American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Loss of Control—Voluntary Glissade, Fall on Snow, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Amphitheater Lake

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


Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Amphitheater Lake

Grand Teton National Park dispatch received a phone call at 1345 on August 4, from Josh Howell who was requesting assistance for an injured climbing partner near Amphitheater Lake. Dispatch transferred the call to ranger Perch who was the SAR coordinator for the day. Howell reported that Harold Brown (62) had injured his left arm and shoulder and lacerated his abdomen with an ice ax after falling approximately 300 feet on snow and impacting the rocks below. The incident had occurred at 1315. He was calling from a cellular phone that he had borrowed from hikers at Surprise Lake. Four other partners remained with the patient at the accident site. Howell agreed to return to the patient with the phone and wait for NPS assistance.

Bryan Dean, another member of the climbing party, continued down the trail and reported the incident in person at the Moose Visitor Center at 1431.

Medical control Lanny Johnson was notified of the incident and the reported injuries and concurred that a helicopter response was appropriate. Classic Helicopter pilot Mike Doster arrived in helicopter 46N and transported rangers George Montopoli and Andy Byerly to a heli-spot near Amphitheater Lake at 1427. Rangers Leo Larson and Bill Culbreath were transported on a subsequent flight. After reaching the patient Montopoli treated Brown for his injuries and hypothermia and lowered him approximately 300 feet down a scree slope to the heili-spot. Park rangers and other members of the climbing party were used for the lowering operation. Montopoli was transported with the patient by helicopter to St. John’s Hospital in Jackson at 1637. The remaining rescue team members were transported by helicopter to Lupine Meadows and returned to the rescue cache by 1730.

Brown sustained a badly fractured scapula, two broken ribs and a pneumothorax. Additionally he received a minor laceration on his abdomen from the ice ax. He was admitted to St. John's Hospital for several days for treatment and observation. Brown was wearing a climbing helmet, which probably saved him from more serious injury.


The party had intended to climb on Mount Owen that day but for various reasons they changed their plans and “played around” on the snow near the notch above Amphitheater Lake. The party was descending on snow and four members of the group had glissaded to the bottom. Brown was cutting steps in order to descend until another member of his party convinced him to glissade as the others had done. He sat down to glissade and almost immediately realized that it was not a wise decision. He believes that using the ax to brake changed the direction of his slide. Brown attempted to perform an ice ax arrest one time but was unsuccessful. He began to tumble down the snow slope and in doing so cut his abdomen with the ice ax. The ax was lost even though it was attached to his wrist with a strap. After a slide of approximately 300 feet Brown hit some rocks sustaining various injuries. He hit his head but was wearing a helmet which prevented injury.

Brown said that he had been climbing for about 30 years and had climbed in the Teton range before. Previous climbs included the Owen-Spalding route on Grand Teton., He has climbed extensively on snow, but not recently. Brown has had to use his ax to stop a slide before and has always been successful. At the time of the incident he was wearing boots but not crampons.

Brown was a climber experienced in snow travel and chose to glissade against his better judgment due to encouragement from his climbing partners. Though experienced in the use of an ice ax, he was unable to successfully execute an ice ax arrest after gaining speed. (Source: Rick Perch, SAR Ranger, Grand Teton National Park)

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