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Kaskade

[TR] Tragedy at Alpental - Kiddie Cliff 12/3/2014

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Trip: Tragedy at Alpental - Kiddie Cliff

 

Date: 12/3/2014

 

Trip Report:

On December 3rd, 2014 I left the Alpental parking lot around 1000 with a good friend to find some ice to top rope. This trip was training for bigger alpine ice objectives to follow in 2015 (North Ridge of Baker, and Liberty Ridge). This was our first rodeo. The weather leading up to the climb was cold and clear, and we expected to find ice in excellent condition.

 

We hiked in heading in the general direction of Kiddie Cliff through consolidated snow covered in about 4" of broken hoar frost that positively glittered in the sun, and made me wish for my skis.

 

After about two hours of hiking and hunting, we found a gully with a frozen creek and decided to rope up and ascend it. We each carried two ice tools, steel crampons, helmets, and a light ice and rock rack with double ropes. We also carried 10 essentials, food, and water. We simul-climbed through easy 20 - 30 degree ice with the occasion steps of ice approaching about 8' in height, placing ice screws. My legs felt strong as we climbed and I couldn't keep a smile off my face.

 

After a couple hundred feet we encountered an ice flow that was approximately 40' in height with a towering cedar directly above it, and decided it was the perfect location for a top rope. My climbing partner ascended the gully to the right of the ice and traversed through low angle terrain covered in shrubs. He tied a 30' length of retired climbing rope around the tree with a bowline, and attached a locking carabineer to the end of the rope using a figure 8 on a bite. He then rigged the system for rappel and descended to the base of the ice. I was at the base of the climb while the anchor was rigged.

 

We climbed the ice for the next three hours, each taking at least four laps on different parts of the formation. The ice was good; steep and thick, although a little brittle. After my last lap I started to untie so I could climb up the gully to retrieve the anchor, and my partner suggested that I simply take another lap, and then climb up to the anchor instead. I agreed and enjoyed a final ascent. Once at the top, the ice ended at ledge with a 3' high bit of vertical dirt terminating in a 30 degree slope that intersected me at about the hip. An easy mantle would have done the trick under normal circumstances except for copious shrubbery that was too thin to grip and support my weight, and ground covered in thin powdery snow that was slippery and had no purchase for hands or tools. I decided to clip my tools to my harness, and grasped the end of the rope going down to my partner, and haul myself up the short distance to the anchor. I took a couple steps to my left to get directly in line of pull with the anchor, and pulled in about a foot of rope. My belayer took the slack, and I pulled a second time. As I slid my hand up the rope a third time I felt slack, and I noticed the bushes shaking, and I immediately began falling through the air. I screamed a choice profanity and looked over my left shoulder, spotting the landing 35' below. I noticed that some of the ice at the base of the flow was tinted slightly amber in color from the surrounding forest. I do not remember hitting the ground. I slid down the gully 35' until the rope came tight against my belayer who arrested my fall. I came to about 60 seconds after hitting the ground in a panic, and repeatedly asked my belayer, "Did I fall?, Where are we?". I quickly began to grasp the situation, and told him that I could not feel my legs.

 

I was wearing soft shell pants, a base layer, thin puffy coat, and hard shell. My pack was still 35' above us. I came to a stop in a shallow flat area at the base of a 5' tall step of ice. My partner pulled the bivy pad out of his pack and placed it under me, along with the pack. He carried two puffy coats, and placed both around me. Then he said, "I am going for help" and he was gone. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and the sun was starting to set.

 

As I laid on the ice I fought to bring my breathing under control. Under my head there was a depression in the ice so I could not rest my head without tilting it back. Considering that I had a badly broken back, this was very uncomfortable. I fought with my helmet flipping it over and trying to make it support my head. I pulled down the length of rope attached to me and stuffed it behind my head. This improved things somewhat, but I was unable to shift my body, and still could not get comfortable. I held my head up with my neck and abdominal muscles. A short while later, I noticed that one of the jackets had blown off me, and I began to feel cold. The jacket was at the edge of my ledge, about to slide down the gulley. I knew I had a spinal cord injury and should not move, but I decided that I was more afraid of the cold and struggled to use my arms to push myself upright until I could grab the jacket and wrap myself in it once more.

