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olyclimber

Accident/Death on Triple Couloir

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Posted (edited)

Such a bummer.  I saw Rick for a couple of injuries over the years, he was just a super nice, humble person. We even talked about climbing a couple of times and he never mentioned that he had completed the Seven Summits. RIP

Edited by Bronco
bad speller

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Not only that, but this:

 

"He also climbed six of the seven second-highest peaks on each continent."

Was only missing K2, which he did attempt.

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Rick was a coworker of mine at The Everett Clinic, and a personal friend. He and I climbed Rainier via Gib Ledges in 2014. It’s hitting all of us very hard. We opened the walk in clinic a half hour late on Thursday so we could break the news to and give people a chance to process. Particularly painful at the Harbour Pointe clinic site which was his home base. 
 

Anytime someone goes this suddenly it’s traumatic for those left behind, but particularly so when the person’s body suffers catastrophic damage. My wife was never shy of telling me during my active climbing years how much this weighed on her mind. We are distraught for Rick’s wife, who spent two days in limbo waiting for the inevitable phone call, then two more waiting for his body to be retrieved. This, plus the sheriff’s report stating it appeared Rick fell hundreds of feet, make it clear just how difficult it’s going to be for his family to process this loss. It’s a terrible place for a family to be, one of the possible consequences anytime a climber who is not a complete hermit sets out to do something risky. 
 

I was never motivated to climb Triple Couloirs even in my most aggressive period.  Questions for this forum: how many people would solo this route without protection? I only climbed with Rick the one time, but we talked about climbing fairly often, and I am fairly certain he was not the guy to set up a solo self belay. I conclude he was climbing a WI3+, fall-and-you-die route unroped. No one was there to witness the event, and Rick can’t tell us, but a lot of my coworkers and friends have questions and I’m interested in your responses. Thanks. 

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This is all very sad and sobering. My condolences to Rick's family and friends.

6 hours ago, Norman_Clyde said:

I was never motivated to climb Triple Couloirs even in my most aggressive period.  Questions for this forum: how many people would solo this route without protection? I only climbed with Rick the one time, but we talked about climbing fairly often, and I am fairly certain he was not the guy to set up a solo self belay. I conclude he was climbing a WI3+, fall-and-you-die route unroped. No one was there to witness the event, and Rick can’t tell us, but a lot of my coworkers and friends have questions and I’m interested in your responses. Thanks. 

I personally can't imagine soloing this in all but the best conditions, i.e. alot of firm snow and good ice. Perhaps conditions similar to what that face had in  April of 2015 and 2017. Even then I would likely opt for a partner and a running belay. A friend and I climbed it in late March of 2019 and the section through the hidden and second couloir, or runnels and runnels bypass, and the section connecting the second and third couloir were pretty thin, insecure, and at times fairly scary. We ended up using the runnels bypass because the runnels proper proved too thin for us. Mostly involving dry tooling on slab or somewhat rotten rock covered by unconsolidated snow. I also remember because of the condition of the snow and what little ice there is that protection was less than ideal. I don't think I'd be able to reverse any of the moves through those sections safely if I would have had to. Judging by the time of the year being similar and looking at recent photos of the face I''d imagine the route was in very similar conditions. I think your conclusions on the route are spot on. Any fall unroped would lead to a very long slide and fall. I don't think theres any feature along the route that would cut a fall short. I hope this clears up some of the questions and I am very sorry for your loss. 

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Falling rock, ice or snow can hit a climber and do major damage and/or cause them to fall. 

I'm very sorry for your loss

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Agree with @kmfoerster....I think in anything but the best conditions there are several insecure sections (i.e. what I found when I climbed it years ago).  Also agree that it is unlikely that the runnels were in very good shape and he likely had to use the bypass (which we also did like @kmfoerster). Even in good conditions, when the ice is solid and fat, the route is a funnel, so any falling debris could knock off a soloist pretty easily. 

I too am sorry for your loss @Norman_Clyde, it sounds like a terrible situation all around.

