jared_j Posted May 13, 2009 Share Posted May 13, 2009 (edited) Warning: Long post. Had a good time up until the very premature end of the trip. I was scheduled for a near 3 week trip to the Alaska range with Kevin Trieu of LA, under the team name 'Funemployed' (thanks to my friend Stephen for introducing me to the expression) . Our primary goals were the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter and Ham'n'Eggs on the Moose's Tooth. It was my first trip to the range, and Kevin's second (he summited Denali two years ago). Both of these climbs seemed like exciting challenges but within our physical and technical abilities. Despite the outcome, I continue to believe that we approached this trip and these climbs with the appropriate amount of humility and caution. We flew in on Friday the 8th, and quickly got some inspiration right off the plane: We shared a shuttle up with a couple of friendly AAI guides, and got to Talkeetna a little after 5pm. We sorted what seemed to me to be an improbably large amount of gear, primarily due to our 3 week itinerary of spending a week in the Ruth, then a couple of weeks in the Kahiltna area: We took off the next morning in bluebird weather, dropping off a team of 4 Italians intent on climbing the Cassin in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. The flight from the Kahiltna to the Ruth was, shall we say, stimulating. Only later was it explained to me that the little automated voice with messages like "500 feet" in a soothing tone indicated that we were within 500' of some surface (e.g. a mountain wall or col). We got dropped off in the Ruth Gorge. The plan was to make a base camp, approach the Moose's Tooth with a couple days of gear, and them come back down. With luck, weather, and motivation, maybe we'd hit up the Japanese Route on Barrille. Parties down in the Gorge had varying degrees of success on the routes fired by John (BTW, thanks a ton to John and Daniel Harro for beta). Some had success of Ham'n'Eggs and Barrille, though. We set out early Sunday morning to head to Ham'n'Eggs, hopefully early enough to avoid any hazard due to the recent warming trends. The approach via an access couloir to the right of the main icefall was stimulating. It would probably be in Jim Nelson's books if it were located in the Cascades. We set up camp just atop, well west of the Root Canal runway, and 2 other parties. There were four teams up there, 3 of whom (including us) wanted to get on Ham'n'Eggs the next morning. They were all nice, and I wasn't too worried about crowded house. The alarm went off at 2am Monday morning, and we got up to see the Anchorage - based team roped up and about to head to the route. Lamps were visible at the camp near the runway, and both teams made it to the route before we did. They each made it through the first 5.6 rock pitch without event. Kevin led it with no hitch, finishing up around 5am. I led off on a short snow traverse pitch, and then again for the third pitch involving two short ice steps. The ice was thin and kinda rotten. I had seen the previous party get a couple of screws in low on the first icefall, maybe a dozen feet tall. I got up to it, and the ice seemed worthless for screws to me, but thick enough for delicate sticks. The couloir narrowed and allowed good stemming near the top as well. A small flaring crack at the base of the step also didn't yield a good cam placement. Typically, in such a situation, I just move on rather than placing what I believe is crappy gear. There are some times where this isn't such a bad idea, and some times where it is. This terrain was decidedly moderate, and the step was short enough such that a pro placement wouldn't have kept me from 'decking' on the snowfield if I feel on the step, anyway. So I just went without placing anything. It was about 5:30am. After the two or three moves up the step, I felt very much in control. I had gotten a bit of a spindrift bath and the winds were picking up, but otherwise I felt cool. The first tool was sunk into what felt like good neve with ice underneath. The second tool was sunk about 8" away. As I weighted the tools to shuffle my feet up (stemming), they suddenly blew, with the snow and ice underneath them losing its bond to the underlying rock . I had nowhere to go but back down with a quickness. It happened so fast I remember at first being surprised, thinking something like "WTF?" or "that's odd". I teetered and thought I could quickly re-establish the stem and stay up, but no dice. I was falling. I looked down and also remember thinking that the snowfield wasn't that far down, and maybe it would be kind of a soft landing. A soft landing it was not. I'm pretty sure I sustained at this point what was my serious injury - a tib/fib fracture, with a full break through the tibia and a medial fracture of the tibia. The next thing I remember was falling backwards suddenly. The snow slope had an angle of who knows - let's say 40 degrees. I was on my back head down, accelerating rapidly down the slope. Kevin's anchor was a fixed station climber's right, and I was now rocketing past him screaming. I tried to roll over and kick around to establish a self arrest. I was sliding waaaaay faster than I ever had when practicing such a technique, and could sense great acceleration. I felt helpless, and despite my focus on getting into an arrest position, glanced down and noted that I was nearing the end of the snowfield. The rope had not yet come taut (and oh yeah, I realized I was going to factor 2 right onto Kevin) and I couldn't see what was beyond the edge of this snowfield, but whatever it was it was steeper. For this moment, I recall two things. First, I thought I might be establishing an effective arrest. Two, I realized I had no idea what was beyond the edge of this snowfield. If it was low angle rocky terrain, I knew things would be very very bad given my velocity at this point. I distinctly remember thinking, as I moved across the last snow but couldn't yet really see what was below, that this might be it - I may die here. Not now, dammit. Christine and I had recently gotten engaged. We were moving to the east coast in the fall for her to begin MD studies, and for me to find a new job after gettin' laid off by Wamu last fall. My life was going so great. It wasn't suppposed to end like this. When I pitched over the edge of the snowfield, it was into space. Below was a steep rock wall. I free fell for a short while before the rope became taut, with me coming to a stop about 15-20' below the lip of the rock wall. I was directly in the line of fire of the dumping of the route. Tons of drift was coming down on me, going down the front of my jacket (despite having the hatches battened down). It was going in my eyes. In my sleeves. A brief moment of wishful thinking on my part that perhaps I had escaped without serious trauma was dashed when I tried to wiggle the right leg. I knew something was broken down in the ankle area. Improbably, however, everything else seemed fine. I didn't hit my head, neck, or back. There was probably 50-60' of rope out from the belay; seems like I got off easy with a hurt ankle considering the nature of the fall and the terrain. The wind was howling, and I yelled to Kevin as best I could, but heard nothing back. Both ropes were taut, and after a minute of yelling I was ready to get the f**k outta there. I throw on a prusik and a tibloc and begin ascending one of our ropes. Not sure of what Kevin was able to do up there, I tied backup knots every so often so as not to lose hard - fought ground on the way up. At some point, Kevin was able to escape the belay, and rap himself down to the edge of the cliff to see me with my down jacket on and moving (albeit slowly). We could each hear the other yelling the other's name, but that's the extent of it. I didn't know that he could see me, but eventually realized that the slack in the rope I was not ascending was being taken up; so he knew what I was doing. I was able to focus on the intermediate goals of (a) not freaking out since this was my first fall in the mountains, and (b) prusiking up past the edge of the cliff over which I'd pitched. I don't know exactly how long this took me, but 15 minutes from fall to getting to the top is probably a reasonable estimate. Once on the steep snow slope, I had to traverse and gain elevation to the belay, which went quickly if I sorta kicked steps with my knees and used an ice tool (fortunately neither was dropped in all the fray). At this point, I see a rope coming down from higher up. Sarah Fritz and her partner Irena (both of Boulder), one of the parties ahead of us, bailed just below the crux due to the high volume of spindrift they were encountering and the high winds. Irena said she could hear my screaming during my fall but was belaying Sarah while it happened. Sarah is a nurse. After a quick run-down of what had happened to me, and the extent (or lack thereof) of my injuries, they decided to help assist in my getting off the route, likely to involve about 4 raps (we were barely that far into the route!). The other party, Ryan and Chris (I think?) from Anchorage also rapped down. At this point, I had popped a Vicodin, had the down jacket zipped up tight, and had some food and water. I was shivering, probably some due to shock as well as being cold. Everyone was really helpful in assisting my getting down. In hindsight, I probably could have done my own raps. To be on the safe side, Sarah suggested an assisted rap off of a rescue spider attached to her. This was slow going, and involved much 'downclimb scooting' on my knees with a tool with her straddling me (not as sexy as it sounds, don't worry Christine). My kneecaps were quickly numb, and I wound up with a little bit of frostbite on them from doing this for a few hours. After a couple of raps, I could see the fourth party from the glacier approaching the base of the route with a sled. They must have seen the assisted rap action and knew something was bad. I would later find out from Galen that they saw me dangling over the cliff, and knew something was rotten in Denmark. From their vantage point, I wasn't moving and they were preparing for a much more serious rescue. In fact, I was probably just prusiking hella slow. The last rap made it just barely to the bergschrund of the glacier where they got me into a sled and lowered me off a picket belay with a munter down to the flat part of the glacier, eventually towing me over to their camp adjacent to the runway. My sat phone was in our camp, over on the western tip of the Root Canal. They used theirs to contact TAT. This whole rescue bit took a few hours, and in that time the winds had died down, the clouds had parted, and it was now downright nice up there. TAT got a plane up there by 1pm, but not in time for Kevin and I's camp to be taken down. Kevin agreed to stay behind and help take it apart. Also, we were only 3 days into a planned 18-19 day trip. I pleaded with him to try to salvage something of the trip. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do. I'm still not sure; as of yesterday there were no glacier landings so he's up there, along with my cellphone, ipod, and a lot of my gear which I'll get back in due time. I thanked everyone for the assistance in getting me out. They were very generous in helping assist in my evacuation. If Kevin and I had been completely alone out there, we still would have gotten out just fine; the assistance made it much smoother, faster, and less stressful. I was back at TAT by around 1:30pm. The climbing ranger John C helped me remove my boot and put a SAM splint on. The shuttle service I used (GoPurple, recommended a good deal and a nice guy) waited around after dropping a party off at noon and hearing of my accident. We got on the road and I was in the Anchorage ER by 5pm. I called Christine there and let her know that I was going to be OK. Pretty drained at this point, I easy prey for a Pentecostal woman who wanted to pray for me and give me some literature. I humored her while waiting because it was easier than arguing. The staff noticed me getting the full treatment by this gal, and it may have helped speed up the process of me getting seen. So yeah, x-rays show some broken bones. I was done at 7pm, and Galen (one of the climbers down on the glacier who assisted with the sled, but also wrapped up his trip with his partner Jason Butrick and flew out with me) (also apparently the youngest guy to ever summit Denali, when he was 11 or something) came by to give me a ride. He took me to his girlfriend's house where I could call Alaska airlines to reschedule my flight, and they fed me some chili (thanks, Galen and Sarah!). I was able to get on a red-eye that night at 10:45pm and finally got back to my apartment Tuesday morning at 4am, around 27 hours after starting the route. I'll be out for 12 weeks. The broken leg, my right, will have an air cast on it. I won't be able to drive. Won't be able to climb, either. Also won't be terribly useful for our impending move to the east coast. The most disappointing (right now), besides the great inconvenience this will be on Christine, is that I'm gonna miss out on summer alpine rock climbing. In retrospect, I made one chief error - not taking the pro, even if it was crappy. I do this a lot in the mountains on moderate terrain. However, it was right off the belay. We didn't bring pickets, but one could have been useful at the base of the ice step. Neither a picket, nor a screw or cam down low, would have prevented me from decking on the snow slope from where I fell (and therefore not prevented the ankle injury), but could have prevented me from sliding down the slope and over the edge of the cliff. I simply got lucky here that there was nothing down there for me to splatter on before the rope became taut. Seems simple, right? Protect the belay? Second, that my tools popped came as a complete surprise. I've been ice climbing a lot this year, and feel like I have good intuition and feel for such things. Nevertheless, many other parties made it up and over this terrain without falling, so something was different with my try. I entertain a couple of possibilities: 1. The ice just happened to be weak by the time I got on it, perhaps from getting stuck several times before that day and in recent days. 2. Perhaps I wasn't delicate enough with my sticks; I knew the ice wasn't very fat, and maybe I just clobbered it with my tool when a more gentle swing may have gotten the job done without obliterating it. I can't know for sure what was the cause (likely a little bit of both; I'm the only person who blew it in that spot that I know of, but I was also the last person there as well). All I know is what I saw - the medium my tools was in coming off to reveal bare granite underneath. (They blew as I was pulling down and up far, so my head was above them as they gave way). I believe, and will continue to believe, that I was not "in over my head" in this terrain, though I acknowledge that pretty serious error was made in not placing even poor pro, and that I was lucky that the consequences of this decision were not more dire. I know that this may sound melodramatic to some out there; I took a fall while leading ice and got a bad broken ankle. Par for the course, right? Well, for me it was and still is a big deal. This is a big injury, that will take lots of time and resources (financial and emotional) from which to heal. Having a sharp visual memory of seeing what I saw while falling and remembering what I was thinking (that I was about to buy the farm) is also difficult. It was also a big deal in the sense that this trip was the culmination of my 6 months or so being unemployed and climbing a lot, particularly getting out on the ice a ton. I devoted a lot of my resources (time, energy, money) to making it happen, and it is disappointing that it ended so early, and so traumatically. As I write this, hopefully my partner Kevin is salvaging his trip with other climbers and having a great time in Alaska. My best wishes go out to him, and the other parties who assisted me that day. Edited May 13, 2009 by jared_j Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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