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JasonG

Climber killed, others injured at Thumb Rock

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Ugh

Hard to find fault with anyone in this one.  Thumb rock is a fraught location, but about the only place to camp that is somewhat sheltered on that massive face.  Yet another reminder that the game we play isn't very safe.

Condolences to all involved.:(

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Pretty tenuous spot to camp with lots of objective risk.  Rock fall, serac collapse, avalanche, falling off the west side of the ridge to name a few.

That is one route you don't hear many people climbing more than once for good reason. 

RIP to the fallen climber.

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3 minutes ago, Bronco said:

That is one route you don't hear many people climbing more than once for good reason.

As we were listening to the story this morning, my wife said "You're not climbing that again!"

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Tragic. Unless you're one of the loved one's left behind here's something ineffable about the vast and never-ending spiral of grief that you know that incidents like this are going leave in their wake. Sort of like the emotional equivalent of dark matter. You know it's out there, and it's massive, searing, and life changing, but if you're far enough removed from the incident you can't really see it, feel it, or appreciate its true magnitude.

-------------------------

I think I can remember a TR from Alpinfox from way back that mentioned sitting in their tent when a garbage-can-lid sized wheel of death that ripped right between himself and his partner when they were sitting in their tent. Literally just chilling in their tent one second, certain death pass inches away from both of them a second later, both of them getting eyes wide as saucers a second later, then spending the rest of the night crouched low in their tents with their helmets on, with their full packs braced between themselves and whatever else might come raining down in the middle of the night. Terrifying.

 

 

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The window for climbing Liberty Ridge has shrunk considerably since I climbed it in 1994.  The season is also earlier which forces climbers to climb in less stable weather.  I could see this as becoming only relatively safe in late winter - early spring, like Gibralter Ledges is now. 

  • Rawk on! 1

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Tvash and partner had a rock fall into their tent at that camp spot too but they were climbing it kinda late in season.

 

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On 6/1/2019 at 12:53 PM, DPS said:

The window for climbing Liberty Ridge has shrunk considerably since I climbed it in 1994.  The season is also earlier which forces climbers to climb in less stable weather.  I could see this as becoming only relatively safe in late winter - early spring, like Gibralter Ledges is now. 

That is a case with many, many objectives. Particularly Canadian Rockies seasons have changed. Winter carries higher risk of avalanches on routes like LR, so pretty much not getting around risks involved. I think the only way to do it is being acclimatized and fit, and do it in one push, minimizing risks. Few years back, there was a party killed by an avalanche higher up, remember?

 

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I think the recent accident at Thumb Rock and the avalanche in 2014 are more of wrong place wrong time accidents rather due to seasonal / climatic changes. Thumb Rock is conglomerated mud and it is hard to predict when it might crumble. The same for the seracs that avalanched. Being acclimate and fit is still no guarantee ala the accident on Howse Peak this winter.

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8 hours ago, ScaredSilly said:

I think the recent accident at Thumb Rock and the avalanche in 2014 are more of wrong place wrong time accidents rather due to seasonal / climatic changes. Thumb Rock is conglomerated mud and it is hard to predict when it might crumble. The same for the seracs that avalanched. Being acclimate and fit is still no guarantee ala the accident on Howse Peak this winter.

The point Bob is making is to spend less time in the hazardous area.   Spend 10 minutes or 8 hours under crumbling mud pile or under hanging icefall?  All about minimizing risk, not eliminate risk.

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10 hours ago, ScaredSilly said:

I think the recent accident at Thumb Rock and the avalanche in 2014 are more of wrong place wrong time accidents rather due to seasonal / climatic changes. Thumb Rock is conglomerated mud and it is hard to predict when it might crumble. The same for the seracs that avalanched. Being acclimate and fit is still no guarantee ala the accident on Howse Peak this winter.

Low temps will minimize rock fall. Hence you have less chance of being hit, when everything is frozen solid, and rockfall starts when stuff starts melting. Avi in 2014 was a snow field cutting lose at night, possibly triggered from higher up, but it was a wet slab. Yes, wrong place at the wrong time, but from risk management perspective, the less time you spent in a danger zone, the less chances of getting injured/killed you'll have. 

Regarding Howse Peak accident: Rockies is a very specific place and very dangerous place due to very very different snowpack. Many visiting climbers underestimate that place, and are not familiar with the specifics. When I started climbing there in the early 90's I was lacking understanding of snow dynamics in the range. Only after spending several seasons there, I developed a better sense of the place. Routes on East Face of Howse would be gang-banged classics, but they are surrounded by some of the worst avi terrain in the range. The trio probably underestimated conditions. 

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12 hours ago, glassgowkiss said:

I think the only way to do it is being acclimatized and fit, and do it in one push, minimizing risks. 

 

While I agree this is a practical approach in many alpine climbs, I also think taking advantage of the early AM temperatures on the ascent from the Carbon Glacier, take a long rest break at Thumb Rock and get moving again once it's cooled down overnight for the ascent to the summit is the generally accepted "best practice".  This also allows for some recovery and acclimation to take place to help move quickly on the upper part of the route.  I know anyone who was much above Thumb Rock on the afternoon we were there would've been swept off by a giant serac calving event in the heat of the day.   Any way you do it, you have to accept that you're rolling the dice on this route.

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31 minutes ago, Bronco said:

Any way you do it, you have to accept that you're rolling the dice on this route.

Not if you climb the Emmons and ski it first thing in the morning! :wink:

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One other point of view.

Lets assume that back in the day of yester-year say the 1980's, or early 1990's Liberty Ridge might have had a dozen people climb the route over the 12 week season. (one person per week.)

