FALL ON ROCK, FALLING ROCK, OFF ROUTE
Colorado, Mt. Sneffels, North Face
Art Porter and Brent Dubach, both experienced climbers with several years of technical
climbing experience, decided to attempt the north face via the direct route on August 31, 1980. Porter had previously climbed the north face via a snow route, so he was somewhat familiar with the objective.
They left the car at 4:30 a.m. at the junction of the East Dallas Creek Road and the jeep road to Blaine Basin, having decided not to backpack the day before into Blaine Basin. They were not sure that they could find the trail into Blaine Basin and were not looking forward to bushwhacking with full packs. They assumed that by getting an early start from the car, they could be on the face at about the same time that they would have been if they had backpacked into Blaine Basin. They didn’t reach the rock on the face and start setting up the first belay until 8 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m. when Dubach started to lead the first pitch. Even at this hour of the morning, the rock was quite cold and was still in shadow which caused them to move slowly. Porter, in particular, had some difficulty with his hands after they became somewhat chilled while belaying Dubach on the first pitch. His hands became even colder upon contact with the rock, so he climbed very slowly. The rock on the north face is a very unreliable bentonite rock which offers few good nut or piton placements. Dubach had no experience in the use of pitons; this combined with the poor quality of the rock consumed additional time. The rock on the first two pitches was quite steep (5.6-5.7) and quite difficult to protect, so it was almost noon by the time they finished the first two pitches. At that point, the angle of the rock was lower and the climbing was much easier, but the rock was even more rotten and insecure. Based on those factors, they decided to dispense with the rope and move as quickly as possible up the face. Also, they realized that it was getting rather late.
About 2:30 p.m., they reached the top of the face and found themselves quite a bit west of their objective, on a ridge dividing the north face from the northwest-facing couloir. The rock on the ridge was extremely rotten and the ridge was quite exposed, so they decided to rope up again at that point. They managed to find a reasonably secure rock to tie onto for a belay point at the ridge and Porter proceeded up the first pinnacle. The going at this point was quite easy, but they had to watch out for loose rocks, which were abundant. From the pinnacle, Porter could see that they were very close to the summit and it looked as if the rest of the ridge would go. There was a very secure belay at that point, so he brought Dubach up. Dubach led the next pitch which involved a very loose, worrisome descent into a notch on the ridge and then a scramble up the next pinnacle. Near the top of that pinnacle, Dubach was able to find a very secure belay in a large notch in the top of the pinnacle. Porter than crossed the notch and joined him. At that point, Porter considered three possibilities. The first, which he explored, was to continue along the top of the ridge. However, from that vantage point, looking straight on at the couloir, it seemed much steeper than it was and the rock appeared unstable in the couloir. The couloir would be the fall line for any rocks coming down from above. The third alternative was to work his way along a system of ledges on the side of the ridge about halfway between the top of the ridge and the floor of the couloir, which led up toward the end of the ridge. This Porter chose to do. At one point, the ledge he was traveling was blocked by a large bulge of rock which he tried to bypass. However, the bulge broke off as soon as he committed his weight to it. The block of rock which broke off was quite large, perhaps three to four feet wide, approximately one to two feet thick, and four to five feet high. At the point where he fell, Porter was below Dubach by perhaps 10-20 vertical feet and had somewhere between ? to ½ the rope out. He took a pendulum fall, sliding against the side of the ridge as he fell. The terrain was not perpendicular at this point, but it was steep enough so that he would have kept falling if it were not for the rope. The rope caught on some projections, so he did not fall its full distance. The total distance fallen was in the range of 30 to 40 feet. The rope dislodged a large amount of rotten rock as he fell and, if Porter had not been wearing a hard hat, he would undoubtedly have suffered severe head injuries. The fall occurred about 4:30 p.m.
When Porter fell, Dubach was in a solid belay position in the notch and was able to hold the fall without having to rely on the piton to which he was secured. After Porter had stopped falling, Dubach used a gear sling to tie a prusik knot onto the rope. He clipped the prusik into the belay piton after first tying Porter off with a clove hitch in the climbing rope, after which the clove hitch was tightened so that Porter was held securely. Because less than half of the rope was out at the time of the fall, there was enough climbing rope remaining for Dubach to rig a runner with the climbing rope over the top of the pinnacle. He then clipped Porter into this runner over the pinnacle as a back-up. With these primary and back-up anchors secured, Dubach used a body rappel to descend to Porter’s position. He descended by a small gully that entered the couloir below Porter’s position so as not to dislodge rock on him.
Porter was lying on his stomach with his head up the hill and his left arm under him. As far as they could determine at that point, the extent of his injuries consisted of a broken (or severely dislocated) right ankle and broken right ring finger. However, when Dubach arrived and was able to help him roll over on his back, they discovered that the flesh was peeled off a large percentage of the left index finger which was bleeding profusely. The only first aid they attempted was to stem the bleeding in that finger, binding it with gauze to the finger next to it.
