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Belay Failure: A Rope Parallel to a Crevasse — Washington, Mt. Rainier

BELAY FAILURE: A ROPE PARALLEL TO A CREVASSE—Washington, Mt. Rainier. Rick Kirschner (27) and John M. Loehr (24) left Camp Muir on Mt. Ranier at 9 p.m. on 24 July 1974, for a summit climb via the Fuhrer’s Finger route. They were tied together by one 75-foot length of 11 mm perlon rope. They crossed the Nisqually Glacier and camped at the base of Fuhrer’s Finger for the night. The next moring at seven they started up Fuhrer’s Finger. They encountered no problems through the Finger. At 10 a.m. they talked to another party of five climbers who were also climbing Fuhrer’s Finger. The two parties split up: the larger party keeping to the right on the upper Nisqually Glacier, and Kirschner and Loehr heading left to the Wapowety Cleaver. The larger party last saw Kirschner and Loehr heading up at about 12,000 feet elevation.

Kirschner and Loehr reached the top of Wapowety Cleaver and continued up toward the saddle between Point Success and the summit. Just below the summit, Kirschner (leading the rope) approached a wide crevasse and started skirting around to the left of it. They had to traverse some distance—enought to bring Loehr close to the edge of the crevasse. Kirschner went about ten feet past the visible end of the crevasse to a point where a wand and tracks indicated other parties had traveled. He plunged his ice axe into the snow and prepared to make a long step when the snow bridge collapsed and he fell into the crevasse. At this time Loehr was the full rope length behind Kirschner but only six to eight feet from the edge of the crevasse. Kirschner pendulumed the full rope length before Loehr was able to attempt any self-arrest. By this time the force on the rope was too great and Loehr was pulled in also. Kirschner landed on his feet, unhurt, about 80 feet down in the crevasse in a position behind Loehr (with respect to their positions outside the crevasse). His pendulum motion probably slowed his fall considerably. Loehr fell into a deeper part of the crevasse (approximately 120 feet) and landed on his pack and his left side. Although he had a fractured pelvis, he was able, with Kirschner’s help, to move up about 80 feet to a point where Kirschner cleared a tent platform. They were very well equipped, but during the fall a pocket of Loehr’s pack containing their only stove was ripped off and lost.

The rest of that day, 25 July, was spent in clearing the tent platform and getting Loehr in a sleeping bag in the tent. On 26 July Kirschner was able to collect some water from dripping icicles and also spent some time exploring the crevasse looking for a way out. At one point he was able to get within 15 feet of the top but could not make it any further.

On that same day Dick Martin and Pat Harrison spotted an ice axe stuck in the snow just above the crevasse while on a summit climb by the Fuhrer’s Finger route. They looked for tracks or signs of trouble and looked into the crevasse but could not see the bottom. On 27 July, it was cooler and Kirschner could only collect about one-third of a quart of water; it was also on that day that they knew they would be missed at Paradise. Dick Martin arranged for a private Hughes 500 helicopter that afternoon and at 5:50 p.m. Kirschner and Loehr were spotted in the crevasse from the air. Six National Park rangers, including Martin, were ferried by helicopter to the saddle where a base camp was set up while rescue operations began. Loehr was given first aid in the crevasse, including, with radio permission from a doctor, 10 mg. of morphine. Loehr was lifted out of the crevasse by 10:30 p.m. on a stokes litter with light-weight Maasdam Pow’r-Pull rope winch, which worked very well. All personnel were at the saddle base camp by 2 a.m. on 28 July. At 6:35 a.m. Kirschner and Loehr were evacuated by MAST helicopter, delivering Kirschner to Paradise and Loehr to Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup where his fractured pelvis was treated.

Analysis: There was probably no serious mistake in judgment in Kirschner’s decision to cross the crevasse where he did. He was past the visible end of the crevasse and chose a spot where other climbers had traveled fairly recently. However, by traversing alongside the crevasse, Kirschner and Loehr put themselves in a dangerous position where the rope between them actually did no good. This is a very common mistake that all too many climbers make regularly. Had they approached the crossing with their rope at a right angle to the crevasse, Loehr probably could have easily stopped Kirschner’s fall. Another possibility would have been for Loehr to go to Kirschner’s position just below the crevasse, and belay Kirschner across.

A rope team of two on a glacier is marginal for safety. In this instance it is hard to say whether a third person on the rope would have made any difference, but it is possible that he might not have gotten to the edge of the crevasse yet and could have stopped the fall of the first two. (Source: Bob Gerhard.)