American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall into Moat—Snow Bridge Collapsed, Poor Position, Alaska, Chugach Range, Cantata Peak

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  • Publication Year: 1999

FALL INTO MOAT–SNOW BRIDGE COLLAPSED, POOR POSITION

Alaska, Chugach Range, Cantata Peak

On June 6, around 1400, Kirk Towner (26) and I (29) were in the process of descending from Cantata Peak (5,205 feet). After glissading almost 2,000 feet down a prominent snow gully on the southwest face, we traversed the snow slope on the north side of the ice-covered glacial tarn that is the headwaters of a small creek that flows into a lower valley before emptying into Symphony Lake. Due to heavy, late-winter snow storms the area was still covered in four to six feet of packed, granular (“spring”) snow which was relatively easy to travel on, but that obscured many terrain features.

At the outlet of the lake, the slope levels off, so we removed our crampons knowing that ahead there was only one relatively easy glissade of approximately 500 feet that would take us to the valley floor. We continued walking along the north side of the creek which disappeared under the snowpack shortly after leaving the lake. Just before the slope began to angle downward toward the lower valley, I suddenly broke through a snow bridge that spanned the glacial creek. I was instantly swept downstream and over a 40-foot waterfall that was completely hidden under a winter’s-worth of snow where the creek drops into a narrow gorge as it descends toward the valley floor.

I landed on my back in a pool of freezing water where the snow pinched down toward the rock. I was able to pull myself up to stand on a narrow ledge after nearly drowning. Luckily, I was still conscious and realized that my predicament was serious. I had to remove my backpack because it was so heavy. I didn’t think I could move out of the main flow of the waterfall without falling. Leaning against the snow wall, I unbuckled the waist belt and let the pack drop behind me. It disappeared into the rushing water beneath my feet. I then carefully moved to the right out of the main flow on my little ledge. I saw a small hole about 40 feet above me where light was coming in. I attempted to climb out of the cave by stemming between the slippery rock (under the waterfall) and the snow wall (approximately a yard apart) while using my ice ax to pull up on. I made it up about eight feet, before my foot slipped off the snow and I fell back into the narrow gap where I started.

My partner did not see me fall, as he was approximately 150 feet ahead of me below a bulge in the snow slope. The accident had happened so quickly that my screams were instantly muffled. After five minutes of waiting, he climbed back up the slope and realized what had happened. Fortunately, he eventually saw the same small hole near the top of the waterfall and, after hearing my yells for help, was able to lower his ice ax on a 35-foot makeshift sling of pieced- together anchor webbing. (I had been carrying the rope, which was in my pack.) I wrapped the sling of the second ax around my wrist several times before grasping it, then pulled myself up the waterfall in several exhausting moves, using my ice ax and Kirk’s sling (which he pulled on from above).

By the time I got out of the hole, I had been in the near freezing water for almost 35 minutes. I was very hypothermic and my hands were completely numb. Luckily, I had sustained relatively minor injuries—a couple of gashes on my left knee and a blow to the face that had knocked out several teeth in my upper jaw. It was raining fairly hard, so the best course of action was to get moving so that I could warm myself up and keep from getting stiff.

After I was out of the hole, Kirk put all the clothes he could spare on me. We then traversed about 150 feet to the right and glissaded down the final slope into the valley, with me sitting behind Kirk as he braked with his ax. It took us three hours to hobble back to our camp two miles down the valley, where Kirk got me into dry clothes and the sleeping bags. Within a few minutes of lying down, my back and legs became so stiff that I couldn’t sit up or even roll over. After brewing up hot drinks for me and getting some food for himself, Kirk headed down the five-mile trail to call for a rescue, since we did not know the extent of my injuries and it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be able to make it out on my own the next day. I was airlifted from our camp by the Alaska National Guard (210th Div.) at 2200 and then flown to an Anchorage hospital. I was released from the hospital at 0600 (after a million x-rays) with only a few stitches in my knee and a bruised lower back.

Analysis

Kirk and I are experienced climbers, having climbed in Alaska for several years. In this instance, we let our guard down and failed to give the creek a wide enough berth in our haste to wrap up the climb and get out of the rain. We neglected to consider that the underlying terrain might differ from the fairly benign snow slope we were walking on. Narrow gullies and large terrain features can easily be hidden in the deep snows of the Chugach Mountains, and drifting on leeward slopes can fills gullies 50–70 feet deep. Kirk and I had ascended Cantata Peak by a different route and were unfamiliar with the path taken by the creek as it flows into the lower valley from the tarn. We didn’t know of the waterfall as it was buried under the snowpack. Returning to the site of the accident four weeks later, we could see the twists and turns of the creek.

I found that had I been walking a mere four feet to the right, I would have been over solid ground and missed the waterfall completely. The terrain and snow conditions on the day of the accident were such that roped travel was completely unnecessary and would have been a hindrance. Had we been roped together, I might not have fallen down the waterfall. (Upon later inspection I found that I had broken through the snow about 15 feet upstream of the waterfall lip where the creek travels over extremely smooth rock at a 15-degree angle.) However, had we been roped, it’s also possible I would have gotten stuck in the creek under the snowpack and would have drowned at the end of the rope before my partner could extricate me. (Crawling up the slippery rock with a pack on would probably have been impossible.)

I consider myself extremely lucky to have survived this accident at all. I could have easily drowned or sustained injuries in the fall that would have made it difficult or impossible to climb out under my own power. I attribute my survival to a bit of luck (I landed on my backpack which had enough gear in it to cushion the fall), a lot of willpower and adrenaline (I did NOT want to freeze to death), and to my cool-headed partner. Without his help, I probably wouldn’t have been able to extricate myself from the waterfall-cave. I also firmly believe that my helmet saved my life. Had I not been wearing a helmet, it is likely that I would have been knocked unconscious in the fall and then would have drowned. I’m typically adamant about helmet-wearing when doing any form of climbing, but after this episode, it’s the first thing I look for when packing and it never comes off until I’m near the car.

After the accident, Kirk and I decided that it was imperative that each partner carry a 40–50 foot piece of a small diameter (7mm) of rope as a safety line in the event of a similar accident where the victim has the rope (or loses it). It was fortunate for me that Kirk had 35 feet of webbing in the form of slings. I returned to the accident site on two occasions to examine the terrain as it came out from under the snow and to determine if my backpack could be recovered. I estimated that 50 feet of snow was in the gully beneath the waterfall at the time of the accident. On July 25 (six weeks later) there was still a large mass of snow 25 feet thick in the area below the waterfall. However, the snow had melted away from the rock to the point where it was relatively safe for me to rappel next to the waterfall to recover my pack that lay in a pool of water at the bottom. (Source: The victim)

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