Late last year the climbing world was stunned when Harald Hari Berger, 34, died in an ice-climbing accident near Hintersee-Flachau, Austria. Berger, who began climbing in 1986, was an UIAGM mountain guide and professional climber, sponsored by top-shelf companies such as Petzl, The North Face and Lowa. He was a world-class ice, mixed and rock climber, with three overall Ice World Cup wins (2002, 2003 and 2006), 5.14 rock climbs and a repeat of the world's most difficult mixed route, The Game (M13) to his credit. Berger was well-known in the United States, where he entertained crowds with slideshows and jaw-dropping performances at the Ouray Ice Competition, where he placed second in 2005. That such an accomplished and well-known figure could die while warming up in a bouldering ice cave seemed unbelievable. Also unbelievable was the birth of his daughter, Zoe, on the very day of his accident.
On December 20, Berger and three friends went to a local ice cave for some afternoon exercise. Ice caves, while atypical in the United States, are more common in the Alps, where they form at the base of avalanche slopes. There, the dense snow, warmed by the summer sun, turns into plastic blue ice similar to that of a glacier. When streams formed by meltwater percolate through the ice, fantastic caves and tunnels can form. Climbing inside one of these caves is much like climbing inside a giant pipe, with steeply overhanging walls and a ceiling, an ideal setting for ice bouldering. In the more popular caves, climbers sometimes use a cordless drill to pre-drill pick placements, sparing the walls from the ravages of tools, making the climbing a physical peg-ladder type affair. Whether the particular cave Berger was bouldering in had such drilled holes is unknown. Generally, such caves are considered stable, although several years ago a climber was trapped in a collapsed cave and was lucky to escape. The Icecapelle cave Berger was in was popular.
This day, Berger booted up while his companions wandered off to a far end of the cave, a move that would soon save them. Berger was alone and about 10 feet up a wall when a portion estimated to weigh 150 tons collapsed on him. His friends, unharmed, rushed to his aid, but heavy equipment was required to extract him from beneath the massive debris pile.
Hari Berger was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were no indications that the cave was unstable, and no amount of experience or inexperience, or precautions short of not climbing at all, would have prevented the accident.
Berger's death is a stark reminder of the objective hazards of ice climbing, a discipline that, due to the nature of the medium, is more dangerous than rock climbing. As the popularity of ice climbing increases, the number of injuries and fatalities will also increase. In the United States, an accident of Berger's type is unlikely simply because we don't have similar ice caves, but the danger of collapsing pillars and falling ice is real. In the mid 1990s, a climber died on Glenwood Falls near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, when that south-facing formation, warmed by the sun, fell apart. Near there, at Vail's Fang amphitheater, in 1998, Sue Nott was seriously injured when a large piece of the pillar she was on broke off and speared her. In 2002, in the same area, the paramedic and writer Rod Willard was struck in the head and killed by a 40-pound chunk of falling ice.
The list of ice-climbing accidents is lengthy, and often tragic. When climbs collapse it is usually impossible to escape the tons of on-rushing ice.
All ice climbs, pillars, flows, glacial walls and caves, do eventually fall down, yet it is difficult to know when. We do know that free-hanging pillars are more likely to break off than ones that connect to the rock at the top and bottom. Free-hanging pillars are also most likely to break off at the lip of the rock. Assessing the danger is up to you every time you swing a tool. Consider the current temperature, and the temperature of the past few days. Did a warm spell weaken the ice-to-rock bond? If so, go grab coffee and a book. Another warning sign is horizontal fractures. On free-hanging pillars, place protection in the rock before you get onto the ice. Once on the ice, climb as high as you can before setting a screw. Ideally, your first screw will be at a point above where the ice connects to the rock. Now, if the dangling portion of the pillar breaks off, you won't be connected to the plunging block.
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