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Accident Prevention

600-foot Ice Climbing Fall

At the top of Central Gully (WI 2), John told his two partners he was too exhausted for the four-mile walkout, and that they should go ahead and get...

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At the top of Central Gully (WI 2), “John” told his two partners he was too exhausted for the four-mile walkout, and that they should go ahead and get help. It was Saturday, March 14, and the three had just topped out on the snow and ice ramp that cleaves Huntington Ravine, on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. John’s partners left, not expecting that he would try to descend alone, and lose control.
After his partners departed, John descended the easy snow ramp until he reached the top of the route’s only technical bulge of alpine ice and found the leader from another party belaying a second up. The leader agreed to let John rappel off his anchor using John’s own rope. When John was safely past the ice crux, the leader would detach John’s rope and throw it down.

John reached the bottom of the bulge and yelled for his rope to be dropped, but failed to hold onto an end. When the rope was tossed, it zipped past John. Eric Eisele, a guide going up the route, was maybe 30 feet below John and he snagged the rope.

According to Eisele, John initiated a glissade to get his rope, accelerated on the icy snow and was instantly out of control. Eisele yelled, “Self-arrest!” but John was unable to check his speed.

Horrified, Eisele and his two clients watched as John raced down the glassy slope, blasted into a row of jagged rocks, cartwheeled, and slid for an additional 600 feet.

When he finally came to a rest, John did not move. Eisele remembers his clients asking him if John was dead.

“I told them I didn’t know,” Eisele said, “but if he’s alive, he’s going to need a ride down to the trailhead quick.”

Eisele initiated a rescue via cell phone. Soon dozens of climbers were on site to help.

Justin Preisendorfer, a USFS Snow Ranger, arrived by snowmobile with an E.R. physician. The doctor identified a broken radius-ulna, a dislocated shoulder, a tibia-fibula fracture and a life-threatening femur fracture. Rangers snowmobiled John to the trailhead in about 15 minutes. An ambulance then rushed him to North Conway’s Memorial Hospital where he was airlifted to Maine Medical in Portland. Climber-witnesses agree that he is lucky to be alive.

ANALYSIS

Ranger Preisendorfer had spoken directly to John and his two partners as they approached Huntington Ravine the morning of the accident. He reiterated the posted warnings of extremely slick snow conditions and encouraged John’s party to practice self-arresting on a side hill before heading up Central Gully.

According to a daily snow report posted on tuckerman.org two days before the accident, a “vicious roller coaster” of weather on Mount Washington transformed “mashed potato” snow into frozen “bulletproof surface conditions.” The report then stated—in bold font—that “uncontrolled sliding falls are probably the biggest threat today on the mountain so make sure you have that ice axe in your hand and know how to self-arrest.”

PREVENTION

John’s biggest mistake was initiating a glissade on the bullet-hard snow. Even so, the ice-axe self-arrest is the most basic and crucial skill for mountaineers to master. Had John quickly executed the maneuver, this accident might have been prevented. Climbers should practice self-arresting on low-angled slopes with safe run-outs until the skill becomes second nature. This accident could also have been prevented had John chosen to descend Lion’s Head, the standard trail down Mount Washington, rather than a climbing route. Finally, both of his partners should not have left him alone and exhausted high on the route. One should have stayed.

Check weather forecasts and websites that may provide specific condition reports before venturing onto dangerous peaks, like Mount Washington, in winter. If you are unclear about technical aspects of climbing, hire a guide.