Silly Mistakes

For some reason, likely a paycheck, I wrote a few pieces for a "manly" website, the sort of PG-13 sites men read at work to titillate themselves. Soft porn, adventure porn, career porn. Anyway, I was asked to write something educational but also entertaining about climbing, something sensational. I chuckle now but the piece did produce one rather strong image I hope to never hear or see again, "the cry of a Skil saw with a shattered bearing pierces the air ..."

Mountaineering  Disaster:

Common Mistakes and how to Avoid Them

1983 was a savage year in the French Alps. 50 climbers died, 11 of them in a single accident. As is common in the high season, multiple parties were simultaneously attempting the north face of the Tour Ronde near Mont Blanc; a moderate, 1000 foot high snow and ice face, never steeper than 60°. One of the rope teams high on the face fell with the rope strung between them. They "flossed" the entire face, dragging 19 other climbers to the bottom. Ten survived.

Hemingway considered mountaineering among the top three "genuine" sports along with motor racing and bullfighting. He believed sport a simple diversion unless some risk of injury or death was involved. Read and heed the following accident scenarios and their solutions. It might keep you in the Sports Section and out of the Obituaries.



According to statistics in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, published annually by the American Alpine Club, slips or falls on rock are the most prevalent climbing accidents. Statistics cite a variety of contributory causes, but climbers usually lose contact with the mountain as a result of exceeding their abilities.


How it happens:

You're leading a pitch, having trouble finding the easiest passage. You make some irreversible moves. There's a final crux before reaching easier terrain. The closest piece of protection is 20 feet below, meaning you'll go 40 feet minimum - IF your belayer is paying attention. With strength waning you lunge for what appears to be a big hold. It's a sloper. Your fingers grease off and you're airborne. Thirty feet down is a ledge. You hit it with ten feet of slack still out. The belayer never had a chance. But, you wonder just before impact, does he have a cell phone? Then everything goes black.


The solution:

The best advice for avoiding falls off ice, rock or snow is to climb well within your abilities. After gaining climbing movement skills and knowledge of knots and belaying in the gym, hire a guide to introduce you to the esoteric nature of climbing outdoors. A guide's experience is an indispensable knowledge multiplier for beginning climbers. He or she can help translate the technical ability gained at the Rock Gym onto an outdoor crag or mountain; offering clues about weather, route finding and placing protection.



As a result of the 1996 Everest tragedy, detailed in Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air", the Killer Storm may be foremost in the minds of beginning mountaineers. While rarely terminal, stormy conditions complicate preexisting problems.


How it happens:

You're climbing quickly on Mt Rainier's Liberty Ridge, nearing the summit. The predicted storm blows in 12 hours early and you begin a fight for your life. 80mph winds force you to your hands and knees. Blizzard conditions mask landmarks. Without them you can't navigate. It's senseless to crawl in circles, searching for blown-over tracks in the snow. You sit down to wait, and hope the storm doesn't last very long.


The solution:

To prevent a storm from turning you into a popsicle, adequate foresight and equipment is essential. Check and recheck the weather forecast. Use the Internet, contact local land managers who know the area well, like the Park or Forest Service. Storms are common in the mountains, "surprise storms" are not. However, if you are overtaken by events you must remain warm and dry, and you have to keep moving. Modern mountaineering clothing ensures the former (but only if you carry it with you). Skill and experience aid the latter. No classes can teach you how to safely climb up through a storm or retreat in midst of one. But a map, compass and knowledge to use them are invaluable.



Another common cause of accidents is falling rock and ice. Some mountain ranges are notoriously unsound. The Canadian Rockies and parts of the Alps began their lives on the bottom of the ocean and are returning to the womb, piece by piece.


How it happens:

You thought you'd be faster, that you'd reach the shelter of The Ramp before sunrise. But it catches you on the Second Icefield. Rocks wing past making a killing sound. You and your partner knew how dangerous the Eigerwand was before attempting it. The cry of a Skil saw with a shattered bearing pierces the air. You make the beginner's mistake of looking up. A book-sized rock hits you in the face showering your partner with blood. Game over.


The solution:

To avoid falling rock or ice climb when temperatures are below freezing. Start in the middle of the night if necessary to take advantage of freezing conditions. Shun gullies and couloirs which are funnels for falling debris if you are caught out in warm weather. Traverse to a protected arete or to steeper rock and keep moving. Without question a helmet is an imperative piece of equipment for mountaineers. The helmet belongs on your head - not in the pack or on the shelf at home. When you hear the whine point your helmet at the threat, and cover the back of your neck with your pack.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight