American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow—Faulty Use of Crampons, Oregon, Mount Jefferson

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

FALL ON SNOW–FAULTY USE OF CRAMPONS

Oregon, Mount Jefferson

On Sunday morning, April 25, Brent McGregor (51) and Tom Herron (40) began a climb of Mount Jefferson. McGregor and his climbing partner had started their climb at 3:00 a.m. Sunday but did not reach the summit until around 5:30 p.m., as heavy, wet spring snow challenged their every step. “The snow was pretty soggy, and we had a late summit - later than we should have,” he recalled. “The snow conditions slowed us way down.”

The pair were ankle and sometimes knee-deep in snow on their journey. “Once you stepped onto the crust layer, you’re way down to your ankles,” he said. “It’s very tiring, a long haul to the top. The snow was warm, and the freezing level was 11,000 feet, higher than the 10,495-foot peak.

McGregor summited the peak after fourteen hours of climbing as Herron, who was very tired, waited below. “We knew that we were going to have soft snow,” he said, and as for the descent, “A lot of people say that’s where you get hurt. My energy level was high. We knew we had two hours to get down the mountain that we would be able to use our headlamps to follow the (Pacific Crest Trail) out.

“We would have been fine, if I didn’t slip,” McGregor recounted. “I was going down maybe a 45-degree slope. The snow was really soft, and we were plunge-stepping down the mountain. (They were not roped together.)

“I hit an area where there was a sheet of ice, with two inches of fresh snow on top of it, instead of the deeper snow we were going on,” he said. “The area around me, the surface snow broke loose. Everything came down and took me with it. I was face down to self-arrest...

“When I did that, it ripped through the snow,” McGregor said. “I worked up a pretty fast speed for 15 to 20 feet. Then one of my crampon points hit the snow, and they caught. They say never wear crampons if you’re going to glissade.

“Then I heard a snap, a pop,” he said, of his fibula, down by the ankle. “I went a few more feet and stopped, because my other foot was buried under the snow. Similar to the friction of an avalanche, it built up a hard substance around my leg.” Once he dug out his other foot with the ice ax, McGregor said, he saw “that (left) boot had been twisted completely around. It looked like it should have been broke, but it wasn’t.” Herron, who got within 100 feet of the summit Sunday, did not see McGregor fall, as he was on the other side of some rocks at that point in their descent.

“As soon as I stopped myself, that’s when the pain hits real hard,” McGregor recalled. “I sort of focus on breathing, calm myself down, try to collect my thoughts, wiggle my toes a little, bend my ankle, then I feel the pain. I called for (Herron), he came over, and I said, ‘I’m not walking out.’”

Emergency dispatchers got a call on McGregor’s cell phone around 7:30 p.m. but somehow got the mistaken impression the pair were closer to Pamelia Lake, a popular fishing and hiking area, according to Linn County Sheriff Dave Burright. Information that came in during the night made it clear that the pair were higher up the slope than earlier believed, at about 7,900 feet, the sheriff said.

“So we burrowed in and stayed there,” McGregor said. “Tom used the ice ax and dug kind of like a small snow cave, wind break. We took the climbing rope and put it on my back, for insulation from the snow, took the foam pad out of the backpack, put all our clothes on, and looked up at the stars and down at the rescue lights.

Linn County Sheriff's Search and Rescue called for military helicopter assistance because of the danger and difficulty. The climbers were lifted off the mountain at mid-morning on the next day. After an hour at the emergency room, McGregor was released with a temporary cast. (Source: Robert Speik)

Analysis

Neither my partner nor I felt comfortable dropping down the mountain without our crampons on. There were icy areas we crossed that would have been very difficult to navigate without crampons. Common knowledge states plunge stepping with crampons should not be done. It was equally impractical to install and remove crampons to suit the snow and ice conditions. We felt we needed them for the icy sections, realizing they were less than ideal in the soft snow. We saw no perfect answer at the time.

Here are two things I could have done: 1) Turned and faced the mountain to down-climb the icy sections we encountered; or 2) find another route down the mountain. (Source: Brent McGregor)

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