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North Sister accident analyzed by
Fitz Cahall

The primary purpose of these experience reports and the Annual Report of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is to aid in the prevention of accidents.

Narrative Description of Accident:
On May 15, 2007, I (Fitz Cahall, 29), set out alone to climb and snowboard North and Middle Sister in the Sisters Wilderness in Central Oregon. I knew I would likely encounter technical terrain on North Sister’s summit ridge and tower. After skinning up to the notch between the two peaks, I climbed North Sister’s Southwest Ridge before leaving the snowboard at the top of the south face. From there I traversed across steep slopes to the summit pinnacle.

I made two bad decisions that when combined together equaled a stupid mistake.

First, at the base of the summit pinnacle – a rotting volcanic rock that requires technical climbing – I left my summit pack behind. I chose to keep it simple and take nothing. Despite hiking all this gear – ice axe, crampons -- for miles, up thousands of feet, I left it for the last 100 feet. Instead of climbing the standard route, which was draped in a thick layer of rotting ice, I chose to climb a hundred foot section of bad rock.

Second, 30 feet up, I climbed through a section of frighteningly loose rock. I should have immediately gone back for the bag and investigated another way up or bailed, but I didn’t. I just kept climbing and figured I would address a descent option later. Again, I realized that this was a bad decision and made it anyway.

These decisions were made out of haste.

With the days first summit almost in the bag, I was already thinking about the descent and the next climb. If I had been climbing with a partner, there is no way I would have made the same choices. Simply put, I would have never let a friend make the series of mistakes, yet somehow I allowed myself to make those mistakes.

With no rope, crampons, or ice axe, my options for descent were limited. I could either down climb through the band of loose rock or look for a less exposed option. I down climbed just to the left of the standard route, but still had to traverse back to my backpack across a small gulley above cliffs and rock bands. Realizing my mistake, I used two sharp rocks as make-shift ice tools and tried to hack small steps in the hard ice for my feet. I made a few moves across the gulley, but almost instantly lost my footing and slipped. I was almost able to stop my fall with the make-shift rock axes, but lost control.

I went over a 10 to 15 foot cliff into the central gulley known as the bowling alley. Gathering speed, I managed to get pointed feet first. I kept my feet slightly off the ground to avoid catching them on the snow and ice. Although I was out of control, at least I was sliding feet first as opposed to tumbling head over heals. I tried grabbing at the rock walls of the gulley and digging my fingernails into the ice. Using my elbows to steer me to the edge of the gulley, I tore at the wall trying to slow down. Nothing seemed to work. I must have hit a patch of sun-softened snow that slowed me just enough so that I could successfully grab onto something. I have no idea how I actually managed to grab an exposed horn of rock.

Incredibly, I walked away with fractured knuckle, a sprained wrist and thumb and lacerations on my hands and legs. I had fallen around 300 vertical feet. At the fastest, I must have been traveling somewhere between 20-30 mph. After letting the gulley soften in the sun, I carefully returned to my pack, traversed back to the south face and snowboarded back to tree line. --Fitz Cahall

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
Often, the best Report to the American Alpine Club about a mountaineering accident is made by the injured participant. This early spring solo climb of dangerous North Sister was within the capabilities and ten years climbing experience of Fitz Cahall, author of the Dirtbag Diaries sponsored by Patagonia. Fitz emailed to me: "The irony of it is that I've authored 'how to move safely and efficiently in fourth class terrain' for Climbing Magazine. I guess that day, I was leaning towards the efficiently spectrum of things."

The imperatives of turning back in time to find a better way to the summit and keeping your summit pack on your back are illustrated.
There have been several deaths at this point below this summit of North Sister. --Robert Speik
Copyright© 2007 by Fitz Cahall and Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.

Report filed by Fitz Cahall and Robert Speik for the 60th edition of ANAM to be published in 2008.



Point of Contact
Patagonia Field Reports
Winter 2007

Wax droplets bead on the snowboard's worn base. Beneath the work lamp's anemic glow, I run the hot iron across it until I've filled the tiny nicks with an even coat of wax. With my swollen hand, I steady the board across the workbench. With my good hand, I scrape away the excess. The wax shavings float to the floor like thick snowflakes.

The goal is standard: up another peak with another descent down a steep snow ribbon. Its significance is not.

