American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rocks, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Storm Mountain

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2004

FALLING ROCKS

Utah, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Storm Mountain

On February 17th, Kris (27) was hit by spontaneous rockfall while practicing solo aid-climbing on Six-appeal, a 5.6 bolted route at the Storm Mountain picnic area in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The bolts are spaced widely on this route, and he was placing small nuts between them. The rope was anchored at the bottom end, and he was using a clove-hitch as his solo-device, backed up by a figure-eight knot farther along the rope.

He was also moving a fixed line up the route as he climbed, fixing it to the top bolt each time he passed one. Temperatures were warm for February and snowmelt was running down the route and down a chimney left of the route. Kris had moved up and down parts of the route several times when a rock slab released spontaneously from the chimney. He estimated the size of the rock to be ten feet by three feet by one foot thick. He jumped away from the rock and managed to avoid most of the contact. The slab hit his foot on the way by, breaking his ankle, tibia, and fibula in five places. Smaller rocks also hit his face and helmet. He took about an eight-foot fall, ending up hanging from a bolt secured by the clove-hitch. He was able to switch to his fixed line and rappel to the bottom of the route. Climbers from the nearby Bumblebee Wall had heard the rockfall and knowing that Kris was on the route, they came by to check on him and called for help. SAR members met them at the base of the crag and carried Kris to the road where he was transported by ground ambulance. He spent three months in bed or on crutches and has now recovered and plans to climb again this summer.

Analysis

Kris was an experienced climber, wearing a helmet, and practicing good techniques on an easy route. Solo aid climbing can sometimes produce huge fall-forces compared to normal lead falls, but all of his gear held. Spontaneous rockfall can happen at any time, but it is by far the most likely in Spring freeze-thaw cycles, when cracks are forced wider by snow and ice, and then the ice melts, taking out the “glue” holding the rocks together. This is a spot that gets climbed thousands of times a year, and appears solid. It’s not known for rockfall, though perhaps it should be. I’ve personally had my closest call from rockfall about ten feet away from this, just on the other side of the chimney. (Source: Tom Moyer-Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue)

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