American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Climbing Alone and Unroped, Possible Avalanche, Exceeding Abilities, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Park

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

FALL ON SNOW, CLIMBING ALONE AND UNROPED, POSSIBLE AVALANCHE, EXCEEDING ABILITIES

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak

On April 20, 1991, Joe Massari (45) was attempting Kiener’s Route on Longs Peak. Conditions were quite adverse, with heavy snowfall, variable visibility, cold temperatures, winds, and extreme avalanche danger. A local guide and Everest summiter who had turned his party around contacted Joe near Jim’s Grove and reiterated the hazards. Joe Massari continued up Lamb’s Slide, across Broadway, and onto upper Kiener’s Route. Because he was climbing solo, unroped, it can never be fully known, but evidence suggests that Massari either fell from near the top of the rock band or triggered an avalanche at this location.

Massari fell approximately 1,500 feet to Mills Glacier, where he died of massive injuries. His body was covered by deep snows. An intensive ground and aerial search ensued when the Longs Peak ranger reported Massari was overdue on April 22. Two helicopters, two avalanche-trained search dog units, several technical climbing teams, and about 40 ground searchers on skis or snowshoes scoured a large area around Longs Peak as orchestrated by the thorough planning of the overhead and investigative units. After four days of searching without recovering any clues, and with increasing hazards to searchers (the technical teams on Longs Peak had been involved in 15 avalanches), the search was scaled down. On June 18, a technical climbing patrol of five rangers and a visiting rescuer from Venezuela, Williams Sarmiento, discovered Massari’s body and personal effects (including two cameras) melting out of snow on Mills Glacier. The team removed Massari and his effects from the glacier with the assistance of a llama helicopter from Jeffco Airport.

Analysis

Reconstruction of accident details was pieced together by on-site field investigators, the coroner, and a Board of Inquiry. Joe Massari had a long history of solo climbs and was very familiar with Longs Peak. However, he had never succeeded on Kiener’s Route, and had been avalanched from it twice before. Massari’s backcountry permit (from self-service registration) was incompletely filled out, and he had not left word with anyone as to his plans. In fact, the search was initiated by a park ranger who noticed that Massari was a day late according to his permit. The lack of a plan and some personal details of Massari’s life complicated the search efforts. If Massari had used a rope during his solo efforts and had left a properly detailed plan with someone, it is possible that this tragedy could have been prevented. Given the adverse conditions that he started his climb with, it would have been better mountain sense to turn around and reschedule the climb.

One should consider the possibility of adverse consequences to others before setting out on solo climbs in desperate conditions. The search efforts were quite hazardous considering the weather, avalanche conditions, and flying conditions. Fortunately, no rescuers were injured. This accident cost nearly $35,000. (Source: Jim Detterline, Ranger, RMNP)

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