American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall into Crevasse, Inadequate Belay, Inadequate Equipment, Washington, Mount Rainier

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

FALL INTO CREVASSE, INADEQUATE BELAY, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT

Washington, Mount Rainier

On May 15, 1991, James Tuttle (43) and 'Lester Spross (37) checked in at Paradise Visitor Center for a climb of Mount Rainier via Fuhrer’s Finger. At the center they changed routes in favor of the Ingraham Direct after they were informed of avalanche danger and they decided they weren’t experienced enough to climb anything other than a standard route. They left Camp Muir at 0400 on May 17, ascending roped together via the Ingraham Glacier. Reaching the 12,200 foot level at 0800, in little wind and good to poor intermittent visibility, they approached a crevasse four to five feet wide. The more experienced Tuttle was leading and crossed the crevasse, then prepared to belay Spross.

Tuttle’s ice ax was probably jammed into the snow, but the rope was not around the ice ax, as he was in a sitting “body” belay position. Spross began to cross in his partner’s footsteps. The snowbridge collapsed, and Spross fell into the crevasse. He felt momentary tension on the rope, then fell more, pulling Tuttle with him. Spross landed on an open space in soft snow at the bottom of the crevasse, about 200 feet below the surface. He was uninjured except for bruises and was able to communicate with Tuttle, who was wedged in a narrow spot some 20 feet above him and stuck so tightly he could not move. Spross tried to climb up to him, but after a long struggle could only get to a point below where his partner’s feet dangled in the air. He cut away ice, tried without success to get his ax under Tuttle’s feet for leverage. Tuttle was starting to lose energy. He told Spross to save himself, to use all of his energy to climb out of the crevasse. “Don’t die here with me,” he said.

One hour after the fall Tuttle lost consciousness. Spross continued to cut ice to make the ledge on which he stood larger but could not maneuver higher. Tuttle died about 1600. Spross was trapped next to him through the night and all the next day. He could not go higher but managed to rip open Tuttle’s pack with his ice ax for food and water. During the second night heavy snow fell, piling up from the bottom of the crevasse. Spross chipped more ice to build a snow/ice bridge, which ultimately saved his life by creating a cone that gave him a way to exit the crevasse. Thus, two days after the accident, with Tuttle’s crampons strapped to his hands, Spross began inching his way out of the crevasse, reaching the surface about noon of May 19. He tried to return to Muir but got lost in a storm and spent the next eight hours descending the Ingraham Glacier until he reached the road at Box Canyon. (Source: Compiled from reports by NPS Ranger Rick Kuschner and Lester Spross.)

Analysis

No one had ventured high on Ingraham Glacier for weeks prior to the accident due to moderate to high avalanche danger. Tuttle and Spross had insufficient gear with them to be out overnight, and when they did not return on May 18, concerned climbers called from Camp Muir. A massive search was initiated by National Park Service and Tacoma Mountain Rescue personnel. In the days that followed, rescue efforts were hindered by unfavorable conditions and the search parties exposed to personal risk. Spross was found May 19 in Box Canyon. Subsequent NPS Ranger survey of the accident site four days later confirmed his account. A Ranger team lowered into the crevasse located Tuttle’s body, but they were unable to extricate it. His death was probably the result of asphyxia, from a crushed chest, and hypothermia.

Spross himself drew the following conclusions about the accident: (1) Originally the climb was to have been a party of three. A larger party would have been safer, no matter what the experience level. (2) He felt they didn’t have enough rope between them. (Source: Rick Kuschner and Lester Spross)

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