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On 4/2/2022 at 9:39 AM, Norman_Clyde said:

I was never motivated to climb Triple Couloirs even in my most aggressive period.  Questions for this forum: how many people would solo this route without protection? I only climbed with Rick the one time, but we talked about climbing fairly often, and I am fairly certain he was not the guy to set up a solo self belay. I conclude he was climbing a WI3+, fall-and-you-die route unroped. No one was there to witness the event, and Rick can’t tell us, but a lot of my coworkers and friends have questions and I’m interested in your responses. Thanks. 

I am an experience climber who has climbed Triple Couloirs three times on three different years in various conditions.  I consider myself a very conservative climber with a low risk tolerance who has climbed some of the most technical routes all over the world.  I have only solo'd two "technical" routes in my life: one 5.6 rock climb in Leavenworth and Triple Couloirs, but I generally always prefer a running belay on all "technical" climbs.  My personal opinion is that Triple Couloirs for the experienced climber lends itself to solo'ing.  

In the best conditions, TC has two very short ice pitches (less than three body lengths each) separated by three couloirs of snow which generally would be good terrain to self-arrest a fall.  If you get to the first ice pitch and it is dry or thin, you can easily walk back down.  If you get to the second ice pitch and it is dry or thin, you can easily walk back (reversing the moves or rappelling the first ice pitch).  You can basically climb up and turn around when you get to a section that you decide that you can't reverse the pitch in its conditions.  

Yes, the route can be dry and it can be thin, but you can always turn around if it's not in great conditions.  A fall from one of the two ice pitches would be relatively easy to arrest a fall.  I teach students on arresting a fall on snow.  I would classify the angle of snow in these couloirs relatively moderate self-arrest terrain (not the easiest, but not a difficult place to stop a fall). As a very experienced Mountaineer, I assume Dr. Thurmer was an expert at self-arrest technique on snow.

I solo'd TC with three other friends at the same time, all soloing, carrying a 30m skinny rope to rappel or for emergencies or for a belay if somebody wanted it. In prime conditions (as I climbed it solo), the first pitch is 4-5 body lengths of AI3- and the second pitch is 1-2 body lengths of AI2 (sometimes it's even just snow that you walk up).

Page 191 of the new guidebook "Cascade Classic Climbs" is a good, representative picture of my wife about to solo the "crux" WI3- on TC.  You can see that in prime conditions, it is a *very easy* ice step.

Without an autopsy, and without knowing the conditions, and without having known Dr. Thurmer personally,  it is possible that he got hit by a falling rock and may have been incapacitated to arrest (the worst case and very unlikely scenario).  Impossible to know.  I don't think TC is notorious for having rock fall this time of year. I have climbed this mountain 8 times in March and April on different years and never observed rock fall.  It's possible that he was just really unlucky and got hit by a rogue rock.

Norman_Clyde, I think it's very unlikely that Dr. Thurmer would have set up a self-belay at any point, as the pitches do not lend themselves to a self-belay.  I have climbed Gib Ledges, and (for comparison), I did not and would not solo that route due to the frequency of rock fall.  I think Gib Ledges has much more exposure and much more objective hazard, for reference.  

The point of me saying all of this is that I personally think there should be zero judgment towards Dr. Thurmer's decision to solo this route.  I don't really think there is any "no-fall" terrain on TC, as long as you are experienced with self-arrest techniques.  I 100% respect all opposing opinions since everyone has different risk tolerances.  My personal opinion, if you can lead WI4 ice clean, roped, and it feels easy, and you also have solid self-arrest skills, TC is a trivial route to solo (coming from a guy who doesn't solo shit).

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10 hours ago, JeffreyW said:

I personally think there should be zero judgment towards Dr. Thurmer's decision to solo this route

I hope nobody is taking our comments as judgement. I think we were just providing some info that was asked for about the TC and the range of terrain/conditions he may have experienced before the fall. 

