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Fall on Snow, Climbing Unroped, Inexperienced, Colorado, Longs Peak, Lamb's Slide

FALL ON SNOW, CLIMBING UNROPED, INEXPERIENCED

Colorado, Longs Peak, Lamb's Slide

On August 19, Ben Cort (age unknown) was climbing Lamb’s Slide with two friends. When Cort was at the top, he lost his footing and fell some 800 feet. “The next thing you know I was just flying down the mountain without my ice ax,” he said. “That’s when it gets bad.” Traveling at speeds witnesses estimate were near 40 mph, Cort stayed conscious for the entire fall. “Total pandemonium,” he said. “I was head over heels and I was smacking my face on rocks. Rocks were coming down with me and then this boulder rolled over me a couple times.” When Cort reached the bottom, he initially thought he was dead. “There was a very, very distinct feeling that I knew that that’s how I was going to die. I was just sure,” he said. “My friends were positive I was dead. I’ve been climbing long enough and have been around this sport long enough that you take something like that and you know that’s kind of it.” Remarkably, Cort not only survived, but was left with only a broken leg and shoulder, and some scrapes and cuts. “I hit the ground and I felt my feet, I felt my fingers and was just so overcome with gratitude because I knew that God had just decided to save me,” he said. His climbing group, which included a man with Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue, immediately came to his aid. Cort says complete strangers also stopped to help him. “It was hailing. It was raining. It was nasty,” he said. “And they didn’t even think twice.” Cort also says the Flight for Life pilot took a risk by flying in the bad weather to land in a tricky spot to rescue him. Cort was flown out of the area that night.

He’s been recovering at St. Anthony Hospital since then. It’s likely he’ll be released from the hospital this week, but it will be several months before he’s able to climb again. “I’ll probably be out of climbing for about a year,” he said. “But I’m talking to you.” (Source: From a posting on mountain- project.com, appears to be from an interview piece with a local television station)

Analysis

Yes, he descended the route as did Lamb on his first reconnoiter of the east face. It is interesting that the first time anyone climbed on the east face, it was The Reverend Lamb during his recon, on descent. He peered over at the east face from the top, decided that it looked feasible, and went down. On his way down this moderately angled snow ramp, he slipped and went all the way to the bottom. He wound up near Chasm Lake unscathed. This is how Lamb’s Slide got its name. The guy who slipped last weekend was merely descending in the time-honored tradition.

I’m glad he is ok. I saw the blurb on the news. His wife’s comments were rather interesting. She thought it was cool and exciting. My wife would have killed me. (Source: Tom Hansen, posted on mountainproject.com) Further analysis by RMNP Park Ranger Ryan Schuster:

Lamb’s Slide has been the scene of numerous accidents during its storied history. It is a high profile couloir on a high profile mountain and it receives a lot of attention. Starting in late April and lasting until October, people come in droves to ski, climb, descend and traverse this couloir. The couloir itself goes through many “stages” during this time and the conditions encountered are HIGHLY variable. This accident happened in late August, a time when Lamb’s Slide is beginning to enter its last “stage” before winter. This last stage is characterized by a lack of seasonal snowfall cover and an abundance of black alpine ice.

According to the victim’s partners, the three climbers intended to climb the Kiener’s Route on Longs Peak. None of the men had climbed the route before and they had limited experience climbing on routes such as this. They had a rope with them, but stated that they had made a decision not to use it because of the amount of rock that was falling down the couloir. They said that they felt that they could move faster unroped, thus exposing themselves to the rockfall hazard for a shorter period of time. All three men were wearing helmets and crampons and had mountaineering ice axes.

The decision whether or not to rope up for this portion of the climb is worthy of some discussion. These men were well equipped for the climb, having brought all of the standard safety equipment available to them for this type of excursion. However, when they made the decision to coil up the rope and climb the couloir without employing belays, they were following an old adage in mountaineering that speed is safety. That decision was a calculated risk based on their belief that the falling rock hazard was a greater relative risk than an unroped fall down the couloir.

While this concept of moving with speed in the high country is a valid one, it needs to be taken into context amongst several factors. How experienced are the climbers? How familiar with the route, environment, and style of climbing is the group? How difficult is the climbing? What is the hazard that is making us want to move faster? Can the hazard be avoided or mitigated? Do we need to compromise our safety to move faster? What are the consequences if we are compromising safety?

A constant reassessment of your situation and the hazards present is a vital part of maximizing safety in the high country. Answering questions like the ones listed above can help refine your calculated risk taking skills. In this incident I believe a self-examination and questioning session of the situation may have revealed that the hazard (rockfall) was caused by rapidly warming temperatures associated with the time of year. A possible mitigation of the hazard could include a much earlier start or waiting for a hard, overnight freeze. Perhaps the conditions were so warm that the hazard was ever-present. If this was the case, maybe the climb should not have been attempted, because the unroped climbing risk was too great given climber experience and ability level.

These are difficult decisions to make when confronted with them under stressful circumstances. The best way to make the correct decision is to constantly reevaluate your situation and talk it out with your partners. Ask yourselves, “What is going to get me hurt?” These men made the best decision they could at the time and I can find no fault in their decision to climb unroped.