FALL ON SNOW, AVALANCHE (TWICE), POOR POSITION, LATE START, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT-STOVE
Alberta, Lake Louise, Wapta Ice Field, Peyto Glacier Approach
On March 19, Ken Fischer (32), myself—Jonathan Fischer (29), and my wife Carey (31) began what we thought was to be a five day ski traverse of the Wapta Icefield. Due to logistical problems, we had gotten a late start and had started skiing at the embarrassingly late hour of noon. The route traverses Peyto Lake and then continues up a moraine to gain the Peyto Glacier. Our goal was to reach the Peyto Hut at the top of Peyto Glacier, a six-mile day.
While climbing up the moraine, we came to a decision point. Well marked cairns that we had been following traversed the upper east slope of the moraine, or an alternative route continued to the top of the moraine. It was late, nearly five o’clock, as we were making very slow progress because of heavy first-day packs and route finding problems at the base of the moraine. Ken decided to scout the cairned route as it looked promising and the cairns seemed logical up to that point. I said to Carey, “It’s getting late and we’re all tired; we’re going to make a mistake and someone is going to get hurt.” Seconds later, Ken radioed to me that he had slid out onto a steep snow slope and may need assistance. I hurried around the corner to find that Ken had slid about 30 feet out and down a small snow slope sandwiched between two rock outcroppings. The majority of the slope was windswept with lots of exposed rock. Ken had tried unsuccessfully to climb straight up the slope but encountered very deep snow conditions. He had our only rope. We decided the best thing to do would be to cut straight across the snow to the rock outcropping on which I was standing, maybe 20 feet away. He took one step in that direction when the slope avalanched, the fracture line occurring some 50 feet above him. He was swept over a rock face and out of sight. I screamed to Carey to grab our avalanche probes and shovels and scrambled down to the top of the rock face. My heart sank. The face dropped steeply for several hundred vertical feet. The chances of him surviving such a fall seemed low.
Carey then arrived with the shovels and avalanche probes. We dialed our avalanche beacons to “receive” and descended a short distance to a better vantage point where we could make out two objects at the base of the slope. After looking carefully for several seconds in the late afternoon shade, we concluded that one was Ken and the other his backpack. There was no sign of movement and we could not tell if he was lying face up or down.
We considered our options. Going up or across the moraine to obtain easier ground to the bottom of the valley would expose us to additional avalanche paths and would be very time consuming. We concluded that we must descend the slope if we were to have any chance of helping Ken. The temperature was now in the single digits and he would not survive long partially buried in the snow, assuming that he was still alive. Carey went back up to retrieve our gear, as we would need it to set up camp on the valley bottom. I began the descent. The climbing was mostly 4th class with occasional stretches of lower 5th class, but seemed much harder under these conditions. I found Ken lying with his head downhill and face up. He was conscious, but very disoriented and had signs of being hypothermic. He had lost his hat and gloves in the fall and his jacket had filled up with snow. His face was badly bloodied and he was missing one of his front teeth. He had complete movement in his arms and legs and no pain in his lower back or neck. A spinal injury, at least, seemed unlikely. He sat up on his own and complained about severe pain in his lower left rib cage. I put as much clothing on him as I could and put him on a mat with his sleeping bag around him. I radioed to Carey that Ken was alive. She suggested that she throw down our backpacks, as negotiating the steep slope with a heavy pack was out of the question. Carey pushed the packs over the rock face. Watching them pinball down the slope a vertical distance of 400 to 450 feet made me think what a miracle it was that Ken had survived such a fall. Carey then strapped the skis together and pushed them down the slope, but they got caught up at a very precarious point on the rock face. “We’ll worry about them later,” I radioed to Carey.
I positioned myself at a point where I could see the entire descent and radioed to Carey what I thought would be the best route. She was making good progress when she was slowed by the most difficult climbing slightly more than half way down the slope. I started to get concerned about her ability to negotiate the 5th class rock. I grabbed the rope from Ken’s pack and began to ascend. I realized that the rope’s usefulness would be limited, because anchor possibilities were few. I gained a bench maybe 30 feet below her. I could see my footsteps on a small strip of snow that traversed upwards connecting the two of us. Carey was on a small patch of snow maybe five feet from where my footsteps were. There was absolutely no way that I thought that the tiny patch of snow on which she stood could possibly avalanche, particularly considering that I had cut across the corner of the snow patch maybe five feet away. I was wrong. A fracture line ripped across the snow patch approximately 15 feet above Carey, sending her tumbling out of control. The bench I was standing on was several feet wide and I felt secure. In the heat of the moment, I naively thought that I could traverse the bench and stop her descent, as the volume of snow falling seemed relatively small. I ran across the bench to intersect her fall line, only to find the bench faded to exposed rock. I realized my mistake and tried to retreat, but it was too late. What seemed like a trivial amount of snow on the outer edges of the avalanche hit me with an unbelievable amount of force, peeling me off the rock and tumbling me down the steep slope. I smashed my face and then slammed hard on my right side on a bench 100 feet below. My momentum, however, carried me off the bench and down another 25 feet where I landed feet first on a large pile of snow. After several seconds of disorientation, I screamed for Carey who quickly appeared on the bench 25 feet above me. She scrambled around and down to where I was. My face was bloodied and I had injured my wrist, but it was still functional. Carey had hit the side of her head and broken her glasses as well as severely bruised her legs. We had both fallen approximately 125 vertical feet, but managed to avoid serious injury.
