American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Ice, Weather—Unstable Conditions, Poor Belay Position, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994


Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park

On January 1,1993, Henry Browning (35) and David Pyatt (34) set off to climb Jaws II WI 4-5, a frozen waterfall route in the Windy Gulch area of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a warm day, with temperatures above freezing, and direct sunlight on the south-facing 300 foot long route had combined to make the ice very unstable. So the climbers decided to top rope the bottom of the right side of the climb from fixed anchors on a rock horn about 60 feet up. At 1250, while Pyatt was lowering Browning from the pitch, the section of rotten ice below Browning spontaneously collapsed and fell into large, heavy sections. Pyatt's belay position was directly below the falling ice, in the gully. He was unanchored to the belay, but he was wearing a helmet. Pyatt dodged the first three or four large blocks of ice, but sustained a pneumothorax injury with one broken and two cracked ribs when the next block glanced off his back as he tripped on his crampons. Although disabled by the accident, Pyatt was able to eventually lower his stranded partner Browning to the ground by 1315. Park Ranger Mike Pratt (EMT-P) witnessed the accident from the Fern Lake Trail below, and responded to the scene. Rocky Mountain National Park Rescue Team evacuated Pyatt from the scene with an 800 foot scree evacuation and wheeled-litter travel of about one mile.


Jaws Falls is recommended only for cold mornings after sufficient ice formation has taken place. Pyatt and Browning left too late in the morning for their climb, on an exceptionally warm day, and were on the route in mid-day when sunlight was shining directly upon the ice. They chose to climb the right side of the falls, which is generally the more unstable part of the formation. They ignored the signs of previous ice falls in the gully. They realized that the ice was unstable when they correctly decided not to lead the route. However, if Jaws is too unstable to lead climb, then it is also too unstable to top rope.

Pyatt took up a belay stance directly beneath the climb on the gully, in full exposure of any falling ice. Had he been on the rock island directly below the gully's east edge, he would have been reasonably protected from falling ice. Finally, Pyatt was not anchored into his belay. Fortunately, he did not lose consciousness or motor function, as he would have dropped Browning about 50 feet. Pyatt had climbed ice since 1985, Browning since 1983. (Source: Jim Detterline, Long’s Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park)

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