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Fall on Rock, Failure to Follow Route, Climbing Alone, Fatigue, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak

FALL ON ROCK, FAILURE TO FOLLOW ROUTE, CLIMBING ALONE, FATIGUE

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak

On August 19 about 7:30 a.m., RMNP Dispatch received a cellphone call from a visitor reporting an accident and requesting help on Longs Peak. The reporting party indicated that they were on the Ledges of the Keyhole Route with a woman who had fallen the previous evening and spent the night out alone. The caller stated that she had taken a 200-foot tumbling fall and suffered a severe head injury. The injured woman also told the caller that she had lost consciousness at some point during the night. When rescuers arrived on scene, the woman was shivering uncontrollably and showing initial signs of hypothermia.

Due to the unavailability of helicopter resources, approximately 32 NPS rescuers responded up the six miles of trail and additional mile of 3rd Class terrain to assist with the evacuation effort. The NPS rescuers were assisted by seven Larimer County Search and Rescue personnel and several on-scene visitors.

NPS hasty team rescuers arrived on scene and confirmed that she had fallen approximately 150 feet and sustained multiple serious injuries. These injuries warranted a litter evacuation with fall spinal precautions. After assessing and stabilizing the patient, rescuers began directing a litter-carry up and across the Ledges to the False Keyhole. This part of the operation consisted of passing the litter from person to person on 3rd Class terrain for several hundred yards. From the False Keyhole, a technical team lowered the litter 500 vertical feet down to the Boulderfield. A separate rescue team was concurrently making its way to the bottom of the vertical lowering to receive the rescue litter. This team then carried the patient approximately one half mile across the Boulderfield to a helicopter landing zone.

A Flight For Life helicopter from St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver was able to land at the heli-spot and evacuate the patient.

Analysis

The Keyhole Route on Longs Peak continues to be a deceptively dangerous place for mountain scramblers. The route is rated a 2nd Class climb in “Rocky Mountain National Park—The Climber’s Guide—High Peaks” by Bernard Gillett. However, this rating can lead to an underestimation of the strength, stamina, and skill required to reach the summit and return safely. The route also contains a considerable amount of exposure at elevations in excess of 13,100 feet, where a fall can lead to serious injury or death.

This woman stated to rescuers that she had attempted Longs Peak twice before but had been unsuccessful due to poor weather conditions. She said that she was determined to make it to the top on her third attempt, even if it meant climbing the peak alone. She was the last person to leave the summit that day and was descending the route late in the afternoon. She ended up in the False Keyhole, a common mistake made by fatigued climbers returning from the summit. Realizing the mistake and that she was off-route, she attempted to down-climb directly back to the correct route. While down-climbing, she quickly encountered terrain that was much more difficult than 2nd or 3rd Class and slipped.

It is impossible to say exactly what caused this woman to slip and fall in this incident. Many factors influence the ultimate outcome of any given accident, and it would be speculation to assert that we can point to them with any degree of certainty. However, some general points are worth mentioning in regards to this type of accident:

Fatigue and “The Descent.” Getting to the summit is only half the challenge when climbing mountains. Climbers often spend much of their mental and physical energy getting to the top. However, fatigue becomes a major factor upon descent. Climbers relax their minds and their focus because the goal has been accomplished. The descent, however, is a time for extra focus and concentration. It is a time to remember that you are tired and need to remain vigilant. It is a time to keep eating and drinking to keep energy levels up. It is a time to slow down, take frequent rest stops, and watch for hazards. It is a time to pay attention to the subtle trap that is “The Descent.”

Climbing Alone—Never climb alone! Right? We have all heard this mantra in the mountaineering world. Yet many climbers and mountaineers relish the opportunity to go solo. No matter what your opinion is on this topic, you should remember never to conclude that climbing alone doesn’t involve additional risk.

Summit Fever—“Summit or death, either way, I win.” This quote has floated in and around the climbing conscious and subconscious for many years. The ability to recognize and resist this driving force is not always an easy thing to do. Do we climb because we can or because we want to reach that summit? Acknowledging our motivation takes us one step closer to making the decision to turn around for the right reasons; weather, fatigue, route difficulty or complexity, having a bad day, gut feeling, etc. (Source: RMNP Rangers)