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Fall on Ice, Inadequate Protection, Exceeding Abilities, Colorado, Ouray, Ouray Ice Park


Colorado, Ouray, Ouray Ice Park

John Ohlson (61) was leading Pic O’ the Vic (WI 4) in the Ouray Ice Park. He led up to a stance at a cave—about 20 feet up, and placed an ice screw. He then continued up the next section, which was nearly vertical. About 20 feet above his screw placement, he came off. He essentially landed at the base of the climb. The rope did not come taut until the very end of his fall, and likely provided minor deceleration at most.

John sustained compression fractures to the T12 vertebra, a broken right thumb, and lacerations to his hands and face. Various others treated him at the scene. At first he thought he could walk out, but concern for the severity of his injuries prompted rescue personnel to raise him from the canyon bottom by winch on a litter with a body splint. He was taken by ambulance to Montrose Memorial Hospital.


Ohlson had a long history of alpine climbs with modest technical difficulty, but he was a relatively new water ice climber. He had been training hard the previous week with this particular objective in mind. He had done a lot of top roped climbs of difficulties similar to this, all without incident or falls. His leads had not previously exceeded WI3+. He felt he was ready for this climb but still ran into difficulty. Clearly, the protection was inadequate, as it failed to keep him from grounding. He may not have been as well prepared as he felt he was. (Source: Steve Firebaugh—The Mountaineers)

A few comments additional comments by John Ohlson

A humbling experience, but I have fully recovered and now lead comparable ice nearly a year later. Time and more experience provide a useful perspective. I was not as well prepared as I thought. I attribute my fall directly to my inexperience with water ice variability, which requires substantial experience to judge reliably. This cannot be overemphasized to novice leaders on water ice, irrespective of their other climbing skills.

My ground-fall became possible by my running out the lead, raising a related issue. I am a conservative rock climber and place pro liberally. However, as others do, when the climbing is easy, I run it out to save time and energy, particularly for alpine climbing where speed is safety. Where I fell was easier than the vertical section I had just readily passed and I felt fully in control. My fall was a complete surprise. Since ice is more deceptive and less reliable than rock, running out a lead, particularly to the second screw, is a dangerous habit that long-time rock climbers must suppress, at the very least until they are experienced with ice quality.