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Falling Rock, Washington, Mount Rainier, Dissappointment Cleaver

FALLING ROCK

Washington, Mount Ranier, Disappointment Cleaver

On September 23 about 5:30 a.m., a rock struck and killed noted double amputee climber Ed Hommer. Mr. Hommer and three companions were climbing the Disappointment Cleaver route in preparation for an attempt next year on Mount Everest.

The team of four climbers spent the night at Camp Muir and started their climb at 1:30 a.m. The climb proceeded normally and the team took a rest break at Ingraham Flats (11,000 ft.). The route from the Ingraham Flats ascends another 300 feet then traverses right onto the “Nose” of Disappointment Cleaver, a prominent rock feature that separates the Ingraham and the Emmons Glaciers. Later in the climbing season, Disappointment Cleaver is mostly exposed, loose rock. Any remaining snowfields are hard and icy and have large sun cups that require slow careful climbing.

At 5:40 a.m., the sky was dark and the moon was setting as Jim Wickwire led Herlehy, Rose, and Hommer up the Cleaver. They were traversing rock bands near 11,700 feet when Wickwire heard a the whizzing sound of falling rock. He responded by yelling, “ROCK!” Shortly thereafter, Rose (third on the rope) reported getting tugged backward and thrown off balance. After regaining his balance, he called down to Hommer and received no answer.

Wickwire then belayed Herlehy and Rose down to Hommer, which took about 30 minutes. Once there, it was apparent that Hommer was struck and instantly killed by stonefall. Hommer was found lying face up on the snow with visible trauma to his upper torso, neck, and head.

The climbers were on scene with Hommer for over an hour while they called the Park Service for help. Another team of two climbers on their way to the summit came to the aid of Wickwire’s team. They declined to continue to the summit and instead assisted Wickwire’s party back to Camp Muir.

Ranger’s Kirschner and Winslow planned for a body recovery operation. Two climbing rangers, Giguere and Shank, boarded a helicopter at Kautz Heli-base and were flown to the top of the Disappointment Cleaver. From there, they down-climbed the route to the accident site where they then placed Hommer into a body bag and then into a cargo net. From there, Hommer’s body was flown off the mountain to Kautz Heli-base.

Giguere and Shank, along with Wickwire’s team, were also flown off the mountain too.

Analysis

Disappointment Cleaver is the most popular route on the mountain. It subjects climbers to sustained periods of rock and icefall hazards at varying locations. Teams that move quickly and safely limit their time in these areas. Hommer’s team got an alpine start and was moving at a reasonable pace. Sadly, rockfall is common on Disappointment Cleaver, especially late in the year.

Colder conditions may reduce the rockfall hazards. It seems, however, as though there is always some amount of rockfall and/or icefall hazard on Mount Rainier, making it possible for experienced teams like Hommer’s to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hommer was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. It is believed that a helmet wouldn’t have made a difference however. Though a helmet may not have made a difference in Hommer’s case, the National Park Service strongly recommends that all climbers wear helmets when ascending Mount Rainier. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)