American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Inadequate Protection, Poor Tool Placement, Exceeding Abilities — Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Hidden Falls

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

FALL ON ICE, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, POOR TOOL PLACEMENT, EXCEEDING ABILITIES

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Hidden Falls

On December 20, Ben Johnson (21) was leading Hidden Falls Left (I, WI, 3+) belayed by Krys Obrzut. Johnson climbed the first steep step to the ledge and placed the only screw he used on the route. Johnson continued up the vertical face and was climbing confidently and aggressively He was attempting to make the transition from the vertical to the belay ledge when his accident occurred. Johnson had one and possibly both hand tools placed on an upward facing edge/ flake of ice about 1.5 feet long by two inches thick. As he stepped high with his left foot, the weight transferred to the hand tools broke the ice flake. Johnson tumbled backward and upside down, striking the ledge with his right shoulder, which took most of the force, and then struck his head. Johnson then flew over the first step but came to rest four to five feet from hitting the ground, finally caught up by his ice screw and belayer. The total length of the fall was 60 feet. Johnson sustained a fractured scapula, collapsed lung, and minor head injuries.

Analysis

Contributing factors in this fall include poor hand tool placements, relying with too many points on a thin and water-weakened ice feature (the flake), overly aggressive climbing style and attitude, inexperience, insufficient protection (only one screw) and nothing to prevent an impact fall to the ledge. The ice flake may have been weakened by water flowing from above in greater than normal amounts due to an illegal ditching operation by a local climber.

Johnson was wearing a Petzl Rockhelmet, which may be credited with minimizing his head injuries. He was knocked unconscious, sustained a forehead laceration from hitting the sharp edge of the helmet, and went into convulsions, but he did not suffer a concussion. (Source: Jim Detterline, Longs Peak Ranger) (Editor’s Note: There were no accidents in Eldorado Canyon this year. However, I received several brief reports on incidents in Boulder Canyon, Flatirons, and Mt. Sanitas, forwarded by Bill May. These mostly involved bouldering. Attention was also called to the avalanche fatalities involving hikers. One lengthy—6,000 word—report gleaned from the internet and entitled “Death and Transfiguration” told of a serious fall due to inadequate protection (belayer and rappel anchors) on Green Mountain Pinnacle. The website is www.geocites.com)

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