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Falling Rocks, Weather

FALLING ROCKS, WEATHER

Wyoming, Tetons

Robert (51), Bob (21) and David (16) Frank signed out at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station on August 1, 1985, for a climb of the Skillet Glacier on Mt. Moran the following day. They left the String Lake trailhead on Thursday afternoon, intending to camp Thursday night near the bottom of the glacier.

They got a late start on their climb the following morning, leaving their camp about 0900. They climbed slowly. David in particular was moving very slowly. About half way up the handle of the Skillet, the weather deteriorated. Due to this, David’s slow progress, their late start, and perhaps the steepening terrain, the party turned around to retreat about 1500.

They moved slowly and carefully down, reaching the bergschrund about halfway down the glacier and skirting it on the south side. Below the ’schrund, crevasses were visible in the direct line below them. The party opted to traverse to the north, away from the crevasses. They started reasonably close to the rock wall bordering the north side of the glacier.

Very near the bottom of the glacier, Bob estimates 30-60 meters, small rocks started to come down the glacier. At this point they were still roped up, with Bob first (lowest), David in the middle, and Robert last (highest). They perceived danger from the small falling rocks and started to move quickly. However, a massive spontaneous rock avalanche released from the Northeast ridge of the Mountain. Bob thought that a whole wall gave way directly above and not more than 30 to 50 meters away from them.

Bob and David remember trying to take cover. Rocks struck Bob, injuring him. Afterwards, David told Bob that he would go for help. Bob succeeded in finding his father and observed significant bleeding and no pulse when he looked for one. Bob began descending after David, ultimately contacting Jerry Bishop.

At 0800 on August 3, Rangers Johnson and Irvine were airlifted from the helispot at the 2275 meter level of the Skillet Glacier outwash plain to the pan of the glacier, 2970 meters. Before landing, the accident scene was surveyed from the air. After landing, Johnson and Irvine climbed to the scene and extricated Frank from the crevasse. A cargo net was flown to the scene and the victim and his accompanying equipment were loaded into the net. The load was ready at 0855, but fog moved in and the recovery flight was delayed until 1100. (Source: Peter Armington, Ranger, Grand Teton National park)

Analysis

The rockfall was extensive. One boulder about three meters long had gone clear to the moraine and several rocks in the one to two meter size range, as well as many smaller ones, had fallen in an area at least 50 meters wide. The rocks possibly came from the wall about 20 to 30 meters above the glacier, but this could not be determined for certain because no such rock had fallen recently onto the glacier.

The Frank party appears to have had the requisite equipment and technical experience needed to climb the Skillet Glacier route, but none wore or had helmets on the climb. A helmet would not have prevented the death of Robert Frank, but might have mitigated some of the injuries suffered by Bob Frank.

Since they were camped so near the glacier, a start even two hours earlier than the 0900 start they got would have been more prudent. They exercised good judgment in turning back halfway up the handle of the Skillet in the face of deteriorating weather and the markedly slow pace of David Frank. Their slow, deliberate and roped retreat down the glacier was undoubtedly perceived by them to be a safe tactic, particularly considering David’s fatigue.

The decision to traverse north across the glacier below the bergschrund in order to bypass the crevasses below the ’schrund might seem prudent. However, this traverse took them onto a section of the glacier that bore visual evidence to significantly higher rockfall problems. The party, particularly the leader, Robert Frank, either failed to perceive this danger or thought that the crevasses presented a greater threat to their safety. (Source: Peter Arm- ington, Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)