Mixed Climbing Avalanche Accident

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This accident occurred on Nov 6th 2011 in South East Wyoming on a first ascent of a previously unclimbed route

2 comments

  1. Will Gadd 的评论
    http://willgadd.com/?p=600

    The video below (and linked Mixed Climbing Avalanche here, still figuring out WordPress) is really interesting. There aren’t that many videos of self-rescues done in the mountains. As I watched it I had some thoughts of course, but the main thing is that there are some good points to ponder in my own climbing and perhaps for others as well.

    I don’t think these guys did a tremendous amount wrong. In fact, they did enough things right that they both lived–I have personally done far more wrong in the mountains, but had the good luck not to get called on it at the time. Many, many of us have made worse errors but just had, as my bud Barry Blanchard says, “Good luck when we needed it.” Ed, the injured climber, and Brice, the falling leader, did one thing amazingly well: they decided they are going to get the fuck off the mountain and live. Which they did; people have died with far lesser injuries. When I read of someone getting slung off a peak for a sprained ankle I think of guys like these: They cleaned up their own mess, well done, and anybody who wants to tear strips off of them had better be made of tougher material. That is unlikely.

    I offer the following with full respect to the climbers; many people would not have done as well, including me at many points in my climbing career. I’ve been taking these guiding classes, and had some of my own weaknesses exposed, including rescue systems for my partners.

    A few notes:
    -I’m no avalanche expert, but there’s obviously a shitload of wind transported snow blowing around. “Serious wind” is how it’s described in the video. Wind transported snow is often a big problem in the mountains. I once watched a healthy-sized avalanche scatter a dozen or so Chamonix guides and 20 or 30 clients on a perfectly blue day with high winds and a few cm of fresh snow from the night before. The guides were teaching ice/glacier clinics on a glacier below a roughly 500 foot cliff with a deposition zone above it. Snow built up overhead on the slope continuously, but the classes below were unaware of the hazard. I too didn’t know any better, I’d just climbed one of the classic hard routes under the same wind-transported snow slope and then walked across it, but it wasn’t loaded up yet enough to rip… We were high and across the small valley on another route when enough snow finally collected to release. We watched it all in slow-motion horror as the guides and clients ran for what they thought was their lives under the blue-bird sky… In the end some packs were lost but no lives, but that moment taught me to respect the power of wind-transported snow–it’s not just an “annoyance.” Anyhow, you can see the transport clearly in the video (in the air and with the spindrift) and it’s no surprise that a something finally releases on the leader. They are simul-climbing when it does blow.

    -I have very few hard rules in ice/mountaineering, but I try to never to climb ice/mixed terrain when it’s raining, and to never to climb/ski/whatever in the winter when I can’t see the terrain over my head. I’ll push the “not seeing” rule when the consequences are low (I’m in the woods and confident I’m not threatened by anything over head), but not in alpine terrain. These rules have saved my life once or twice over the years for sure. These guys clearly can’t see much, but are going up. Often being “tough” does not end well in the mountains. When there is a lot of spindrift, wind and general chaos in the air I often get scared and run away. But there are all these tales in the magazines and on the internet about “pushing upward into storms.” Not good.

    -I don’t think the leader put a Ti-block on his rope before he fell off. I like doing this, prevents the leader from going for a huge fall if the second blows it, or has an avi situation or whatever. I think the “wall of snow” hit the second before the leader was even done falling; a Ti-block might have really helped reduce the second’s injuries. Or it might not, but I think a Ti-block on the rope is a good idea if you’re already simul-climbing and pushing safety boundaries.

    -The guy on rappel (Ed) doesn’t seem to have had his leg splinted at all after the accident, or much of a first-aid effort done. Maybe not the time and place for it, and he’s a tough bastard, but a splint would have been really good. It’s also unclear if his quadricep injury was at all evaluated or treated. Fortunately it wasn’t immediately life-threating, but it would have been good to know what was going on a little more I think.

    -Why doesn’t Brice back Ed up with a Fireman’s belay (hold the ends snug) as Ed raps? Ed is a tough SOB, but it would have been prudent given Ed’s injuries. Or a prussik backup on Ed’s rope at least. A fireman’s backup would have been really ideal I think. Again, Ed is a tough SOB so all good, but I’m always looking for a bit more margin in the mountains. I backed up some friends last weekend as we rappelled through a small but forceful waterfall in Maui; it didn’t slow us down any, and it was prudent.

