FALL ON SNOW, LOSS OF CONTROL – VOLUNTARY GLISSADE, FAULTY USE OF CRAMPONS, INEXPERIENCE
Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Mount Teewinot
On the morning of July 17, David Berry and Andrew Baldyga departed Yellowstone National Park and stopped at Jenny Lake Ranger Station to obtain climbing information on Teewinot’s East Face route. Ranger Randy Benham recalls talking briefly to Berry and Baldyga about conditions on this route. He told them about the lingering snow on the East Face route and the need to cross the large snowfield in the middle of the face. Benham also mentioned the “tricky” fourth-class rock section above this snowfall. He does not remember any other particulars about this contact. Since day climbs do not require registration, most of these contacts at Jenny Lake Ranger Station are brief in duration. Berry and Baldyga then drove toward Moose and Jackson where they visited several mountain shops, purchased some gear, rented crampons and bought some food. They drove back later that evening and camped at Lupine Meadows Trailhead, retiring for the evening at 2345.
At 0920 the next morning, they awoke, ate breakfast, and then started their ascent at 1000. According to Berry, they climbed until approximately 1630 where they waited out a short-duration snow squall and tried to find a line of ascent through the fourth-class rock crux above. Unable to pass through this section with confidence and with the hour getting late, the duo began their descent at 1800. Berry led the way until he encountered the large snowfield that lies in the middle of Teewinot’s East Face. Berry decided to descend on rock, while Baldyga opted for a snow descent. Berry continued down on rock for around 200 feet before gaining access to the large snowfield. Both climbers stopped to affix crampons, made the transition to snow and continued down slowly with Berry slightly ahead of Baldyga. After descending a short distance, Berry stopped to wait for Baldyga. Berry heard a noise above and looked up to see Baldyga cartwheeling down the snowfield. Baldyga’s fall, estimated at 600 feet, took him out of view of Berry. Berry cautiously continued down to try to locate his climbing partner. Baldyga came to rest a short distance from three other climbers (O’Connor, Ruthardt and Sherwood) who moved him a short distance to a large down-sloping ledge, administered first aid and dialed 911 on their cell phone at 1917.
Ranger Larson received notice of the accident through Teton Dispatch and requested a contract helicopter. Helicopter 43T, piloted by Ken Johnson, arrived at Lupine Meadows at 1958. Spotter Perch, along with Rangers Byerly and Johnson, conducted a reconnaissance flight of the accident scene, which had previously been located via a spotting scope and verbal guidance from Sherwood. The helicopter returned to Lupine Meadows and was rigged for a short haul mission. With Perch as spotter, Byerly and Johnson were inserted to the accident site, followed by Benham and Jernigan on the subsequent flight. No pulse or respirations were detected, and given the massive trauma present, a DNR order was given at 2032. The body of Baldyga was long lined from the accident scene to Lupine Meadows at 2120 and released, along with personal property, to County Coroner Bob Campbell.
Teewinot, highly visible from the much traveled east side of the Teton Range, is one of the most important Teton peaks in terms of placement, size, and popularity. In a Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range by Leigh Ortenburger and Reynold Jackson, the authors state, “The routes on the East Face can be studied at length from the highway with binoculars or telescope. The ascent of Teewinot, however, should be taken seriously because the moderately steep snow in the East Face couloir has been the site of several accidents. Knowledge of use of the ice ax is essential for early and midseason climbs.” Given the heavy snow load of 1999, a mid-July ascent definitely would require knowledge of moderate snow travel.
The East Face of Teewinot Mountain is a long (5,600 feet of elevation) climb requiring approximately six and a half to eight hours to ascend from Lupine Meadows. An alpine start is desirable to reach the summit before the customary afternoon thunderstorms roll through.
Andrew Baldyga and David Berry were intimidated at the thought of down- climbing the main East Face snowfield. Berry stayed on rock as long as possible before gaining the snowfield, while Baldyga opted to access the snow tongues above the main snowfield. Both climbers stopped to attach crampons, even though the snow was moderately soft at 2100, according to SAR rangers on scene who felt comfortable without crampons during their descent of the main snowfield at 2200. Baldyga and Berry descended the main snowfield slowly. Berry fell a couple of times but was able to self arrest after a short distance.
Andrew Baldyga was last seen by witnesses butt glissading feet first with ice ax in hand. He did not appear to be attempting self arrest, gained speed, and probably caught a crampon, which sent him cartwheeling out of control. He fell approximately 600 feet before coming to rest near a large down-sloping ledge. His ice ax (a nine-ounce Grivel with no wristband attached) was located 100 feet above him and his crampons were still firmly attached to his lightweight boots.
One can only speculate why Baldyga did not attempt to self arrest immediately. His inexperience on snow might have made self arrest a time consuming, conscious act, allowing too much speed to accumulate and panic to set in. Perhaps Baldyga did not realize the gravity of the situation and the need for immediate self-arrest attempts. Perhaps he was thinking a butt glissade was a great way to descend. (Source: Leo Larson, SAR Ranger)
(Editor’s Note: There was another accident on the East Face route involving a fall on snow near an area known as The Idol and Worshiper. John Pagendarm, who was climbing alone, lost his self arrest position and fell head first into a moat. Thanks to other climbers nearby, a ranger team and contract helicopter were able to extricate him within a few hours. He suffered a basal skull fracture and several facial fractures.
Other mountain related incidents in the Tetons included two cases of acute mountain sickness [AMS], one to a hiker and one to a guided client on the Grand Teton; one severe knee injury from a fall while skiing down from the Lower Saddle; and one femur fracture resulting when a snow boarder hit a rock at the bottom of a fifty-foot jump he took in a remote area known as uUnskiabowl. ” The latter two required helicopter evacuation. The question is whether to call these “mountaineering” accidents. Neither party, unlike the Steve Koch climb and snowboard descent of Mount Owen last year, set out to engage in any form of climbing or ski—now to include snowboard— mountaineering.
It may be a fine line, but in any case, it certainly complicates the editing job! At least the readers—and who knows, maybe even potential victims—are made aware of complications that are set in motion when serious injuries happen in back country ski accidents.)