AVALANCHE – FAILURE TO ANALYZE SNOWPACK, POOR POSITION
Wyoming, Snowy Range
On November 6th, Brice Portwood (27) and I (Ed Warren – 25) were trying to climb a mixed route (a summer rock route, but never climbed as a mixed/ice climb as far as we know) in the Snowy Range. Conditions were not ideal at 0800 when we left the car, with winds between 15 and 25 mph and occasionally higher gusts and temps in the low teens. But the sky was clear at the traiihead with clouds around the peak, and the forecast for the rest of the day was improving conditions. It was a pretty typical WY winter day.
Snowpack was unusually low. Typically, by November, the highway department closes Route 130, but because of the abnormally scarce snowfall, it was still open. The approach to the climb was a quick two miles with snowpack never more than knee deep. At the base of the climb, we discovered deeper snow. We dug a snow pit (doubling as a belay platform) and didn’t notice any layering or slabs.
Brice led the first pitch, which was mostly mixed terrain. I led the second pitch, which was almost exclusively ice, and found a spot to belay underneath a slight protrusion of rock on the right side that I hoped might provide a bit of protection from falling ice.
We were a good 400+ feet up, having stretched-out the first two pitches. Brice led the third pitch. When he was about 100 feet above me, he reached the top of the ice slot and encountered a snow band. He shouted down that the terrain had moderated and it would be a ways to the next potential anchor so we might have to simul-climb again for a bit. I told him I understood.
Brice proceeded to try to make his way through the snow that lay above. He described it as thigh deep but that it felt deeper due to the angle. He tried to get out of the snow band by climbing some exposed rock, but it wouldn’t go, so he returned to the snow. He had placed two pieces of protection to that point, a screw in the ice slot and a #6 BD stopper in the rock that was exposed higher up.
At that point (about 20-30 minutes after Brice first entered the snow band), I disconnected myself from the anchor because there was little rope left and the plan was to simul-climb. Only minutes after disconnecting myself, the snowpack around Brice failed under his weight and it began sliding. It slid 200 feet, carrying Brice and funneling into the slot where I was perched. The only thing I noticed was the snowy rope sliding towards me. I looked up and saw a wall of snow about to hit me. The next thing I knew I was upside and backwards being shoved down the climb beneath the falling snow. I thought I fell for much farther than I actually did, because once the rope stopped me, the snow continued to fall over me, giving the sensation of movement.
When the snow finally fell past me, I was hanging upside down. If I remember correctly, there was one half rope holding me taught by my harnesses. This rope had complete sheath failure and was exposing three feet of core. The other half rope was caught around the boot and displaced crampon of my shattered ankle. Both ropes were holding at least part of my body weight. It took about five minutes to extricate myself from the tangle around my left ankle, while hanging upside down. During this time, Brice, who had come to a stop unharmed about 60 feet above me, ensured I was all right and then began down climbing towards me.
Once I extricated myself, I put two ice screws into the pitch and attached myself, although at that point I realized how dangerous it was to be attached directly to the ice without the rope acting as a key dynamic element - which had saved me the first time—in the event that any more snow broke loose.
It took two rappels to get down. Brice did each one first so that he could set up the next rappel station and get things ready at the base of the climb. The first rappel was trickier, and Brice held the ends of the rope so that he could arrest my fall if I lost control. The second rappel was more straightforward, and I was feeling quite capable despite the pain.
Once at the base of the climb, I began scooting on my butt down the moderate slope. At the bottom, I tried hopping on my right leg (laceration and partial quad tendon tear) while holding onto Brice, but I quickly realized it wouldn’t work due to the snowdrifts and weak ‘good’ leg. Brice suggested carrying me using a rope backpack, but it didn’t seem feasible to me, considering I outweighed him by 20 pounds and I was sure the soft snow would cause us to fall over repeatedly. So we rigged a dragging setup. We used my backpack as a sled, with me attached directly to it by my harness and a tether for Brice to pull on.
With me pushing with my arms and the help of the slight downhill slope, we made decent but exhausting progress. Once the terrain leveled out, though, our progress came to a quick stop. At this point, the only option was for me to crawl under my own power. Brice went ahead, packing down the snow, and I followed. We did this for the last mile and a half until we got back to the car.
In my calculus, we made two major errors. First, we failed to anticipate the likelihood of an avalanche in any substantial way before we started our climb. I didn’t take the time to even consider it as a serious risk. Second, and more importantly, once we encountered deep snow high on the climb, we failed again to recognize the risk. Compounding this was the nature of the terrain. Because I was belaying from a slot, any sliding snow above would find its way to me and I would have no place to hide. Snow bands across couloirs are a common feature in alpine climbing and that caused us to be complacent. In addition, I rationalized that our slot was not oriented in such a way that it would funnel the snow above. However, we should have recognized these basic ingredients in what turned out to be a recipe for disaster: questionable snowpack above a constricted route. Upon finding the snow-loaded slope above our climb, we should have turned around and called it a day. (Source: Ed Warren) (Editor’s Note: This team videoed much of this event. It can be found on YouTube. We thank them for this candid report.)