American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice/Snow, Unroped, Poor Route Choice, Haste, Alberta, Columbia Icefield, Mount Athabasca

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

FALL ON ICE/SNOW, UNROPED, POOR ROUTE CHOICE, HASTE

Alberta, Columbia Icefield, Mount Athabasca

On August 29 at 0500, F.W. (43), S.C. (34), and U.T. (37) set out to climb the North Face of Mount Athabasca. They reached the summit at 1730 and started to descend by the normal route. The group found that their crampons were balling up with the wet snow, but a hard layer ten centimeters down made them decide to keep their crampons on. At the top of a snow-and-ice feature known as the Silverhorn, F.W. began to descend the steep snow slope instead of taking the easier shale trail to the left. S.C. suggested they follow the shale trail down, but F.W. felt that it would be quicker to go down the snow slope. F.W. started down the slope and then turned to face in, saying that it was getting icy. S.C. was about ten meters above F.W. and heard him shout and watched him fall down the steep slope and out of sight. F.W. did not respond when S.C. and U.T. called him. They descended the shale trail and short-roped down the standard route. Near the base of the Silverhorn, they saw F.W.’s ice ax above the bergschrund, 400 meters below where he had slipped.

At 1900, S.C. climbed to the bergschrund edge and found F.W one meter down and lying on secure snow. He responded to his name but had obviously sustained multiple injuries. S.C. left F.W. lying on his side and put extra clothing around him to keep him warm and stabilize his neck. U.T. was a less experienced mountaineer, and S.C. did not want to leave U.T. with the victim in the worsening weather, nor allow U.T to go down the crevassed glacier by herself. So S.C. descended with U.T. to get help.

At the toe of the glacier, they met two other climbers. D.R. went back up to the bergschrund and reached F.W. at 2030, while S.C. descended to get help from the Warden Service. F.W. was unresponsive and his airway was blocked with blood. D.R. did CPR for an hour with no response or signs of life and so left F.W. to hike down. D.R. met up with responding Park Wardens and a Medic on the moraine near the base of the mountain. With D.R.’s news, it was decided to wait until morning to recover F.W.’s body.

Heavy snowfall that night prevented the Park Wardens from flying to the site until 1100 the following day, at which time they did avalanche control with explosives to make the site safe for rescuers. Two size 1.5-2.0 slab avalanches released and buried F.W. with two meters of snow. At 1325, his body was heli- slung off Mount Athabasca.

Analysis

F.W. was an experienced mountaineer and a member of a search and rescue team in New Zealand. The group was in a hurry to descend after spending longer on the ascent than they had expected. It is likely that F.W.’s slip was caused by his crampons balling up with wet snow on the initial, lower angled part of his chosen descent route. The hard snow and ice surface on the steep face that followed prevented him from self-arresting his fall. After recognizing the poor snow conditions on the summit ridge, F.W. could have opted for the safer route down the shale trail, or could have asked for a roped belay to check out the snow descent. (Source: Lisa Paulson, Jasper National Park Warden Service, S.C., member of climbing party)

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