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Fall on Ice, Crampon Problem, Unable to Self-Arrest, Climbing Unroped

On August 10, 1988, Kevin Hardwick (30) and his partner left Morrison, CO, enroute to Long's Peak. They planned to ascend The Notch couloir on the east side. On the drive in, Hardwick had sorted the climbing gear, which included seven ice screws and rock protection and discussed his selections. At 0540, they reached the Long’s Peak Trailhead. They did not stop at any of the information boards on the trail, nor did they or had they contacted any other climbers or rangers regarding the climbing conditions on their chosen route.

At 0715 they stopped at Chasm Lake to watch climbers on The Diamond, and at 0830 they reached the talus at the bottom of Lambslide and stopped to boot up. Due to the lack of snow and ice in The Notch couloir, the climbers decided to ascend the Kiener’s Route, which entailed climbing the 40 degree ice slope of Lambslide, crossing onto the Broadway ledge and then ascending 4th Class to 5.3 rock to the summit of Long’s Peak.

Though Kiener’s is the easiest route up the East Face, ice conditions on this day posed moderate difficulty. They discussed their climbing strategy at the base of the ice slope and opted for the right side moat where both felt that they would be best sheltered from rockfall and the possibility of an uncontrolled fall. With this in mind, they agreed not to rope up and belay their ascent, but rather to keep the rope accessible in case a belay was judged necessary.

Hardwick put on a pair of Yokon hiking boots (a stiff, but half-shanked leather hiking boot) and strapped on a pair of Salewa rigid crampons. Hardwick’s partner did not watch him strap on his crampons that morning. Both climbers wore packs and helmets, and both decided to use one ice ax and carry the second tool in their packs.

While the men were preparing for their climb, two climbers entered onto Lambslide and began to make their way up the left side of the slope. This team chose to belay their ascent. Hardwick stopped several times on the climb to adjust the loose straps on his crampons. On at least two occasions, Hardwick’s partner was aware of the nature of the problem that he was having, and on one stop they discussed the importance of keeping the crampons secured. Due to the crampon problem, the partner managed to get approximately 100 meters above him and out of sight. Hardwick had again stopped to adjust his crampon on what was described as a steeper, less secure section of the ice slope. His partner had moved out of the rock and ice through and around a rock bulge and was progressing upward on hard ice toward the junction of Broadway Ledge. Though he was out of sight, he was approximately 30 meters to the right of another climber, who was belaying his son on the pitch. This fellow heard Hardwick curse, and then 30-60 seconds later, reportedly heard what he thought were rocks sliding above him.

He looked over from his belay stance and saw Hardwick approximatley 25-30 meters below his last position in a “cartwheel” with no ice ax and with one crampon in the air, free of his foot. When Hardwick came into his partner’s view, he was sliding down the ice slope head first and on his stomach with his hands out trying to brake himself. He fell approximately 300 meters, hitting several areas of black ice and landed on the talus at the base of Lambslide. His partner yelled for help and descended to him in about 25 minutes. The other party began their belayed descent and reached the scene over an hour later. The first report of the accident was relayed from observers up on Chasm View Overlook, who saw Hardwick sliding down Lambslide around 0940. That report, bearing no knowledge of injuries, was received at Long’s Peak Ranger Station at 1105. At 1115 Ranger Linda Stuart started up the trail and began interviewing hikers in an effort to gain more information on the subject’s condition.

When the victim’s partner reached the talus, he could hear Hardwick's labored breathing and he began assessing his condition using his EMT training. He was lying on his back and made movements such as opening his eyes, attempting to sit up and at one point, lifting his hand to his partner’s chest. He was unresponsive to verbal commands, his pupils remained unreactive and it was not possible to detect any pulses. Movements continued for about an hour and a half but his condition worsened until finally CPR was initiated at 1155.

Rescuers arrived at 1310, and the Flight for Life helicopter arrived at 1327. The victim was pronounced dead and evacuated. (Source: Rangers, Rocky Mountain National Park)

Analysis

At some point, Hardwick’s left crampon came off. The report that he had “cursed” about 30-60 seconds before the sounds of sliding began suggests that he may have realized that his crampon was unsecured. The fact that he did not have his ice ax in his hand early in the fall supports the idea that he may have stopped to adjust the crampon. He may have also tried to move with it loosened and merely dropped the ice ax into the moat. The ice tool was never recovered, but the left crampon was retrieved about 2/3 up the Lambslide slope. The straps were still buckled and doubled back indicating that he had not actually been tightening them when the fall began.

With the straps still in their original boot-fitted arrangement, it is noteworthy that Hardwick had not locked the straps correctly in order to keep them from loosening. It is also significant that he had worn the rigid crampons with a flexible, half-shanked, leather boot. The flex in the boot is not accommodated by the rigid surface of the crampon and can cause the straps to loosen or the crampons to brake. This boot- crampon combination is not recommended for this reason.

One other possibility is that he had not experienced any difficulty with his crampons but instead fell due to an error while climbing. According to his climbing partner, he was unpracticed on long sections of hard ice. The slope, ice conditions and transitions to broken rock (which he was approaching or may have been on) could have also led to the tragedy.

Invariably, a roped ascent would have significantly reduced the chance of a fatal fall. Despite the competence of the climbers and moderation of the slope, a soloed ascent still posed an authentic danger given the margin for human error or natural events. (Source: Maura Longden, Investigation Officer, Rocky Mountain National Park)

(Editor’s Note: On August 15, a Rocky Mountain National Park Ranger found the body of a 22 year old male climber at the base of Spearhead Mountain. He was an experienced climber, but was alone. The actual cause of his fall is unknown. Two of the four accidents reported from this park in 1988 were fatalities.)