FALL ON ICE/ SNOW, CLIMBING UNROPED, POOR CONDITIONS
Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Taylor Glacier
On October 16, a party of three started up the Taylor Glacier. The Taylor Glacier is a 40-60 degree 1,500-foot permanent snowfield in Rocky Mountain National Park. Two weeks prior, James Patrick (54), the leader of the group had attempted the route and turned around due to poor snow conditions and black ice. Also, it would have been hard to ignore the late season conditions that exposed much loose rock and dirt inside the couloir. Now, the glacier was partially covered with ten inches of snow that had fallen 5 days prior. It was the first measurable snowfall of the year and did not bond well to the existing layer of black ice nor did it do more than barely cover up the loose rock and dirt. Starting up the route at first light and climbing unroped, the first 1,000 feet of the route went easily as they were able to stay in the main couloir and avoid sections of black ice and loose rock. At this point, the party took a break and discussed options: to continue in the main couloir and climb the steep headwall or break left on a weakness that appeared to be easier.
The party chose to follow the left line because it looked easier. Encountering a few short steep steps, one member of the party felt uneasy, and another member belayed her using a long piece of webbing. The going became a little slower as the party had to navigate around patches of black ice and carefully cross steep sections of loose rock that were covered with only a few inches of snow.
With the group’s only rope in his backpack, the leader of the group chose to continue soloing the final steep headwall before exiting onto the ridge. As he climbed the 50-60 degree headwall that was covered by patches of black ice and unconsolidated snow atop of dirt, he slipped. He slid about 30 feet before disappearing out of view. The two remaining climbers anchored themselves to the wall using two ice screws and an ice ax and used a radio to call for help. The party reported that they were stuck, “...fifty to 100 feet from the top,” and that their partner had taken, “...a fall of at least 200 feet.” Within a few hours, Rangers were able to assist the two climbers to the safety and determine that the leading climber had fallen 1,500 feet to his death.
The two climbers made a wise decision to stay put and wait for help after their partner’s fall. Many climbers choose to solo this type of alpine terrain because it is “easy” and finding anchors can be time consuming. This, like most classic alpine terrain, is not difficult, but it can be dangerous. Although recently improved, the route was still in very poor climbing conditions. The poor conditions also attributed to the fact that protection was not easily available, thus negating the use of a rope. The snow climbing guidebook that the group consulted notes itself as “A Guide for all Seasons” and lists this route, along with other similar objectives in Rocky Mountain National Park, as best from “summer into autumn,” and lists October as the best time to climb. In a normal year, climbers encounter black ice and loose rock on most of the park’s permanent snowfields from late August to October. These are some of the least desirable times to snow climb and previous trips along with a visual analysis of the day’s conditions should have clued the climbers into the fact that conditions were not ideal, as their guidebook stated. (Source: Rich Browne, Emergency Services Coordinator, Rocky Mountain National Park)