AVALANCHE, FALL ON SNOW, INADEQUATE PROTECTION
Alberta, Jasper National Park, Mount Woolley
On November 13 at 1000, a party of three (ages: 25, 26, 26) set out to climb the Japanese Couloir of Mount Woolley on a clear morning with light winds. They were climbing together, equally spaced along a 50 meter by nine millimeter rope with one ice screw in between each climber. The climb was mostly hard snow and ice on a slope angle ranging between 40 and 50 degrees. Around 1215, the lead climber was near the top of the couloir when the snow became boot-top deep and he triggered a slab avalanche up to 50 centimeters deep by about 50 meters wide. The lead climber was knocked off his feet and was swept down with the avalanche. One of the group members believes the rope broke when all three climbers momentarily hung from the highest screw. It is likely that the second screw pulled out when it was shock loaded. All three climbers fell approximately 500 meters over hard snow, ice, and rock outcrops.
When the avalanche came to rest, one climber was on the surface, the second was buried to his neck, and the third climber’s legs were buried. The distance between the climbers suggested that the rope did indeed break.
The entire incident was observed by J.B. (23), who was staying at the Mount Alberta hut at the base of the Japanese Couloir. He grabbed sleeping bags, sleeping pads and a shovel from the hut and ran 15 minutes to the fallen climbers. J.B. dug them out, cut off their harnesses and packs where necessary, wrapped them in sleeping bags, placed them on sleeping pads, replaced their helmets with toques, and left them with food, water, and a guide’s tarp. J.B. left the scene at 1300 and was at the highway by 1500 (normally a five to six hour trip). He asked a passing motorist to call 911 while he drove to the Sunwapta Warden Station.
At 1617, a helicopter from Golden arrived at the staging area and took three Wardens and one Paramedic to the scene. The residual avalanche hazard was evaluated and found to be nonthreatening. Time was the main concern as there was limited daylight left to evacuate the victims. At 1638, rescuers arrived on scene and the patients were assessed. Climber 1 had a fractured pelvis, concussion, and fractured vertebrate. Climber 2 had a hemothorax. Climber 3 had a fractured pelvis and punctured bladder. By 1726, all victims and rescuers were evacuated.
Prior to leaving, the party spoke with a Public Safety Warden, who advised them that in the past week, approximately 30 centimeters of snow had fallen with moderate southwest winds in the area. An avalanche bulletin posted on November 8 indicated there was moderate hazard in the alpine and advised that soft slabs may exist on wind-loaded slopes. The party consisted of experienced climbers who admittedly were driven with the anticipation of the views ahead on the nearby summit. Had the party looked more closely at the shallow gully above which was lined with a lateral cornice on the left, they may have detected the slab earlier. Earlier detection may have given them the option to turn around or possibly to choose to go up and right to a rib of scree and shallow snow.
Simultaneous climbing with protection placement is a climbing style used to move quickly when travel is good, the chances of a fall are minimal, and the consequences are not serious. In this case, if only one climber had gone on to assess the snow while the other two were anchored off to the side at a belay, the risk may have been minimized. Whether or not a thicker rope would have made a difference in this situation is unknown, as it may have been the screws that failed under the weight of the three climbers. The rope was buried under the avalanche debris, so the exact cause of the equipment failure remains a mystery. (Source: Lisa Paulson, Jasper National Park Warden Service, J.B., rescuer)