American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Off-route—Late Start Led to Haste, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Lower Exum

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2006

FALL ON ROCK, OFF-ROUTE–LATE START LED TO HASTE

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Lower Exum

On September 3, Leah Samberg fell 3 5 feet from the third pitch of the Lower Exum Ridge (5.7), shattering her upper left arm and breaking her hip.

Mid-morning that day, Samberg, a first-year leader, and partner Alex Hamlin had set out from the Meadows intending to climb the complete Exum Ridge (5.7). Good weather had blessed the Labor Day weekend with light winds and sunny skies, and the high peaks of Garnet Canyon were crowded with parties eager to capitalize on the perfect climbing weather.

By the time that Samberg and Hamlin reached the base of the route at 1100, parties were already descending the Owen-Spaulding, and the Lower Exum was clear. Though aware of their late start, the pair took heart from the many escape options afforded by the Lower Exum, and from their success two weeks earlier on Beyer’s East Face (5.9) up the same peak. Keeping an eye on the weather, they soloed the fourth-class approach and the beginning of the first pitch before roping up.

Making quick progress through the first two pitches, the pair reached the large belay ledge at the base of the third pitch; at this point escape is possible via a ledge leading left into the gully west of the Exum Ridge. At this point Samberg took the lead, climbing the left of two crack systems on the ridge crest; the pair believed theirs to be the beginning of the route’s 5.7 third pitch. Climbing easily through the cracks first 40 feet, she placed gear regularly before running it out 15 feet above a blue Alien cam.

At this point the crack system petered out, and for several minutes Samberg traversed left and right searching for the route, finding neither handhold nor gear placement. It was becoming clear that the pair had chosen the wrong crack system, and that the route lay 20 feet to their right.

It was then that Samberg slipped. Though anxious, Samberg had not been gripped or pumped. The fall was completely unexpected, simply the result of either a hand or foot popping off the rock at the wrong moment. She fell twenty feet before she first hit the rock, smashing her elbow into a slab. Bouncing off, she fell another 10 feet, bouncing off her hip before the rope came taught. The blue Alien had caught her fall.

Hamlin lowered Samberg to the ledge and inspected her for injuries. Conscious, breathing, and with no obvious bleeding, Samberg complained of the pain in her shoulder, and was unable to walk. She was, however, able to sit, and so Hamlin helped her onto the ground, dressing and covering her in their down jackets. Using a backpack pad, they fashioned a makeshift splint before setting about getting help.

With a broken arm and possibly fractured pelvis, they agreed that she would not be able to descend on her own. Though the pair did not have a cell phone, due to the low wind, Hamlin was able to shout to parties descending the Owen Spaulding route for help. Climbers in the vicinity of the black dike heard his shouts and ran to the Ranger station on the lower saddle where a rescue was launched.

Exum guide Ben Gilmore ran from the saddle with a sleeping bag and cell phone, while the rangers called for a helicopter. Gilmore reached the pair first, and helped make Samberg as comfortable as possible while they waited for the helicopter to arrive. About half an hour later, two Jenny Lake Rescue Rangers, Jack McConnell and Marty Vidak, were deposited by helicopter on the ledge at the end of a 100-foot rope, followed by a litter.

Samberg was back-boarded, placed in the litter, and then, with McConnell hanging beside her, was long-lined down to the saddle. After moving the litter inside the helicopter, she was transported to Lupine Meadows where an ambulance was waiting to bring her to the hospital in Jackson. The total time from fall to ambulance was around two to three hours.

Samberg would find that she had shattered her upper humerus into eight pieces, completely shearing the ball joint off. She also cracked her hip in two places, though the fracture was not displaced.

Analysis

Several factors contributed to this accident. Both climbers were fit, capable at grades more difficult than the Lower Exum, and comfortable with climbing at altitude on the Grand; Samberg’s runout likely resulted from a false sense of security. Though not extraordinary by alpine rock standards, Samberg’s 15-foot runout resulted in a serious 3 5-foot fall on less-than-vertical terrain. Had her blue Alien not held, it is likely that she would have decked, with far more serious consequences.

In addition, the pair’s late start had engendered a sense of urgency that likely contributed to the pair rushing their route-finding. Though Hamlin and Samberg had considered both crack systems and consulted the topo and route description, it’s possible that with more time the pair would not have gotten off-route.

Finally, though strong technical climbers, the pair had only a handful of years experience in the high mountains on which to base their decision making. Though mistakes in route finding are inevitable, a willingness to turn around and reconsider one’s decisions is a critical asset in the mountains, and one that comes mainly from experience. (Source: Alex Hamlin) (Editor’s Note: Chris Harder was the Incident Commander on the rescue, and he later interviewed Leah Samberg in the hospital. Her analysis, reflected in Hamlin’s report, and Harder's conclusions are basically the same. It is always better to go with first-hand accounts.)

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