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Slip on Snow and Avalanche — Washington, Mount Shuksan


Washington, Mount Shuksan

On June 30, 1982, Clint Kelley (69), former climbing chairman of The Mountaineers, fell to his death while ascending Mount Shuksan with a group of ten Mountaineers. In a separate accident on the same climb, Pamela Pritzl (39) was injured when she and fellow climber Dennis O’Callaghan were caught in a small avalanche while they and seven others were trying to descend to the aid of Kelley, who was the leader of this group.

Pritzl and O’Callaghan described the particulars of Kelley’s fall as follows:

“I remember seeing Clint fall. I expected him to stop—we all did—but he couldn’t seem to self-arrest.”

O’Callaghan also remembers Clint’s fall. “It was not a dramatic event,” he recalled. “How many times have you crossed a snow slope and had a step break out under you? It happens to everyone.

“I was standing right even with Clint, waiting for him and Karin Ferguson to traverse over to me on a steep slope of perhaps 45–55 degrees. Bill was way above,

kicking steps, and the rest of the group was below us, climbing straight up the chute in full self-belay position.

“Clint was traversing confidently, kicking steps with the side of his boot, using his ice ax in his left hand for balance and support. He was ten or fifteen feet away from me. He took a step with his right foot and kicked in, but when he shifted his weight to that step it broke out a little. He very calmly leaned back on his hip into the extremely steep snow slope, then pushed himself up again.

“As he actually came to his feet, both steps broke away and he began to slide a bit. Everyone yelled, ‘Arrest, Clint, arrest!’ He started to roll toward a self-arrest but protruding rocks in the snow chute kept throwing him off balance. He fell very fast and disappeared from sight.”

Pritzl and O’Callaghan provided the following account of the attempt to get to Kelley.

“We went down very carefully. I was afraid, and worried about Clint. I had to keep telling myself—don’t panic; just get down safely,” Pritzl recalled.

O’Callaghan continued, “Pam had just lifted her ice ax from the snow to move onto the rock when I heard a loud howling like a train in a tunnel. I looked up to see a white wall of snow blocks shooting straight down at us from the top. I knew it would hit us and instinctively clutched my ax and dropped my head. The blocks of snow hit me hard on the head, shoulders, and pack, tore my hands off my ice ax, my feet out of the steps, and turned me over on my back, leaving my arm caught uphill in the wristloop. As I looked down through the snow cloud, I saw only Pam’s back as she disappeared over the waterfall. I turned over and got my feet kicked in again, then moved down onto the rock. It was about 0900, 45 minutes after Clint’s fall.”

Pritzl also heard the rumble of the falling blocks of snow. She was knocked tumbling into the air by the impact. “I didn’t have my wrist loop on,” she said, “but I sure had my ice ax in my hand when I ended up!”

Even though she was tumbling, Pritzl tried desperately to self-arrest. “I remember thinking—this may be it for me; this may be the end. I thought how upset my parents would be.”

Then she fell over the waterfall and, still fighting to arrest, clawed into the snow at the bottom of the waterfall and stopped.

“I ended up with my knees bent,” Pritzl remembered, “and through my torn pants I saw my injured leg which had been slashed to the bone. There was lots of blood. The thought occurred to me that this was just like the mountaineering first aid course at Camp Long!”

Judy Ramberg, an emergency-room nurse, and O’Callaghan’s 17-year-old son John had already descended to Clint and determined that he was dead. As they moved away from him out of the gully, down came the avalanche, and Pritzl with it.

O’Callaghan and Ramberg later told O’Callaghan that they saw Pritzl scramble to her feet right away and heard her call that she was all right.

Besides her leg injury, Pritzl had suffered several blows to her head as she descended; these caused scrapes and bruises and a long cut on her forehead. In spite of her injuries, Pritzl found the resolution to cross the gully to Ramberg. A long, arduous rescue ensued. (Source: Signpost, July 1982, and G. R. Conway, SAR Mission Report)


This accident is reported primarily to provide the reader with a description of what the climbers were feeling when it was taking place. O’Callaghan summarized the group’s feeling in general as follows:

“We were certainly well equipped materially,” he reflected, “but you never know if you’ll be ready to handle an emergency mentally. The essential key to our group’s responding so well was that no one truly panicked. In spite of the severe shock we all felt, everyone kept functioning and contributed to the group effort.”

O’Callaghan continued, “We talked a lot about how this would affect our mountain lives. We all said that Clint’s death would cause us to reevaluate and just look at things for a while. How this affects our mountaineering just remains to be seen, I guess.” (Source: Signpost, July 1982)