American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock, Washington, Mount Blum

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

FALLING ROCK

Washington, Mount Blum

On September 6, 1987, John Petroske (31) was leading out a pitch nine of a new route on the west face of the North Ridge of Mount Blum. The North Ridge requires a long one-day approach in a very remote area of the North Cascades. The rock is generally quite solid granite. I was belaying John from an alcove, and he had run out about 20 meters of rope. The climbing to here had been mixed free and aid on the terrifically exposed face. Just prior to the accident, John had yelled to me that the route was laying back some and we were quite close to the North Ridge proper.

The next instant I heard a yell and the sound of large rocks falling. Diving for cover, I heard some big boulders go over my head. Cautiously looking up, I saw John not far above me, having been held by my belay. He was holding his side, obviously in some pain. John told me that he thought he had broken some ribs, and his ankles were rather tender. He also had numerous abrasions on his arms and legs. His hard hat had no doubt prevented any head injuries. He later related to me that he had climbed up to a block, had tested it for soundness, and finding it sound, had placed a sling around it and clipped into it as a protection point. He had then pulled up on it and was standing on top of it when the block pulled away from the mountain, causing John to flip backwards off the face. Fortunately, the sling parted from the block at some point during the fall. John fell about ten meters, being finally held by his next piece of protection (a Friend). Keeping his wits about him, John climbed back up to the Friend and, using the climbing rope, rappelled down to my belay.

I checked John over for serious bleeding, neck/back injuries, etc., and finding him reasonably sound, began setting our first rappel. Fortunately we had, in addition to our 10.5 mm x 50 m rope, a 7 mm x 50 m haul line allowing us to do full 50 m rappels. Six full rope rappels, primarily on pins, brought us down to the pocket glacier below the west face of the North Ridge. Throughout this process John’s ankles were becoming more and more tender to the point that once on the glacier he could not put his full weight on them and was forced to crawl down the belay.

In waning light we got off the glacier to a rocky moraine rib. I spent some time making the area as comfortable as possible and getting John in a light sleeping bag and bivy sack. I filled out an accident report form and tried to get a bit of rest myself. Having given John most of my clothing, I found myself getting quite cold and in brilliant moonlight, at midnight, began to walk out. Crossing the glacier moraine, I only occasionally needed my headlamp. Reaching Upper Blum Lake at 0130, I napped until sunrise. I was out to the Baker River trailhead by 1000.

Reaching the old Komo Kulshan guard station at 1130, I advised the fire crew now stationed there of the situation. They in turn got me in contact with the Whatcom County Sheriff. I was picked up by a Whidbey Island Naval Air Station chopper at 1400. Providing directions to the pilots allowed us to spot John quickly and retrieve him using a cable lift-out. I was deposited back at Komo Kulshan at 1530 and picked up John just getting out of the emergency room at Skagit Valley General Hospital at 1730. John’s injuries were diagnosed as badly sprained ankles, bruised ribs and various abrasions. (Source: Don Goodman)

Analysis

Probably the biggest question is whether or not John adequately tested the block that gave way prior to pulling up on it. This is speculation at this point. There is no question that, when pioneering, regardless of the rock quality, there can be large blocks just waiting for the first human hands to pull them down. Such is the nature of mountaineering.

What is most important here is how the team handles the situation once the accident has occurred. (Source: Don Goodman)

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