American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Inadequate Belay, Exceeding Abilities, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Thatchtop

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

FALL ON ICE, INADEQUATE BELAY, EXCEEDING ABILITIES

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Thatchtop

On November 6, at 1300, Chris Chierello (29) was leading the Snake Route (I, WI4) on Thatchtop North Face, and was belayed by Mark Keating (21). Chierello was leading the final headwall section about 100 feet above the ground, when his tool and crampon placements failed in thin ice, causing him to fall onto a regular (29 cm) Black Diamond tubular screw. Keating was not watching the leader and was not tied into any ground anchors. Keating was yanked upward, wrenching his shoulder at such an angle as to cause a dislocation. Due to the extra rope lost from the inattentive belayer, Chierello fell approximately 30 feet fracturing his right ankle. Chierello was then lowered by his belayer to the ground. Nearby ice climbers assisted Chierello and Keating with their injuries, and ran out to Bear Lake to alert the Park Service. Both climbers were evacuated on plastic snow litters by park rescue.

Analysis

The Snake Route is typical of many winter water ice climbs in that the more dramatic- looking sections, in this case near the base of the route, are often less dangerous than transition areas near the tops of the climbs. Paying attention to changes in ice quality indicates that it may be appropriate to place one last solid screw before venturing into unstable territory. When climbing thin ice, the climber's weight should be evenly distributed among all four points of contact. All new placements should be gradually weighted before being trusted. The belayer, as well as the climber, needs to be tuned in to these changes as well. Thin ice climbs should be practiced under the controlled conditions of top-roped ascents before a leader attempts to lead routes of this nature. Chris Chierello had been climbing ice for two years and only recently began to lead ice. Mark Keating was a newcomer to ice climbing but had experience rock climbing. Both climbers were wearing helmets and plastic boots, which may have prevented additional injuries.

The local emergency room physician reported that he had been seeing numerous injuries to Thatchtop North Face (a.k.a. “The Loch”) ice climbers, mostly beginners, of several per week during this winter season. These accidents were not reported to the National Park Service, although required, and so additional helpful tips which may have been gained by investigators are not available. Thatchtop North Face ice has become increasingly popular, with over 25 parties per weekend day observed during winter 1997— 98. (Source: Jim Detterline, Longs Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger)

(Editor's Note: The last observation is consistent with the comment on the cover photograph. Fifty to 75 climbers per weekend can be an estimate close to 1,000 ice climbers for the season)

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