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Climbing's Insidious Danger: Rockfall

04-Nov-2010
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At about 11 a.m. on July 26, several groups of climbers were navigating one of Colorado's most famous ridge traverses, the line of blocks and gendarmes that separates El Diente Peak (14,159 feet) from Mount Wilson (14,246 feet) in the San Miguel Range. Though popular, the traverse is notorious for choss and proved deadly this morning. A group of five had just left the summit of El Diente and was negotiating a steep gully heading east toward Mount Wilson when a climber above displaced a band of balanced stones. The rocks fell, striking Peter Topp, 59, Charlie Zimmerman, 60, and Kathy Donnelly, 31. Zimmerman and Donnelly sustained less serious injuries, but despite wearing a helmet, Topp, an experienced climber, was struck in the head by a large rock, fell 40 feet and died.

A similar tragic accident happened on August 14 when Spencer James Nelson, 20, was struck in the head by a rock dislodged by a climber above during the traverse between North (14,014 feet) and South (14,156 feet) Maroon Peaks. Nelson, a top ski racer at the University of Colorado, fell 600 feet and died. He was also wearing a helmet.

ANALYSIS

While capricious weather -- lightning, whiteout and freezing temperatures -- are often cited as terribly dangerous, loose rock knocked off by climbers and hikers probably kills more climbers than any other objective hazard. With peak bagging's popularity -- the park service estimates that 15,000 people climb Longs Peak (14,259 feet) each year -- the risk of being hit by dislodged rocks is great. Crowded routes and chossy rock are a volatile mix that result in numerous deaths and injuries.

PREVENTION

Climbers assume risk any time they venture onto the steeps. Some peaks and routes are undoubtedly more risky than others, however. The Maroon Bells, for example, the name given to the dual peaks where Nelson died, were nicknamed the Deadly Bells after eight people died in five separate accidents in 1965. They are, as noted on a Forest Service trailhead sign, downsloping, loose, rotten and unstable. Similarly, the El Diente/Wilson traverse where Topp died has exposed climbing on loose rock.

Consider avoiding loose routes, but if you choose to venture onto them, minimize rockfall dangers by:

  1. Moving in small groups, and staying close together so you can watch/spot each other.
  2. Don't place pro behind potentially loose features, especially cams, which can expand and dislodge blocks.
  3. Don't climb below other parties and position yourself out of the trajectory of potential rockfall when following your partner or belaying. Wait while a partner crosses certain sections.
  4. Communicate with people below you before committing to loose sections. Give them time to move out of the way. If you do knock something off, yell, Rock!
  5. Test holds before cranking on them. Pull down, not out, on suspect holds.
  6. Avoid leading or rappelling over sections that require pulling your rope across loose blocks.
  7. Choose ridges and avoid gullies when route-finding.
  8. Get an early start and climb loose sections while they are cemented with ice.
  9. Look for natural shelters like overhangs that protect you from rockfall and utilize them. Move quickly through exposed zones.
  10. Wear a helmet.

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