    -Why doesn’t Ed’s partner rap with Ed on his back? That would keep Ed’s foot off the rock, and prevent a lot of pain for Ed.

    -As the death crawl/crawl to life commences Ed’s leg still doesn’t appear to be splinted at all. This is just excruciating to watch…

    -Was there any potential for emergency communications via radio, sat phone, SPOT, etc? If Ed’s injuries were just a bit worse emergency coms could have been very, very important. I do not head out into the mountains now without a Spot or a Sat phone, it’s just not worth it. I have yet to see a mountain accident scene where the victim said, “No, please don’t call for help, it’s against my wilderness ethic.” Like it or not the technology is there, and many of my friends are alive today because they had the means to communicate. A SPOT is only $100 right now, and the new DeLorme device looks cool when it goes public.

    In any accident or intense situation there are almost always many things everyone involved would do differently. In this case Ed and Brice lived, and their video gives all of us an excellent opportunity to think about our own systems and approach to the mountains. What is our true knowledge level? Would we do anything differently?

    Thanks to Ed and Brice for the video, and a beer or two is on me if I see you guys out there!

  2. Thoughts from Ed (Avalanche survivor)
    by Will Gadd
    I privately emailed Ed, one of the people in the video I wrote about last week, and asked if he would like to post his thoughts here. He sent the words below; I think they are interesting, and appreciate him taking the time to share his thinking. May all who respond please do so with the same spirit as he wrote in with, thanks.

    Again, while I think these guys did make some errors, pretty much every climber I know has made the same or worse errors. I definitely have. But I have seldom seen such a solid self-rescue effort; they cleaned up their own problem. This discussion is part of the path forward for anyone who really climbs and thinks about climbing, not just talks about climbing. Thanks to Ed for furthering the discussion.

    -Will Gadd

    Ed’s words below to the end:

    First, I want to thank Will for engaging in a thoughtful discussion
    about our experiences with the intent of improving safety practices in
    the mountains. Too often on the internet, in my opinion, people
    resort to hyperbole and point-scoring instead of genuinely trying to
    improve the way we all do things. I am the first to admit that I am
    not an infallible alpinist. I am young, I’ve made mistakes, and will
    unfortunately make some more again, but my number one priority is
    proactively finding ways to avoid those errors and/or mitigate their
    consequences. I take accidents and potential accidents very
    seriously. Those who know me will confirm this, I believe. There is
    no romance in almost dying.

    The interesting thing about our most recent climb is that I do not
    believe we made many errors; in fact, I believe the sum of what we did
    right far out weighs what we did wrong. However, we did make one,
    major mistake: we did not a have a candid discussion before the climb
    about how we would react to potential risks, namely encountering
    unstable snowpack once high on the route. I believe our extensive
    experience climbing together led us to think we would automatically be
    on the same page. That assumption, however, kept us from engaging in
    a challenging conversation that could have, although did not guarantee
    to have, prevented the slide. If I had one recommendation to others
    it would be this: take the time to talk about risk before and during
    each climb, even if you think you are on the same page, or you think
    its unwarranted. Thinking proactively about what’s around the corner
    can save your life. (NOTE: I am not implying that Brice made a poor
    decision that I would have avoided. He is the only one that saw the
    quality of the snowpack, so none of us can really make a judgment on
    the matter, and I thoroughly trust his decision making abilities.)

    As further explanation, here are my thoughts on some of the issues
    that have been raised (I’ll try not to engage simply in a self-defense
    - that’s not the point – learning is):

    - Weather, wind, and snowpack. We had checked NOAA and were aware of
    the fact that the winds were going to be gusty. We were pleasantly
    surprised (as I say in the video) to find even better weather than was
    forecasted. Winds never gusted much over 30mph. That’s good news
    summer or winter for WY and is not an automatic indicator to ‘head
    back home’. As for snowpack, Brice had also scouted out our route 6
    times the previous winter and this was the lowest amount of snowfall
    he had encountered. That does not guarantee snowpack stability but
    its a useful indicator. We were also able to examine the snow at the
    base of the climb that was of a similar aspect and slope to the
    snowfield above our route and found no unstable layers as we dug the
    platform I would belay from. Of course there are other variables,
    but, once again, all the ones that were available to us were ‘a go’.
    The wind-borne snow was a concern and slabs can form no matter how
    little snow there is, but wind does not always equate to dangerous avy
    terrain everywhere. If the wind is loading in one place it is
    scouring somewhere else. Assuming that wind causes every surface to
    be unstable is misguided. I’m not saying wind is desirable, but one
    should avoid making overly simplistic judgments. I can’t count the
    number of wind scoured slopes that I have skied that were sucky to ski
    but reduced the avy danger to nil. In the end, sometimes there is no
    way to detect slope instability until you can touch and feel it.

