American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Loss of Control—Voluntary Glissade, Avalanche, Inadequate Equipment, Weather, Idaho, Mount Borah

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988

FALL ON SNOW, LOSS OF CONTROL—VOLUNTARY GLISSADE, AVALANCHE, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, WEATHER

Idaho, Mount Borah

On June 13, 1987, David Probst (38), who was a member of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit for several years, was descending Mount Borah (3950 meters) with three friends when he fell 150 meters to his death.

They had started late in the morning, around 0900. Knowing there was very little snow, they carried only one ice ax with them. They reached the summit at 1800. Then they started down, and when they reached the saddle between the summit and false summit, they changed to the Rock Creek descent. The first two, Linda Claiborne (30) and Ben Childlaw (35) with the ice ax, started ahead of Probst and Jennifer Smith (31). Probst used a rock as a dagger for control on the snow while Smith waited in the rocks above. Probst lost control while trying to self-arrest. He disappeared around a bend in the snowfield. At this time Claiborne and Childlaw were down at the fourth snowfield. They saw a large mass of snow coming down the chute, but no sign of anyone. They climbed back up to Smith. At this point they searched for Probst, and finding his hat at the second snowfield, they started probing for him. They also probed the first snowfield, but stopped when it got too dark to work. They spent ten hours climbing down and hiking out for help.

The local sheriff’s rescue group from Mackay responded, but were initally not able to get to the victim’s location because they had no experience or equipment. The three-person team arrived wearing tennis shoes and jeans, carrying one rope and a carton of Pepsi-Cola. A deputy accompanied them. Idaho Mountain Rescue personnel were on hand at the staging area. The sheriff indicated that he would have his team go up the mountain and assess the situation first to see what resources were needed.

As night neared, the sheriff got a MAST helicopter to drop sleeping bags and food for his team. The helicopter flew to 4700 meters and dropped the supplies. The supplies were well scattered after their 1250 meter descent.

On June 15, an electrical storm hit, and the sheriff ordered everyone off the mountain, suspending the search until later in the week.

The sheriff’s team and Idaho Mountain Rescue returned on June 19. The next day, June 20, rescue teams fine-probed the first snowfield. Course probes and tunnels were dug on the second field. An avalanche dog was used, but alerted many times on the snowfields. When teams started searching snowfield three, the body was spotted under the snow above a water chute which Probst had slid into with the loose snow. (Source: various newspaper reports; Larry Novak, and Bob Meridith of Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue; and Merle King)

Analysis

The late start, an apparently festive group with an experienced leader, and a clear day which deteriorated late in the afternoon, led to the circumstances which turned this situation around. Choosing a technical descent route without having adequate equipment put the group at risk. That Probst used a rock for an ice dagger for self-arrest aid indicates the level of concern he had.

While it seems likely that Probst died quickly, the rescue response was apparently not handled properly. If the victim had survived the fall, he most likely would have died by the time he was finally reached.

Technical rescue resources were available but do not appear to have been used appropriately. (Source: J. Williamson)

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