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 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 In the Sierra I had the privilege of meeting a very well known and experienced guide who is no longer active.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.)

Lessons -

  • 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.


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