American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Ice — Unstable Route, Misjudged Conditions

Utah, Sastaquin Canyon

  • Accident Reports
  • Author: Seth Shaw
  • Accident Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 2000

We had a five-day warm spell followed by a weak cold front for 36 hours prior to the climb. Overnight temperatures had been well below freezing, so the ice was brittle.

We climbed the approach pitch to the first ledge. From here we could see the pillar hung mostly free for about 50 feet, almost touching the ground. A week earlier, this route was barely touching the ground and had been climbed. Now there was a crack and four inches of space near the ground showing that the pillar had retracted in response to the weather conditions. Looking at the ice structure caused my partner and me to comment on its apparent instability. She was convinced it was unsafe and suggested that we climb a different route. I had climbed this route in a different year when it was not touching down, though its dimensions looked less stable this day. I climbed up without really swinging my tools, either hooking or tapping my picks in on the bottom overhang, then chimneying between the ice and the rock, once that was possible. There is a bolted line on the rock behind the pillar that is a dry tool variation. I had clipped in to one bolt about 25 feet from the ground. About 40 feet up, I felt like I was past the most unstable part. I was near the place where the ice attached to the rock about ten feet above me. The pillar was about six feet in diameter. The second bolt I wanted to clip in to was not an easy reach, so I swung my pick into the ice with intentions of reaching the bolt by leaning off a secure pick placement. But the placement caused a clean shear across the pillar, propagating instantly from the point of contact. I fell a split second behind the falling pillar due to the friction of my butt against the rock. Right above the ground, I was arrested by the rope, but I was not spared the shower of large ice chunks. I ended up with broken ribs and shoulder and a deeply bruised leg. My wife was belaying 50 feet to the side, tied to a tree. It took us about three hours to get to the car, usually a half hour jaunt.


The warming trend had probably created a lot of tension in the ice underneath its point of attachment. The cold night had made the ice brittle, so long, running fractures were more likely The danger was fairly obvious. The lapse was in my perception of my ability to deal with the danger. I was too focused on doing this particular route. Also, I was complacent because I had climbed many similar structures with no mishap.

In hindsight, I can see I was lucky to get away with relatively minor injuries. My choice to climb an unstable route endangered the follower, since she could have caused the entire structure to collapse near the bottom, which would be almost certain death. (Source: Seth Shaw)

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