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Falling Rock, Washington, Mount Rainier

FALLING ROCK

Washington, Mount Rainier

A climb of Little Tahoma (3368 meters) was organized by the Seattle Mountaineers as part of their basic climbing course. The party of five left the trailhead at 0815 on August 22, 1988.

The party reached the top of the Whitman Glacier shortly before 0900. All members appeared to be in good condition and competent to complete the ascent. The party continued to the summit, arriving shortly after 1000 and staying approximately 45 minutes.

At 1330 the party was descending the upper Whitman Glacier along its northeastern edge. About the 2970 meter level, the glacier narrows and steepens to 40 degrees as it falls to the lower Whitman. Phil Langford (31), who was descending at the front of the first rope, had passed around an area of hard ice and was continuing onto the steeper area below it. Two large rocks, each approximately 40 centimeters square, started to slide downhill off the hard ice toward the first rope team. The rocks, which had been resting on the snow, began to slide as the snow melted off, exposing the hard, clear ice underneath.

The climbers on the second rope saw the rocks beginning to slide, and loudly shouted, “Rock! Rock! Big Ones!” Brent Hostetler and Ken Brameld on the first rope repeated the shout, but Phil Langford did not seem to hear at first. (Langford has no memory of this part of the events.) The sound of water running down the shallow

chute, formed where the edge of the glacier met the adjoining scree slope, may have drowned the calls. When the rocks were less than 20 meters from him, Langford was seen to turn and go into self-arrest position. One of the rocks hit him on the back of the top of his climbing helmet. It is estimated that the rock weighed 25 kg and was sliding at more than 30 kilometers per hour when it hit him. Ken Brameld, the middleman on the first rope, shouted, “He’s been hit. Phil’s been hit. On the head.” And then Ken Brameld and Brent Hostetler went into arrest position.

Because of the danger of further rockfall, it was necessary to get the victim and those attending him out of the chute as quickly as possible. Andy Dunning found a safe site on the scree slope about 10 meters away. Jack Northcutt prepared the site for the victim. When the examination of the victim had been completed and his wounds dressed, Brent Hostetler and Jack Northcutt, with a little help from the victim, brought him up to the site. No further injuries had been found.

Brent Hostetler and Jack Northcutt went for help about 1445. A bivvy site was prepared, and a comfortable night was spent. At 0630 the next day, rescue personnel arrived, and by 0930, Langford was evacuated by helicopter. (Source: Andrew Dunning, Leader)

Analysis

The accident clearly demonstrates the importance of wearing a hard hat even at times when there is no immediate or obvious rockfall danger. Without a hard hat, the victim would almost certainly have been killed in this case.

The accident also raises the question of what should be the correct response to rockfall. Should we try to get out of the way, or should we try to protect ourselves? Climbing textbooks do not give any guidance. It appears, however, that whereas most novice climbers try to protect themselves, experienced climbers usually adopt a strategy of carefully watching the falling rock, and moving smartly out of its way, at least for rockfalls consisting of only one or two rocks. (Source: Andrew Dunning, Leader)