The frozen northwest flank of Mount Dennis near Field, Alberta, Canada, houses the “Beer Routes,” a collection of steep and imposing lines such as Pilsner Pillar (III WI 6), Carlsberg Column (III WI 5) and Cascade Kronenbourg (III WI 6). Nestled among these testpieces is the inviting and popular 800-foot moderate Guinness Gully (II WI 4), which consists of three pitches of vertical ice separated by low-angle snow hiking.
On March 30, Ivo Minkov, 28, and Janice Nguyen, 24, left their homes in Calgary at 7:30 a.m. and began the approach at approximately 11:00 a.m. At first, they confused the descent gully for the actual climb and did not realize their mistake until 1:30 p.m. when they found a tree with a fixed rappel station. They had accidentally hiked to the top of Guinness Gully.
The two rappelled 60 meters from the tree. Minkov rappelled first and just barely reached the snow slab at the base of the third pitch. Nguyen, the lighter of the two, reached the end of the ropes, about six feet above the ground. Minkov handed her a screw, which she placed, then made a second, short rappel to reach the ledge, where she clipped into a two-screw anchor.
Minkov started up the pitch, using the screw Nguyen had placed as his first piece of protection. He climbed an additional 20 feet to an obvious stance and placed a screw beneath the steepest part of the pitch. About a body length above the screw, Minkov began tiring. He placed another screw and clipped into it directly to rest. In the ensuing 20 feet, Minkov placed three screws, resting on all of them and commenting to Nguyen that the hard ice was particularly strenuous to protect.
After his fourth rest, about 90 feet above the belay, Minkov surmounted the steepest section of the pitch. He disappeared from Nguyen’s view and earshot and she fed out slack until she reached the ends of the 60-meter double ropes, at which point she felt a tug on the ropes. Soon after, Minkov, who was approximately 90 feet above his last screw, plummeted down the pitch and landed on the ledge about 30 feet to Nguyen’s left. Minkov died on impact.
BECAUSE NGUYEN had fed out all 60 meters of the rope, it is likely that at the time of his fall, Minkov was at, or very close to, the tree anchor he had rappelled from earlier. The upward pull might have indicated that Minkov needed slack to reach the fixed slings or was attempting to clip them. Though we will never know what caused Minkov to fall, it’s possible he simply slipped or lost his balance. Also, given that Minkov had hung four times, he was on a route that was above his ability. Perhaps he fell from the upper slab because he was shaken by the steep climbing and lost his concentration and his footing.
The team that recovered Minkov’s body found two of his ice screws lying in the snow beneath the climb, presumably having been dropped. The recovery team also found one screw on Minkov’s harness. Perhaps he was saving that screw to back up the belay, but it is also possible he forgot it was attached to his harness. Regardless, Minkov did not adequately protect the easier upper portion of the pitch.
Ice climbers experience difficulties that are not expressed in Waterfall Ice ratings. Sometimes ice conditions are favorable, making routes feel easy. However, other times the ice may be unfavorable and climbers should probably select easier routes or simply turn around. Because ice screws are generally not as reliable as bolts, nuts and cams, they are not ideal for hangdogging, especially in an alpine setting. If you drop pro or find yourself on terrain that is too difficult to climb without resting, consider retreating by down-climbing to safer terrain or lowering off an equalized two-screw anchor or a v-thread. Come back when conditions are better, with a guide or more experienced partner, or when you have gained fitness and experience. Also, because ice has a friction co-efficient of near zero, a fall even on a slab is nearly as severe as free falling down a vertical section. Don’t underestimate the danger of ice slabs—protect them!