FALL ON SNOW, CLIMBING UNROPED, SNOW CONDITIONS—NÉVÉ
Oregon, Mount Hood, Cooper Spur
On September 6, Mark Fraas (40) fell 1500 feet down the Cooper Spur after losing his footing.
There have been at least 13 fatalities on the Cooper Spur. All follow a similar scenario: loss of footing, inability to self-arrest, and a long fall over rock cliffs above the Eliot Glacier. Because of the hazardous fall line, this route should only be attempted when snow conditions give firm footing and the party is prepared for immediate self-arrest. These conditions are usually present in the very early hours of spring mornings.
Friends of Mark Fraas indicated that he had climbed Mount Adams and Mount Hood several times, that he was an expert telemark skier, and that he was not a foolhardy person. He and his partner, Rodney Brenneman, were carrying skis and were not trying to reach the summit.
It was also reported that he was a person who “did everything to the limit.” Further, “He was always ebullient, enthusiastic... operating at a different level than most people.” (Source: Jeff Sheetz, Portland Mountain Rescue; and “The Oregonian,” September 8, 1997).
Excerpts from a letter by Rodney Brenneman, Fraas’ partner, to the Crag Rats Mountain Rescue offered the following:
I feel there are three likely potential causes of Mark's fall: One, he was hit by a rock and knocked off balance. While he wasn’t wearing a helmet, there was almost no rock- fall and this seems highly unlikely. Two, his crampons lost grip or edge points broke out. I found no icy or crusty spots at all, nor was the snow the slightest bit slushy (I was wearing gloves with no shell, placing my one hand against the snow constantly, and my gloves weren’t the slightest bit wet). This is possible, but seems less likely than the third possibility: He caught his crampon points (probably left foot) on his leggings as he stepped through. This I believe is the most likely cause. Mark was wearing leg warmers he had made, which could be pulled down to boot top (like cyclists use) if they become too warm. He had these pulled down (as well as his sleeves off) at the time of the fall. Given the steepness of the slope, there would be a very small space for the uphill leg stepping through during traversing.
Regardless of the cause, the fact that Mark was traversing (piolet canne) without anchoring his ax meant any slip was a fall. Finally, once he lost his ax (and without a leash to perhaps help him retain it) there was no chance of arrest. I also have no idea how familiar he was with self-arrest techniques.
I understand from others that Mark was an excellent and experienced telemark skier. Nothing I know or heard about Mark indicates that he had any experience as a “climber”—except in the context of doing approaches for skiing. I have climbed and taught rock climbing for a number of years, and climb grade WI 4 ice. Mark had the knowledge of the local terrain, fitness and confidence of an experienced “climber.” In retrospect, it is my gut feeling that he may not have had the experience to judge when he had crossed over his technical limitations and when to adopt a more conservative approach.
Cooper Spur should never be climbed fourth class—roped but without placing protection. You don’t stand a chance of holding another climber’s fall on this steep a slope without some anchor. I don’t feel unroped climbing is unnecessarily dangerous for an experienced climber on this route—as it is the fastest method of ascent. Personally, the only change I would have made would have been to use two axes in piolet panne (with leashes) so that I always had an anchor. It is just as fast and is safer. There is a danger with two axes and leashes should you somehow come off, however. I believe that self arrest is nearly impossible from the upper slope in the neve conditions we had and that the climber must not fall.
In conclusion, I think information which alerts people to the seriousness of the Cooper Spur route is one of the best accident prevention tools. The most dangerous aspect of the Cooper Spur route is that it never really looks or feels dangerous or particularly exposed—at least until one is very committed to the upper portion.