American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Ice Screws Pulled Out — Soft Ice, Fatigue, Washington, Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 1998

FALL ON ICE, ICE SCREWS PULLED OUT—SOFT ICE, FATIGUE

Washington, Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier

Mount Rainier communications received a report of a fallen climber on the Nisqually Glacier from a cell phone call on September 6. The reporting party, a Seattle Mountaineers instructor, indicated that a climber in his group had fallen during ice climbing practice. The climber, Eric Brunson, was leading a moderate angle ice climb in a popular practice area on the Nisqually glacier. Brunson fell near the top of the climb shortly after placing his last ice screw. Due to soft ice conditions, all of his ice screws pulled out and Brunson fell to the ground, a distance greater than 40 feet. Brunson, who was wearing a helmet, sustained a possible back injury during the fall. His team members then moved him to a less hazardous area and the team called for a rescue.

A Jet Ranger helicopter met rangers Brenchley and Yelverton at the park helibase and inserted the team near the accident scene in a large serac field where they assessed Brunson’s injuries and determined that he should be flown out immediately. Brunson, with a possible broken back, was prepared for flight while his group assisted rangers in preparing a better landing zone to prevent a difficult lowering. The pilot was required to pull power while on one and a half skids as Brunson was loaded into the ship. Brunson was flown to the helibase where he was transferred to an Airlift Northwest helicopter and flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for treatment. His injuries included a compression fracture of T4 and T5 vertebrae and a fractured hip.

Analysis

Brunson’s ice climbing experience was limited, and he may not have realized the dubious nature of protection in glacier ice under warm summer conditions. It’s also worth noting that he reported feeling “gripped” at the top of his climb and was a little shaky when placing his last screw.

Ice protection is less than optimum even under “perfect” conditions. Scraping away surface slush and using long screws is strongly recommended when leading glacier ice under warm conditions. Confidence in one's abilities, especially in respect to placing gear on lead, is important.

It is also worth mentioning that the Mountaineers group was extremely prepared, having their own litter and descent route marked. Their assistance and preparedness helped to expedite this evacuation. (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Rainier National Park)

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