 

I watched the colors of the sky change, and the stars come out. I began to shake with the cold.

 

Every few minutes, I would call for help. The exertion of the strong breaths would make my chest feel warm for a moment, and then I would start to shiver again. My head lamp was in the pack 35' above me. The dark settled in. The moon rose, and then passed over me into the trees. About three hours after my fall, I heard a helicopter in the distance, and hoped that it was here for me. It circled the Alpental Valley with no search lights shining and disappeared. I continued to hope. I continued to yell for help. I did not think about how long I might have to wait.

 

Another hour passed. I began to hear voices far away. My pulse quickened, and I began to shout louder. I saw dim lights far below me. I continued to shout. Abruptly I noticed the lights below me moving towards me, and voices growing louder. Someone shouted my name, and all I said back was "Help!". I was shaking steadily with the cold, my teeth slamming into each other. I watched the lights move about until they found our boot pack, and begin climbing up the gulley beside me, avoiding the ice. They climbed above me to a flat spot at the head of the gully, and told me they were going to rig some ropes, and would be with me shortly. Soon one of them rappelled down to me and he told me later in the hospital that my first words to him were, "Do you have a cervical collar??" (I wanted to rest my head, my neck and abdominal muscles were in knots.) He laughed and said he did, and put it on me (apparently this is the first time a patient requested the C collar). I rested my head for the first time in four hours.

 

This team of rescuers were the Seattle Mountain Rescue Team, god bless their all volunteer hearts. I continued to shake with the cold. Shortly after, the helicopter returned and I said a quiet thank you to no one in particular, and to everything in the entire world at the same time. A paramedic was lowered 200 feet from the chopper with a back board. He worked with the SMR team to chop a ledge out of the snow and ice to build a platform. When it was done I was slid onto the back board. A carabineer attached to the back of my harness dug into my broken back. I cringed and asked someone to remove it. They were reluctant because they didn't want to move my spine. One person swept quickly with their hand for it, did not feel anything, and said sorry, that was all they could do, they would make it better at the hospital. I pleaded with them to try again. They said it was safer to leave it there. They zipped me 3/4 of the way into a body bag, and placed a clear poly carbonate plastic shield over my face to protect me from the rotor wash. The helicopter returned, and the paramedic was hoisted back into the chopper. The line came down again, and it was clipped to a union on my back board. As I was lifted off the ground I swung away from the slope into free air. SMR had attached lines to the ends of my back board to help control the swing. As they tried to steady the board I began to rotate in the air. I felt like puking. I realized if I did it would hit the plastic and cover my face. I was afraid I would aspirate it. I suddenly had an 'engineer moment' and realized that I was no longer accelerating in my spin, and that if I closed my eyes I wouldn't feel the rotation any longer. I closed my eyes and the urge to puke subsided. Seconds later I opened my eyes again and I could see that I was quickly approaching a flashing green light, and the rotor wash became intense. I felt hands pulling me towards them and was suddenly surrounded by three people wearing enormous helmets and bathed in red light (Thank you King County Search and Rescue). I asked them to remove the carabineer from my back. They said it was best not to, jammed an IV in the back of my right hand, and covered me in hot water bags. The warmth felt good, but I shivered anyway. Twenty minutes later we landed at Harborview Medical Center and I was transferred to a hospital bed.

 

They rolled me to the ER where someone blessedly removed the carabineer from my back (thank you!). I was surrounded by a blur of busyness that I can barely recall. Injections, IVs, doctors, nurses, MRIs, cat scans. I was there and have faint memories of it all, but was not fully present. I awoke in the ICU at 6am the next day surrounded by friends (bless your hearts, truly). 20 hours after getting to the hospital I was operated on for four hours to fuse my spine with 10 titanium screws, and two rods. I was discharged from the ICU the following day and spent 4 days in the Trauma Unit. On 12/10 I was moved to the rehabilitation unit and on 1/6/2015 I was sent home.

