On Thursday, February 12, Wes Walker and Jason Grubb loaded up and drove 11 hours to Cody, Wyoming, for the annual South Fork Ice Festival. The two climbers, from Florida and Texas respectively, were enjoying their first season of ice climbing while living and working in the mountain town of Carbondale, Colorado. On Friday morning they awoke at 7:30 a.m. and, finding no other ice climbers around, consulted the guide and settled on Broken Hearts (WI 5), a six-pitch waterfall that ascends a distinct gully. Despite the fact that they only had one set of ice tools, Walker and Grubb marched up the steep approach and were climbing by noon.
Walker, who had more experience (had actually placed an ice screw) led, engineered anchors, then lowered his tools to Grubb, who scrambled up as fast as possible. They continued in this fashion for three pitches before the sun set. Clouds moved in and it started snowing. After a short discussion about the merits of descending, their collective inexperience, their slow pace, the bad weather, and so forth, they ignored their instincts, got out their headlamps and continued upward.
The rest of the climb unfolded without incident, but on the summit the climbers became disoriented, argued, and eventually settled on the wrong descent gully. This gully was actually another climb, Broken Ribs (WI 5), and presented the climbers with challenging technical down climbing between vertical sections, which they rappelled. At roughly 8 p.m. Walker, unroped, planted his right front points and was searching for a hold for his left foot when the rear right crampon point hooked a quickdraw clipped to his harness. The front points sheared out of the ice and Walker began tumbling down the chute.
“His headlamp shot out of sight,” Grubb said. “He fell for at least 60 feet. I was sure he was dead. A few moments later I heard Wes yell up that he’d broken his ankle, and I was incredibly relieved.”
The ordeal was far from over, however, as the climbers still had to negotiate steep and dangerous terrain, and find their way back to their vehicle. After an epic descent, they reached the truck at 1 a.m. X-rays revealed a broken fibula. Walker had surgery on February 18 and is recovering.
The most surprising thing about this accident was that it wasn’t worse. Ice, a malleable and capricious medium, is particularly unforgiving. Sometimes ice formations just fall down. Walker and Grubb were fortunate that conditions were good, but the decision to climb with a single set of tools was ludicrous. The transfer process dramatically slowed them down. The late start goes against the collective wisdom of generations of mountaineers, and their decision to continue into the night in a snowstorm rather than making three short rappels smacks of foolhardiness. It is not surprising that, in the dark, the climbers descended the wrong gully.
Stories of climbers catching a crampon in gear or clothing and falling, sometimes to their deaths, are legion. Minimize this risk by clipping gear to a shoulder sling, shortening pack straps and racking to the front loops of your harness. Avoid open-loop slings in favor of sewn quickdraws.
Nothing beats experience, however, and aspiring climbers should plan a progression of increasingly challenging objectives to develop the skills and familiarity with clothing and gear necessary for winter climbing. Grubb and Walker elected to tackle a big route with almost no experience and paid a small but painful price for their hubris. In this case the old adage applies: If you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough.