American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall/Slip on Ice, Failure to Place Protection, No Hard Hat—Washington, Mt. St. Helens

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1977

FALL/SLIP ON ICE, FAILURE TO PLACE PROTECTION, NO HARD HAT—Washington, Mt. St. Helens. Ken Stroud (25) and Steven Carey (22), both respected and experienced climbers, died on Mt. St. Helens after an apparent fall into a crevasse.

Analysis: Our observations led us to form a fairly definite opinion as to what happened. One of the two led the short steep section and then continued to the ledge about 50 feet up, where he set up some sort of ice axe belay. He did not place an ice screw for an anchor, perhaps because at this position he was not directly over the crevasse and the exposure did not seem that bad. The second climber came up and continued on into the lead. He may not have been fully aware of the increasing exposure as he moved further to the right, and in any event, he did not place any ice screws for protection. For some reason, he slipped, was unable to keep a grip on his axe, and fell. He dropped about 40 feet before any strain came on the belayer, and by then the fall had too much force to hold. Both fell about 80 to 100 feet to the bottom of the crevasse.

I can only guess as to the cause of the slip. The most likely explanation would be that the lead climber encountered some unexpectedly brittle ice. This fall there have been many reports of very poor ice conditions on Mt. Hood and St. Helens, where, when a single crampon point pulled, everything let go. On firm, plastic water ice a 50° slope would not have posed any problem for either of these climbers, but brittle ice would have been another matter. Both had done many good ice climbs over several seasons, but with snow and ice one never stops learning.

If the above opinion is reasonably accurate, the most apparent contributing cause was the failure to use ice screws for belay anchors and protection. The question of when and how often to place screws has no easy answer. The need for protection must be balanced against the need to get the route done quickly, especially in late season climbs when daylight is limited. In this case they were pushing the limit, even with their ability. Given the benefit of hindsight, we know that they pushed too far.

Neither was wearing a hardhat. These might have prevented fatal injuries, at least in the case of Ken Stroud.

If the leader’s ice axe had been tied to his waist sling it might have held him after his hand slipped off. Such a method of tie-in is not used much, since it leaves a lot of free webbing to tangle and get in the way. The more standard wrist loop would have been less likely to have held. Technical climbers seem to be divided over the question of any sort of axe tie-in system. I do not use one, and the review of this account will probably not cause me to change my practice.

If the leader had been using his ice hammer this might have made a difference, as it would have given him another hand-hold. With the exposure involved I would have wanted mine, even though the slope was only 50°.

Two man parties are often criticized for trying glacier climbs, especially when something goes wrong. Yet, on a difficult route a two man party will almost always move faster than two ropes of two. In the latter case it is usually impossible to achieve the balance of ability that a two man rope can achieve. Thus two man climbing will continue to be common for technical routes. (Source: Robert Hyslop, President, Mazamas)

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