his
death spread throughout the guiding community rapidly. In the Sierra I
had the privilege of meeting a very well known and experienced guide who
is no longer active. He's lost too many colleagues and has decided the
risk of guiding is too high to be compatible with the importance he places
on his family now.
Mt Rainier, Liberty Ridge - On Memorial Day weekend four
students from Oregon State University set out to climb Liberty Ridge.
Three never returned. Their actions on the upper mountain in horrible
conditions are hard to question, it is difficult to say what any of us
would have done and nothing they did at that point seems to warrant any
criticism. However, they should not have found themselves in such a situation.
This has become somewhat of an annual trek for OSU students. Every Memorial
Day a group attempts it. The forecast and conditions seem to matter less
to them than the fact that they have three days off. (You would think
this wouldn't matter to students!) Last year another group set out but
didn't get too far, fortunately. The park service report stated that attempting
the route was to value climbing over ones life. Yet off they went to try
it. At least they turned around.
This year the weather report was poor. One of the students declined to
ski on Mt Hood on Friday, saying he was going to Mt Rainier. I double-checked
the forecast and wondered why, but assumed they would go to Paradise,
be miserable, and return. It didn't occur to me that they might be trying
Liberty Ridge. There were several groups signed out for the route, and
as far as I can tell all of the others turned back down low. I'm told
that the last known photo of this group shows them continuing on into
a cloud deck.
Aside from underestimating the weather they also underestimated the magnitude
of the route. One young woman had apparently told her landlord she would
be back for classes Tuesday. (These kids just can't seem to miss class!)
So between Friday evening and Tuesday morning they expected to climb Liberty
Ridge, including travel to and from the mountain. This is apparently a
common problem and the park conditions page consistently mentions that
overdue groups (by a day or two) are common.
This group was reported as experienced. They did make it up the route,
which includes some difficult sections. A bit slow perhaps, but that's
common. They were a young, strong team and had climbed together before.
However, one woman had only taken a beginning class one year prior. Her
boyfriend had reportedly not climbed technically for much longer. Experience
is hard to define and gauge, and while they had technical experience they
lacked the experience to fully investigate the route and conditions beforehand,
or to make sound decisions during the approach and early on the climb.
Once up Liberty Ridge and on the upper mountain they were out of the
rain shadow and in the brunt of a storm at 14000'. This happened to another
OSU group a few years ago. The previous group had the advantage of having
crossed the summit already and they found an acceptable area to hunker
down in near the top of the Emmons Glacier route. (They all survived,
but two lost toes.) This years group still had to cross the summit, which
they could not do in the conditions. They decided to try to traverse around
to the Emmons route just below the summit using a GPS. But in the harsh
conditions they could not see what kind of glaciated terrain or what slope
angles they had to cross. They continued past an area where they could
potentially have hunkered down, finding themselves crossing steep icy
slopes above or at the top of the Winthrop Glacier. When they couldn't
continue they also found they couldn't go back, so they were forced to
try to make and use shelters on the icy slopes. This ultimately led to
all four of them falling, at different times - three died and the fourth
survived the fall and wandered down the Winthrop Glacier alone. (Two died
technically from hypothermia, one from fall injuries.)
- Investigate routes fully during the planning phase.
- Obtain as much weather data as possible, especially on a high commitment
multi-day climb like Liberty Ridge. Extrapolate for elevation - unpleasant
weather at 6-8000' may mean unsurvivable weather at 14000'.
- Climb when the weather and conditions are best, not necessarily when
you happen to have a long weekend.
- Carefully consider the potential problems of navigating glaciers in
storms with no visibility - even with maps, compasses and GPS units.
Sometimes it can be done successfully but it is never a simple matter.
- Know the abilities of each team member and the group overall. Including
the leadership and decision-making abilities, methodologies and criteria.
Randall Grandstaff, Red Rocks NV - Randall died of a fall
while guiding in Red Rocks in June. His client had rappelled or been lowered
and he was apparently reconfiguring the belay when he and the gear fell
to the ground. Since his client was down already there are no first-hand
witnesses and no accurate picture of exactly what happened. One article
referred to "catastrophic anchor failure" but it is unknown
what that means or where it came from. In a communication from the American
Mountain Guides Association it was noted that an autopsy showed Randall
had advanced heart disease of some kind, even at just over 40 years old.
This was advanced enough that it was likely to be fatal within the coming
months. What role this may have played, if any, in the accident is unknown.