American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock, Wyoming, Tetons

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

FALLING ROCKS Wyoming, Tetons

About 0830 on July 26, 1987, David Ryan (30) and Paul Kopczynski (24) were passing the Molar Tooth on the East Ridge of the Grand Teton via the north traverse. As Kopczynski was coiling the ropes after their rappels, Ryan rounded the corner and started to ascend the Rotten Yellow Couloir. Kopczynski heard rockfall and saw several blocks fall down the couloir, followed by Ryan falling just behind. Kopczynski watched Ryan fall over 100 meters until he went out of sight. Kopczynski climbed to the notch above the Molar Tooth and descended via the southern traverse. He reported the accident to the Jenny Lake Rangers at the Rescue Cache at 1140.

Ranger Irvine spotted Ryan during a helicopter search at 1254. Ryan was about 200 meters below where his fall started. Irvine could see no signs of life, and thought he saw significant head injuries. Due to Ryan’s location on the center of the couloir about 300 meters below the ridge and 350 meters above the Teton Glacier, the known rockfall danger of the couloir, and the likelihood that Ryan wasn’t alive due to injuries suffered during his long fall, an immediate rescue attempt was not started. Park medical advisor Paul King, P.A., was flown to the site and determined, with the aid of binoculars from about 30 meters away, that Ryan was dead from massive head injuries.

Due to the danger from rockfall, recovery efforts were delayed. On July 28, rangers attempted to reach Ryan’s body. They determined that it was too hazardous to warrant further attempts to recover the body from the couloir. (Source: Dan Burgette, Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)


Ryan was a very experienced, well-conditioned, technically skilled, well-equipped, safety-conscious climber. Since Kopczynski wasn’t able to see Ryan when the accident occurred, the actual cause will never be known.

From the known facts it can be assumed that the accident occurred in one of two ways. The first possibility is that a spontaneous natural rockfall started somewhere in the 60 meters of the Rotten Yellow Couloir above him, and swept him from his holds. Since Kopczynski didn’t hear any rockfall higher in the couloir and Ryan didn’t yell a warning about rockfall, the first probability is less likely than the second, which is that Ryan tried to climb the narrow chimney with the chockstones. When he touched, pulled, or bumped one of the rocks, it and several others above it fell onto him. He fell over and his hard hat was damaged enough to leave the paint or plastic that Kopczynski saw on the rock. This initial blow could have rendered Ryan unconscious, explaining why he did not cry out.

However, the fall started, and once the first tumbling bounce occurred, there was no stopping. The surface of the gully is composed of more loose rock than solid and everything is covered with dirt and gravel. The chance of grabbing a good hold with which to stop a fall is most unlikely.

Ryan was a very good mountaineer and led 5.10. The easy terrain in the couloir was well within his climbing ability. In order to get to the Molar Tooth, he had scrambled up much loose rock, so he probably accepted the objective danger of loose rock as a part of mountaineering. The rock in the Rotten Yellow Chimney is looser and steeper than the lower ridge. Ortenburger suggests, “Two 120-foot leads, either directly up the bottom (loose rock) or up the left (east) side of the yellow couloir, take one to the notch.” Being roped and belayed would have been the only way Ryan’s fall could have been stopped.

The cause of this accident falls more in the category of objective danger than in the unsafe act category. Every experienced mountaineer who attempts the East Ridge of the Grand Teton accepts that there is a certain degree of risk associated with loose rock. Getting around the Molar Tooth is the worst section for this, whether one goes south or north. Touching an unstable rock that immediately crashes into the climber is an event that all mountaineers dread, and few mountaineers would be quick enough to avoid. If Ryan hadn’t touched a particular loose rock, the ascent to the notch would likely have been uneventful, as it was for Kopczynski as he climbed the east side of the gully a few minutes later. (Source. Dan Burgette, Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)

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