Porter was in a very uncomfortable, outward-sloping position and had difficulty holding himself other than by committing his weight to the rope. Dubach arranged another anchor by forming his end of the rope into a loop and securing it around a rock to the left of where Porter was sitting. Dubach clipped Porter into that rope, then unclipped the rope he had been tied to and helped Porter move down onto a broader and more comfortable ledge. After cinching up the clove hitch with which Porter was attached to his new anchor, Dubach took the precaution of reattaching Porter to the other rope after lengthening it so that it would reach him. He then helped Porter to don all of their extra clothes, which consisted of some long underwear, a pair of wind pants and a rain jacket. Porter was already wearing his pile jacket and Gore-Tex jacket. Dubach also left Porter his Millarmitts and a pair of camp scissors which Porter was able to manipulate to cut the fingers out of the Millarmitts so that he could pull them on his hands, over the broken fingers. Dubach also left an emergency aluminum-coated mylar blanket.
Since there had been no comfortable place to stop for lunch and they were more concerned with making time than with eating, both their lunches were there so that Porter had sufficient food to survive for several days if necessary. Also, he had almost a quart of water. ( A caution at this point to anyone in the same circumstances: it is wise to take the opportunity to empty your bladder before people leave you and you have to spend the night rigged into a tie-off point with your hands in such a condition that you cannot remove your clothing without help, especially when you don’t know how long it might be until help comes.)
After Porter was secured for the night, about 6 p.m., Dubach left to get help. Because Porter was conscious, he was able to tell Dubach the quickest way back to civilization, which was to finish the climb to the summit and descend by way of Yankee Boy Basin on the south. The descent route was not clearly shown on the map they had, so Dubach would have had a bit more worry about it had Porter been knocked unconscious in the accident. Dubach proceeded to move very slowly and cautiously on the loose rock in the couloir toward a notch north of the summit. The climbing at this point was very easy but a bit worrisome since any useful bivouac gear had been left with Porter and both members of the party would have been in bad shape had Dubach not been able to reach the summit safely.
Dubach reached the summit about 7 p.m., moved to a point from which he could see Porter and waved to him. Porter responded and seemed in good spirits. Dubach felt that the hour it took him to get to the top was good time, but to Porter the same hour seemed interminable. From the summit, the descent down the tourist route into Yankee Boy Basin was uneventful and took about 1 ½ hours. In the lower part of Yankee Boy Basin, Dubach saw numerous lights from campsites and flashed his head lamp in hopes of attracting some attention on the way down. He stopped at the first campsite that he encountered where he found two Mountain Rescue Association members from Alburquerque, New Mexico. They drove with Dubach to the motel in Ouray where Porter and Dubach had registered the previous evening. From the motel the County Sheriff was called and rescue personnel assembled. By 10 p.m., the Ouray County Search and Rescue Unit had assembled in the lobby of the motel and was making plans for rescue efforts. By 11 p.m., a party of six rescuers had begun the ascent to Mt. Sneffels by the standard route from Yankee Boy Basin. Dubach decided not to go with the rescue group that night as he thought that he had given Porter’s location very precisely and that the rescuers would easily see him from the summit. It had been quite easy to see Porter’s position from the summit in the daylight. Dubach was also concerned that, due to his fatigue, he might slow down the rescue group if he were to accompany them to the summit that evening. Dubach was able to get about four to five hours sleep, rose at 4:30 a.m. and accompanied the two men from Alburquerque to the rescue base at Yankee Boy Basin. At the base, Dubach got to the summit about 8 a.m. and learned that the rescue group had found Porter at dawn in good condition.
Meanwhile, Porter had spent a fairly comfortable, if sleepless, night on the mountain. His position was quite comfortable and the temperature, while it did drop slightly below freezing as evidenced by the presence of some small ice crystals in the water bottle the next morning, did not become uncomfortably cold, so there was no danger of hypothermia. Also, quite fortunately, there was no wind down in the couloir that night. At no point was there significant pain from the injuries. His feet became rather chilly during the night which acted as an anesthetic to the broken ankle and also prevented swelling. His spirits remained good throughout the night and he was able to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the moonlit night on the mountain. At one point he almost lost both Millarmitts and, in fact, did lose one of them when he bent over to untie his boot laces to relieve the pressure on his feet for better circulation and forgot to remove the Millarmitts before bending over. However, the remaining Millarmitt was quite adequate to keep both hands warm the remainder of the night.