Two weeks ago, I tumbled down a snow gully studded with rocks. With bare hands, I scratched at the snow until my fingernails bent back. Three hundred feet later, I found myself clinging to a boulder along the gully's edge. Blood trickled like snowmelt down the sleeve of my jacket. I stared at the drop off just 20 feet below and listened to loose rocks chatter over the cliff top, then whistle like bottle rockets accelerating into space. Since then, even as I walk between work and home, my footing has felt insecure.

I run my index finger along the heel and toe edges. By touch, I search the metal for the subtlest inconsistencies. Satisfied, I turn to my crampons and draw the file across each dull point. I press the pink flesh of my thumb into each spike just to be certain.

Morning begins in regular fashion: frozen hands warmed by a mug of black coffee. As the sun breaks the horizon, I skin through the maze of spruce and pine. Flustered by my approach, chickadees bounce anxiously between branches. The whole forest seems nervous, and I fight off the urge to talk to myself.

Miles of skinning later, I'm at the base of the final, slender, snow band and need to swap skins for crampons. I reassemble the split board, attach it to my backpack and wrap the ice axe's leash around my wrist three times. My broken knuckle and discolored thumb throb to the rhythm of my heart. The board extends up from the pack like a great sail, and unsure of my balance, I lurch beneath each fluctuation in the breeze. In the steep, exposed sections, I move more quickly than normal, until I'm forced to stop and let my lungs catch up. The snow is beginning to soften.

"I'm okay," I say aloud.

My hand uncontrollably tightens around the ice axe. Blood drains from beneath the knuckles. I try to feel each sharpened crampon point bite into hard snow. I flinch from the exposure and lean into the slope. I'm connected to this mountain by the thinnest margin. It's not enough. Instinctively, I slide the glove from my bad hand and place my bare fingers to the snow in the same manner that I might reach out to find the reassuring reference of a wall in an unfamiliar dark hallway. I fall into the burning rhythm of upward progress until there is no more mountain left to climb.

Twenty minutes later, I'm strapped in above the 50-foot-wide snow ribbon I've just climbed. Balanced entirely on the heel side, the board quivers with the subtlest shifts in balance. Hardened fear softens. I drop in, cutting two quick turns to check my speed. I feel the strength of the metal edge beneath me and for the first time today, sense the connection that extends from my feet into the snow, into mountain, all the way to the bedrock roots. With the gathering speed, the doubts rattling in my ears are swallowed by the wind's roar until they become only vague threats heard from the greatest distance. Then I stop dancing between turns, leave the security of the edges and turn my board in the direction of gravity. I let go and it's in this moment that the point of contact is the strongest.
Copyright© 2007 by Fitz Cahall. All Rights Reserved

Biography: When he's not chasing his wife up backcountry skin tracks, writer Fitz Cahall produces the Dirtbag Diaries, an adventure podcast dedicated to untold stories of near misses, lift-changing experiences and humorous moments in wild places. Cahall prefers it when he is not the subject of his own stories. Listen to the Dirtbag Diaries at, or on Patagonia's new blog.


From the University of Washington, Department of Communication Class notes:
Fitz Cahall: BA (journalism), 2002

I graduate in the March 2002 and currently reside in Corvallis, Or. Since then I've been working as a freelance outdoor writer for a variety of publications. I wanted to bring my journalism training to the world of rock climbing and other adventure sports. It's been a struggle, but I finally feel like I've started to turn a corner in my freelance business. This winter (2007) I entered into the world of new media and launched a podcast. I approached it more as a learning experience and an opportunity to explore a new medium rather than a viable outlet for my work. Most of all, I had collected some wonderful stories through the years that just didn't have a home in the magazine world. They were intriguing tales, but often focused on regular people not the sponsored athletes most outdoor athletes continually cover. I wanted to give these stories a home. I thought I might get a few hundred hits. To my complete surprise, it struck a chord out there in the Internet realm. We jumped to thousands of downloads pretty quickly. Along the way, I got to take my recording gear to a remote desert sandstone spire and participated in the first ascent (a multi day climb) of the biggest rock spire in the country. It was wild to have the mic rolling while hanging from ropes. After the second episode, the Dirtbag Diaries exploded. Patagonia stepped forward to sponsor the show. Now I'm teaming up with photographers to provide multimedia content for not only the podcast but for various Internet sites both at home and abroad. It's been an incredible leap in my career, which in the previous months I had considered abandoning due to severe financial struggles.

You can check it out online at Our most recent episode was a profile of adventure photographer Corey Rich who I had covered in the past for
SPJ's Quill Magazine. His tale is truly inspiring for young journalists.






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