American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, No Protection, North Carolina, Whiteside Mountains

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1979

FALL ON ICE, NO PROTECTION

North Carolina, Whiteside Mountains

At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of February 6, 1978, Jeff Bates (21) from Atlanta, Georgia, was killed in a fall at the base of the North Face of Devil’s Courthouse, a large granite outcrop on the north side of Whiteside Mountain near Highlands, North Carolina. Bates was a member of a party of three which had completed the ascent (possibly the first) of a 400-foot Scottish Grade V ice climb on the North Face of the Courthouse the previous day.

The accident occurred while Bates, Truette Stubbs (39) of Atlanta, and I, Dave Buck (26), of Atlantic Beach, Florida, were collecting equipment left the previous day. In that there was gear to be retrieved from both the base and the top of the route, the party had split up, with Buck collecting the equipment left in the woods at the top, while Bates and Stubbs went to retrieve the remaining at the base.

While Bates and Stubbs were on a large ice-covered ledge (about 15 feet wide by 35 feet long) from which the climb had been started, Bates was photographing the route from various angles. At one point he cramponed down a number of feet below the ledge on a 30-degree ice slope which formed the top of a long, low angle ice gully which extended over 200 feet below the ledge. While standing on the ice on the front points of his crampons he went to his knees, apparently to get a better photographic perspective, lost the grip of his front points, and slid down the gully for a distance of over 200 feet. As he first began to slide he seemed not to realize the danger he was in as he retained his grip on the camera, though he did make some efforts to regain his balance. As the speed of the slide increased, he let go of the camera and almost immediately thereafter his head struck an exposed rock, apparently rendering him unconscious. Even in the event that he had had an axe and had attempted to self-arrest, it seems highly unlikely that the attempt could have been successful due to the very hard surface of the ice and the many bulges and boulders in the bed of the gully. Although Stubbs cramponed down immediately to give any aid possible, Bates was dead when he reached him.

The two surviving members of the team reported the accident to the authorities in Highlands, North Carolina, and later in the afternoon, I returned to the scene of the accident with members of the Glenville Cashiers Rescue Squad to recover the body. The recovery operation was completed by 9:30 p.m. (Source: David M. Buck)

Analysis

Although I was not immediately present when the accident occurred, I have been told by Truette Stubbs, who witnessed it, that Jeff was very excited while they were at the base of the climb, very happy at having completed the best climb of his career. I know that we all realized the potential danger presented by the gully, having watched pieces of ice bound down it during our ascent of the frozen waterfall above the previous day, so I do not feel that Jeff, had he kept his mind fully on what he was doing, would have ventured into the gully unroped and without even an axe or helmet. Certainly under no circumstances would he have tried to brace his knees on the ice to get a photograph. Based upon what I know of Jeff’s knowledge and ability on ice, and what I have been told of the accident, the only judgment that I can draw is that in his excitement Jeff let his emotions overcome his thinking and made two basic yet tragic errors: he climbed, unroped and ill equipped, into a potentially dangerous position and then tried to brace his knees on a slope of pure water ice.

The possibility that Jeff might have survived the fall had he been wearing a helmet, as we all did on the climb, must be considered. Whether or not it would indeed have saved him I cannot even guess as I do not know the extent of any internal injuries he sustained in the fall. It can certainly be said, however, that a helmet would have offered some protection at least.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Jeff’s death, it is, I think, that none of us can allow our concentration to fail for even a fraction of a second while we are in the mountains. No matter how easy the terrain, how apparently safe the position, we must not allow our minds to wander from the job at hand; we must not let the emotions of the moment overcome our control. (Source: David M. Buck)

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