About 2:30 a.m., Porter heard voices and whistles and saw lights coming from the summit. Assuming that this was the rescue party, he proceeded to blow on his whistle at regular intervals and to shine his headlamp toward the summit. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing very hard on the summit so that the rescue party could not hear the whistle and, as they were not looking in exactly the right direction, they did not spot his light. However, it was quite a comfort to Porter to know that the rescuers were in fact on the summit. He assumed that they probably had spotted him and were waiting until sunrise to begin their descent. They spotted him immediately at sunrise and two rescuers began rappelling down, bringing him warm clothes, first aid equipment and a stove to prepare hot liquids. An inspection of his condition and of the injuries did not indicate a need for any further first aid. Meanwhile, a helicopter from the Army MAST Unit at Fort Carson was on its way. When the helicopter first arrived at the site, it made a pass around the mountain in an attempt to locate Porter and also to see if they could pick him up. The helicopter was unsuccessful in locating him. Through radio contact between the helicopter pilot and the rescue team, the pilot decided that there was inadequate blade clearance to lift Porter, so the rescue party was forced to bring a litter down from the summit and to rig up a pulling line in order to raise him to the col near the summit where the helicopter would have adequate blade clearance to hover above him. This consumed the better part of the day and it was not until 3:30 p.m. that the helicopter lifted Porter off and brought him to Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs. If it had not been possible to get a helicopter up there, for instance if the weather had been hotter so the helicopter couldn’t fly at that altitude, or if the terrain had been such that the helicopter could not be used, it probably would have taken an additional 24 to 48 hours to evacuate Porter from the mountain manually, which would have increased the likelihood of infection in the one finger on which the flesh was extensively damaged. (Source: Art Porter and Brent Dubach)
Some of the things that happened, either by accident or by design, to help reduce the extent of the injuries or ameliorate the situation were the following. First, the piton Dubach had placed for his protection was located where he could reach it easily with his brake hand at the time that Porter fell, so that it was easy for him to tie off the rope and the prusik. All of us can remember situations when we were belaying someone where our protection was not only beyond our reach but may have required us to stand up and walk several feet to reach it. Second, having a prusik handy around the neck in the form of a gear sling was very helpful. We’ve all seen people belaying someone where a prusik loop was not handy and it would have been very difficult to have retrieved a prusik from a pack or some other place. Third, had Porter not been wearing a hard hat, the consequences would undoubtedly have been much more serious. He would certainly have been knocked unconscious by the loose rock that was coming down and would, perhaps, have suffered extensive brain injury or been killed. Fourth, due to the fact that it had been quite cold on the lower part of the face in the early morning, Porter had put on his heavy outer clothes consisting of a pile jacket and a Gore-Tex jacket. As it warmed up later in the day, he had simply left these on because he wasn’t moving around all that much between stops to belay and there had not been any place where he felt comfortable stopping. Having these heavy clothes on undoubtedly saved his upper body from a fair amount of injury during the fall and made it much easier to dress him up to survive the night after the fall. Had the injuries been any more extensive, particularly if there had been such things as spinal injuries, head injuries, internal bleeding, or even if Art had been unconscious, the situation would have been much more difficult to handle and would have made it very questionable if he could survive the night.
Some of the things that may have contributed to the accident or could have aggravated the aftereffects were as follows. First, they got a rather late start on the face; in retrospect, it’s difficult to say if they would have gotten an earlier start had they backpacked into Blaine Basin and, even if they had gotten an earlier start, they would have been in the shadow much longer. Starting late and getting off route may have contributed to their fatigue and to the state of their judgment as well as to their attempts to move faster at the time of the fall. Had the fall occurred even a half-hour later, it could have created some difficulties for Dubach in getting off the mountain as he might have been caught by darkness either on the summit or before he could reach it. In retrospect, Porter would have been much better off if he had chosen the alternative of downclimbing into the coloir. As the nature of the rock precluded placing protection, by downclimbing he would have had an upper belay so that he would always have been secured. If the couloir wouldn’t go, he could always have climbed back up the ridge or selected a different route. Another potential source of trouble (which turned out not to be a problem) was that Dubach was not familiar with the normal descent route. It would have been a good idea, before starting up and at each point where they could clearly see the summit, to have reviewed the summit route, to have pointed out any pertinent landmarks and to have discussed the route on the other side. If Porter had been unconscious and unable to describe the descent route to Dubach, it is conceivable that he could have been cliffed off in trying to descend the standard route down the other side of Mt. Sneffels. It is a good idea to make sure that you empty your bladder when you have the opportunity if you are about to have to spend the night on the mountain. Failure to do so can not only cause great discomfort but can cause severe physiological problems as well. If, for instance, the rescuers had not been able to get to the summit until later in the day or if Porter had had to spend another night on the mountain waiting, this could have become a severe problem. It would have been much better had Dubach taken a compass bearing from the summit to Porter’s position, rather than relying on his ability to describe Porter’s position to the rescuers.
The outcome was that Porter suffered a fracture of the right ankle, with both bones broken just above the joint; multiple fractures of the right ring finger; and a compound fracture of the left index finger. All these injuries appeared to be induced by falling rock. Due to the rapid rescue made possible by the well-organized, massive rescue effort and the MAST helicopter, the prognosis for total recovery is quite good. The rescue was a textbook example of nearperfect planning, organization and execution. (Source: Art Porter and Brent Dubach)
(Ed. Note: If we received more reports like this, our readers would benefit greatly, our editing job would be facilitated and our sources of information would be viewed with credibility.)