American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Inadequate Protection, Poor Position, Inexperience and Avalanche (Two Separate Accidents) — Alberta, Banff National Park, Cascade Waterfall

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  • Publication Year: 2000

FALL ON ICE, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, POOR POSITION, INEXPERIENCE and AVALANCHE (TWO SEPARATE ACCIDENTS)

Alberta, Banff National Park, Cascade Waterfall

These two serious accidents are reported together because they happened on the same climb within minutes of each other on December 17. They were separate and distinct accidents in one respect, but both incidents overlap in terms of terrain and the roles of the various people present.

Cascade Waterfall is one of the most accessible multi-pitch Grade III climbs in Western Canada. It is situated within sight of Banff town site, and consists of several hundred meters of ice beginning with easy lower-angled terrain leading up to three steeper main pitches of climbing. It is not uncommon for there to be several teams of climbers on Cascade at once. Like the majority of ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies, Cascade Waterfall is exposed to avalanche risk.

About 1400 on December 17, nine climbers in four separate parties were all positioned at various points along the main upper climb. One party of climbers had reached the end of pitch one, which is moderate Grade III. They decided to turn around and rappel back to the start of the pitch. When 21-year-old M., a beginner ice climber, reached the end of his rappel, he detached from the rope and began to walk across the low-angle ice. He was aiming for the ledge of dry rock which several others were using to exit the climb onto scree slopes to the east. Witnesses on the ledge say he took one or two steps, lost his balance and fell. He had no tools at hand and accelerated rapidly. He tumbled approximately 100 meters down the low-angled ice and came to rest on a broad ledge part way up the low-angled approach ice. All but two of the other climbers present were immediately aware of the accident and several began to descend toward M. by rappelling from the upper pitches or by down-climbing the scree route.

Meanwhile, two other climbers had reached the top of the main cliff and had walked a farther 70 meters to a final 12-meter curtain which they both climbed. They were unaware they had reached the access to an alternate descent in the forested slopes to the west of the climb, and prepared to rappel the gully. They tried to install an Abalokov anchor several times, but found the ice at the lip of the curtain unsatisfactory. After 20 minutes, they finally chose a tree on the slope beside the gully. T. (31), a German national who was living and working in Calgary, rappelled to the foot of the curtain and detached from the rope on the flat snow at the foot of this ice step.

When his partner was halfway down his rappel, an avalanche came over the lip of the ice. One quarter of the main basin 200 meters further up the mountain had released. The climber on rappel immediately swung to his right away from the main volume of the slide. T. had no protection where he stood. He was hit by the full force of the avalanche and swept down the gradually steepening slope and over the main waterfall. He fell approximately 250 meters, coming to rest only a few meters from the victim of the first accident.

The avalanche occurred 15 minutes after the first accident. It caught everyone below in various stages of descending. The flying debris contained a large amount of loose rock which rained on the parties below. Some climbers were hit, but miraculously no one else was swept off or killed by the rock and ice fall.

All of the survivors were able to walk off the climb. Several were badly bruised and had broken bones. One climber spent a week in hospital in Calgary due to concern about kidney damage. Both the men who had fallen undoubtedly died almost instantly.

Analysis

Accident #1: Many climbers solo up to the point where this fatal accident occurred. In other words, it is “easy” grade 2 or 3 terrain. The difference is that climbers have ice tools in their hands when walking up the rolling steps. Due to his inexperience, M. misjudged the risk if he slipped while unroped and without an ice tool in his hand. The ice ramp below him was polished and unforgiving. He slipped seconds after detaching from the rappel, before anyone could warn him of the danger.

Accident #2: The avalanche hazard was rated “considerable” at treeline on December 17. By definition, “natural avalanches are possible” with this rating. Moderate snowfalls and steady winds had been gradually increasing the risk over the previous week. At the same time, one of the effects of the wind had been to strip snow from exposed terrain, giving the mountains in the Banff area the characteristic appearance that climbers have come to call “bony” or bare. On December 17, the terrain above Cascade Waterfall did not “look” very threatening.

This accident illustrates the difficult choices that are presented when the avalanche danger is in the mid-range of the scale. The party involved in the avalanche accident had considered the risk and decided to go anyway but to try and finish the climb as fast as possible in order to minimize their exposure. By midday, very strong warm winds had begun. The survivor said that about the time the slide hit them, he and his partner were concerned by the winds and by the fact it was taking them so long to get set up to go down.

There were seven other climbers on Cascade when the slide occurred. They all must have made some kind of calculation of the risk of climbing there that day. But one has to wonder to what extent any of them were also influenced simply by the presence of so many others on the climb. (Source: Parks Canada Warden Service)

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