American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection—Failure to Assess Rock Formation, Inadequate Belay, Exceeding Abilities, Failure to Follow Route, Oregon, Mount Washington

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

FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION-FAILURE TO ASSESS ROCK FORMATION, INADEQUATE BELAY, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, FAILURE TO FOLLOW ROUTE

Oregon, Mount Washington

At sunrise on June 29, Eric Seyler (28) and Kurt Smith (26) left their bivouac high on the North Ridge of Mount Washington to climb Central Pillar, de scribed in their guide book, “Oregon High”, by Jeff Thomas, as “steep, exposed and a joy to climb.” Unable to identify the described route positively, they chose a line that looked promising. At the top of the first 90-foot pitch of blocky, straightforward rock, Eric arrived at rappel slings looped between a fixed piton and a large block. He replaced the slings with a single spectra sling stretched horizontally around the block between the fixed piton and a new passive nut placement. He belayed Kurt to a ledge below and clove hitched Kurt to the single nut at one side of the sling. Kurt set two small passive nuts and attached each of them to his harness. As Eric climbed on, he clipped the rope to one side of the spectra sling as a first point of protection above his belayer. He set three more passive nuts for protection as he continued. Shortly after, Eric and Kurt fell more than 100 feet to hard sloping snow after the spectra sling broke and each piece of gear they had set in the brittle volcanic rock tore out. Both young men lay in agony with broken legs and other very serious injuries for three cold days in the wind and burning sun and two frigid nights high in the Mount Washington Wilderness. By luck alone, their whistle was heard by two Saturday hikers with radio and telephone contact to the Deschutes County SAR and soon after, by four members of the Eugene Mountain Rescue team on a personal outing, perhaps the only climbers on the mountain that weekend. Late in the day, they were airlifted out by USAF Reserve helicopter that was guided in by a cell phone patch.

Analysis

The conversion of sport climbing skills to mountaineering is perceived by alpinists to be full of dangers. Wilderness mountaineering at 7,500 feet requires a significant investment of effort and experience to balance the risk. At guidebook-rated 5.8, Eric believed this route was well within his capabilities. He had been sport climbing for several years, but leading traditional for about two years at 5.9+ at Broughton Bluff, a local crag. This was essentially his first wilderness rock route. Guidebook generalities must be interpreted with cautious experience on less-than-perfect alpine rock.

Eric now realizes he made a grave error in not creating an equalized, narrow angled, no extension, redundant, bombproof belay anchor. As he fell, all of the force came on one nut at a time in sequence as his protection pulled from the rock. He then broke the single spectra sling stretched 120 degrees horizontally and clipped in “an American triangle” only on one side as it raked across the rough volcanic rock. As he pulled his belayer off the ledge, the single mediumsized anchor nut and two small brass nuts exploded from the rock.

Kurt considers his mistake to be his silence. He felt that they should try an easier adjoining route but was silent; he thought the rock looked bad, but did not say so and he did not insist on checking his belay anchor and the first placement protecting him above his belay ledge.

The novice alpinists made two additional mistakes. They had told friends where they were going, but they did not say, “So, if we don’t make it back by then, call the Search and Rescue right away.” And they left their cell phone in the car. (They did not know that the smallest cell phones work very well in the high Oregon Cascades.)

“At some point, I made a statement John Wayne would have been proud of: ‘The only way we’ll get through this is Courage,’ ” wrote Eric Seyler in an article he called “Playing Icarus on Mount Washington.”

The most important thing that can be learned from this accident is how companions can support each other and prevail over unimaginable hardship. Eric and Kurt are continuing to recover from their serious injuries and infections. Medical personnel are amazed that Eric and Kurt did not die on the mountain from shock from their terrible injuries. (Source: Robert L. Speik)

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