American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow — Unable to Self-Arrest, Improper Ice Ax Technique, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Gilkey Tower

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2009

FALL ON SNOW - UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST, IMPROPER ICE AX TECHNIQUE

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Gilkey Tower

On August 9 about 1300, Chris Pazder (56) fell to his death while attempting to traverse from the South Teton to Cloudveil Dome. Pazder was in a climbing team of four who were traversing a snowfield on the south side of Gilkey Tower (about 12,320 feet), when the fall occurred. Pazder was the last climber in the party. When he slipped, he was unable to self-arrest, resulting in a fall of about 600-800 vertical feet. The climbing team was not roped at the time of the accident. All members were using an ice ax and wearing crampons.

A major SAR operation ensued, involving about twelve rangers and seven heli-tack crewmembers. An aerial reconnaissance helicopter flight was conducted with three rangers onboard to determine Pazder’s location. Pazder was found in Avalanche Canyon at 1430. The aircrew was able to determine that he had sustained significant injuries from his fall and was deceased. A second team of rangers flew over the scene and verified the conclusions of the rangers on the original flight. Persistent thunderstorm activity and the lateness of the hour prevented further operations until the following day.

On August 10, a reconnaissance flight was conducted to determine the feasibility of inserting rangers directly to the accident scene and then extracting the victim from that location. The aircrew determined that that was not possible, so a ground-based recovery of Pazder’s body followed. Six rangers were flown into Avalanche Canyon where they were able to climb to Pazder and then lower him to a location where he could be evacuated via helicopter long-line operation to Lupine Meadows. His body was flown to Lupine Meadows and was turned over to Teton County Coroner Bob Campbell.

Analysis

In an attempt to document Chris Pazder’s activities 24 hours prior to his death, the members of his climbing team—-Jim Krudener, Michael Stiff, and Douglas Wales, all friends of his—were interviewed. The following narrative is the result of the interviews.

On Friday, August 8th about 1400, the climbing team left the Lupine Meadows trailhead and hiked to a camp in the South Fork of Garnet Canyon. They planned on climbing the South Teton (12,514 feet), then traversing east to Cloudveil Dome (12,026 feet), and then descending to their camp in Garnet Canyon to spend the night before hiking out to the Lupine Meadows trailhead on the morning of August 10th.

On August 9th about 0700, they left their camp in the South Fork to climb the South Teton, the first peak on their planned traverse. This involves climbing and descending the summits of the South Teton, Icecream Cone, the three summits of Gilkey Tower, then Spalding Peak and Cloudveil Dome. The traverse is long and complicated and requires constant diligence and route finding, though most parties belay only short sections. They reached the summit of the South Teton about 1000, and continued to the Icecream Cone (12,400 feet plus). Instead of climbing directly up the west side to the summit (rated 5.6), they traversed around the north side of the peak.

According to Jim Krudener, Pazder “ … seemed OK on the N. side of the Icecream Cone, on belay on the ice section.” The party continued towards Gilkey Tower, where they decided to traverse a snowfield on the south side of this peak. J. Krudener and M. Stiff stated that they elected to avoid the normal west ridge of Gilkey Tower because the ridge looked more difficult than they had expected, and the climbers didn’t want to get the rope out. This ridge is rated Fourth Class in difficulty.

The snowfield appeared to be a faster and less complicated way to reach the Gilkey-Spalding Col, from which the party could ascend Spalding Peak and continue the traverse. They moved across the 30-35 degree snowfield unroped, with M. Stiff leading, followed by D. Wales, J. Krudener, and C. Pazder, respectively. The snow was not hard or icy. Wales described the snow as “very manageable—soft, but with firm purchase”. Snow conditions were “mush”, according to M. Stiff. The four climbers had removed their crampons after the traverse of Icecream Cone and decided to put them back on for this next snow crossing. They each had ice axes in their hands as they began to cross the snowfield.

The first three climbers crossed the snowfield and waited on a rock ledge as Pazder began crossing the snow. “He appeared to be calm and relaxed,” according to J. Krudener. D. Wales stated that Pazder “...was 90 percent across. He was having fan and yelled at me to take his picture. I took it. He was in solid position and 30 seconds later when I was putting the camera away, I heard him yell. I saw him slide for about 20 feet and he disappeared behind the rocks still sliding.”

Pazder was following in good steps and it is doubtful that “balling up” of snow in his crampons caused him to slip. It is noteworthy to mention that he was using rented crampons on lightweight (Tecnica) hiking boots at the time of the accident.

Digital photographs taken seconds before Pazder’s fall show him swinging his ice ax from the handle, adze toward the slope. Pazder’s use of the ax contrasts dramatically with that of the other three climbers. The others crossed the 30-35 degree snowfield with ice axes in the uphill hand, spike and shafts well driven into the snow. This could be an indication of Pazder’s lack of competence with regard to ice ax technique. It also brings into question his ability and skill with regard to be able to instantly execute a self-arrest. According to M. Stiff, Pazder was “not using good ice ax technique” immediately prior to the accident.

Was Pazder too relaxed, and unaware of the consequences of a fall in this type of terrain? Mike Stiff related that, “He was perhaps not taking the terrain as seriously as he should have been.” This could have been a factor in Pazder’s fall, and could explain his unorthodox use of his ice ax just prior to his fall. In other words, was he using his ax in this fashion simply because he was hamming it up for the camera?

When a climber falls on a snow slope with big exposure, such as this one, it is imperative to execute a self-arrest immediately. Pazder seems to have had sufficient experience to cross this snowfield safely, and “he certainly had the experience to know what was required to self-arrest”, according to M. Stiff. Chris Pazder had climbed on several steep snow slopes in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains in the past ten years, and had climbed the Northwest Couloir on the South Teton in winter recently. M. Stiff said that Pazder… knew how to use an ice ax”.

We will never know [for sure] why Pazder was unable to arrest his fall. A small rock outcrop prevented his friends from seeing his entire initial slide. “He was out of view for a few seconds and when he reappeared, he was cart-wheeling,” according to M. Stiff. The way that he was using his ice ax, swinging the adze into the slope, makes it much more difficult to go into an effective self-arrest position. Unfortunately, this translates to increasing velocity over time down the slope.

In closing, these observations may serve to prevent a similar accident.

Familiarity and practice with the basic tools of mountaineering cannot be emphasized enough. The ability to self-arrest is crucial to snow travel in the mountains. An unchecked fall on steep snow can have dire consequences. One only needs to review the primary cause of mountaineering accidents in the "Teton Range and around the world to have this point illustrated. The only way to acquire this skill is through practice.

It is imperative that the climber be very focused while traveling in the mountain environment. While this may not have contributed to this accident, it serves as a reminder that a moment of inattention can have a terrible outcome.

Our thoughts are with Chris Pazder’s family and friends as they struggle with this tremendous loss. (Source: From a report submitted by Chris Harder, GTNP Ranger)

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