The Illusion of Safety – Eight Die in a Weekend in the Alps in Roped Falls
Two tragic accidents and eight very preventable deaths.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 248 (February 2018).
One Sunday this past summer, August 27, two separate accidents killed eight climbers in the Italian and Austrian Alps. According to multiple sources, the two incidents were similar in kind—multiple climbers roped together, a fall by a single climber, and others pulled into a crevasse.
For the first incident, six climbers from Bavaria were climbing Mount Gabler in the Zillertal Valley of the Austrian Alps. High on the glacier at around 6,562 feet, some members of the group believed the slope was getting too risky to continue. A conversation ensued; perhaps they were about to turn back. According to Martin Reichholf, head of the rescue and recovery effort, the climber second to the top fell, pulling the entire group down for roughly 600 feet. The slope was steep, about 40 degrees, and rocky. Self-arrest attempts were made, but proved unsuccessful. All six plunged into a crevasse. Only one climber, age 60, survived.
The second incident was in Adamello Brenta Park, not far from Trento, a Northern Italian city close to the Brenta Dolomites. The climbers were on the northwest ridge of Cima Presanella. Nine individuals (two Italian families) were roped together when someone slipped on the lower sections of the rope, dragging those on the upper slopes into a crevasse; the exact cause of the fall is unknown. Two members of the team died in the crevasse, while a third died later in the hospital. All nine members of the party including two 13-year-olds were injured.
The majority of the climbers in these two accidents likely died falling into a crevasse, although they could have died from hitting debris. The climbers on Mount Gabler, for instance, fell over 600 feet, down a rock- and ice-strewn snowfield, before ending up in the crevasse. The available reports do not indicate the systems the individuals were using, nor the experience level of each member. However, given the unfortunate extent of the deaths, it is likely that proper snow- and glacier-travel techniques were not followed.
A crucial question needs to be asked—should these parties have been roped up? If the climbers hadn’t been roped together, it is possible that only one climber per accident would have died.
The decision not to tie in as a group should always be determined by a variety of factors—skill level, equipment, angle of slope, etc. There are multiple situations when unroped glacier travel presents little risk; for instance, in late summer when the glacier is bare ice or on such hard and steep snow that some individuals on the team couldn’t self-arrest. This does not mean, however, that the two Italian families should have unroped. In the end, if it’s safer to unrope because of fear of falling or lack of arrest techniques, turning around may be your best bet.
Should you decide to rope up, the nuances of safe glacier and snow travel are numerous. Some guidelines are:
Slope angle, size of potential crevasses, number of climbers, and experience level will dictate tie-in lengths. Though most sources cite 25 to 40 feet as the distance between climbers, don’t assume the recommendation works for all scenarios.
The weakest climbers should be at the bottom of the rope when going up, or, alternatively, the first to head down.
If you are roping up with another climber, be sure they know how to self-arrest, work a prussik, have the requisite equipment (crampons, axe, crevasse-rescue gear).
Keep the rope taut between the team; some sources recommend having an arm’s length of rope on hand to give you just a moment’s extra time to get ready to catch a fall. Too much slack lets the falling climber accelerate, making a catch that much more difficult.
Place protection between climbers, especially if you have inexperienced members; or tie knots every few meters in the rope; a knot might jam in lip of the crevasse. Be aware that such knots make hauling a member out of a crevasse on that rope virtually impossible.
In heavily crevassed terrain or terrain with hidden crevasses, belay one another in pitches.
When in doubt, belay inexperienced climbers across zones where they might fall.
If you are roped up and aren’t placing protection, be certain that anyone on that rope can catch a fall. If they can’t, the rope is nothing more than false security.