Climbing is dangerous, roped or not.  This has been driven home to me by several close calls over the years (some roped, some un-roped).  I have also lost several friends to the mountains that were stronger and better climbers than I.  However, climbing is still something that many of us can't seem to quit, much to the chagrin of our loved ones.

Climb on Dr. Thurmer......

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Posted (edited)

Perhaps I got too far into the nuts n' bolts of the route character that has been the regular as of recent years in early season. No matter what, anything we say here as to what had happened will be speculation. I think getting knocked off balance is by falling rock etc. is very likely when the route is in rotten condition. I witnessed some that wasn't far out of the line of fire.

11 hours ago, JeffreyW said:

 A fall from one of the two ice pitches would be relatively easy to arrest a fall.  I teach students on arresting a fall on snow.  I would classify the angle of snow in these couloirs relatively moderate self-arrest terrain (not the easiest, but not a difficult place to stop a fall). As a very experienced Mountaineer, I assume Dr. Thurmer was an expert at self-arrest technique on snow.

With all due respect man (seriously), I think what you're saying here is bonkers. Suppose someone just went for it on bad conditions at the cruxes. They are now going to fall in a way thats not conducive to self arrest. No the couloirs themselves are not crazy steep, but to say self arrest in them is relatively easy seems crazy to me. Maybe a little slip in the couloirs themselves would allow a proper self arrest. But a tumbling fall from blowing a move or a hold giving or getting hit with debris at one of the cruxes or hell even in the couloirs? I sincerely doubt it and  I'm not sure that has anything to do with anyones risk tolerances. Maybe more so its that arresting a fall is not as easy as people would like to think on slopes steeper than what maybe people might glissade down. Especially on firm snow.

I had a feeling that the question asked by Norman was going to lead to a bit of an irrelevant tangent. Truthfully I'm a bit bummed on that. I do find value in this discussion on how people rationalize when its okay to solo. I think there are few things in alpine climbing that gets taught to us that in reality shake out to being mostly lip service. I think that self arrest techniques are included in that and lose effectiveness as the slope angle increases. I don't think that just because a route is in prime conditions to solo all the sudden falling is no big deal. Deaths happen on "easy" terrain by experienced people all the time.

Edited by kmfoerster

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And no my first response was not judgement at all either. Maybe more so trying to explain to Norman the character of the route in the likely conditions it was in and giving my feedback on the specific question as to if I would solo it or not. 

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Posted (edited)
Phil Powers describes watching Dan Culver fall near the bottleneck after summiting K2 in 1993 and attributes his death to not reflexively arresting fast enough (then letting go of his axe). Phil was a long term NOLS instructor (and later director of NOLS) and practiced self-arrest every season, all season long, with beginning mountaineering students so to Phil, his self-arrest skills were well honed and frequently practiced, ensuring they were hard wired into his reflexive muscle memory. He felt that many climbers view self-arrest as a beginner skill and once you learn it, very few continue to practice it on a regular basis. I can say from my own NOLS experience that the instructors drilled into us practicing arrest in a variety of conditions and positions (upside down head first etc), even how to arrest when you've lost your axe. It's a skill that can get rusty if one takes it for granted, and I have been surprised at times while glissading how long it can take in different snow conditions to fully arrest when I've switched over to a self-arrest position.
 
I'm not saying this was a factor here in this specific accident, after all, he could have had a medical emergency (syncope, heart attack, stroke) that caused his fall. A simple trip on 4th class terrain can be fatal.
Edited by bargainhunter
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Thats a great response, thanks. While I certainly don’t view it as a beginner skill, I would admit that I don’t  practice it regularly and have only had to do it a few times. I’ve never been in a formal mountaineering educational organization. How often is self arrest practiced on a slope steep enough that you would likely want two axes or tools? In the context of nols, mountaineers, etc. My point wasn’t necessarily that self arrest techniques don’t work, it was that they aren’t maybe as viable as slope angle increases or if you take a fall from a steeper section onto the slope. Think of a skier tomahawking. 