We descended easy ground to reach Ken and found that his condition had worsened. We needed to get him in a tent quickly, out of the wind. Our position was threatened by dangerous hang-fire some 500 feet above us. Considering the avalanche conditions, the winter environment, and the distance to the trailhead, we decided it would be dangerous for Carey or me to try and go for help at night. Every conceivable place to set up a tent seemed scree covered or in an avalanche path, so we settled on an awkward spot in the scree. Carey set up the tent while I tried to start the stove. (We had just purchased a new stove the night before, as the airlines had confiscated our trusty stove, even though it did not have any fuel in it.) For the life of me, I could not get the stove to start. We both knew that we would pass a difficult night without the stove, trying to keep Ken from reaching a profound hypothermic state. It was a miserable night with temperatures dropping to -10 degrees F with a moderate wind, but we survived.
I got up before dawn to scout a route out. I had intended on going for help, as I doubted Ken’s ability to walk out on his own. I traveled down the valley several hundred yards to a corniced 40-foot drop that had stopped our progress along the valley bottom the day before. If we could get down that, we would be on familiar ground for 3.5 miles to the trailhead. I went back to camp to find that Ken was up and moving and wanted to hike out. I attempted to retrieve the skis while Carey packed up, but was unsuccessful. The terrain was simply too technical and I was, logically, very concerned about additional avalanches. I retreated, discouraged, knowing that it was going to be long hike out without our skis. Ken’s skis were apparently buried in the avalanche, as there was no sign of them.
I returned to camp and we began our hike out. We rappelled down the steep corniced part, which had surprisingly stable snow conditions. After several hours of exhausting post-holing, we reached the car and took Ken to the hospital in Canmore where he was diagnosed with three broken ribs, a pneumothorax, a missing tooth, a severe cut on his elbow, chipped ulna, and several severe lacerations on his face that required stitches. He was admitted to the hospital for treatment of the pneumothorax.
Four days later, on his 33rd birthday, Ken was about to be discharged from the hospital. However, only minutes before his release, he collapsed and was paralyzed on his right side and was unable to speak. The doctors suspected a stroke, and he was transferred via ambulance to a regional stroke center in Calgary for specialized treatment. In Calgary it was diagnosed that a massive clot had blocked the main artery to the left side of his brain. A special blood thinning drug, t-PA, was administered through a catheter directly into the clot, saving his life. Although it was never determined definitively, the doctors suspected that the stroke may have been caused by a clot formed in the carotid artery which could have been damaged in the fall. He was released from the hospital a week later and has been undergoing stroke rehabilitation with tremendous success.
The late start from the trailhead contributed to this accident. The snow was more unstable in the late afternoon, and we were moving anxiously, and therefore not as safely, fighting daylight to reach the hut. The terrain that Ken was on was not an obvious avalanche path from our perspective. The presence of exposed rocks giving it a sense of security, but obviously not preventing it from avalanching.
Having a dysfunctional stove when it was really needed shows the importance of inspecting and testing all gear prior to a trip.
Given the mechanism of injury, we should have been more concerned about a potential spinal injury than we were. We let ourselves get distracted by his painful rib injury and the urgency to treat the hypothermia.
I believe the fact that we had been prepared to camp out and had carried a tent, even though we had been planning on staying in huts throughout the trip, may have saved Ken’s life. Had a storm decided to hit that night, it most certainly would have saved us all. Considering the always present difficulties of route finding in winter conditions and the possibility that an injury or equipment problem could quite easily cause one not to reach the hut, it seems foolish to not be prepared for an unplanned bivouac on such trips. (Source: Jonathan Fischer)
(Editor’s Note: Thanks to Jonathan Fischer for sending this thorough account and analysis.)