American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Stranded, Inadequate Equipment, Inexperience, Dehydration, Utah, Zion National Park

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1986

STRANDED, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, INEXPERIENCE, DEHYDRATION

Utah, Zion National Park

On August 4, 1985, a man (37) left his car and began hiking upstream in the Virgin River Narrows. He carried 15 meters of nylon clothesline, a hatchet, some steel tent pegs, a large hunting knife and a fanny pack with a canteen. He did not have a topo map, but had a Park mini-folder given to him at the entrance station.

He hiked to the end of the paved trail, then continued about a kilometer further upstream against the river current and over slippery boulders. He consulted his mini-folder map and noticed a trail parallel to the river that would be an alternative route back to his car. (The trail is located about 200 vertical meters and several kilometers distant.)

He decided to climb out to the trail using a crack and chimney system he noticed on the west wall. He ascended by pounding tent pegs into the crack with his hatchet, then looped the clothesline over a peg and pulled himself up. He lost his fanny pack (with canteen) while trying to throw it ahead of him onto a ledge. About 60 meters above the river, he came to a chimney roof that he had trouble getting past. It was very exposed, with loose rock and poor hand and foot holds. His efforts caused a rock slide, and he lost most of his tent pegs. He then tied his hatchet to the clothesline and threw it over the roof to and around the base of a six centimeter diameter tree on a ledge above. He then pulled himself hand over hand on the clothesline to the ledge.

He continued, eventually causing another rock slide—in which he lost the clothesline and the rest of his tent pegs. He continued his ascent by hammering his hunting knife into cracks with the hatchet, then standing on the knife or using it as a handhold, then removing the knife. He eventually came to a point where he could ascend no further, estimated to be 120 meters or more above the river. So he began to descend using the hatchet-knife method.

About 60 meters above the river, he caused an additional rock slide, destroying a critical section of his ascent route and stopping his descent. He rested on a ledge area. In the late afternoon hours he noticed some hikers headed downstream by the river below. He frantically began chopping down small trees and throwing them off in an effort to attract their attention. He almost hit the hikers. (They were upset and later reported the incident.) It was not relayed to park rangers until the following day. The rushing river prevented any verbal communication.

The next morning he saw additional hikers and was able to yell over the river noise for help. The hikers contacted park offices and a two-man technical rescue team was dispatched about 1030. The team climbed up through much loose, rotten rock. They dislodged one huge block in their climb. (They rated the climb a 5.8 difficulty, but emphasized they would never climb in horrible rock like that unless they had to.) After reaching the victim, they placed two bolts and lowered him to the canyon floor.

He was given liquids and escorted to Park Headquarters. Because of the hazardous position in which he had placed himself, the hikers below and his rescuers, he was issued a federal citation for disorderly conduct and subsequently paid the fine. (Source: Bob Line- back, Ranger, Zion National Park)

Analysis

The victim had once been shown how to climb by a friend using a rope and pitons. From his memory of that day, he created his tent peg-clothesline ascending system. While in adequate physical condition, his outdoor skills were minimal. He seemed to realize his mistake and promised to seek professional instruction before doing any more climbing. While he suffered some scratches and abrasions, his major problem was dehydration as he went 24 hours without drinking during two days when the high temperature exceeded 30°C. (Source: Bob Lineback, Ranger, Zion National Park)

(Editor’s Note: This is the kind of accident the media will pick up to demonstrate how dangerous climbing is and to illustrate “the true nature ” of climbers. This accident is not part of the data pool.)

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