FALL ON STEEP SNOW – UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST, FAULTY USE OF CRAMPONS
Washington, North Cascades National Park, The Triad
On July 1st, Martin Cash (35) and Aaron Zabriskie (26) successfully climbed two of the three summits of a peak known as The Triad. While descending a steep snow slope (~35 degrees), Martin Cash lost his footing and slid approximately 60 feet. The snow was very soft and slushy and he was not able self-arrest. His rapid slide was halted by a rock at the bottom of the snow slope, on a less steep bench. This impact resulted in an open lower leg fracture. This sudden stop likely saved him from tumbling another 100 feet down the steep alp slope and free-falling an additional 200 feet.
Aaron Zabriskie heard Cash yell and went to assist. Zabriskie built a snow anchor for greater security on the slope, thoroughly assessed his friend, and splinted his leg. Zabriskie would go to camp to get overnight gear for Cash, and then he would hike out and alert EMS. As Zabriskie was nearing their camp in Roush Basin (about a mile away) to get the overnight gear, he encountered two North Cascades National Park rangers on a patrol of nearby Eldorado Peak. They quickly initiated a rescue via the park’s radio system. Two other rangers responded via helicopter. The initiating rangers were picked up via helicopter and landed below the site. One ranger climbed to the accident site. He re-assessed the patient, site, anchor, and provided radio communication with the climbers.
Due to the steepness of the site and limited options for helicopter landing sites near the climber, two rangers were short-hauled into the site and lifted out the patient in a litter to a flat staging site on a snowfield 600 feet below. Martin Cash was flown out of the backcountry and transferred to a ground ambulance.
After reflection, Mr. Cash feels that the accident was definitely preventable by using a more secure technique for descent. He said, “If I had side-hilled down the slope, backing down and plunging my ax when both feet were planted would have prevented it. I think the only lesson [to pass on to others] is to be very careful descending steep snow slopes. Always go face in. Also, my aluminum crampons balled up badly which contributed to me starting the slide.”
Backing down a steep, hazardous slope such as this one with or without crampons is much more secure than plunge-stepping or side-hilling. It is also safe and better practice to remove crampons when the snow is starting to ball in them. Also, installing some sort of anti-balling plates on the crampons (or purchasing new ones with plates) can help with this potentially dangerous problem.
Two factors made this a straightforward and expedient rescue. It was extremely fortuitous for Aaron Zabriskie to have made contact with the rangers. Had the timing been different by a few minutes, Martin Cash most likely would have had to spend a night out. Given the clear stable weather, this would have been survivable, but would have increased the risk of infection and tissue damage to Mr. Cash’s leg. (Source: Rob Burrows, Climbing Ranger, and Kelly Bush, Wilderness District Ranger)