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Mountain Safety Note

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The following article is something I thought was particularly good when I first read it. Like the author, many of us who have climbed for years have given insufficient consideration to some of things mentioned.

By Andres C. Cervantes
The American Alpine News October 1997

On Wednesday, July 2, 1997, Todd Marshall, 34, an Estes Park resident fell and died on the second-to-last pitch of the Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. He landed head first and was not wearing a helmet. His belayer Matteo Bacedo of Italy, became entangled in the rope and remained on the belay ledge through a cold, windy night unable to lower Marshall or himself. According to the Rocky Mountain News, Marshall, an experienced climber, hung upside down for almost 24 hours before his body could be lowered. It is not my position to extrapolate on the event itself. I have neither the desire nor the experience and knowledge.

However, what I can contribute is this: I arrived in Estes Park on May 14, 1997, and began my third summer of employment at Cheley Colorado Camps. On my to-do list were Lumpy Ridge and a number of alpine routes including the Petit Grepon. As the summer business picked up, my coworkers/climbing partners could no longer make the same time commitment to climbing that I could. I became quite desperate for partners. I posted small notes in some coffee shops listing my climbing ability, a telephone number, and little else.

I stopped by the Colorado Mountain School where I had taken an ice climbing class the previous year. Mike Donahue was behind the counter of his shop when I asked him if he had any students who needed partners. While I was talking to him, one of his employees, Austin Wallace, a guide-in-training, overheard us and mentioned that he needed a partner. We shared some experiences and climbing ability. After doing several multi-pitch routes on Lumpy Ridge, we planned to do a route on the Petit. As for the notes I posted, I received a few calls. Almost all of them I just never called back because I now had a partner. Among those who contacted me was Todd Marshall.

I was in the Gold Rush Coffee Shop Saturday morning when I read the newspaper report of the accident and recognized Todd's name. Later that same day, Austin would read the article and recognize the names of both men. On separate occasions they had been in the shop looking for partners. Austin, who now considered me his partner, didn't speak up when they mentioned they needed partners. In the days that followed Todd Marshall and Matteo Baceda met, and on June 30, came into the shop together and asked about conditions in the park. That was the last time Austin saw them.

The two men climbed a few pitches together and then planned to do a route on the Petit on July 2. Austin and I planned to do a route on the Petit on July 7.

After the accident neither of us felt comfortable climbing so soon on the Petit. There had just been too many similarities. Instead we climbed the Northcutt-Carter route on Halletts Peak. Although we didn't talk about it, in between pitches we were both thinking of belay escapes, lowering operations, and first-aid hypotheticals. We both had helmets and prusiks. The weather was perfect, we stayed on route (thanks to Austin), and we had a great time: a textbook climb.

But while eating lunch the next day at Ed's Cantina, we began talking about the accident again and our brief contact with the participants. It all came down to chance. I was so desperate for a climbing partner, I would have climbed with Charles Manson if he could've tied in correctly. Austin pointed out that at our first meeting, even he and I had only asked about climbing ability. Until we read about the accident, neither of us mentioned first-aid training, self-rescue training, or other emergency climbing skills.

We both agreed the next time we 'found' climbing partners we would ask about their emergency skills, which are crucial in mountain environments where partners are almost completely dependent upon one another. I do not know if Marshall and Baceda covered this in their introduction, and again, it is not my area of responsibility. But I do know that in the past my own partner selection left something to be desired, and this accident has served as a forceful reminder of what can occur between unfamiliar partners.

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