American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Hard Snow—Slack in the Rope, Washington, Mount Rainier, Emmons Glacier

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  • Publication Year: 2006

FALL ON HARD SNOW–SLACK IN THE ROPE

Washington, Mount Rainier, Emmons Glacier

On July 12 at 1545, four members of a seven-person Mountaineers group, Chris Clapton, Rebekah Koch, Theresa Fielding, and Tom Labrie, were descending the Emmons on one rope when Koch caught a crampon on some rope slack and tripped at 13,500 feet. Her fall pulled Fielding and LaBrie off their feet, and the three began to tumble down the 40 degree icy slope. Clapton went into self arrest and caught the fall, preventing a much more significant accident from occurring.

Labrie broke his nose and injured his leg during the fall. Fielding severely sprained her ankle. Clapton and Koch secured the team with an anchor. The party’s second rope team, which included party leader Doug Smart, descended to the accident site. They were joined by an unassociated climbing team of three who offered to help. After the injured were stabilized, the assisting party descended to seek more assistance for the injured.

Meanwhile, climbing rangers at Camp Schurman, using a spotting scope, had already observed the climbers gathering near 13,500 feet shortly after the accident. This gathering, considering the location and time of day, seemed to indicate trouble, so rangers continued to observe. At 1654, the rangers saw the group of three climbers leave the scene and descend the Emmons Glacier route. Now, convinced there was something amiss, Climbing Ranger Jeremy Shank and volunteer Mimi Allin quickly geared up and began to ascend the route. At 1732, Shank and Allin met a single member of the three-person team who had unroped and run down the Emmons to report the accident. That climber informed the rangers of the nature of the accident and the victims’ injuries. Realizing that this situation would require more equipment than they had, Shank and Allin descended to Camp Schurman and prepared for a longer evacuation and possible overnight on the mountain.

At 1812, Rangers Shank and David Gottleib left Camp Schurman accompanied by Mount Rainier Alpine Guides Eric Stevenson and Dorja Sherpa. The four rescuers carried extensive overnight gear and medical equipment.

Around the same time, at the accident site, Smart chose to stay with LaBrie and Fielding. The three had a stove, shovel, parka and two sleeping bags (donated by the assisting party). Clapton then led the remainder of the group down the glacier back to their camp. Smart was unable to excavate a snowcave in the firm snow and use the stove, so the injured used the sleeping bags, while Smart wore the parka. The winds blew steady at 15-20 mph with higher gusts and below freezing temperatures. All three became hypothermic by the time the rescue party arrived at 2159.

The rescue team began clearing a site for tents and by 0015, the tents were erected and the guides departed back to Camp Schurman. The three hypothermic climbers were placed in a tent and rangers began administering hot water and food. It was a rough night. One of the tents partially collapsed under the wind and blowing snow as the temperatures dropped. At dawn, Gottlieb and Shank prepared the site and the patients for the helicopter extraction. The Oregon Army National Guard launched a Blackhawk helicopter from Salem, Oregon, at 0635 and was able to insert a medic on scene at 0757. By 0820, both patients had been hoisted aboard the ship, which then transported them directly to Memorial Hospital in Yakima.

The rangers descended the Emmons Glacier to Camp Schurman with Smart. Smart and the remaining members of his team then packed up their equipment and departed for White River.

Analysis

Several things could have turned from bad to worse on this incident. The original fall caused by slack in the rope generated enough force to knock two of the remaining team members off their feet. Thankfully, the rope leader was able to arrest the fall. Slack in the rope during glacier travel is not only dangerous because of the tripping potential, but also it allows the faller time to accelerate, thereby generating greater forces (shock load) on successive team members. Glacier travel, with its potential for crevasse falls, requires a snug rope between team members. Paying attention and communicating with your partners along with adjusting pace to keep the rope snug is critical.

The initial accident blossomed into other potentially dangerous incidents. Unroping and running solo down the Emmons Glacier late in the day to report the accident could have added yet another victim should that climber have ended up in a crevasse due to weakening snow bridges. It’s important to resist the temptation to let urgency overpower good judgment.

By choosing to stay with Labrie and Fielding, Smart also became hypothermic. While one’s intentions may be good, critically evaluating one’s own ability to assist versus the possibility of becoming a liability must be considered carefully. Like the other climbers, Smart was tired after a long summit climb. In the end, he did not have the energy to erect a wind-break or fire up the stove and became a third victim in need of assistance.

Consideration was given to trying to hoist the patients off that evening, but given the technical nature of the terrain and the lack of experience of most paramedics in a technical alpine environment, it was determined that inserting a medic without mountaineering experience on the upper mountain would have set the scene for creating a fourth victim. The decision was made to wait until climbing rangers could secure the site and prepare for the hoist operation. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)

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