On the afternoon of September 18, Maria Birukova, a 26-year-old Stanford
medical student, and her partner, Ian Isaacson, were high on the East Ridge (IV 5.8) of Bear Creek Spire, a 13,726-foot peak in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Birukova was an experienced climber on both rock, where she climbed up to 5.13, and in the California alpine. She’d already done the Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9) and long alpine routes in the Palisades.
According to a friend who posted details on supertopo.com the two carried a rope on Bear Creek Spire, but were only bringing it out for steeper sections. Near the summit, Birukova was climbing ahead, negotiating some loose terrain, when a “big chunk of rock broke from under her feet,” according to the post on supertopo.com. She fell 800 to 1,000 feet, according to the Inyo County Search and Rescue (ICSAR) coordinator, Nate Derr. Birukova’s body was recovered on September 20.
It’s common practice for climbers to stow the rope and solo easy terrain in the alpine, and there are often compelling reasons to do so. For one thing, moving unroped is faster. When you’re exposed on a high mountain, speed can equate to safety. Weather can swing from one extreme to another in a blink, especially in the September “shoulder season,” where one moment can be balmy and the next arctic. The ICSAR report observed that high winds delayed the recovery of Birukova’s body for two days. With weather coming in, conditions were less than ideal, and the team needed to move
fast to complete the 22-pitch East Ridge.
Second, in situations where you’re climbing easy, loose terrain above your partner or another party, dragging a rope can trigger rockfall that might injure people below you. If the route is not difficult or too exposed, potential rockfall can be a reason people choose soloing.
Finally, Birukova was an ace rock climber and proficient at negotiating High Sierra ridges. The moves on the East Ridge were well below her ability, and roping up must have appeared simply an exercise in caution. And yet this tragic accident proves otherwise.
Barring rare exceptions, alpine ridges worldwide are comprised of deteriorating rock. Millennia of freeze-thaw cycles have pried and shattered these exposed ridge lines, breaking them into teetering stacks of loose blocks, unstable gendarmes and perched boulders.
The frightening truth is that alpine ridges are in a constant state of erosion. Climbing them is inherently dangerous. Even the best climber can inadvertently wander onto a loose section, set off a rockslide and fall.
This accident might have been prevented if the team had been roped. Even though roped climbing is slower, if the terrain takes you through sections where a fall would result in injury or death, it’s better to break out the rope. Alpine climbers should know how to shorten the rope using a Mountaineer’s Coil or a Kiwi Coil, and simul-climb, weaving through features (such as spires and boulders) and/or placing removable gear that the second cleans as he or she follows. Minimize slack between you and your partner.
A few other ways to try to remain safe when climbing choss:
1) Choose the less exposed option. Sometimes you can drop off the actual ridge and traverse along a flank that offers a less dangerous route.
2) Climb the good rock. Look for solid bands of stone, and avoid the choss even if the good rock takes you out of the plumb line.
3) Test holds before committing. Give suspect footholds a kick and handholds a rap before using them.
4) Plan for the worst case. Look for routes that take you above ledges, and avoid climbing over big drops. Try to distribute your weight between holds rather than trusting just one point of contact.
5) Down climb. If you find yourself in a sketchy situation, don’t hesitate to turn around. Down climb or retreat, and live to climb another day.
This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 240 (February 2017).