American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock, Washington, Mount Rainier, Fuhrer Finger

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2006

FALLING ROCK

Washington, Mount Rainier, Fuhrer Finger

At 0720 on June 29, while ascending Fuhrer Finger, Brian Benedict was hit by rockfall and sustained an open fracture of his tibia and fibula. Benedict was a client of a Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) guided party led by Kurt Wedburg. Wedburg immediately reported the accident and notification was provided to Mount Rainier National Park. While Wedburg’s party assessed, stabilized, and splinted Benedict’s leg, climbing rangers made arrangements for air extrication. Simultaneously, three other RMI guides led by John Race left Camp Muir to rendezvous with Wedburg’s team.

With Benedict unable to walk, Wedburg’s party methodically lowered Benedict back down the Fuhrer Finger taking care to avoid farther rockfall. Upon reaching approximately 9,300 feet on the Wilson Glacier, Race’s team began improving an area to serve as an LZ for the helicopter extraction.

Around 1200, the patient arrived in the vicinity of the LZ. Fifteen minutes later a Bell 206 LIII arrived on scene with climbing ranger Bree aboard. Benedict was loaded into the aircraft and flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Analysis

The Fuhrer Finger route on Mount Rainier is a prominent snow couloir with an hourglass funnel at around 10,500 feet that varies in width depending on time of year. These features, along with its south facing aspect, result in the prevalence of rockfall on the route. As one Mount Rainier climbing guidebook states, “Warmth also means rock-fall; the routes demand helmets and call for a true alpine start,” and farther admonishes to “move quickly, as rock-fall is present in the hourglass...” Unfortunately, caution and the appropriate tactics can only reduce objective dangers such as rockfall and not eliminate them altogether. Despite their early start, this group encountered rockfall early in the morning. There is also reason to believe that because the previous day’s meltwater froze during the early morning hours, it may actually have induced rockfall due to the expansion (and therefore prying ability) of water as it turned to ice between rock. (See July 29 rockfall incident for more in-depth explanation.)

It is up to each climbing party to decide its level of acceptable risk of objective dangers and to attempt to minimize this danger by applying common climbing practices. Wedburg and his group responded to the accident in an efficient and intelligent way that allowed for maximum safety and a quick extrication of the injured climber. The additional help from Race and his crew further enhanced the rapidity with which the rescue was effected. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)

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