American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Protection Pulled Out, Inadequate Protection, Washington, Icicle Creek Canyon

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991


Washington, Icicle Creek Canyon

The accident occurred on April 29, during the final hours of a two day rock climbing training session for intermediate students from the Everett Branch of The Mountaineers. The weather was warm and sunny. Rock conditions were excellent. The students were practicing climbing leads in the vicinity of Mountaineers Crack, a popular training area in the Icicle Canyon near Leavenworth.

The victim, Karl (45), and his rope partner, Roy (27), were attempting to climb a section of low to mid fifth class crack. One of the instructors, Larry, was giving general supervision of the climb from a nearby fixed rope position. Both climbers had led climbs of similar difficulty during the course of the weekend and at other times and were comfortable and confident with the conditions encountered.

A belay station was established at the base of the climb. The first four meters of climb consisted of a moderately inclined fourth class face which the climbers had no difficulty in negotiating. No protection was placed in this area which later proved to be a contributing factor to the severity of the injuries sustained. The next four meters involved a crack climb in which the crux move was the initial meter where the flaring, wide crack made jamming difficult and few face holds were available for hands or feet. Roy attempted to lead the route and placed the first piece of protection, a large hex placed end ways, about head high in the crack, six meters above the belay station. The hex appeared bomb proof for a downward pull. After about ten minutes spent attempting to negotiate the crux move, the two climbers exchanged places. Having checked the protection, Karl began climbing and also experienced difficulty with the crux move. After a number of false starts, he succeeded in moving a meter or so up the crack so that the hex was near waist height. While attempting to move past the protection, Karl’s fist jam above the piece failed and in falling backwards and out of the crack he dislodged the lone piece of protection.

Without any protection for the rope, Karl cartwheeled down about 25 meters, striking the ledge at the start of the crack, and from there bounced down the inclined lower face and landed among the boulders at the base of the climb near Roy. Help came immediately from the six other students and two instructors, all of whom were experienced in mountaineering first aid. Karl, who was unconscious for several minutes following the fall, suffered a concussion, broken bones in his cheek and thumb, a severe shoulder sprain and minor leg abrasions. His climbing helmet undoubtedly saved his life judging from the severe damage it sustained. After regaining consciousness, he was able to walk to the nearby road from where he was transported by ambulance to the hospital in Leavenworth. He was discharged several hours later following various repairs. Two subsequent surgeries and several months of recuperation were required before he could resume climbing. (Source: The Mountaineers)


As with most climbers, both Karl and Roy had fallen numerous times while testing the limits of their climbing skills. Until the accident, the protection they had placed had always been sufficient to stop the falls and prevent any serious injuries. Here they did not see the risks posed by not backing up the one piece of protection for a difficult move. Neither climber foresaw the consequences of an outward or upward pull on the hex. Since the serious portion of the climb began only a meter below the hex, the easy lower face was disregarded as a potential hazard and no protection was placed in this part of the pitch.

Two other factors may have contributed to the accident. First, it was late in the second day of climbing and both were somewhat fatigued and therefore less attentive. Secondly, the climbing up to this point had been both challenging and successful, which probably led to both climbers being in a somewhat overconfident state of mind. The same factors may have led to the instructor’s failure to notice their error in not placing enough protection. Both climbers have since returned to climbing, somewhat wiser.

One very significant lesson learned by those involved in this incident was the importance of wearing a proper helmet when rock climbing. Without it this accident would most likely have resulted in the climber’s death or permanent disablement. (Source: The Mountaineers)

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