American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Failure to Self-Arrest, Washington, Columbia Peak

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 1998

FALL ON SNOW, FAILURE TO SELF-ARREST

Washington, Columbia Peak

On July 13, Lee Giroux (50) and five other members of the Seattle Mountaineers attempted to reach the summit of Columbia Peak. The party left their camp at 6:00 a.m. that morning. Each party member was wearing a helmet and harness and carrying an ice ax. About 30 minutes into the climb there was about a 20 minute wait while Jim Tweedie, one of the trip leaders, scouted ahead to determine the route.

The party proceeded up to the toe of the glacier where Jim climbed a short rock gully, set up a belay and belayed Justin Merle and Lee up the pitch. Lee belayed the remaining party members up the pitch. Jim and Justin proceeded up the snow slope to a rock section thought to be the chimney section described in the route description. Upon reaching the rock section it was apparent that it did not match the route description. After reviewing the map and route description, it was decided that they would traverse up a 35 to 40 degree snow slope. The traverse was about 200 yards and was situated above a cliff band. Jim and Justin kicked steps up the slope to where it ended in rocks and heather and proceeded up to a high point. The rest of the party followed. They decided that they were not on the main summit of Columbia so Jim spent about 30 minutes scouting ahead to determine if it was feasible to get to the main summit from their position. After deciding that this was not feasible, the party decided to retrace their steps.

The day was warm, sunny and about 70 degrees F. The snow was soft and would accept an entire kicked boot. Crampons were not used because of the tendency to ball up in soft snow thereby not allowing the teeth to cut into the snow The party retraced their steps on the traversing slope. Lee was the third person traversing the slope, and was followed by three other party members, including Jim. Lee had been traveling about 15 minutes and had just gone from holding his ax in his right hand to holding it in a two- handed self-belay hold and was traversing facing the slope. Lee’s fall was not seen by the members of the climb; however, one party member did hear Lee hit the snow but could not distinguish the sound as either being a slip or a fall. This party member was closest and observed that Lee was falling on his back, head down with his ax somewhat underneath him on his right side. As Lee began to slide down the slope, all members observed that he did not make any attempt to self-arrest.

From the point he fell, Lee traveled about 75 feet down the snow slope along a ledge and over the cliff into a snow runnel. Jim and the other trip leader, Bob Hetzel, talked to the other members to determine if they felt comfortable in continuing down the slope. They were comfortable and proceeded down the slope slowly using ice axes for selfbelay. Jim observed that the steps were not broken where Lee had fallen nor did he see marks indicating that Lee had attempted to self-arrest.

Bob was proceeding first and came to within 25 feet above Lee. He stepped into the snow runnel and began to move down. He made about three steps down when he heard someone yell, ’’Avalanche!” Bob dug his ax into the snow and put his head down. The snow flowed over Bob pushing him down about three to four feet. The avalanche carried Lee down approximately another 500 feet.

Bob stepped out of the snow runnel and proceeded down the slope as did the rest of the party. The snow ended in the rocks about 15 feet above Lee. Bob belayed Jim down to Lee while the rest of the party stayed on the rocks with Bob.

Jim found Lee in a face up position. Lee had sustained fatal trauma to the right temple area of his head. Jim determined the safest thing to do was to secure Lee in his existing location. Webbing was attached to Lee’s harness and around a boulder. Jim climbed back up the 15 feet of rock to the other party members, and informed them that Lee was dead and that they would not attempt to move the body.

The group arrived back at Blanca Lake at 6:40 p.m. Jim hiked out to notify the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office. The next morning Jim flew back to Columbia Peak in the Search and Rescue helicopter and identified the location of Lee’s body. Lee’s helmet and ice ax were not found at the scene. The other party members left Blanca Lake and hiked out.

Analysis

Lee had ice ax arrest training, was an active climber, and had recently been on several climbs involving steep snow travel. Lee's training included how to self-arrest in this situation. However, traveling downhill on your back, head first, is the most difficult position from which to arrest. It is unknown why Lee did not attempt to self-arrest. (Source: From a report written by a panel of five members of the Seattle Mountaineers and written statements from party members)

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