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Falling Rock—Thrown from Ledge, Wyoming, Wind River Range, Leg Lake Cirque

FALLING ROCK-THROWN FROM RIDGE

Wyoming, Wind River Range, Leg lake Cirque

On August 11, Luke Rodolph (23) stood on the rim of Upper Silas Canyon with three of his friends. He allegedly looked over the edge of the rim and didn’t see anyone. He then threw a rock about the size of a basketball off and looked over again to “...watch it fall, see where it was going to hit...”

The rock struck longtime NOLS instructor Pete Absolon (47) in the head and killed him instantly.

As of the date of publication, no charges have been filed against Mr. Ro- dolph. The Attorney for Fremont County, Ed Newell, said that Rodolph would not be charged for several factors, including the following: Rodolph immediately took responsibility for his actions, was extremely remorseful, didn’t intend to cause harm, had no criminal history, and served in Iraq. (Source: From an article in The Star-Tribune, by Joshua Wilson)

Analysis

Falling rocks and objects are an inherent risk for climbers. As I stated in an editorial for the 1995 issue of ANAM, “A mountain hazard that is present for everyone from drivers on switchback roads to the most avid wall climbers is falling rocks. They can be unloosed by the forces of nature—geology, weather, and gravity...” or dislodged by people. Further, “Upon occasion, dislodging rocks is done purposely. To ‘clean’ the top or part of often used routes is commonplace, with care being taken to ensure that the landing zone is clear.”

Falling rocks (and other objects such as ice and full water bottles) are the third leading cause of serious injuries and fatalities, mostly because of direct hits to the skull.

The most common human factors that come in to play are 1) not wearing a climbing helmet and 2) being in a poor position—i.e., directly under loose rock or another climbing party—or, as in this case, random individuals who may be on the ridge or summit above. The latter factor suggests the range of possibilities that humans are capable of engaging in.

The experienced climbing community knows that it is possible to dislodge rocks accidentally, either with feet or hands. That is why great care is taken not to do so, even if no individual or party is apparently below. Those who are new or novice climbers, including clients with guides, are most often the ones who make this error.

When rocks or objects (such as ice, carabiners, water bottles, etc) are dislodged, it is common etiquette and the accepted practice to shout, “ROCK!” That word is universally understood to mean that something is falling. Such terms as, “Watch out!” or “Oh, no!” can be confusing.

What climbers do not expect is for people to be deliberately throwing rocks or objects from above or “trundling” (pushing on large rocks with both feet to dislodge them), even in remote areas. These days, there is a likelihood that even in deep wilderness there may be climbers or others below.

In September of 1994, three young men from Bozeman trundled rocks from Granite Peak (12,799 feet) that resulted in a cascade of an estimated 50 tons dropping 1,000 feet, killing climber Tony Rich. The young men were charged with negligent endangerment. Their sentences included fines and expenses for rescue/recovery and for family counseling, community service.

In the mountains, the rules of the game for all constituents include care to avoid accidentally triggering rockfall. It is never acceptable to deliberately dislodge or throw rocks.

Meanwhile, Pete Absolon’s widow, Molly, the family, NOLS staff and friends, and the Lander community will continue to grieve and try to make sense out of this seemingly senseless event. (Source: Jed Williamson)