FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION – FAILURE TO BRING RACK, FAILURE TO TURN BACK – WEATHER
Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, East Face of Mount Teewinot
On August 16 about 0500, Brian Barwatt (31) and I (Van Roberts, 22) departed the Lupine Meadows trailhead for a traverse of Teewinot to Mount Owen. We had been climbing in the area for about a week and had gotten up the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head III—5.6, the Northeast Face of Pingora IV—5.8, and the Complete Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton IV in a day. We also climbed The Snaz IV—5.9. We had spoken to a ranger at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station regarding our intended route and felt comfortable with it. The climbing is rated 5.4 at the hardest, with most of the route being 4th class and scrambling. Due to the lack of technical difficulty, we elected to bring no protection with us. Instead, we brought a single 8mm rope and our harnesses and belay devices for rappels we were to encounter along the ridge connecting the mountains.
The night prior to our departure, the mountains were completely enveloped in clouds, and a steady rain fell on our car at the trailhead. When we departed the next morning, the mountains were still hidden in clouds. As we climbed the trail, we eventually broke through the clouds, and were able to see Teewinot’s East Face above us, covered in newly fallen snow. Progressing upwards, we encountered more snow—approximately 3-4 inches in some spots. Because we had anticipated these conditions, we brought crampons, ice axes, and wore mountaineering boots. We began the ascent of the face with a snowfield to the climber’s right of the Idol and Worshiper towers. The face was icy and snowy in many places and there was little dry rock to be found due to the melting snow. We were not familiar with the route, but we believed we were following the general path of ascent. Some sections of what we believed was the route had to be bypassed by sketchy face-climbing on wet rock, which we did unroped. Eventually, we made it to a gully, near what looked like the summit. The gully was severely iced, with chunks of ice periodically clattering down on us.
At this point, I expressed to my partner my discomfort with the conditions. I told him that I was tired, to the point where I was worried I would make a careless mistake. He offered to lead on our rope and belay from above. I agreed to continue on. He pulled a difficult face move to the left of the gully on wet rock and then belayed me up, anchored to some fixed webbing he had found. He had lowered the rope to me. I had clipped a figure-8 on a bight into a locking carabiner around my belay loop. I offered to lead up the next pitch, climbed up a short distance, felt uncomfortable with the terrain, and climbed back down, offering him the lead. He led through the moves I was uncomfortable with and continued onward. At one point, he paused before a face section, and later revealed to me he had thought it looked difficult, and had considered retreating, but climbed on. He anchored himself via a loop of rope over a horn. As he was creating his anchor, I pulled a pair of dry gloves out of my pack, and also put on my climbing helmet, which I had not been wearing up to this point. He belayed me up to his anchor. The terrain above looked relatively easy, so I continued upward. I had almost all the rope out and was searching for a horn to sling for an anchor. I saw nothing, but above me, past a bulge, was a ledge, which I felt would most likely hold some prospect for an anchor. I was working through the moves on the bulge, which was awkward and wet, when my foot unexpectedly popped off a hold, causing me to slip. I hit a ledge immediately, and stopped for a moment. I felt relief briefly, until I began to slide. I panicked, and began trying to grab any hold I could on the face I was sliding down. I yelled to my partner, “Falling!” and began to pick up speed, tumbling down the face. I thought to myself, “Oh my god, this is how I die,” and then waited for it to happen. I saw and heard my ice ax, which I had stashed between my back and my pack flying down the face. I continued to fall, impacting ledges until my fall was suddenly arrested.
I hung from the rope, disoriented. My climbing partner asked if I was ok, and I replied that I was alive. I saw a ledge on my left accessible by a move of 4th -class. In my mind, I was worried that whatever had caught me would break and that I needed to get to the ledge and sit down. I unclipped from the rope and threw my pack down to my partner, thinking that it would cause me to be off balance. I could not see very well, but managed to cross the face to the ledge and sit down. After I collected myself, I clipped back into the rope, and climbed down to the belay. My partner stated he believed the fall to be about 70 feet. As I sat on the ledge at the belay, my partner climbed up and freed the rope, which had caught on a very small horn that held my fall.
I felt dazed and my vision was blurry. As a paramedic student, I tried to assess myself for possible injuries. My right glove had been torn off in the fall and I had multiple abrasions to that hand and abrasions to both palms. My arms were also abraded and I could feel other cuts on my legs. My right hip was very painful and my left hamstring rebelled whenever I tried to weight it. My helmet (Petzl Meteor III) had multiple dents in it and the band used for adjusting size on the back was broken. I had pain and what I believed was an abrasion on my left posterior skull and bilateral posterior rib pain on inspiration. I palpated my cervical spine and found no tenderness.
My partner arrived back at the belay and was able to lower me down to less technical terrain. As I waited on the ledge, my vision became progressively blurrier. We continued a system in which we would scramble down, finding a pinch or horn tie off the rope, thus allowing me to rappel on a single strand. My partner would then untie the rope and down-climb to my next location. On one of my rappels, I found my ice ax, and gave it to my partner to carry. We continued this until we arrived at the lower snowfield. I rappelled to the end of the rope, but was still on the snowfield. I was able to kick out a large enough platform to allow my partner to down-climb to me and hand me my ice ax, which I was then able to use to descend the rest of the snow. My vision had returned to almost normal and I was able to slowly hike the trail back down to the car, uneventfully.
On the way to St. John’s ER, my vision began to blur again. After being admitted to the ED, I was released with only a minor head injury, in addition to my various scrapes and contusions.
In retrospect, we made a number of decisions that contributed to this fall and I was incredibly lucky that the rope caught a knob on my way down.
This incident could have easily been prevented by a few factors. Had we listened to our gut feelings and turned around, this would not have happened. The conditions were less than ideal, but wet rock, ice, and snow are frequently encountered in the mountains and part of climbing, in my opinion, is being able to travel safely in these situations.
We were not exceeding our climbing abilities; however, our decision to leave the rack in the car created a hazard that resulted in a long, potentially injurious fall. Considering the new snow and ice present up high and the change this presented, taking gear would have been a prudent decision. Also, I am very thankful that our rope held. In an effort to cut weight, we took a single twin rope. I had researched the holding power of a single twin rope and had read that they would hold one fall, rated appropriately by the UIAA, as long as the rope was not loaded over an edge. Obviously, it did hold.
Also, I put my helmet on almost as an afterthought. This is rare for me, especially in the mountains, as I usually wear it constantly. It undoubtedly saved my life. (Source: Van Roberts)