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Posted (edited)
20 hours ago, kmfoerster said:

How often is self arrest practiced on a slope steep enough that you would likely want two axes or tools?

My guess would be never? If you are on terrain that steep, you would likely accelerate out of control too fast.  But perhaps if you landed on a more moderate section and slowed, you might be able to stop before the next steeper section or a cliff, assuming you weren't too injured? I haven't climbed Triple Couloirs and can't comment on that route specifically. My point was that it's easy to get complacent with certain skills and a fraction of a section of reaction time can be the difference between arresting and a fatal fall. Think about those who have died descending Aasgard Pass because their glissade got out of control. Again not saying this accident was caused by complacency etc. and I assume anyone who attempts to solo Triple Couloirs is up for the task. We have all "4th classed" terrain on approaches or descents when the rope has been put away and gotten away with it, and we have pulled certain moves unroped that, if blown, would have led to tragic outcomes. I respect the doctor for getting after it in his 60s. It could have been any of us.

Edited by bargainhunter
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On 4/13/2022 at 9:07 AM, JeffreyW said:

I would classify the angle of snow in these couloirs relatively moderate self-arrest terrain (not the easiest, but not a difficult place to stop a fall).

Sorry, but I gotta call BS on this one, IMHO. I would classify it as "No Fucking Way" from the cruxes in the top two couloirs, especially so in what I would consider "ideal" conditions for a solo.

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Maybe we should start a new thread for this but, are people successfully self arresting a slide with ice tools (as opposed to a traditional axe)?  Are you using the spike of the shaft?  I attempted to practice it years ago and it didn't go well with a drop pick tool.  I feel like I'm missing something.

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5 hours ago, Bronco said:

it didn't go well with a drop pick tool

I've always been too timid to try it.  Seems like it wouldn't end well in firm snow.  On two-tool steep routes I've not thought self-arrest was really a good option, but interested to hear if someone has been successful.

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On 4/13/2022 at 9:07 AM, JeffreyW said:

Without an autopsy, and without knowing the conditions, and without having known Dr. Thurmer personally,  it is possible that he got hit by a falling rock and may have been incapacitated to arrest (the worst case and very unlikely scenario).  Impossible to know.  

His body was first spotted from a helicopter, said to have been at the base of the climb, which I assume means the snow fan beneath the first couloir. The coroner's report indicated catastrophic injury, consistent with being struck by something heavy falling from a good distance above, or striking hard rock or ice after free falling a significant distance. Could have been either of these. Fall seems more likely to me but it's impossible to know which, unless the rescue team saw clear evidence of a large mass of rock or ice debris that traveled down with him. 

I am somewhat curious to know if the team saw such debris, but not curious enough to seek them out and ask.

I appreciate the tone of respect and concern in the posts. Haven't posted here in years but this brings back fond memories of many intense discussions about this heavy subject, almost all of which left me impressed with the character of the CC.com community. I don't perceive any tone of judgment, rather an effort to keep the discussion reasoned and respectful, including those who dispute with JeffreyW about length of WI sections or ability to self arrest on steep snow.

One thing I'm sure of: Rick was fully aware of the risks he took. He was training for a 2nd attempt of K2, after all.

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Post-accident threads quickly move from condolences to incident analysis, and I think a signifcant part of that is to identify an error so that the reader can say "Oh, I would never make THAT mistake." This joins the parade of little white lies we tell ourselves to justify the risks of climbing. The reality is that bad things can happen in the mountains no matter how good or careful you are. Sometimes the only error was being there in the first place. 

Regarding the original post, we don't know the exact conditions at the time of the incident nor the Dr's abilities or risk tolerance, so I don't think we can objectively question his judgment. Part of the beauty of life is that we each get to make our own choices on this journey.

 

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Accidents happen. True.  We know not the answers.
 

To the family who reads this thread:  My condolences to you.  I would have had a great time in the mountains with Rick. 

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