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Climber falls 2,000 feet down Mt. Shasta

The primary purpose of these reports and the Annual Report of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is to aid in the prevention of accidents:  Fall or slip on ice, Exceeded abilities, Weather, Overconfidence; Abrasion, Hypothermia, Concussion, Sprain, Fracture, Frostbite

On June 25, 1998, L J and her husband T, had camped at Lake Helen on Mt. Shasta and were climbing the standard Avalanche Gulch route when she lost her balance at about 13,000’ while putting on dark glasses as the sun rose over the ridge. She was just 50 vertical feet below the top of the Red Banks where there is a safe resting point before continuing to the summit at 14,162’. She was climbing on surface hardened hard snow, formed by a freezing rain on the night before the climb.  L rocketed down the 35-degree ice slope, ice axe jerked from her gloveless hands, and came to a stop in old avalanche debris 2,000’ below. One boot with crampon attached was torn off and the other ankle was badly fractured.  L and her husband and a solo climber, (who had turned back), were the only ones attempting the summit that morning. The solo climber descended to find a cell phone perhaps two hours distant. T assisted his wife using their down jackets and extra clothing.  After three hours, they were joined on the hard snow slope by two doctors who had climbed up to them.  L was warmed and stabilized until a military helicopter rescue could be effected as the cloud cover finally broke just before nightfall.

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
L and T had discussed ice axe arrest techniques the night before, but they had not practiced arrests. Self-belay techniques were not reviewed. She had taken the one-day snow travel orientation with Rainer Mountaineering, Inc. in a previous year but had not climbed Rainier with her husband who had completed several guided climbs including Mt. Shasta two years previously. A recent snow climb up South Sister, the guided climbs and five years hiking and scrambling experience had not prepared L and T for the dangerous conditions of high cold winds, hard ice and a 35-degree slope. A short distance from safety, she had attempted to put on her sunglasses, requiring removal of her wrist leash and gloves; she failed to self belay a moments imbalance. She instantly rocketed down, often airborne and tumbling, axe torn from her hands and inevitably caught her crampons in the ice.

Additional Comments:
Experience tells us that the traditional mountaineering imperatives of 1. DON’T FALL, 2. SELF-BELAY, 3. SELF-ARREST, SELF-ARREST, etc. must become instant hard physical actions, made automatic through practice over time. While this route is normally climbed unroped, the conditions that morning warranted technical roped travel or turning back to climb another day. Also, a climber should be advised to disregard distractions while on dangerous slopes.

Report filed by Robert Speik and printed in the 52nd edition of ANAM, year 1999
Copyright© 1999 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.


Read more:
American Alpine Club
Oregon Section of the AAC
Accidents in North American Mountaineering