American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Failure to Test Ice Tool Placement, Ice Tool Pulled Out, Inattention, New Hampshire, Crawford Notch, Hitchcock Gully

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

FALL ON ICE, FAILURE TO TEST ICE TOOL PLACEMENT, ICE TOOL PULLED OUT, INATTENTION

New Hampshire, Crawford Notch, Hitchcock Gully

On January 9, 1992, my partner, Charles Narnold (22) and I (21) went ice climbing, after spending the night in the AMC hostel in the Notch. We walked down the tracks to the base of Cinema Gully, a moderate ice climb on Mount Willard. The ice in Cinema Gully was generally in good condition with the first pitch being a bit thin. We reached the top around 1200 after about three and a half pitches. After some lunch and a rest, we walked along the tree covered terrace that runs across the face of Mount Willard to the bottom of the final pitch of Hitchcock Gully, another moderate ice climb. Moving into the gully, we set up our belay anchors—two Black Diamond ice screws, and my partner's two tools—and I started up. I found the ice in this gully to be much harder than in the previous climb, probably due to the lack of sun it receives. About ten feet above the belay I stopped to place some protection. While I attempted to clip my ice axe to my harness, my feet slipped. Because my hammer was not placed well enough to catch me, I fell. I snagged my crampons, breaking my left ankle and dislocating my right foot. My partner held my fall and lowered me another 35 to 40 feet down the gully. After making me comfortable and talking for a few minutes, he took off for help, down climbing the rest of the snow and ice to take the railroad tracks.

About two hours after he left, I heard voices and called out so they could find me. The first people to reach me were a climber from the Hostel and an MRS member (Mountain Rescue Service in North Conway, NH). They splinted my legs, put me in a sleeping bag, and lowered me to flatter ground just as the other MRS members arrived. I was put into the litter and lowered the remaining 1500 feet to the tracks where I was put into a sled and dragged to the road. I reached Memorial Hospital in North Conway at 2030, six hours after my fall.

Analysis

The reason for my fall was my poor placement of my ice hammer. When my feet slipped, my hammer broke out of the brittle ice causing me to fall. I should never have attempted to clip my axe until I was sure my hammer was really stuck. Lack of concentration on this easier climb was also a contributory factor. Any time you’re on ice with crampons and ice tools, you must be one hundred percent focused on what you’re doing. (Source: Joel DePaola)

(Editor’s Note: On the same day, two university students from Maine were climbing Hitchcock Gully on Mount Willard when the leader fell and broke his leg. He said if he had known how very brittle and hard the ice was “that day," he would not have tried the route. On the day before, a similar accident occurred on Cathedral Ledge in North Conway. The ice climber fell from Repentance when the brittle ice between his two tools broke, and was compounded when his ice screw protection came out. George Hurley, long-time guide and member of the New Hampshire Mountain Rescue Service, points out that (1) knowledge of the history of the ice formation and (2) learning how to install good protection— in this case equalized screws—are important skills for winter climbers.)

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