American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Unable to Self-Arrest, Climbing Unroped, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Teewinot

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996

FALL ON SNOW, UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

Clay Roscoe (26) and Megan T. Piper (25) traveled down from Montana on July 30 and spent the night in the Bridger Teton National Forest at Station Creek, located in the Snake River Canyon. About noon on July 31 they came to the Jenny Lake ranger station where they obtained an overnight camping permit for Garnet Canyon. At that time the unusually snowy conditions on their proposed route—Owen-Spalding—were discussed, as was the advisability of having crampons and ice axes. They left the trailhead around 1500 and arrived at the Moraine camping area in Garnet Canyon four hours later. They were well equipped for this particular climb: overnight gear, including sleeping bags and bivouac sacks; synthetic pile clothing and water/wind-proof outerwear; climbing helmets; a significant climbing rack; ice axes; food; etc. Additionally they had rented crampons.

Roscoe and Piper left their campsite around 0530-0600 on the morning of August 1 for their climb. Upon reaching the area above the Black Dike just west of the Needle, they decided to follow tracks up and west into the couloir known as the “Idaho Express,” located west of the normal Owen-Spalding route. Utilizing this couloir, they reached the Upper Saddle about noon. The climb to the summit from this point took the pair two hours. While descending, they were roped up and wearing their crampons. Since they had only one rope with them, they joined another party for the 120 foot rappel to the Upper Saddle. After the rappel, Piper and Roscoe roped up again (short-rope technique, about 20 feet apart; Roscoe in the rear carrying the extra coils with a butterfly knot to his harness, Piper tied into her harness at the end of the rope with a figure-of- eight follow through knot). They descended to and then down past the Upper Saddle and then continued down to the rock island located on the eastern side of the “Idaho Express” couloir. Roscoe then set up a rappel on the eastern side of this rock island. But then they decided not to rappel, and therefore dismantled the anchor and coiled their rope. Roscoe placed the rope on the pack that he was carrying and they then discussed the best way in which to proceed from that point. Roscoe stated that Piper preferred descending the couloir to the east (the actual Owen-Spalding route), while he wanted to descend the route that they had utilized on the way up—the “Idaho Express.” They eventually decided upon the latter.

Piper was wearing crampons and Roscoe was not. Piper was approximately 15 feet above Roscoe as they both stepped out to the west onto the steep snow in the couloir. Roscoe stated that as he looked up at Piper, “She didn’t look good.” He also stated later that her crampons may have been balled up with snow. At that point she slipped, fell, and made no attempt to self-arrest. Roscoe attempted to grab her as she went by and was pulled off his feet with her. It is difficult to say how far this initial slide on snow actually was as there were numerous footprints and slide marks in the area. Roscoe stated that he thought they had gone about 20-25 feet before hitting the initial rocks, but the on-site investigation pointed to this initial slide as being as much as 200 feet. At any rate, as they slid into the rocks at the bottom of the snow, Roscoe stopped and Piper continued down the couloir for another 300 feet. This area is located immediately west of and slightly above a short pinnacle which marks the point at which they had entered the couloir some hours earlier.

Roscoe traversed east through the notch located just above the pinnacle and proceeded down the snow slope at a high rate of speed at times losing control of his descent. At this time he did not have any climbing equipment with him. He jumped over the first overhang that he encountered (about 25 feet) and then down climbed to the east around the second. Roscoe stated that he “kept seeing scuff marks with a drop of blood.” Lower in the couloir he completely lost control, got in a runnel, and slid all of the way to the bottom. He was screaming for help at this time and kept searching in hope of finding Piper.

At some point, during his descent of the couloir that he was in, Roscoe's cries for help were heard by an Exum Mountain Guides group who had just arrived at the Lower Saddle (1630). The guides in this group included Jim Nigro, Stephen Koch, Wes Runch and Doug Chabot. Upon their arrival at the Guides’ hut at the Lower Saddle, a cellular phone call was placed to the Exum office. I received a call from Exum office personnel at the Jenny Lake ranger station around 1640 which indicated that there was the possibility of an injured climber(s) somewhere above the Lower Saddle.

