American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Conundrum Creek Valley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1963

Colorado, Conundrum Creek Valley. On September 8, Jonathan Hough, David Church, Jon Swanson, Robert Farley, and Susan Greene (19) had attempted Castle Peak (14,259 ft.). They were turned back at 13,800 by severe winds and approaching thunderstorms. The party decided to spend some of the rest of the afternoon practicing glissading and selfarrests on a snow bank in the Conundrum Creek Valley at about 11,500 ft., one half mile above a Forest Service shelter cabin at which the party was camped. Miss Greene was glissading and turned into the slope to practice a self-arrest. As she began to turn the ice ax into the snow, the pick jammed, and the ax was pulled from her grasp. She was wearing a wrist loop, and she slid below the ax, it was pulled out, flipped back, and the adze struck her on the crown of the head, causing a laceration and a concussion. At this point, the wrist loop came off, the ax was lost, and Miss Greene stopped herself with an elbow arrest. She then walked a few feet off the snow and lay down.

During the administration of first aid, a party with two mules was seen approaching the cabin below. Swanson was sent to secure these if possible and bring them as close to the scene as the wrangler could get them. Meanwhile, Hough assisted by Church and Farley executed a piggy-back evacuation down a talus slope and through some brush to a point to which the mules had been brought. The shelter cabin was reached at 3:00 P.M. In view of the length and condition of the trail out to the car, the fact that the road from there could not be driven at night, and that rain and hail had begun to fall, the party decided to spend the night at the cabin. In the morning, after 18 hours rest, Miss Greene felt rather better, and the evacuation was continued on mule back seven miles down the valley to the car which was reached at 3:00 P.M. She was admitted to the Aspen Hospital at 5:00 P.M.

Source: Jonathan Hough.

Analysis: (Hough) While the initial jamming of the ax in the snow can be laid only to inexperience, such events are bound to occur when practicing techniques with which one is not completely familiar. The injury was due to the wrist strap, the wearing of which is a questionable practice at best. The subsequent loss of the ax points up to the need for thorough training in additional techniques to be used when a standard emergency technique fails (e.g., elbow self-arrests). [Ed: Whether to use or not to use a wrist strap on an ice ax has been a subject of considerable controversy. This accident points out one of the hazards of using the strap. On the other hand a strong case can also be made for regularly using a strap. The loss of an ax can be serious. Practice sessions in ice ax arrest techniques should be done on relatively gentle slopes until the individual has shown competence before attempting steeper slopes.]

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