American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche—Unsafe Conditions, Weather, Poor Position, Inadequate Equipment—No Ice Ax, Alaska, Chugach State Park, Flat Top Mountain

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2001

AVALANCHE-UNSAFE CONDITIONS, WEATHER, POOR POSITION, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT–NO ICE AX

Alaska, Chugach State Park, Flat Top Mountain

On Saturday November 11, Nick Coltman (36) and his dog Boozer decided to get some exercise and do a fast hike up Flat Top Mountain via the back side— not a standard route, but one Coltman had traveled many times before. Walking was easy because the snow was less than ankle deep most of the way and the tundra was blown bare in many places. The crux of the route is the last 100 meters to the ridge where the gully narrows and steepens through an S-shaped curve. The snow conditions as Coltman entered this segment around noon were different (i.e., more unstable) than any of the previous route. Within a few steps, the snow broke beneath him and sent him falling out of control down the gully. Scrape marks from his finger tips were found in the old bed surface where he had attempted to arrest his fall (he carried no ice ax). Coltman slid an estimated 60 meters down the gully at high speed (estimated at 35-45 mph). As the avalanche gained momentum and distance, it entrained additional unstable snow on the surface. Where the gully opened onto a 35-degree scree slope, he was carried in soft slab debris another 120 meters. In the process he was banged against many boulders lodged in the frozen scree and his dog was scraped and bruised. Debris in the runout zone was less than 30 centimeters deep by 50 meters wide by 200 meters long. The debris extended about 60 meters beyond Coltman in a shallow arc.

Coltman was found in a vertical alignment lying on his back, arms out, legs twisted with his feet up-slope and head down-slope. His hands and head were bare. All 10 fingers were white with frostbite, his head covered with blood. In his right hand, he held a cell phone. He was conscious of his situation, mildly hypothermic, complained of difficulty breathing, and had no feeling in the lower portion of his body. He said later that he knew he would die if he could not reach his cell phone in the bottom of his pack. Somehow, with one lung collapsed and the other partially collapsed, a broken back and paralyzed legs, and frozen fingers, he managed to remove his backpack, retrieve his cell phone, dial 911, and describe his location and predicament.

Rescuers from multiple agencies and groups responded immediately to the Glen Alps parking lot in Chugach State Park. Within minutes, a Life Flight helicopter lifted two paramedics and an avalanche/mountain rescue specialist to the top of Flat Top Mountain, the nearest landing zone. They down-climbed to the site. When the first rescuer arrived approximately 45 minutes after the 911 call, Coltman was lucid, uncomfortable, resolved to stay alive, and worried about his fingers. He said he was sure his back was broken. A primary and secondary survey was performed, heat packs and clothing added, and a snow platform constructed horizontal to the slope. Coltman was carefully moved onto the platform and stabilized with whatever gear was available.

It was clear from the beginning that the most expeditious means of evacuating Coltman would be by using a helicopter sling-hoist. Unfortunately, the Life Flight helicopter was not sling-hoist equipped. In anticipation of this, a Pavehawk helicopter was requested from the 210th Air National Guard. The request was approved, but they would not be able to launch for an hour at the earliest. Preparations were made for a ground evacuation which would require belaying the litter from equalizing anchor systems using rescuers as anchor points (no solid natural anchors existed). This was not the preferred option because of the additional time and exposure demanded of the gravely injured patient. Meanwhile, Coltman was becoming increasingly hypothermic and having difficulty breathing.

Eventually, the Pavehawk arrived on site and, as the two PJ’s were lowered with a litter on the winch cable, they started to spin. As the length of the cable increased, the rate of the spin increased. By the time they were nearing the ground, they were spinning out-of-control directly over the heads of the ground team, who were hunkered down in the 75-90 mph winds (from the helicopter rotor wash) trying to keep the patient from blowing away. Two ground team members were hit by the spinning legs and litter, and one was knocked a short distance down-slope. This was a near-miss accident that could have resulted in several injuries to rescuers and/or death to the patient. Placement of personnel using a sling hoist in the mountain environment is difficult at best, especially with blowing snow and no radio communication between air and ground teams.

Within 10 minutes the patient was secured in the litter and hoisted out with one PJ. Then the second PJ was lifted out and the patient transported to Providence Hospital. Ground teams cleaned up the area and headed back to the staging area. When Coltman arrived at Providence Hospital, he reportedly had a core temperature of 85 degrees F.

Analysis

Terrain, weather, snow stability, and human factors conspired to cause this accident. The terrain was steep and exposed. It afforded poor anchoring for the thin, unstable slab created during the preceding night’s snowfall and wind. What would be considered a minor instability of little consequence on a less exposed slope became critically important in the more exposed gully. When a small slab dish-plated out from underneath the climber, it sent him tumbling over rough terrain and, without an ice ax, he was unable to arrest the fall. Overconfidence, based upon experience on the same route under different conditions, may also have played a part. In summary, this was a minor slab release in a high-consequence terrain. Luck, the cell phone, the helicopters, the rescuers, and Coltman’s will power and toughness all contributed to his survival.

(Source: Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston, Alaska Mountain Safety Center, Inc.) (Editor’s Note: This hiking incident fell into the climbing/mountaineering category once Coltman entered the gully containing unstable snow conditions. It should be noted that Boozer was only slightly injured.)

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