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Accident Prevention

Ice Climber Dislodges Ice, Belayer Hit and Seriously Injured

Fractured skull suggests that time is running out on old helmets.

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Mike, 45, was about 25 feet from the top of Dracula (NEI 4), a famous 110-foot testpiece in New Hampshire, when he realized that something was wrong. The rope went tight, Mike said, and it stayed tight. He yelled down to his older brother Chris (who was out of sight) for slack, but he heard nothing. The rope was pulling him away from his firmly planted ice axes. Mike was able to downclimb until he was below his last screw, which alleviated some of the rope’s tension. He clipped directly into that screw with a quickdraw and then drove in another screw, to which he also anchored. Secure, Mike was then able to see Chris and assess the situation. His brother had been knocked unconscious, presumably by ice that Mike dislodged while leading. Chris’s limp body slumped over his passive belay device, which still held the rope. Chris, unconscious, had slid down the snowy stance beneath the climb, pulling the rope down with him.

After yelling for help for 10 minutes, Mike gained the attention of two climbers who rushed over. One of them tended to Chris while the other took control of the rope and lowered Mike from his two-screw anchor. Chris was still unconscious. The back left side of his helmet was badly fractured and his head was bleeding heavily. While the two climbers waited with Chris, Mike rushed to the parking lot, about a mile away, to initiate a rescue. With no cellular reception, Mike knocked on the door of a private home near the trailhead. The residents graciously allowed him to phone an ambulance. Mike then retrieved a rescue litter cached at the trailhead, and returned to the accident scene. Hardly a quarter mile up, Mike met Chris, who had regained consciousness and was stumbling down with the support of the two climbers.

Although he was able to walk out, Chris’s injury was severe. An ambulance rushed him to Memorial Hospital in nearby North Conway, where he was diagnosed with a fractured skull. He was promptly transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, from which he was discharged on December 11, returning to his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. Chris is reportedly recovering slowly. As of press time, he had been admitted to a third hospital, Boston’s Massachusetts General.


Mike and Chris share over 40 years of collective experience. They have spent their adult lives climbing around New England and have taken on serious alpine endeavors such as a 1990 expedition to the Himalaya. Dracula was well within their ability levels and they were very familiar with the route. In fact, on the morning of the accident, Chris had successfully led Dracula. He’d found the cold ice to be brittle and prone to fracturing. Mike, his belayer, was keenly aware of the falling ice.

After Chris led Dracula, he set a belay at a large tree on top of the flow, and Mike followed the pitch. While walking the descent trail, the brothers checked the conditions of other routes. Most were not in, and the few that were climbable were occupied. Nobody was on Dracula so the brothers decided to do another lap.

During Mike’s turn leading Dracula, he made sure Chris took advantage of a protected belay in a rock alcove at the base of the route, well away from the route’s principle fall line. Despite the pair’s sound decision making, Chris ultimately fell victim to a large chunk of ice that bounced, shattered and sent basketball-sized chunks toward him. While Chris had no control of the ice fall, he did have control over other factors, such as his choice of helmet.


Rick Wilcox, president of the area’s Mountain Rescue Service and owner of International Mountain Equipment, helped collect Chris’ equipment the day of the accident. He observed that Chris’ kevlar helmet, an outdated HB El Cap, had no foam liner. According to Wilcox, older helmets such as this one were built for strength and durability. While they may remain intact after multiple blows, hard helmets transfer the energy of a falling object directly to the skull. Over the past 10 years, Wilcox says, the philosophy behind climbing helmets has changed. Industry research such as that done by the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) Safety Commission has favored foam-lined helmets that help absorb the energy of a falling object. These helmets protect the head in the same way that crumble-zones in modern automobiles protect passengers in car crashes.

Wearing any helmet is always preferable to not wearing one, but a newer, foam helmet might have mitigated the severity of this injury.