 

Injuries:

 

1. Mild concussion: my helmet is missing a chuck of hard plastic, and the inner shock absorbing material was broken at every intersection. It saved my life.

 

2. Six broken ribs: Yes they hurt more than all my other injuries.

 

3. 5 broken vertebrae, including the displacement of my lower spine, resulting in a severed spinal cord.

 

Remarkably I only had one bruise. I suffered no other injuries as result of my fall.

 

Why it happened:

 

Difficult to say. After hours of discussion with my climbing partner and some conjecture, I believe there was only one locking carabineer attaching the climbing ropes to the anchor. The carabineer was probably sitting on the ground while we climbed, and as we moved the ropes back and forth the screw gate likely became loose. As I prepared to ascend the rope to the anchor, I stepped a couple feet to the left. This may have pushed the carabineer into a position that opened the gate. Alternatively, the gate may have been open while we were climbing. As I slid my hand up the rope, the rope likely slipped up over the lip of the carabineer and as I tried to weight it once more it simply came with me all the way to the ground.

 

Lessons learned:

 

1. Always wear a helmet

2. It not unusual to use a single locking carabineer in climbing systems for life critical connections (e.g. belay device, trad anchor etc). However, if you can not see your anchor, or even if you can, I would suggest always using two carabineers to attach your rope to the anchor. Make sure they are opposite and opposed, even if one of them is locking.

3. If an accident occurs, take your time before you leave to get help to make sure your partner has everything they need (e.g. head lamp, water, thing to put head on, etc).

 

Conclusion:

 

I suffered a potentially fatal fall due to rare and unusual equipment failure. If we understand the circumstances correctly, the accident could have been prevented with a different rig for the anchor, but the anchor was rigged in a typical fashion that I myself have prepared before, and so have most of you. We should be more conservative with respect to anchors we can not see. I will likely never walk again, but am otherwise in good health. The fact that the rope disconnected from the tree was terrible luck, but everything that happened after that was incredible lucky. I'm lucky that I did not die when I hit the ground. Lucky that my back broke near the bottom and not in my neck, so I can still move my fingers and do my job. Lucky that I did not suffer a traumatic brain injury, and that I can still recognize my mother and tell her how much I love her (I love you mom). I'm lucky and infinitely thankful to Seattle Mountain Rescue for putting 300 volunteer hours into my rescue. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'm lucky that King County Search and Rescue decided to fly a rare night mission to extract me, saving me from hours of painful and potentially further debilitating extraction on foot, and getting me quickly to the hospital. I'm lucky that I was in such good hands at the hospital, and that there are people who have spent their lives training to be able to fix people with such severe injuries, and nurses who care enough to help us with respect and dignity. And now that I'm back home, and I'm lucky to have friends and family who continue to support and care for me in ways I can barely fathom deserving.

 

Keep on climbing CC.com'ers, but don't take anything for granted. I'll see you on the water.

 

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thanks for writing up what must be still difficult to deal with - congrats on surviving, but it sounds like it's a very new life you have to learn to cope with, so best of luck with that

 

so, after the accident, there was still a runner around the tree and a locking biner with a closed gate attached to it?

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Damn. That is a sobering accident in many ways, thanks for taking the time to share about such a terrible day.

 

I have set up many top rope anchors with one locker, but I don't think I will ever again.

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My climbing partner and another friend returned to the area several days later while I was in the hospital. They did not find anything at the tree, but many people had been through the area between that time and the accident. I assumed someone from SMR must have grabbed it when taking the gear down. Likewise, the anchor material was never reported to me to have been found with my ropes, which were returned to me. It would have still been attached if the rope failed. This is one of the big mysteries for me, so if anyone in the community knows more, please PM me.

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Holy fucking shit!

You are one tough motherfucker and it sounds like a case of bad luck that you didn't deserve. Glad you're still with us.

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Thanks for sharing your story and best of luck in the healing process. I agree with JasonG and will never casually setup a TR anchor with just one locker again. I think we all feel a sense of safety with a TR that may not be since there is only one point of protection for the entire system as opposed to when you are leading and have many points of protection in the system.

