American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice, Climbing on Thin Ice

Alberta, Ghost River, The Sorcerer

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 2001

On February 13, C.W. (26) and I, M.H. (38), were climbing The Sorcerer, a Grade V water ice climb. The first pitch went up a thin, mid-angled shield to a lower-angled dish from which the line headed right across slabby terrain and up to a short, steep wall. The ice was in thin condition, but no thinner than other climbing we had done earlier in the season. We discussed and analyzed the condition of the ice prior to beginning and both of us felt that it could be done safely with good protection available in between thin sections.

C.W. led the first pitch and placed three good ice screws in thick ice prior to reaching the short steep step with thin ice. I could no longer see him and after a noticeable pause I asked him how things were. He responded that he was somewhat unsure about the quality of the ice on the step and was considering retreating. Moments later I heard him yell and fall. The top ice screw held his fall of approximately seven to ten meters.

I was able to lower him directly down to the snow at the base of the climb. Our immediate diagnosis was a broken ankle. We reached 911 on his cell phone and a helicopter evacuation was arranged with Natural Resource Services, Kananaskis Country.

At the time of the fall, C.W. was standing on firm ground at the top of the slabs with his tools in the thin ice on the short steep wall. He was analyzing how well the ice was connected to the rock when he moved one tool slightly and felt the ice sheet give way. He fell feet-first, striking the lower angled slabs with his full weight on one cramponed foot. He was later diagnosed with a broken ankle and broken talus bone. He has had to give up climbing and will one day have to have the bones fused.

Analysis

What to learn from it? Some might say that there was a judgment error for us to consider climbing when the ice was so thin. Others would say that our analysis was sound and that we understood the risks of climbing thin ice and the potential costs of climbing such a pitch. I don’t personally feel our judgment or experience were at fault. We simply chose to play the game and lost on the roll of a die. The most obvious lesson to learn from this is to have a heightened caution and attention when climbing through the transition from lower-angled terrain to steeper terrain. If the lower-angled slab had not been immediately beneath him, and he had fallen on steeper ground with nothing to hit, chances are he would be out climbing with me this weekend.

The practice of clipping one of the two ropes into each ice screw has become standard practice for many climbers. The idea is to create a larger “bungie” effect with the dynamic lines, reducing the force on the ice placement with the heightened risk of a slightly longer fall. Whether or not this was a contributing factor is unknown.

Without the cell phone, the management of the accident would have been much more difficult and time-consuming with perhaps very bad results. The blood flow in C.W.’s foot was severely reduced because of the angle of the ankle and the swelling. If he had been forced to stay out longer, there is a good chance that he could have lost the foot entirely. (Source: M.H.)

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