American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Placed Inadequate Protection, Wyoming, Tetons

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987


Wyoming, Tetons

I, Doug Bringhurst (28), was climbing the Black Ice Couloir in Grand Teton National Park on August 9,1986, with Hal Throolin (37). We were alternating leads on the ice. We had climbed about four 45 meter leads. I was leading and had run out about 41-42 meters of rope and hadn’t placed any protection. I had stopped at a fixed pin and placed my hammer (Forrest Mjollnir III with alpine pick), which was attached to me with a shoulder sling. I placed my ice ax (MSR Sumner) and pulled my hand out of my mitt, leaving the mitt in the wrist loop. I was not then attached to the ice ax. I had my front points in the ice (Salewa hinged crampons on Galibier Vecors boots), had my hip/back leaned against a steep rock wall just downhill of the fixed pin, and was reaching up with a carabiner and sling to clip into the pin. The pin was quite high above the ice andrequired me to stretch up to reach it. Just as I about reached the pin with an open carabiner, the movement from stretching dislodged one or both crampons. I then started to fall backwards (I think) with my head nearly full height above the ice which caused an upward jerk on my hammer.

The hammer pulled out and I began accelerating rapidly down the couloir as I yelled, “Falling!” to warn Hal. As near as I can tell, I slid with my body flat against the ice and didn’t do any head over heels type of tumbling. My body changed orientation while I was sliding to where at points I was head down, head up, sideways and in between. I don’t recall if I slid on my side, stomach or back. I hit the end of the rope and then pendulumed three to six meters and came within one to one and a half meters of hitting the rock on the west wall of the couloir. I had been attempting to grab my hammer while sliding but never got it.

After the fall was stopped, I made a quick assessment of my condition and noticed that I was still holding in my bare hand the carabiner and sling. I clipped it into my harness and then grabbed the hammer and placed it and my crampons. I started to climb up to take the load off the belayer. I then noticed that my ankle was sore, though I could still climb adequately with it. I scraped a patch of skin off the heel of my bare hand and scraped the skin off the knuckle of my little finger, but the scrapes were not serious. I then began climbing up to the belay station. I noticed after about three to five meters that I had lost my prescription glasses. I was able to climb at a reasonable speed to the belay where we determined that it would be best to climb out of the couloir as soon as possible. We determined that the fall was 85–88 meters, including rope stretch. As I was falling, Hal began to pull in rope hand over hand in an attempt to shorten the fall. He got it around his waist before I hit the end of the rope, but he wasn’t able to grip tightly enough to hold the rope. A couple of meters slid around his waist and burned through his rain jacket and a little through his rain pants and melted the surface fibers of his polypropylene glove. His hand was badly bruised in absorbing some of the energy of the fall. The fall continued until the belay device finally held it. The force bent the head of the soft iron fixed pin that was one of the primary belay anchors.

Hal led all the remaining pitches. We found my ice ax with my mitt in the wrist loop right where I had placed it before I fell. We climbed to the upper saddle and arrived just before dark. We sorted gear and left for the lower saddle, arriving at midnight. I had to be very careful with each step in placing my injured foot to avoid aggravating the injury. By being careful the pain was not excruciating. I used a flashlight, sometimes held in my teeth, to illuminate my path.

At the lower saddle, I reported the incident to Ranger Paul Gagner. He examined my ankle and then we bivouacked for the night. In the morning the swelling had increased and there was substantially more pain in my ankle when I attempted to walk to the point that descending would have been an excruciating ordeal. Because I did not yet know specifically what damage there was and whether or not a walking descent would cause further or irreversible damage, I accepted a helicopter evacuation. My injury was later diagnosed as a sprained ankle with a fractured talus. (Source: Douglas Bringhurst)


My having done any one of the following things would have prevented the fall: (1) tie into both hand tools; (2) place both tools very well before letting go of them to work with protection hardware; or (3) chop a small step for crampon front points before relying solely on them.

Placing more intermediate protection would have decreased the relative severity of the fall, but it would not have prevented it in the first place.

We had slept through the alarm earlier that morning and had started later than planned and in our haste during the climb we probably tended to place less protection than we would have otherwise. Having climbed overhanging bulges on hard water ice several times in the past, I was not intimidated by the technical difficulty of the climb. I probably should have been more intimidated by the overall environment. In final analysis, I fell because I was too careless. I feel fortunate to be alive to benefit from this experience and to have been able to climb out of the couloir and descend to the lower saddle under my own power rather than risking the lives of others in any technical rescue attempts. (Source: Douglas Bringhurst)

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