Off Route, Falling Rock, Fall on Rock—Rappel Anchor Failure, Inadequate Protection, Washington, North Cascades National Park, Sharkfin Tower

Publication Year: 2006.


Washington, North Cascades National Park, Sharkfin Tower

On July 10, a six-person team set out to climb Sharkfin Tower in North Cascades National Park. After a glacier crossing, the group passed the standard gully used to access the objective, the southeast ridge of the peak, and ascended a similar, but farther gully. Realizing this, the group began a traverse in two rope teams of three, employing belays, to get back into position for the ridge climb. During this movement, rockfall struck one member, causing injuries to her face, eye, jaw, and one hand, but left her ambulatory with assistance. The group decided that rescue assistance would be necessary for evacuation of their injured member but planned to first retreat back down the gully they had ascended as a group to the top of the glacier. During this time the weather, which had been good at the start of the day, began deteriorating.

The group faced a descent of approximately 300 to 400 feet down a gully of mixed snow and rock. The plan was for two rappels, each using the group’s two fall ropes. A first anchor was constructed around a large rock sitting on a slab. Two climbers rappelled individually without incident to a point mid-gully, at which one began constructing the next anchor in the snow. The remaining four planned a descent involving two climbers rappelling on single strands of rope with the injured member connected closely by daisy chain to them so as to assist her descent. The fourth member would later rappel solo.

At mid-gully the first two heard the rappel commands from above, followed shortly by rock commotion, and made a quick observation of falling climbers with a tumbling rock before taking cover. Four climbers fell the entire gully-length to the top of the glacier. The two at mid-gully were not hit and down-climbed the steep snow to the glacier.

Three climbers died and the fourth sustained a serious head injury and was not conscious until hospitalization. One of the un-injured climbers went for help while the other stayed at the scene. A mountaineering guide was encountered in the basin and ascended with his cell phone and gear back to the scene. National Park Service officials were contacted by cell phone. By this time, it had begun to rain, complicating the effort to provide care at the scene and initiate a helicopter rescue from the ranger station. A team of rangers hiked through the night to reach the scene and at 7:00 a.m., a period of clearing allowed helicopter evacuations of the seriously injured climber directly to a Seattle hospital, the two uninjured climbers flown to the ranger station, and the three body recoveries completed.

Killed in the accident were Jo Backus (61), Mark Harrison (35), and John Augenstein (42). Survivors were Wayne McCourt (31) who was injured, Janel Fox (28), and Mike Hannam (27). The most experienced and designated leaders of the group were Backus and Harrison. All had at least basic mountaineering experience here in the Cascades. There were no absolute novices, but I believe Fox and McCourt were under the “tutelage” of the leaders. My understanding from the survivors and friends/colleagues of the victims was that several of them, or all of the other four, had intermediate to advanced experience, with a range of Cascades ascents behind them. None of them climbed Sharkfin Tower previously.


Route-finding. While a climb of Sharkfin Tower could certainly be made using the gully ascended by this group within reasonable daylight timeframes (the Sharkfin Tower ascent is much shorter in comparison to nearby North Cascade peaks), not taking the direct approach gully resulted in complications for this group, as being off-route often does. These included extending the travel time frame on a day of deteriorating weather (critical in the North Cascades) and providing further route-finding complications and exposure to technical terrain. The approach across the glacier through the gully and to the notch that begins the climb is entirely visible from the hike and campsite in lower Boston Basin. When this is possible, a team agreed- upon “visual fix” on preferred terrain and most efficient route can be useful in preventing later difficulties.

Initial rockfall. One survivor statement indicates that the initial rock- fall that debilitated a member was party-induced, although this is not an entirely assured conclusion. At any rate, travel in areas of potentially loose rock demands a high degree of awareness of fellow climber’s locations and movement, especially with larger party sizes. The analysis here should also show that all members of this team were wearing helmets and during this traverse seemed to be communicating about each team’s position. The teams were attempting to take separate lines across the traverse, (which potentially raises the hazard); however, this party-inflicted rockfall was within one rope team.

Rappel anchor failure. Survivors described the rock anchor as “refrigerator-sized,” that it was “tested” by efforts to kick and move the rock, and there was no recollection by survivors of any team member questioning the rock’s integrity as an anchor.

Investigators estimated the size of a rock found at the gully’s base believed to be the anchor at about 6×4×3 feet. The anchor was constructed with one cordelette and one webbing joined with a locking carabiner, as one anchor point, with no backup. This anchor rock was situated on a somewhat down-sloping slab surface of mixed rock and soil surrounded by small loose rocks. The two ropes were connected by a double fisherman’s knot through the carabiner with stopper knots at each rope end. The combined weight of the three people rappelling together with packs was likely between 500-600 lbs. While it is impossible for any climbers to know definitively the exact force any selected anchor can hold, the tragic end to this event shows this weight was too much for this anchor. Statements and evidence indicate the anchor failure happened when the three were about ten feet into the rappel. The accident was compounded by the fourth member (meant to rappel last separately) being clipped to the anchor. Later observations of the area immediately around the anchor site showed few backup options, at least of the type and proximity that with the standard climbing gear available in the party’s gear could have held the primary anchor in place. (Source: Kelly Bush, SAR Coordinator, North Cascades National Park)