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Thank you for sharing you thoughts, your feelings, your gratiousness, your experience of alone with your injuries.

 

I am happy you are with us.

 

Peace my friend.

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really at a loss for words.. immense appreciation and awe you shared, it is humbling and makes one pause in the best of ways.

 

The lessons learned are distilled and should forever be in mind by anyone who has read them pared with the gravity of your injury.

 

 

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Usually when I read about accidents, it is a chain of mistakes combined with some bad luck. For one- being anchored just with one sling to one tree was probably one of such decisions.

Glad you survived to tell the tale.

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Hey, keep up the good attitude and good luck with your rehab. I'm greatly impressed with your optimism, can't imagine what it's like to recieve that diagnosis. I gotta admit I got a lump in my throat just reading this today. There is such a fine line between a close call and a serious fall like yours.

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What a story! As someone who is still recovering from a near death accident I have a pretty good idea of the many terrors you faced. In your story you wrote "Did I fall?, Where are we?", I asked pretty much the exact same questions right away after getting hammered from a rock that knocked me out. I could for the life of me not figure out what country I was in even after I was told over and over. Your escape details go appreciated as well.

 

Are you currently doing any physical therapy? Also let me know if you would like me to pay you a visit. :) I know I really appreciated visitors when I was all busted up.

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I'll repeat what's already been said. You are one tough mo-fo, especially mentally. If that was me I would have been trying to drag myself off a cliff with my arms or telling the EMT, kill me now. Just don't think I could deal with it. I wouldn't be able to talk about it either and here you are giving us a TR.

 

You should keep on being physically active. I have a buddy that broke his back on a motorcycle and he does things like descending canyon roads in a racing chair, and playing basketball.

 

Kudos to you Kaskade, you are the man.

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My climbing partner and another friend returned to the area several days later while I was in the hospital. They did not find anything at the tree, but many people had been through the area between that time and the accident. I assumed someone from SMR must have grabbed it when taking the gear down. Likewise, the anchor material was never reported to me to have been found with my ropes, which were returned to me. It would have still been attached if the rope failed. This is one of the big mysteries for me, so if anyone in the community knows more, please PM me.

 

You should contact SMR and see if they have the anchor rope and beaner, and if they remember how they found it. It might give a more conclusive picture of what happened for the accident report.

 

It is possible for a screw gate to come undone and with ice and freezing temps the gate could stick open. The other possibilities might be the anchor rope cut on an edge (doubtful) or the bowline coming un-tied, which is doubtful if you were lowering on it.

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Wow! That's an amazing story. I wish you the best on your journey to heal. After reading this I think about a couple close calls I've had and you realize just how quickly a serious accident can happen to anyone in the mountains. Stay Strong.

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thank you for sharing your story. i wish you the best for recovering. when you say "see you on the water"...does that mean you will be kayaking, or? I've been learning to sail myself, love it. Lots of good adventures ahead man.

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So sorry to hear about your accident. Stay strong and positive- there's still some awesome adventures to be had. A friend of mine was just recalling a 3 week kayak tour of remote areas in Southeast AK. He said it was the best adventure of his life.

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Thanks for sharing the details, it's a tough story to read.

 

I have a friend who broke his back racing snowboards 15 years ago. He was told then that he probably wouldn't walk again and certainly never snowboard. As part of his recovery he got really into body building and also into skiing in one of the chairs. The last time I saw him was 10 years ago, it was his first day back on a snowboard and I had just sprained my ankle that morning so I jumped in his ski chair. It was a humbling experience but a great way to get out and enjoy the mountains.

 

Good luck with the recovery, the depression at 6 weeks always seems like the hardest part to deal with for me.

Edited by Jason4

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Wow! Thanks for sharing your story. I am really inspired by all the positives you take away from your accident.

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I am humbled by your attitude. It took a lot of guts to be able to tell this story. Keep positive; let me know if you need a kayaking partner!

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Wow, you have an inspiring outlook. Your "see you on the water" comment stopped me in my tracks--and I think it speaks well about your recovery prospects and about you as a person. The climb may be over, but adventure takes on many forms. I hope you post these adventures here.

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