On January 12 a climber from Alma, Colorado, was severely injured when the Fang, a famous ice climb in the Vail amphitheater, collapsed. The climber, age 34, was attempting the freestanding pillar in lean conditions.
According to Jason Beaupre, who was visiting from New York and was at the amphitheater hoping to try the nearby Rigid Designator, the entire Fang broke, and the climber fell at least 100 feet. Seven other climbers were present at the scene. Despite the large amount of ice that crashed down, no one else was injured.
According to Beaupre, the belayer was a certified EMT and he assessed and stabilized the climber, who lay on top of large blocks of ice. Friends and family requested that the climber’s name not be used in this report. As of January 14, he remained in critical condition.
After the accident, a storm of speculation echoed across the Internet as pundits weighed in on whether it was reasonable or foolish to climb the Fang on that particular day. Two climbers, including the author of the region’s guidebook, speculated that the pillar was not yet safe to climb. It was, as one wrote, fully one or two weeks off. Other posters leveled personal insults, characterizing the climber as super-ultra-mega-extremo or just very impatient. Scott Smith, the owner of a local guide service was quoted as telling the Summit Daily News that not many people, if any, had climbed the Fang this winter.
In reading the comments, it would appear that this accident was caused by poor judgment. Yet, several people had led the Fang without incident the week before the accident, and photographs taken moments before the Fang collapsed show that the climb had a cone base approximately 25 feet wide and that the column itself was six feet wide at its thinnest and eight to 10 feet at its widest. The ice appeared chandeliered, but with a continuous solid section up the middle. A climber who had seen the Fang earlier reports that it had fractured all the way across just below where the main column attaches to the rock, about 100 feet up, and that the Fang often fractures this way, but heals and is climbed in this condition. The photos (withheld at the request of family members) also show that the climber was cautious, placing a screw every body length.
According to one of his partners, the injured climber had waited 15 years to attempt the Fang, and had put in 60 days of ice climbing this season alone in preparation. He was a good judge of conditions. Another partner, Mary Harlan, characterized him as a conservative climber who always wears his helmet, even on sport climbs and had an impeccable safety record.
Beaupre told Rock and Ice that the climber had taken a long rest at a stance 15 feet up, and discussed the conditions with his belayer. I may back down on this, he said.
Ice is notoriously unpredictable, and sometimes pillars simply fall down. Almost any climber who has participated in the sport for a few seasons has stories about ice climbs shearing off, or showing up only to find that a climb has disappeared. In short, ice climbing is dangerous. Any climber who ropes up for freestanding pillar like the Fang, which has fallen down early winter before, is rolling the dice.
It is possible to take steps to make ice climbing safer, keeping in mind that ice will never be made entirely safe. In this case, the pillar, though solid in the middle, was otherwise chandeliered, one sign of ice that isn’t fully bonded. Though other climbers safely made ascents in these conditions, the climb would have likely been stronger once the pillar had filled in more and the chandeliers bonded. The top fracture was another indication of instability, although, as reported above, this is not an unusual condition for the Fang.
Educate yourself on conditions. Monitor local ice climbing websites. Watch the temperature. Warm days will cause the ice to melt, but very cold temperatures are problematic too. Extremes in temperature either way can make the ice less stable. On cold days the ice doesn’t displace the force as well, but will often become brittle and plate out.
Stay out of drip lines and avoid areas where chunks of ice are embedded in the snow. When belaying or watching, move out of the fall line, and always wear your helmet.