American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock—Foothold Came off, Failure to Test Hold, Protection Pulled Out

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Spearhead

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: 1996
  • Publication Year: 1997

On July 23, at 10:30, Michael Munsch (34) was leading the fourth pitch (5.6) on the Sykes Sickle route (III 5.9+) on Spearhead. He climbed 20 feet above the belay ledge, placed a “marginal” piece of protection, and continued another five to ten feet. At this point, Munsch stepped on a loose rock which gave way Munsch fell, the marginal piece of protection failed, and he impacted on the ledge with belayer David T. Many. Munsch sustained fractures of both ankles and soft tissue injury to his right elbow. Many lowered Munsch three pitches to the ground, and then went for assistance to park ranger Dave McKee at Black Lake. Munsch’s injuries were stabilized and he was evacuated by Flight for Life helicopter from the base of the climb.

Analysis

Spearhead and its most traveled routes, such as Sykes Sickle, have a well-deserved reputation for sound and solid quartz monzonite rock. However, even the best alpine rock is subject to freeze-thaw effects, where water creeps behind cracks, pushes a rock when it turns to ice at night and expands, and thus loosens rocks to become climbers’ traps. The pitch Munsch fell on was moderate, much below his leading standards, and was typical of alpine rock in that the lower-angled pitches are those most subject to freeze-thaw effects. Treat alpine rock like desert rock, testing or gradually weighting holds. Place the best protection possible at regular intervals despite the easiness of the climbing.

Munsch did an excellent job of landing correctly (on his feet) after his fall, and he was wearing a helmet, but the distance and hard surface factors were too significant to avoid injury. Many is to be commended for his excellent and efficient handling of a severely-injured partner on a three-pitch evacuation, and for his prompt summoning of the emergency medical system. (Source: Jim Detterline, Longs Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger)

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