After receiving the cellular phone call from Exum guide Doug Chabot (which followed the initial call concerning cries for help) in which he stated that he “sees one person walking around way down in Dartmouth Rasin and that he doesn’t see anyone else,” I requested the contract helicopter to be dispatched to the Lupine Meadows helibase. I also began assembling members of the Jenny Lake rescue team. After the helicopter landed at Lupine, an initial briefing was conducted. At 1800 rangers Springer and Alexander were flown to the south side of the Grand to conduct an initial aerial reconnaissance. Additional information from Exum guides at the Lower Saddle indicated that we were looking for a female who had fallen down the “Idaho Express.” Roscoe and Exum guides Chabot and Runch were quickly located in Dartmouth Basin and it was determined that he was ambulatory and able to climb back up to the Lower Saddle with assistance. The focus of the rescue effort was then directed toward the upper portions of the couloir where his partner had fallen. After searching this area for approximately 17 minutes, the helicopter landed at the Saddle with Springer and Alexander. Ranger Jim Woodmencey, on a patrol in Garnet Canyon, arrived at the Lower Saddle to assist with rescue efforts at this time. After the helicopter arrived at Lupine, doors were removed from the aircraft to improve the visibility for searching during the aerial recon. At 1839 the helicopter took off for the Saddle with rangers Perch and Renham aboard. At the same time rangers Springer and Alexander along with Exum guide Stephen Koch started climbing up from the Saddle on foot to conduct a ground search.

Throughout this portion of the rescue operation, plans were made for additional personnel to be flown up to the search area. A helicopter short-haul plan was discussed and appropriate equipment was assembled in case that option were to become necessary. At 1919 ranger Springer and Exum guide Koch located the victim in a moat at an elevation of 12,200 feet in the “Idaho Express” couloir. Springer moved the victim from her head-down position and attempted to find carotid and sub-sternal pulses for approximately 40-50 seconds, but he was not able to detect any pulse. Springer also attempted to listen for any sign of respirations and found none. He reported that the victim had trauma to the head and neck area with deformity and that there was obvious deformity to one leg. Recause of the obvious rockfall hazard to rescue personnel, it was decided to terminate further recovery efforts until the morning when there was the best chance of having colder and safer conditions. The status of the victim and the decision to terminate the recovery effort at this point were discussed with Park Medical Advisor Lanny Johnson and he concurred with the decision. All rescue personnel returned to the Lower Saddle hut to spend the evening. At 2034 helicopter 46N returned with Roscoe to the Lupine Meadows helibase. He was interviewed and transported to St. John’s Hospital in Jackson where he was admitted for treatment. His injuries included lacerations to his hands and wrist and numerous abrasions.

On August 2, beginning about 0700, rescue personnel returned to the recovery site. The victim was raised approximately 15 feet and then lowered about 300 feet to a suitable sling load site. At 1005 helicopter 46N left Lupine and a sling load operation was conducted and completed by 1030. Rescue personnel were returned to the Lupine helibase by 1400.

Analysis

Roscoe and Piper had both been climbing and mountaineering for five to seven years. They were both very fit individuals having rowed at a near Olympic level during their college years. Neither climber had received any formal instruction in snow and ice climbing techniques, yet both had made ascents in the Pacific Northwest—Piper of Mounts Baker, Adams and Hood (possibly a couple of times each) and Roscoe of Baker. Both had ascended Granite Peak, the highest in Montana. Roscoe had also climbed in the Beartooth and Crazy mountain ranges in Montana and in Chile near Portillo in 1994. The Grand Teton was their first experience in the Teton Range.

According to Roscoe, they were in a “very good state of mind” during this particular trip. There had been no recent disagreements between them, and they had been living together in Oregon for “five years and two months.”

The fact that they were off-route during their ascent from the Lower Saddle to the Upper Saddle is noteworthy. Many people, however, make this same “mistake.” The “Idaho Express” couloir appears to be (and is, in fact) a very direct route to the Upper Saddle. The pair had climbed a number of the snow and glacier-covered peaks in the Northwest, so a snow-filled couloir, although steep, may have looked enticing. They were being cautious on the way down, wearing helmets and staying roped up during the technical portion of the descent. At the bottom of the rappel they once again put the rope on, and used the short-rope technique with the strong person (Roscoe) in the back should a fall occur. There was a discussion as to which way to go at one point during their descent and ultimately they decided to go back down the way they had come up. The choice of the route with which they were familiar (even though it certainly is not the easiest descent route) deserves some merit. They made the decision to put the rope away just prior to the accident. This decision may, at least, have prevented a double fatality. Certainly most of the climbers who choose to descend from the Grand Teton in this same area are unroped as well. The snow that balled up in Piper’s crampons definitely could have contributed to her fall. And finally, Roscoe’s decision to reach out and help Piper, even though that precipitated his fall, simply shows how much he wanted to avert what became a great tragedy. It is worth noting that Piper did not attempt to perform a self-arrest and that they both lost their ice axes.

In conclusion, Piper and Roscoe possessed the technical skills to attempt the route, were well equipped and were in the process of descending the mountain in a cautious manner when this unfortunate tragedy occurred. A crampon balling up with snow, not engaging in an instantaneous execution of a self-arrest, and the attempt to try to grab and stop the falling partner are certainly factors that contributed to this accident. It may simply point out to all of us that the mountain environment has inherent risks, even if we are doing everything “right.” (Source: Renny Jackson, SAR Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)

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