American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Placed Inadequate Protection, Protection Pulled Out, Washington, Stuart Range, Colchuck Peak

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  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993

FALL ON ROCK, PLACED INADEQUATE PROTECTION, PROTECTION PULLED OUT

Washington, Stuart Range, Colchuck Peak

On June 21, 1992, Kevin Coplin (36) and Allan G. Fries (46), two experienced climbers, fell to their death while ascending Colchuck Peak. What follows is a report from a member of the search parties that recovered the bodies.

Because the identity of the climbers was not defined to me at the time, I will refer to them as Climber A and Climber B. I believe that Climber A is Fries and B is Coplin from information given by friends (or family) at the Chelan County heliport following the retrieval.

We had been told by the reporting party that the climbers were on the Serpentine Arete on Dragontail peak and that one was a competent 5.9 climber; the other climbed at 5.7. We conducted a thorough search of Dragontail, including this route and all moats at its base. During the day, we were radioed additional information that they might be on “something with ten pitches of 5.9.” We looked at other routes on Dragontail and searched the Northeast Buttress of Colchuck Peak with binoculars. (This route had just been described in a climbing magazine as a Northwest classic!) We observed a party on that route and decided that if the missing people were on the Northeast Buttress, they would see them. We did search one bergschrund at the base of the Northeast Couloir.

The climbers were located in the moat between Colchuck Glacier and the peak directly under the Northeast Buttress route. The moat was approximately 15 feet wide and Climber A was about 25 feet down on a snow ledge. He was wearing a large fanny pack (est. 15 pounds) and had a typical rock rack, including nuts and camming devices. The rope from his harness was tied to a halftwist type locking carabiner with a clove hitch. The ‘biner was clipped to a two inch camming device. The rope was threaded through a belay plate to a carabiner on his harness. Only a short length of the rope was between the belay plate and the anchor. There was approximately 125 feet between Climber A and Climber B.

Climber B was some ten feet lower in the moat (in a much more narrow section) and essentially immediately below A. He was wearing a large rucksack (est. 35 pounds) and had a few nuts and other hardware on his harness. There was one small wired nut loose on the snow in the moat; it did not have a carabiner or sling on it. There were no slings, carabiners, or other protection clipped to the rope between climbers.

Based on these observations, we proposed the following scenario to explain the accident. The climbers had completed the first several difficult (up to 5.8) pitches and reached a “huge left-slanting ledge.” Beckey's guide indicates that the ledge is easy, has some trees, and is 160 feet long. We believe that Climber A led across the ledge placing no protection, and established his belay with the single two inch cam. Climber B removed his belay anchor (the few pieces on his harness) and proceeded across the ledge. His 125 foot fall was held by A's belay plate, but the single anchor failed to hold Climber A. Because of his head and neck injuries, B may have been killed by the pendulum fall. Both climbers went straight down into the moat, with A landing above B. The loose wired nut with the bodies may have been A's attempt to get something else in when the fall occurred, or may have been a piece that B had just removed. The fact that it did not have a carabiner tends to indicate the former.

Analysis

A number of points were made. If one is not going to climb the route that was originally signed out, then leave a note in base camp as to where one decided to go. Had they not died instantly, they would most certainly have died of exposure in the ensuing ten days, because no one knew where to look. This route is known by many others to be very unstable and unsafe in its first pitches because of loose, “rotten pink rock,” as stated in Beckey's guidebook. Never climb more than a few feet above a belayer without putting in at least one piece of protection, preferably more; one piece might have saved both of them. Wear a helmet, though in this case it probably would not have helped; it almost certainly would have had they used some protection for the lead climber. Belay anchors should be more than one piece when warranted. The second climber should be protected on a traverse. (A few slings around the trees would have resulted in a short fall instead of 125 feet here.) (Source: Freeman Keller, Chelan County Mountain Rescue, and Dr. Michael Brown)

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