American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow/Ice from Anchor Point—Apparent Anchor Failure Due to External Forces

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  • Publication Year: 2008

FALL ON SNOW/ICE FROM ANCHOR POINT-APPARENT ANCHOR FAILURE DUE TO EXTERNAL FORCES

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton

On April 29, Alan Rooney (38) and Jonathan Morrow (28) fell to their deaths while attempting an alpine climb on the northwest side of the Grand Teton. They fell about 1,500 feet down a very steep couloir containing several prominent ledges. Rooney and Morrow had accessed that side of the Grand Teton from the Lower Saddle via the Valhalla Traverse prior to attempting to climb either the Enclosure Couloir or the Black Ice Couloir.

A significant Search and Rescue (SAR) operation ensued, involving National Park rangers, US Forest Service heli-tack crewmembers, and a helicopter. A team of three rangers climbed to an area close to the Enclosure Couloir from which they were able to observe the two men 1,500 feet below.

Analysis

After rangers in the helicopter were able to confirm that both climbers had apparently fallen to their deaths, the ground team shifted their focus to getting back to the Lower Saddle and switching to the recovery phase of the operation. Consequently, we did not go to what we surmise was the accident scene located about 100 meters and out of sight to our east. A more thorough investigation of the accident scene was therefore not conducted. We can only make suppositions based upon evidence found much lower with the fallen climbers, conditions as we observed them, past weather, and institutional knowledge concerning events of the past that have occurred in the same area. Additionally, knowledge gained by the conduct of mountain climbing patrols in this area was particularly useful.

Alan Rooney and Jonathan Morrow were avid climbers, mountaineers, and skiers. The area they had decided to climb was well within their ability level. They were both highly competent, driven mountaineers and well within their comfort level while climbing across the Valhalla Traverse.

It is known from eyewitness accounts that they got started nearly two- and-a-half hours later than they wanted from their bivouac site. The Lower Saddle would have been a more desirable starting location. Additionally, from the times registered on the photographs, they were moving slowly as they made their way from the Meadows to the Saddle, and then across the Valhalla Traverse. The Valhalla Traverse contained large sections of unconsolidated powder snow on breakable crust. Conditions like these would likely have led to exhausting and time-consuming post holing.

The temperatures at the 10,450-foot level for the period of April 28th to the 29th were above freezing. Their plan to climb on the north side of the

Grand Teton may have been influenced by the fact that most of the area remains in the shade.

Typically, for alpine climbing in this area, climbers want cold conditions. With overnight low temperatures well below freezing, objective hazards such as rock, snow, and ice are frozen in place, and present less of a threat to the alpine climber. Even with cold overnight low temperatures, as the day warms up, rocks will loosen and snow will have more of a tendency to slide or slough off. In this case temperatures were not below freezing and a significant warm-up was occurring.

The tracks observed from the helicopter place the two men in the very bottom of the Enclosure Couloir. From the time registered on the last photograph, this was nearly noon on the 28th. Because they were found clipped to the same sling with locking carabiners, one can presume that they were both at the same stance. From the other photographs we know that they were belaying and placing and removing protection as they climbed across the Valhalla Traverse. Therefore, whatever befell the two climbers, it happened while they were at a stance, or belay position.

Because of their experience we can assume that they had constructed what they considered to be an adequate anchor at this stance, because they had both connected themselves securely to it. The nature of the anchor is not known, however, because the rescue team did not go to that location. The sling that they were clipped into could have been placed over a projecting rock in the couloir, over an ice ax or axes jammed into the snow slope, or may have been a part of a more extensive anchor.

For the anchor to have failed, it must have been acted upon by some external force. The force could have been an avalanche, rockfall, a snow slough that was substantial enough to knock the climbers off of their stance, or a combination of these external forces. With the ambient air temperatures as high as they were that day, an avalanche or slough is likely. In fact, avalanches were observed by others on the north facing side of some of the peaks in the south fork of Garnet Canyon that day.

In conclusion, the tracks seen by rangers Springer and Guerierri put the two men in the Enclosure Couloir. The time on the final photograph was at noon. Both men were at a belay stance clipped in to the same anchor. The precise nature of the anchor is not known. The anchor was acted upon by some external force that resulted in the failure of the anchor and the subsequent fall suffered by the two climbers. The weather, specifically the warm air temperatures, most likely played a key role in the incident. Regrettably, weather and snow conditions combined with human factors resulted in the tragic death of two much-loved and respected members of the local climbing community. (Source: Chris Harder, Investigating Ranger)

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