American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rock Foothold Came Loose — Fall on Rock, Washington, North Cascades, Vesper Peak

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2011

ROCK FOOTHOLD CAME LOOSE – FALL ON ROCK

Washington, North Cascades, Vesper Peak

(The following account is edited from a narrative submitted by Steph Abegg, 27.)

At 5:00 a.m. on September 14, I pulled up at my sister Jenny’s house in Seattle. We were on our way to what we planned to be a fun and relatively mellow end-of-summer climb of the North Face of Vesper. We were at the trailhead by 7:00 a.m. and at the saddle looking at the north face of Vesper at 9:20 a.m. The moats did not look like they would be a problem on the glacier below, so we decided to cross the glacier and do the entire route. Once off the glacier, we began to climb the north face route. It was a bit wet in areas so we had to bypass on the right of the actual route. This was taking quite a bit of time, but we saw a reasonable way up to where the bypass ledge hit the upper route.

The accident occurred at 1:00 p.m. I was about 20 feet above the belay on 5.7-5.8 terrain. I had set three pieces of protection and was roped on a doubled 8-mm. Suddenly, a rock flake I was standing on broke loose. I felt my left ankle rotate inwards, either as my foot was caught between some rocks or the ankle was torqued out by the rockfall. As I fell, I remember thinking, “My foot is hurt bad. This is not good.” I fell cleanly about 15 feet before the rope caught on my highest piece, which had not pulled. I looked down and could see my left foot flopping and my splintered tibia sticking through the inner ankle. Blood and yellowish-white fluid was flowing, but not spurting.

I immediately asked Jenny to lower me down to a stand of bushes we had passed about 20 feet below where I could be somewhat safe and comfortable. I clipped myself to a bush. After trying to retrieve as much gear as possible, Jenny lowered down, clipped herself to the bushes, pulled the rope, and wrapped it around a small tree she would eventually rappel off. I was already starting to shake with the initial stages of shock, so Jenny helped me put on a couple of insulated jackets, a hat, and some wool gloves.

We quickly turned our attention to the foot. We were not sure to what extent it was bleeding, so we created a couple makeshift tourniquets around my thigh and upper calf with slings. (I later found out one of my arteries had been severed by the broken bones) We decided to use an ice ax as a splint. I rotated the foot into place and Jenny wrapped a fleece jacket tightly around the foot and ice ax splint. This was quite painful and I could hear the shattered bones grinding together as I told her to pull as tight as she could. We also used crampon straps to cinch the fleece even tighter against the leg. Initially I propped the foot against my other knee with the tip of the ice ax that was sticking out, but I later tied my foot to the tree above me in an attempt to minimize the bleeding, which was a worrisome constant drip. I draped my legs with my rain shell to keep them as warm as possible. We transferred all of the food and water into my backpack and I gave her my car key.

After Jenny left, I felt quite alone and exposed on the mountain. (Jenny later told me that after she left me was one of the loneliest times of her life as well; but it was her willingness to go get help alone that saved my life.) To keep myself occupied, I made words with some alphabet cookies I had brought. I fiddled with my camera, took some photos of my foot tied to the bush, and rustled around in the backpack deciding what I didn’t want to leave behind on the mountain. I also ate most of the energy bars Jenny had left me with, mainly because it was just another thing to do other than focusing on the pain. There was a very real possibility that Jenny would not be able to alert a rescue team for several hours, so I knew it was important to keep my wits about me. I wondered how I would keep myself occupied when my alphabet cookies were gone.

Fortunately, Jenny could yell to me the entire time she was making her way to the glacier and the saddle. She reached the saddle around 3:00 p.m. Her heart dropped when she could not get a cell signal. So she continued up the ridge towards the summit, checking her phone constantly. Not far up the ridge, her efforts were rewarded when her phone showed a couple of bars of service. Jenny immediately called 9-1-1. When she mentioned this was a mountain rescue, she was transferred to the Snohomish County Sheriffs Office Air Operations Helicopter Rescue Team. She requested a short haul.

The helicopter arrived at 3:40 p.m. After identifying my position (they were a bit thrown off that I was the actual injured climber when I started to take photos of them), they dropped one of their party to the bushes below. Ernie attached me to a seat harness and by 4 p.m. I was lifted into the helicopter. They then flew directly to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, arriving there around 5:00 p.m. I was on the operating table for several hours undergoing open reduction to put pins and plates in my leg, to do artery reconstruction, and to perform an emergency fasciotomy. I am forever thankful and indebted to the whole-hearted efforts of the surgeons and the SCSO AirOps Helicopter Rescue Team.

Analysis

The cell phone call was vital to the success of the rescue, as the doctors told me I probably would have lost my foot had I been up there much longer. Moreover, with the poor weather throughout most of the following week, it was unclear whether an airlift could have been conducted the next day.

The outcome could have been very different had it not been for several factors, including but not limited to:

I was not climbing alone.

We were roped up and I had set good protection.

Jenny and I both kept calm when the accident occurred.

We made a game plan for rescue.

We were competent with first aid and anchors.

Jenny was willing and able to descend alone to get help.

I was resigned to stay on the mountain alone and take care of myself while Jenny went for rescue.

We had a cell phone.

Jenny was able to get to a place with cell service (Verizon).

We had good weather.

We had started climbing early enough in the day so that the accident occurred with enough time to get an airlift before darkness.

After an accident, there are always the “what ifs” and “should haves.” I do not feel we made any poor decisions the day of the accident, but if I could do it all over again there are a couple of things I would do differently:

I would have climbed only the upper section of the route. The lower half— where the accident occurred—turned out to be loose, poorly protected, and not very aesthetic. We had decided to climb the lower section since we wanted to climb the whole route rather than cutting in midway.

I would have had a SPOT or PLD with me. Although the cell phone allowed us to verbally communicate with the rescue team to let them know the details of the accident and location, we were lucky that Jenny found a cell signal.

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