American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alberta, Canadian Rockies, Mt. Athabasca

  • In Memoriam
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1973

Alberta, Canadian Rockies, Mt. Athabasca. On 20 May Ed Bennington (24), John Root (25), and Barry Watamaniuk (24) were travelling behind another party of three who led a route through the icefall which deviated somewhat from the traditional route on the true left. This variation appeared more reasonable due to a very heavy winter snowfall that had covered or filled in many crevasses and it had the advantage of partially removing the party from the objective dangers of falling ice. The party that had been leading was passed when one of its members dropped a hard hat at the top of the second ice-fall causing the three of them to go back down for it.

The snow was beginning to soften as the sun started to shine on it, so they decided to put on their skis at this point. A party of two on the usual route on the true left-hand side of the glacier passed at this time. John probed the area to the left of a large crevasse but found no signs of a weak snow bridge. John and Ed were waxed first and skied across the probed area to test waxes, then returned unsatisfied and applied a stickier wax. Barry finished loading gear and started off. He appeared to be off balance as he started, probably because he was unfamiliar with cross-country waxes. He may have fallen causing the snow bridge to collapse or it may have just collapsed dropping him about 100 feet. The two who had passed were climbing the third icefall at this time. They were beyond hearing and did not return.

After the accident two of the five climbers went for help and two of the others lowered the third who carried warm down clothing. The victim was found buried to the waist upside-down at the bottom of the crevasse. He was dug out and found to be not breathing. Artificial resuscitation, mouth-to-mouth, started him breathing but 10 minutes later he stopped and appeared to have died (fluid was coming from his nose). A doctor was lowered down 30 minutes after the accident and pronounced him dead. The body was then removed from the crevasse by the climbers and later evacuated by Park authorities.

Source: Ed Bennington, D. G. Linke, and H. Fuhrer, Park Warden, Jasper National Park.

Analysis: Party should have been roped. There were many people on the glacier that day (estimated more than 40). These persons were mostly experienced climbers and yet many of them arrrived at the accident site unroped. During the rescue a number of climbers would have crossed and recrossed the danger area without a belay if the rescue organizers had not controlled the situation. Persons not active in the rescue repeatedly were told not to stand on the lip of the crevasse. One party stopped under an active icefall despite the falling ice, in order to watch. They were not roped when they arrived and they did not rope up after arrival. These attitudes are the same or worse than that which resulted in the accident. Parties that are doing ski mountaineering should use touring skis rather than racing or running cross-country skis. The latter do not give adequate control in mountainous terrain.

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