American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cornice Failure, Avalanche—Disregarded Information Regarding Snowpack History, Weather, British Columbia, Mount Robson Provincial Park, Mount Robson, North Face

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2006

CORNICE FAILURE, AVALANCHE-DISREGARDED INFORMATION REGARDING SNOWPACK HISTORY, WEATHER

British Columbia, Mount Robson Provincial Park, Mount Robson, North Face

On July 28, a European mountain guide and a very experienced climber (38 and 49) left the Kinney Lake campground to ascend the Dog Buttress to a high bivy point for climbing the North Face of Mount Robson the following day. The route is described as a 50- to 55-degree slope overhung by large cornices and “three times as long” as Mount Athabasca’s North Face, which looms above the Icefields Parkway.

When the men left their spouses, they said that they would return if they felt conditions were not safe. While there was no communication with the men after they left Berg Lake on July 28, that night the mountain was clear, making for a cool night and a tight snow pack. The next morning the women walked over to the ranger cabin in order to change campgrounds and extend their permits. From the cabin, they were able to see the climbers (through binoculars) making their ascent. On July 29, a local ranger observed them around the bergschrund at 6:00 a.m. On the other hand, the climber’s spouses indicated that they last observed the climbers at 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. crossing the bergschrund. They seemed to be making fast progress up the route, climbing simultaneous and short roped, which indicated that conditions were good.

“Traditionally, you would want to cross the bergschrund a lot earlier than that,” climber and helicopter pilot, Andre Lafferma, said. “In order for those guys to make the decision to start climbing the wall at 11:00 a.m., conditions must have been good,” he said. After the two climbers disappeared into the clouds, Lafferma said that nobody really knows what happened. On July 30 at 6:00 a.m., the local park ranger, Chris Zimmerman, observed “two black lumps” at the base of the climb where none existed the day before. They were motionless and on avalanche debris at 10,000 feet below the North Face. Park Wardens from Jasper accessed the climbers via helicopter in poor light and visibility. Rescue wardens heli-slung into the site and verified both climbers were deceased from severe injuries and partially buried in fresh 2.5 avalanche and cornice debris. With the weather deteriorating rapidly, only one person was retrieved before the wardens were forced to exit the site. Wardens returned the following morning only to find that another size 2.5 avalanche had come down overnight. The remaining climber was not located. Several avalanches came down throughout the day farther obscuring the site. The SAR effort was ended due to hazardous conditions.

Analysis

A wet spring with large snowfalls and heavy rains in June and early July created poor travel conditions and extended an alpine avalanche hazard into the normal climbing season. The area was now experiencing spring-like avalanche runs and warm overnight temperatures. The party climbed the North Face of Mount Athabasca the previous Monday after a rare overnight freeze, and conditions were excellent that day. They related these to what could be expected on Mount Robson but this was not the case. The weather had remained significantly warm in the Robson area.

They also checked several information sources, including the Robson info staff and the area ranger. All had recommended not proceeding due to hazardous conditions. The party did discuss this amongst the larger group but chose to proceed. They did not take out a safety registration with Robson Park. Garth Lemke said the pair was discovered largely because of “one of those bad-feeling-in-the-stomach kind of things” on the part of longtime ranger Chris Zimmerman, who had been watching the climbers through a spotting scope from across the valley. He had talked to these folks and got a bad feeling about their plans, had watched them in their progress, and then Saturday morning he looked up there and saw two black lumps at the bottom of the climb.

In his report to the coroner, Zimmerman said he observed the visible part of the route on a regular basis and did not notice anything out of the ordinary until the next morning. It was then that he noticed several car-sized cornice pieces amongst the avalanche debris. There was no witness to the accident; however, the climbers had severe injuries from falling a distance of potentially 2,000 feet if they fell from the summit ridge. (Source: Garth Lemke, Public Safety Warden Jasper National Park of Canada, and Andru McCracken, Robson Valley Times)

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