Fall on Snow — Unable to Kick Steps, Unable to Self-Arrest (Soft/Slushy Snow), Fatigue, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Teewinot

Publication Year: 2009.


Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Teewinot

On June 24 at 1000,I received a cell phone report from Exum Mountain Guide Christian Santelices, that a female (16) in a party of three had fallen on snow for about 100 meters and was injured. He told me that she had hip, ankle and elbow pain and multiple abrasions and lacerations. She did not lose consciousness but it was extremely painful for her to move and that wet snow avalanches were occurring in the area.

Rangers Motter and Feinberg were inserted to the accident site via short-haul. Ranger Byerly accompanying the litter and other rescue equipment was inserted on the second trip. The patient was then packaged on a vacuum mattress style backboard and placed in the litter. She was then flown, with Ranger Byerly attending, back to a waiting ambulance at the Lupine Meadows Rescue Cache and transported to St. John’s Hospital in Jackson. Rangers Motter and Feinberg assisted the other members of the party off the mountain with the help of Mr. Santelices.


In a follow-up interview with the climber, she told me that before the fall she had been backing down the snow face in with crampons on and her ice ax in front of her. She felt comfortable and had recently refused an offer of a rope for protection. She told me that as she stepped down, a foothold in the snow gave way and she slipped. She was apparently descending in soft snow next to a rather deep runnel with a much firmer surface. When she fell, she tipped over backwards and began to cartwheel and tumble in the runnel. She said that she screamed when she realized that she was going over rocks. She attempted to self-arrest with her ice ax but was unsuccessful and let go of it when she thought she might become injured by it. She finally came to rest when she was able to jam her foot into some softer snow. Mr. Santelices reported that she was lucky to have stopped where she did given the even more treacherous terrain below her.

She had a lot of mountain experience for someone her age. (Ed. Note: She considers herself moderately experienced.) She had climbed multiple peaks in the Teton Range and had practiced extensively in the use of an ice ax. She was properly equipped for the climb and was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. She was also reported to be the type that climbs within her abilities and asks for help when she needs it. Those of us that climb can all remember the time when we should have kicked that step a little deeper or sunk that axe a little harder. This young lady has learned a lesson that will help her through many years of mountaineering. (Source: Chris Harder)

Further Notes from a report submitted by Erin Mauldin, the young lady who fell:

“I should have been more careful on the descent. I was tired from having started at 12:30 that morning and was not kicking steps as seriously as I should have been. The snow was poor and I was just sliding into the previous footprints; it would have been better if I had placed my feet more carefully.

“Secondly, when I slipped, I should have kept a better grip on my ice ax. If I had had it in my hands and available, I might have been able to stop sooner by turning in and self-arresting. However, I think I made the best choice to let it go once I realized it was doing me no good.

“We still had crampons on because the area below the summit had been in shade and they had been useful on the way up and down that area. On the descent, there is a choice of going to the right or left of this rock face down two snow spits. Scott (56, climbing partner) chose the right (while facing in) and when the snow spit became narrow, he needed the crampons to cut steps. Ryan (c. 20, other climbing partner) and I crossed the rock face and descended the left and didn’t really need the crampons. Once Scott met up with Ryan and I, we started post-holing, so it probably would have been a good idea to take the crampons off. We did not think of it at the time, especially since there were no good places to stop to take them off (mine are extremely old and lace up, so it requires some effort to do so).

“I was plunging the ice ax in vertically with each step. The snow in the area was all chewed up from Ryan’s steps and ice ax and therefore not very solid. I might have made a faulty plunge when I slipped so that the ax came out easily or the snow was just soft and churned enough that it pulled right through. The leash was loose enough around my wrist that I was able to slip it off with my other hand.

Finally, the most important thing I did right was to wear a helmet. It saved me from severe injury and probably saved my life.”