FALL ON ROCK, CLIMBING UNROPED, WEATHER, INFLEXIBILITY
On August 1, 1984, James Drake (23) and Robert Shannon (24) attempted to climb the Northeast Snowfields route on Mt. Owen in Grand Teton National Park. About 1500, Drake, unroped, was trying to climb a 55 to 60 degree rock slab that was running with water. He slipped and fell about 150 meters to his death.
James Drake and Robert Shannon both worked for the Grand Teton Lodge Company at Jackson Lake Lodge. They both were trying to enjoy their summer in the Tetons by climbing as much as possible on their days off. Both had been climbing about four years. Drake was the more experienced of the two.
The day before they left for Mt. Owen, Drake led a climb on Blacktail Butte of 5.7 or 5.8 difficulty. Neither one had climbed any of the harder routes in the Tetons, but they had both climbed easier routes on several peaks. This summer Drake had scaled the Skillet and the Northeast Ridge on Mount Moran and the Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton. He had also climbed the Fryxell route on Mount Owen.
Drake and Shannon had not climbed together before, except for some practice climbs on Blacktail Butte. They both felt that the Northeast Snowfields route on Mount Owen would be the hardest route either of them had attempted, but they felt that they were capable of doing it. They looked forward to the challenge.
They talked to Climbing Ranger Johnson about doing the route, but he advised against it since the weather was warm and there had been a lot of rockfall lately. (The Exum Guide Service had not been guiding clients up Mount Owen or on any climbs in Glacier Gulch because of the recent rockfall problems.)
On July 31 they came into the Jenny Lake Ranger Station to sign out for the climb. They talked to Climbing Ranger Carr when they signed out. He was concerned about the dangers of that route because the weather had been stormy and more storms were predicted. He asked them if they knew what the weather was supposed to do, and they said that they did.
They left the ranger station about 1530 and started up Cascade Canyon. They crossed the creek below the Owen cirque and started up. Stormy weather caused them to stop for the night in the trees halfway between the creek and the first snowfield. They had planned on staying the night in the cirque.
On the morning of August 1, they left their bivy around 0700. Periods of rain and snow caused them to encounter slippery rock. They roped two pitches because Shannon felt uneasy on it. When they did use the rope, Drake would climb up with the rope in the pack, and then he would throw an end down to Shannon to belay him up. Where the snow couloir goes up to the east, Shannon suggested doing that so they would be on snow all of the way, avoiding the slippery rock. Drake replied, “And abandon our route?!” Drake would not consider doing another route, turning back, or using the rope to lead any of the climb. He was extremely determined to do what he set out to do, the way he wanted to do it.
The second time they used the rope, Shannon climbed up to a ledge below an overhang about 35 meters below the second major snowfield. It had been raining, but it stopped about the time that Shannon reached the ledge. Some mist was still in the air, and the slabs above them were running heavily with water. They had climbed to the overhang to get out of the rain and wait. They knew that the route went to the west. Drake told Shannon when he got to the ledge that they were about one and a half hours behind schedule. Drake said that they would have to hurry, or else they would have to bivy on the route. In order to speed things up, Drake decided to unrope and climb simultaneously. Drake put the rope in his pack, and started up the 55 to 60 degree slab just east of the overhang. Shannon started to follow, but Drake told him to stay on the ledge because it was very slippery due to the water running over the rock and lichen. He said that he would throw an end of the rope down to belay Shannon when he got to a safe spot.
Drake climbed past the overhang on the wet slab, and then traversed west over the overhang. Shannon could not see Drake above the overhang. He heard what he thought was rockfall. When he looked up, he saw Drake fall past the overhang, three meters from his ledge. Drake was falling in a horizontal position, waving his arms as if he were trying to regain his balance. Shannon saw Drake hit the first ledge on the face below him. Drake struck the ledge with the back of his head and the back of his torso. After striking two more ledges, he slid down a small snow slope for about 65 meters. He left the snow going very fast and came to rest about 20 meters from the bottom edge of the snow on the rocks in the stream that drains that part of the mountain. The fall was about 150 vertical meters in length.
Shannon could see Drake where he came to rest. Drake didn’t move, and Shannon assumed that he was probably dead. Shannon thought “about two seconds” about trying to climb down to Drake. He decided that without a rope and no hardware for anchors that he had better stay where he was. He had his bivy gear, and he was on a protected ledge below the overhang, so he waited for help.
When the pair was overdue on August 2, numerous calls started to come into the Jenny Lake Ranger Station asking about them. It was unusual for Drake and Shannon to be late for work. Ranger Dorward walked up toward Amphitheater Lake to see if he would meet them coming down. He didn’t.
At 1530, Ranger Woodmancy hiked up Cascade Canyon with a spotting scope to look at the route. At 1700 he reported that he thought he saw something. Helicopters were requested, and the rescue team was gathered.
Shannon was seen on the second helicopter flight past the face. Rangers Jackson and Rickert were flown in and determined that Shannon was all right. They spent the night with Shannon and helped him to the helispot on the morning of August 3.
Shannon had pointed out to the rangers where Drake was. Rangers Burgette and Eastman were flown in to a lower helispot and confirmed that Drake was dead. Drake’s body was flown to Lupine Meadows at 1200, where it was turned over to the Teton County Coroner. (Source: Dan Burgette, Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)
In the phone conversation with Robert Shannon on August 5, I was told the following.
Drake was very serious about his physical conditioning program. He ran six to nine kilometers per day, and he regularly did a lot of day hikes. He drank very little alcohol and he didn’t smoke. Drake usually ate the vegetarian meals that the Lodge offered, so he ate little meat. Shannon considered Drake to be in excellent condition.
Just before the accident, Drake was in very good spirits. Drake remarked about how wet and slippery things were when he started to climb past the overhang. He told Shannon to wait on the ledge until he could find a ledge to set up a belay. Drake didn’t seem nervous on the wet rock. He seemed confident that he could climb in these conditions.
Drake was extremely determined to do the climb. When Shannon suggested aborting the climb after they encountered wet, slippery rock, Drake would not even consider it. When Shannon suggested climbing the snow couloir variation that goes east of the regular route, Drake said, “And abandon our route?!” He was inflexible about changing their plans. Shannon became convinced that Drake was determined to do what he set out to do, no matter what. Shannon said, “No way we would have turned back.”
Drake seemed determined to climb the route without a rope for protection. He was willing to throw down a belay rope to Shannon whenever Shannon wanted one, but he was unwilling to use one himself.
Neither person had a hardhat, even though they knew that the route is subject to rockfall. (Source: Dan Burgette, Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)