Now, let us assume that there is a consistent timing involved in catastrophic collapse such as ice seracks calving, or daily freeze/thaw cycles and seasonal melting causing major rock fall. Similar to a 100 year flood prediction or plate margins stress release events (earthquake prediction). Imagine that a video camera recorded a dozen collapse events happening over a dozen weeks. (On average one per week). And it happened between the hours of noon and 4pm. Well in the 1990's if a dozen people climbed the route over the 3 month window, (12 weeks) odds are very low that anyone would be around to see it occur. 

Fast forward to 2018 where the popularity of the Mountain has increased and so has the desire to climb Liberty Ridge. Imagine one or more groups on the route at all times over the 12 week climbing window. If a week or two go by where nothing happens, then the odds increase dramatically for the remaining weeks left in the season. 

In other words lets pretend climbing Liberty Ridge is very much like playing Russian Roulette but instead of a 1 in 5 chance of firing a bullet, lets boost it up to a 1 in 8 chance, or even 1 in 20. In the 1980's and 1990's very few people spun the chamber of the revolver so few shots were fired. Now that there are more and more people standing in line to hold the revolver, it gets used on a more frequent basis and therefore more shots get fired.

5_shot_revolver.jpg

8 shot revolver.jpg

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To calculate the Serack collapse rate all a person would need to do is measure the flow rate of the ice wall hanging above from Liberty Cap, and then monitor how often the toe edge calved off. In years of relatively high flow rates, then the serack collapse rates would also increase as well. In years of slower glacial creep, you could literally forecast fewer serack collapse events.

Rock Fall Collapse rates would be much harder to forecast and I assume that they would be directly tied to temperature swings throughout the day and nights. If a season had a high number of freeze/thaw cycles from day to night, then rock fall danger would also be more likely. If there was a year where it was below freezing all day and all night for the last month and then wham, it stayed above freezing all day and all night this next month, then there would be relatively fewer rock falls.

Super interesting stuff. 

Lastly if catastrophic collapses happened at one part of the day more than others, where people are located at that time of day is also a big factor. "HEY everybody, for the next 4 hours stay out of gullies, and couloirs". You could have 20 people on the route on the day a collapse happens, yet if all are in a safe zones, then no one will get hurt. 

Joe left.jpg

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Climbing mountains and the attendant hazards refuses to be calculated, despite our best efforts (which doesn't mean we shouldn't try and stack the odds in our favor). 

No matter the plan, chunks of rock or ice won't necessarily care.  A few of my dead friends testify to this unfortunate fact of climbing.

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If the objective danger hasn't changed over time, then the risk to a given individual/party isn't greater simply because more people are climbing the route (other than the risks imposed by those sharing the route with you).

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6 hours ago, bigeo said:

If the objective danger hasn't changed over time, then the risk to a given individual/party isn't greater simply because more people are climbing the route (other than the risks imposed by those sharing the route with you).

you are right about individual risk but the chance of Someone getting the chop does go up

would be interesting to see registration number for amount of people climbing lib ridge.  I thought that the amount of people was essentially the same for the last 30 years considering it is a 50 classic.

 

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One small data point, when we were on Liberty Ridge 30 years ago. We were the first of three parties to arrive at Thumb Rock for the night. That was a Saturday night.

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2 hours ago, ScaredSilly said:

One small data point, when we were on Liberty Ridge 30 years ago. We were the first of three parties to arrive at Thumb Rock for the night. That was a Saturday night.

In 1994 we were the last of six parties at to arrive Thumb Rock. 

I agree with Gene, since 50 Classics was published (1978?) I suspect the number of climbers on Liberty Ridge has been more or less consistent.

I could be completely wrong, but I think the number of climbers on Rainier in general has not increased significantly over the last 30 years because the park de facto limits the number of climbers through camping permits.  Also, a significant portion of climbers go with guide services, who are also limited to a certain number of climbers.

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11 minutes ago, DPS said:

In 1994 we were the last of six parties at to arrive Thumb Rock. 

I agree with Gene, since 50 Classics was published (1978?) I suspect the number of climbers on Liberty Ridge has been more or less consistent.

I could be completely wrong, but I think the number of climbers on Rainier in general has not increased significantly over the last 30 years because the park de facto limits the number of climbers through camping permits.  Also, a significant portion of climbers go with guide services, who are also limited to a certain number of climbers.

Damn, you guys have impressive memories.  I had to go look it up to even remember what *year* I climbed Liberty Ridge, and I have no idea how many other parties there were, though about six sounds about right.

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It is a memorable route, for sure.  There were two parties at Thumb Rock when I climbed it in 2002, ours of four and @sepultura's of two for six total climbers.  We didn't experience any rockfall at camp, though I was almost taken out by a bowling ball sized rock on the Black Pyramid.  I also remember it was so calm when we woke up that you could've had a candle lit outside the tent and it wouldn't have blown out.  Eerie that high on a major peak, and the only time I've ever experienced anything like it.  It was mid 20's as well.  So completely perfect.

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Oh, I remember the climb itself clearly enough -- I was with Jens who was so comfortable soloing that by the time I decided I wouldn't mind a belay for a ropelength or two, he was 200 feet above me and I had our 30-m rope.  Fortunately I didn't want it so bad I was afraid to move or anything.  And he was all about going to Columbia Crest and I couldn't have cared less, so I laid on my pack in the sun while he scampered up there and like for you, it was weirdly calm -- I didn't even need a puffy.  But as far as dates and so forth?  Not so much.  

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The rock on Mt. Rainier is not the same as on Mt. Stuart.  Always more rockfall danger on volcanoes.

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