    - Knowing what’s above you. I really, really liked Will’s comments on
    this and think I will make them my own if he is ok with that. As I
    said, Brice had scouted out this area multiple times, so we were aware
    of the terrain, but had no way of knowing exactly how much snow was
    between the cliff bands or how stable it was. I am not fundamentally
    opposed to climbing a route that has a snow band across it, but I will
    avoid routes from now on that naturally funnel the above snow and
    about which I have limited beta.

    - Emergency communications. Once again, I really liked Will’s
    comments here. I can’t tell you how many people have been most
    impressed by us ‘not relying on others’. The first thing I tell them
    is “I would have accepted help immediately if I could have gotten it”.
    I think many folks are often misguided in their ‘wilderness
    self-reliance ethic’. The difference in my mind is not putting
    yourself in a position that you cannot reasonably get yourself out of.
    That is a far cry from purposely limiting your ability to receive
    help. I used to think SPOTs were only useful for soloing, but I’ve
    gotten a first hand lesson on how limited the capabilities of just two
    guys are. I think I will buy a SPOT. Ironically, in this case, a
    SPOT wouldn’t have gotten us out any faster, but its a safety net that
    is worth having.

    - Simul-climbing and ti-blocks: I’ve used ti-blocks when
    simul-climbing in the past, but I’ve reserved it for rock routes.
    Both of us had one on our harnesses on this occasion but we decided
    not to use them. Interestingly, (and I can’t claim to have thought
    this fully through beforehand) the ti-block could very well have
    killed me if he had used it. When the avalanche broke, we had just
    begun simul-climbing. Because I was not attached to the anchor, we
    fell with the snow then (relatively) slowly came to a stop. If I had
    still been attached directly to the anchor when the snow hit me, it
    would have probably snapped my spine in half and blown my rib cage
    apart because there would have been no way of dynamically dissipating
    the forces. Similarly, but to a lesser degree, I believe a ti-block
    would have had the same effect of holding me in place as the snow hit
    me at a million miles an hour (hyperbole). Perhaps a lesson learned
    is to avoid using ti-blocks on avy terrain. Thoughts, Will?

    - Rappel: This one was a judgment call. Rappelling under my own power
    was the simplest, safest, and quickest way to get down (I wasn’t
    timing it but I think we were off the climb in under 30min). I had
    my rappelling prussik on my harness but I chose not to use it.
    Perhaps I was too anxious to get out of there and should have taken
    the time to use it, but I was very lucid and never felt in danger of
    losing control. In my opinion, its a personal choice. For added
    safety Brice held the rope ends for the trickier, first rappel
    providing a back-up in case something did go wrong.

    - Splinting and First Aid: Although I only have a WFA (not a WFR)
    certificate, I strongly believe my actions in this case were
    appropriate. Splinting would not have helped. The boot provided a
    decent, preexisting splint to the ankle. Strapping a backpack or ice
    tool onto my ankle would have been incredibly painful with its added
    weight and bulk as I crawled along. Frankly, there was only one real
    option to improving the situation and that was fixing the dislocated
    ankle. Maybe you are all way more badass than me, but I wasn’t
    willing to sit down in the snow, take off my boot, and have Brice yank
    on my ankle until things popped back into place. I wasn’t confident
    enough in what was wrong internally to take such drastic measures. As
    for my knee, I did a quick self-evaluation: I was bleeding slowly but
    not profusely and it didn’t hurt. Those facts quickly bumped it down
    the triage chart. Taking the time to elevate would have delayed
    treatment to the time-sensative issues in my left ankle and wouldn’t
    have gotten me any closer to the trailhead. I lost relatively very
    little blood. It was the right call.

    I apologize for how lengthy my comments are. People rarely describe
    me as ‘concise’ but I hope it helps explain our thought process and
    some of the details that were not included in the video. My hope, in
    writing this, is to further the discussion about how we can all do
    better in the mountains. Brice and I made good calls and bad calls.
    Hopefully this discussion makes more people self-critical and safety
    conscious – I know its a trait I will continue to work on. As I sit
    here nursing my injuries, that seems to be the most important thing.

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