American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Inadequate Protection, Overconfidence, Washington, Mount Baker

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


Washington, Mount Baker

On August 4, 1991, a group of two guides and eleven students walked to an area near the center of the Coleman Glacier on Mount Baker. The ice formed an amphitheater with 30 to 50 degree walls 30 feet high which became vertical for an additional 20 feet, ending in a bulge onto an upper lip. Above the lip were clean, white ice blocks and broken ice walls with water running freely down the ice.

After a demonstration by the guides, the students paired off into five roped teams in five different locations. The students had been advised that the lead climbers should set ice screws before difficult moves; however, two students arrived at crux moves, over the lip, and chose to climb over the lip before setting a screw.

At this point, Tom Brubaker (39) had climbed onto a ledge at the top of the 30 foot skirt and already had two screws placed: one at the midpoint of the skirt, the second at the ledge. He then climbed to the top of the vertical wall. Following the climbing style of the other rope teams, he chose to try the crux move without setting a screw. As he began his move over the bulge, he took a large step with his left foot. His crampon rotated out and his left ice tool popped out. Hanging on his right tool and boot, Tom held for a heartbeat and then plunged downward. The combination of noise created by ice tools, ice screws, carabiners, crampons and Goretex grinding against each other, and the wet, glass-like ice formed a unique crescendo of sound.

Tom fell about 0900. He had approximately 15 feet of rope from where he fell to his nearest ice screw, which was five feet above a ledge at the base of the vertical wall. Tom bounced off the ledge and slid 30 feet down the 40 degree skirt. Two students got to Tom’s head, and he was then lowered to the ground. He was conscious but had difficulty breathing. One of the other students, Kevin, a Mountain Oriented First Aid Instructor (MOFA) and former Navy Hospital Corpsman, administered care. Tom had suffered chest and back injuries, scalp and forehead cuts, and was later found to have a broken pelvis.

By 0945, Tom was stabilized and it was decided that a helicopter rescue was needed. Two students hiked out to solicit a rescue response. Meanwhile, Tom was becoming hypothermic. It was decided that he needed to be relocated in the sun and away from the surface water flowing off the ice. A rope stretcher was the only available means to move him in spite of the risk of a back injury. At 1400 Tom was lifted out by helicopter.


I was in a learning situation, but chose a near vertical route that challenged me so much that I could not think about what I was really there to do. I should have down- climbed or switched routes when I hesitated to continue on from the ice ledge I eventually fell onto. Instead I didn’t listen to myself and was overconfident. After continuing on, I should have placed another ice screw, but was too focused on the climb and did not think of it.

All in all, I blame the problem on overconfidence. I probably would have never attempted the route if I had not felt so in control and capable. Finally, a certain degree of bad luck was involved. I was literally one move from a safe stance and, had I made that move, I truly believe no one would have realized how dangerous it really was. (Source: Tom Brubaker)

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