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Fall on Approach Rock, Climbing Unroped, Washington, North Cascades


Washington, North Cascades

On March 22, 1986, Ulrich Ganz (46), Juan Esteban Lira (33) and I (Mark Dale [31])

hiked up Thunder Creek in the North Cascades with the intent of climbing Primus Peak in two days. After ten kilometers on the trail we crossed the creek and began bushwhacking up the broad ridge on the north side of the peak. The terrain was very brushy, steep, and snow-free, interspersed with cliff bands. About 1100 meters (still in the woods), we encountered a large cliff band and began traversing rightward to find a route through. The rock at the base of the cliff was mossy and wet from a light snowfall the previous evening. Around 1500,I heard something crashing down the slope and looked over to see Ulrich (who had been between Juan and me) tumble out of sight below. The sound of his falling seemed to go on forever. (Ulrich later said that he had been leaning out to step around a bush when his foothold gave way, causing him to lose his balance and fall over backwards.)

Juan and I quickly but carefully downclimbed and located Ulrich about 50 meters downslope at the base of a five meter cliff. He was groaning and bleeding profusely from head lacerations, lying face down with his pack still on and tangled up in some small trees. Fortunately, he was conscious and indicated that he probably had a neck injury. We removed his pack without moving his body and gave him a quick check-over for other injuries. The bleeding on his scalp was soon brought under control and I fashioned a neck brace with Ensolite and clothing. Despite the possibility of a neck injury, Juan and I decided that we had to move Ulrich to a position where he could be better treated for shock and hypothermia (he was starting to shiver), as well as to protect him from possible rockfall.

I chopped out a platform in the dirt and rock under the cliff and we carefully moved Ulrich to this spot (about five to six meters). It was now about 1100 and Juan began the long trip to summon help. I now proceeded to treat Ulrich for hypothermia and tried to dress his wounds as best I could. He was conscious the entire time. I brewed up some hot drinks for him and helped him eat a few bites of food. At this point, Ulrich was having difficulty moving his limbs, possibly due to partial paralysis. After I secured us both with the rope, we settled in for a long night. Twice during the evening rocks tumbled down the slope where Ulrich had originally come to rest.

The next morning showed signs of deteriorating weather, with high clouds starting to race by. About 0930, much to my relief, I heard the distant sounds of a helicopter. Soon I spotted a Navy Chinook and attempted to flag it down with a bright yellow bivy sack. After several attempts, they finally located us with help from Juan (who was on board) and managed to lower a Navy EMT and Stokes litter into steep timber a hundred or so meters below the accident site. The EMT and I then dragged the litter up to Ulrich. The EMT examined him and put on another neck brace. We moved Ulrich into the litter and firmly secured him, especially the head, to prevent any movement. We then began the arduous task of belaying and lowering the litter to a small clearing below where the EMT had been dropped.

The chopper now returned, but was unable to lower the winch cable far enough due to the trees and prevailing wind. It was then decided to drop us a chainsaw to fell a few key trees and provide a suitable evacuation zone. After an hour’s work, we managed to clear the area enough so that the chopper was able to retrieve the litter with Ulrich and the Navy EMT. The district backcountry ranger, Bill Lester, was lowered to assist me in recovering our gear. After packing up two 30 kilogram loads, we descended the rugged slope to Thunder Creek, where we were met by Skagit Mountain Rescue personnel who helped us carry the gear out. By now low clouds had engulfed the mountains and it was steadily raining.

Ulrich’s injuries were later diagnosed to be two fractured vertebra in the neck, several broken ribs, a broken nose, and severe head lacerations. Surgery was required to repair the neck injury and the prognosis for recovery is good. The doctor stressed that had the vertebra shifted as little as one millimeter, complete paralysis of the limbs would have been likely. (Source: Mark Dale)


Climbing through steep woods gives one a false sense of security, due to vegetation available for holds and the thought that if you fall you only have to grab a tree to arrest yourself. This plus the fact that rope-handling in dense vegetation is difficult is reason enough for most climbers to forego using a rope for protection on this type of terrain. However, as indicated by this accident, extreme care and good judgment must be used when climbing through high-angle timber. (Source: Mark Dale)