American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Party Separated, Inexperience, Inadequate Equipment—Including No Hard Hat, Wyoming, Tetons

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


On June 28, 1987, after reaching the summit of Buck Mountain via the East Ridge between 0900 and 1030, Benjamin Johnson (20), David Wechner (27), Robin Macal (21), and Daniel Feikin (21) started to descend. Wechner and Macal left the summit about 1100 and reached Timberline Lake about 1200. Johnson and Feikin followed a short time later, but strayed too far south. Feikin became stranded on a small ledge on the South Ridge.

Johnson continued to climb down. About 1515 Johnson reached the snow at the base of the cliff. He slipped on the snow and was unable to self-arrest. About 30 meters below, he slid off the snow into a 50-meter band of broken rocks where he sustained severe lacerations of the head and back. In the evening, he continued his way down to the next snow slope, which eventually he slid down. His slide ended in a meltwater pool near Timberline Lake. He crawled out of that pool, but fell into another pool ten meters away. He couldn’t get out of that pool and died of hypothermia.

Wechner notified Rangers at 2115 that one member of their party was stranded and one was missing. Rangers Harrington and Larson reached Feikin at 0230 and helped him down to Timberline Lake. Johnson was located during a helicopter search at 0636. (Source: Dan Burgette, Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)


Johnson did not have a climbing helmet. A helmet quite probably would have prevented or at least mitigated the head injury that Johnson sustained when he fell. The head injury that Johnson sustained certainly had inhibited his ability to think clearly.

The party did not have ropes with them. Safe rope technique could have stopped a fall on rock or snow. Climbing technical terrain with inexperienced people without a rope is an unsafe practice. Particularly when Johnson and Feikin got off route, they needed a rope to descend safely.

Johnson’s morning training from Wechner in ice ax self-arrest technique was apparently his first experience with an ice ax. Case histories have clearly shown that such a brief training session is not enough to enable climbers to master the critical self-arrest technique. When Johnson slipped on the steep snowfield at the base of the south face, he was unable to properly use his ice ax to stop or slow his fall. Due to his inability to self-arrest, Johnson slid down the snowfield and struck the rockband where he sustained his injuries.

Johnson’s inexperience prevented him from finding the easiest route down. None of the members of the party had apparently taken the time to learn and familiarize themselves with the descent route. They assumed that it was self-evident. Inexperience is also reflected in Johnson’s decision to continue his descent of dangerous technical terrain on the east face. Feikin used good judgment when he finally decided to stay put, recognizing that he was on dangerous ground without the necessary experience and equipment to descend safely.

The group did not stay together on the climb. On the ascent, the party was spread out on the east ridge. Then, the two least experienced members of the party were left alone on the summit. All were unsure of the way down.

Macal and Wechner descended all the way to Timberline Lake without waiting for Johnson and Feikin. Macal stayed at Timberline Lake for at least two hours and Wechner stayed there for at least six hours watching Feikin. They made no attempt to reclimb all or a portion of the route to help the other two. They did not try to get closer to the bottom of the east face, where they could have seen or heard the other two better. If either had walked around the lake to get closer to the calls they couldn’t understand, they would have been able to see and hear Johnson. Where Johnson ultimately fell on the snowfield was only about 300 linear meters above the lake and less than 160 veritcal meters up. (Source: Rangers, Grand Teton National Park)

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