American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Fall on Snow and Ice, Pueblo, El Pico de Orizaba

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993

AVALANCHE, FALL ON SNOW AND ICE

Puebla, El Pico de Orizaba

On November 16, 1992, a group of eight climbers began the standard route, Glacier de Jamapa, on the north slope of the mountain. The party of eight included two guides, Octavio Juarez and Tim Villanueva, and their clients, Kurt Dreibholtz, David Kristensen, Dick Nelson, Bob Roberts, Mike Randall and James Stevenson. The second party members were Rolando Montemyor and Bernardo Zuiga. The climbers left the Piedra Grande Hut at 0200. They reached the glacier about 0430, put on crampons, and shortly after the party of eight roped up into two teams of four. The other party of two continued unroped. The roped team led by Octavio Juarez climbed ahead, followed by the team of two as they were climbing a little faster than the second rope team led by Tim Villanueva. At one point the six climbers ahead climbed out of sight from the second rope team as the route rounds the ridge slightly toward the crater rim.

About 0845 around 4,500 meters (17,712 feet) as the lead group was diagonally ascending, a crack appeared in the two to four inch firm crust. The team members immediately secured their ice axes and watched the surface crust below them release. Moments passed, and, as they thought they were safe, a secondary release from above occurred. The slab hit each team member and the second team of two unroped climbers knocking them off their feet and into a tumbling fall along with the moving snow and ice. They fell about 700 meters to the base of the Chichimeco Glacier.

The second roped party did not see the fall. Their team was hit by a piece of snow and ice. At the time it did not seem likely that the ice came from the team above because the angle of the first party’s route and the estimated distance between parties did not correspond. The second party chose to descend to the base of the Jamapa Glacier and wait for the first party to descend. About one hour and 45 minutes later, Tim Villanueva heard voices below and to the east. It was Kurt Dreibholtz and Bob Roberts who survived the fall. Dreibholtz was hurt but could walk; Roberts couldn’t walk and was suffering from shock. They both said Octavio Juarez, David Kristensen, Rolando Montemyor and Bernardo Zuniga were lifeless. Tim Villaneuva responded to the injuries of Dreibholtz and Roberts. He planned and executed an emergency evacuation plan with the help of two other American climbers, Jeff Selleck and Douglas Neighbor and two German climbers, Alfred Menzel and Frommknect Lutz, who were at the hut. The entire group helped evacuate Dreibholtz and Roberts to the hut where they were transported by vehicle to Tlachichucha and on to the hospital in Jalapa.

Analysis

It is suspected that around 5,400 meters with the change in aspect from north to slightly northeast and with a slightly lower slope angle of the area near the crater rim, the melt/ freeze cycle produced a surface crust that may have been in transition. The fall occurred at an area referred to as “The Crevasses.” Though they were well filled in, it may be that the terrain change under the surface snow could have added to the weakness.

November is considered the ideal month for climbing because the bare ice is most likely to be covered by desirable snow. The 1992 wet season lasted longer than normal, with squalls of short storms continuing into October. There was no measurable new snow for at least several days prior to the accident, and no unusually high winds or obvious recent transport of snow. Several parties had climbed the route each day prior to the accident. Their tracks were visible and distinct. The party of eight had ascended the two other highest peaks of Mexico (Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl) the days before on similar aspects of slopes. They observed no avalanche activity and experienced desirable snow conditions. On the lower part of the route they experienced no unusual snow conditions with the steps being about boot-top deep. There was no evidence of avalanche activity. The snow conditions produced a favorable response to probing tests and quick ice axe shear tests.

Of the rope team, the first and third were killed. Both the two unroped climbers were killed. All who died were killed by fatal blows and were on the surface of the debris. They did not die from suffocation. At the hospital in Jalapa, Dreibholtz was diagnosed with multiple lacerations, snow blindness, frostbite, muscle and soft tissue trauma on left groin, hip, knee and leg and Roberts was diagnosed with multiple skin lacerations, severe muscle trauma on the left shoulder, rupture of left ligament and probable lesions of inner meniscus of the right knee. Villanueva's response to the accident was responsible for saving the lives of Dreibholtz and Roberts.

A group of about 40 climbers from Socorro Alpino of Mexico, the Red Cross of Jalapa, and climbing friends of Octavio Juarez efficiently managed the recovery of the bodies who remained on the mountain. Several local expert climbers who were involved with the body retrieval considered this a very unusual incident. The rescue leader considered it possibly a one-in-one hundred year occurrence. (Source: Bela G. Vadasz, Mountain Guide)

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