American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Ice, Standing Directly Below Ice Climber

California, Lee Vining Canyon

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: 1988
  • Publication Year: 1989

On January 24, 1988, Bill Isherwood (46) and Bill McConachie (36) hiked with two companions to the ice climbing area in Lee Vining Canyon. McConachie proceeded to lead the first pitch of the middle ice fall while Isherwood belayed from a semiprotected spot to the right of the climb. Upon playing out to near the end of the 50 meter climbing rope, McConachie asked if he could get another three or four meters of rope in order to reach a better belay spot. Isherwood proceeded to move out of the protected belay position and up steep snow to the base of the high angle ice to provide the maximum rope for the leader. (McConachie reports that on hearing that rope was not readily available, he responded not to bother, but that response was not heard below.)

McConachie, in the process of placing an ice screw, dislodged some ice. The largest block, estimated at about 9 kilograms, fell, striking Isherwood directly on his helmet. The blow stunned Isherwood, causing temporary paralysis. Isherwood found himself knocked down the steep soft snow about 1.5 meters, with no feeling in his arms or legs. Fortunately, McConachie had already placed and clipped the rope through an anchor so the rope’s tug on McConachie did not pull him off.

Nearby companions and other climbers came to Isherwood’s assistance, taking over the belay and trying to make him comfortable. About that time, feeling began returning with a tingling sensation. Immediately upon being able to move, Isherwood moved with minor assistance back to the more protected spot. There he rested for several hours before walking out under his own power. X-rays taken the next day revealed fractures of the spinous processes of cervical vertebrae 5 and 6, requiring immobilization of the neck for a period of eight weeks. 

Analysis

We were aware of the potential for falling ice during the climbing, hence our use of helmets and identification of a protected belay stance. The block which struck me was the largest all day, although the path I was standing in was subject to a spray of lesser ice chips much of the day. I saw the block coming and ducked in toward the slope trying to avoid its full force and hide under my helmet—I succeeded in the second of these. Once again, thank goodness for the protection the helmet gave. I guess if you climb enough years, one of those falling projectiles is going to bounce your way.

It is common to ask a second to try to give that extra margin of rope to reach the optimum belay spot. In general, the belayer provides plenty of warning about the approaching end of the rope, but the best place to stop often seems to be just a few feet further. We need to weigh such requests against the conditions the belayer may be exposed to.

McConachie reported that on the following weekend an un-helmeted climber stood, belaying for over an hour in the same area as I was when struck. McConachie warned the climber of the obvious hazards and related my misfortune. The climber remained unmoved and unscathed. (Source: Bill Isherwood.)

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