American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Weather, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Flattop Mountain

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

AVALANCHE, WEATHER

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Flattop Mountain

On November 1, 1992, Brad Farnan (30), Todd Martin (24) and two female climbers were practicing snow climbing techniques on the Central Couloir, Northwest Face of Flattop Mountain. The women decided to turn around at the junction with the West Couloir. While descending, they were within the protection of a rock island when they felt what was described as a “strange wind” coming down the Central Couloir, along with one of Martins gloves. Visibility had been poor all day, and they were unable to establish voice contact. Park Rangers were contacted, and a massive search effort took place in what had turned into the first really major storm of the season, with some rescuers in snow up to their shoulders despite snowshoes. On November 3, the packs of the missing climbers were observed about 400 feet from the top of the climb. As of January 1, 1993, the climbers have not yet been located and are believed dead from avalanche.

Analysis

Farnan was an experienced and respected mountain guide with Colorado Mountain School. This was a trip among friends, and not a CMS class. He had been climbing and guiding in these gullies of Flattop all during the Autumn season without incident. On the day of his disappearance, conditions in the gully were stable and excellent climbing. (He had also been there the day before.) The storm had just begun to blow in when Farnan started climbing, and had not dropped much precipitation at that point. It is believed that the cornice overhanging the route broke while the climbers were taking a break on a ledge.

It was unusual for the cornice to have persisted this late in the season. On this mountain face, the cornices generally form at the beginning of winter, and drop off in late

spring to early summer. Although Farnan correctly judged conditions on the route itself, there was no way of knowing that the cornice had been sufficiently weakened to unload. Climbing beneath this sort of feature is a calculated risk of mountaineering, and the cornice failed despite passing all the usual tests such as sufficient cold weather, no visible cracks or weaknesses, and no previous unloading. (Source: Jim Detterline, Longs Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park)

(Editor’s Note: In 1992, according to Rocky Mountain National Park Chief Ranger Joseph Evans, there were 314 SAR callouts, 34 of which involved technical climbers. But 25 of these were “overdue” parties, and only four of them were significant in terms of manpower and expenditures of money. In three of these cases, three climbers were fatalities. Seven callouts involved technical climbers in trouble—some of whom were experienced, some of whom were beginners. The point to be made is that climbers—as opposed to hikers and scramblers—accounted for only a small percentage of the SAR activity overall. However, as we often mention, media and various agencies tend to count all SAR missions in Rocky Mountain National Park, and other parks with a mountain orientation, as “mountaineering” or “mountain related” accidents, lending false credence to the notion that the sport has a high accident rate and is very dangerous.)

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