Cracked Up on Mt. Wilson
(An Accident Report)

1-2 Jul 2001 - by Douglas Cook

Anyone who climbs very often or for very long must expect sooner or later to be involved in misfortune, if not his own, then someone else's.
- "Freedom of the Hills" and "Self-Rescue" by David Fasulo
Despite all of the technological and psychological advances in mountaineering during recent years, the sport and its many disciplines is still an inherently dangerous activity. The number of reported accidents per year in the United States ranges from 130 to 200, including up to 50 deaths, and a majority of climbing accidents, consisting of minor injuries and near misses, go unreported.
- Jim Detterline, Climbing Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park, from the Forward to "Self-Rescue" by David Fasulo

July 1, 2001 Kevin Craig and I climbed Mt. Wilson with the intent of running the ridge across to El Diente. We car-camped at the Silver Pick trailhead and made the pilgrimage up to the Rock of Ages Saddle early Sunday morning. We took turns kicking steps up snowfields on the North side of Mt. Wilson and summited around noon. With thunderstorms threatening and rain in the distance, we decided to descend the long snowfield on the East side of Wilson, cross over the low point in the Wilson-Gladstone ridge back into Navajo Basin, and then trudge back up to the Rock of Ages Saddle. On the descent, I couldn't self-arrest a glissade down the snowfield and ended up crashing into a rock band. Days later I would learn I had 2-4 cracked ribs, strained sternum cartilage, and a lot of collateral, colorful black and bruise marks.

See discussion below for more details on conditions and slope!

The glissade wasn't on overly steep snow or conditions which appeared to be much different than I'd glissaded many times before. (Plus, I've taught snow travel in BMS for three years.) Two other climbers had glissaded the snowfield ahead of us that afternoon (but further East across the snow). I haven't been able to remember exactly what happened or identify anything different that I should have done. I think a combination of hard consolidated snow under 2-4 inches of loose Spring-snow and some shallow gullies across my glissade path prevented me from being able to force the pick of my ice axe in the snow. The underlying snow was hard and slippery; aggressive heel plunges were required to walk down the snow without slipping and falling. Sliding across the gullies when trying to self-arrest may have lifted me up off the snow enough for the pick of my ice axe to loose contact. I remember the axe briefly being uphill out at arms length and trying to get back on top of it in a self-arrest position.

My ice axe pick had a positive clearance which is best for climbing hard snow/ice (as recommended in Freedom of the Hills). But, the tip shape on a positive clearance pick can cause the pick to suddenly snag when glissading and result in the ice axe being pulled above your head or ripped completely out of your hands. Climbing magazine had a good review of ice axes last year in Issue 194. Since falling, I purchased a Black Diamond Raven ice axe. It has a significant negative clearance on the pick (as do most new ice axes before the owners file the tips to change the angle). The negative clearance will help prevent the ice axe from snagging in hard snow and ice. Maybe the manufacturers are purposely producing ice axes with the proper negative clearance picks? I now question the usual advice of filing the tip of an ice axe to provide a pointed, positive clearance. Until I learn or experience differently, this negative clearance ice axe will be my choice for all snow travel other than technical ice climbing.

During my uncontrolled slide on my chest, which was only about 100 feet downhill, I somehow spun around to where I was sliding face first downhill - when I stopped my two pant pockets were stuffed full of snow. I remember seeing a rock band alongside the snowfield and thinking that I had to get self-arrested or I was going to really get hurt. I slammed up onto the rocks feet first, chest down, bounced back out onto the snow and was flipped over, and then slid back into the rocks feet first on my back. Kevin carefully worked his way down the snow to where I had stopped in the rocks. I remember being in a lot of pain and very dizzy, and then cold after lying still for only a short time. As I managed to stand up and dig the snow out of my pockets, I realized I was seriously hurt. My chest, ribs, back, and right thigh all ached badly and breathing was an absolute pain.

It was a slow, painful hike out as Kevin kicked steps about 1,000 feet down the rest of the snowfield to the low spot where we had to cross up and over the ridge between Mt Wilson and Gladstone. I could only manage short, shallow breathing to avoid severe chest pain. Of course, the weather provided a light rain to increase the misery. Kevin was patient with my painful, slow pace and frequently tried to encourage me (and us) that everything was going to be all right. We joked about the textbook "moral support," but it does help when you're in a lot of pain. We eventually made it back into Navaho Basin and then trudged back up about 600 feet to the Rock of Ages Saddle. It ended up being a rough seven-hour hike out back to the Silver Pick trailhead. We broke camp around 8:30 PM (I clearly remember absolutely not being able to pull up the tent stakes due to the pain in my chest and back), drove back to Ridgeway and found a motel room for the night, and then drove home to Denver then next day. I took two Aleve shortly after recovering from the fall and two more during the hike out. Without a pain killer, I'm not sure I could have continued to walk out - a prescription medication is now part of my first aid kit.

Back in Denver, I was lucky to get into a doctor the next day. He didn't order x-rays - apparently there's nothing that can be done for cracked ribs anyway. If I had actually broken ribs, the pain would have been almost unbearable. After two weeks on pain pills and sleeping about two hours at a time sitting in bed propped up by pillows, enough of the overall bruising had healed to where I visited the doctor again for an assessment of several particularly sore spots. From feeling lumps over healing cracks, he estimated I had cracked ribs in at least two and possibly four spots and torn some cartilage along my sternum. The healing has been slower than I could ever imagine and other than some light hiking, I was unable to rock climb or carry a backpack most of the Summer. After four months, I still have chest pains (especially when coughing) and nearly constant nagging back aches. People that have had chest and back injuries say it can take a year or longer to recover. I had hoped to be well again in 2-4 months, now I'm looking forward to being relatively pain-free by next July.

After several months since the accident, I decided to share my painful experience - although embarrassing and short on lessons learned - in hope that it may help other mountaineers avoid a similar accident when climbing and enjoying our wonderful but unforgiving mountains.

Gravity never takes a break!

Bill Strand adds:

Unfortunately Kevin's accident is not the only one to have occurred this year. I have witnessed several close calls by others on glissades over the years which have been very unsettling. My advice to all of my BMS students is to know how to self arrest, climb what you glissade, constantly monitor snow conditions, and keep your glissading speed extremely slow until you have a clear runout. The close calls I have witnessed have involved uncontrolled speed on glissades. Glissading accidents disturb me because it is my favorite way to descend from a summit. The best glissade I have ever done was: S. Maroon via the couloirs from the saddle to Crater Lake ~3000 ft. I hope you recover quickly and completely.

Steve Eckert adds:

>After several months since the accident, I decided to share my painful
>experience - although embarrassing and short on lessons learned - in hope
>that it may help other mountaineers avoid a similar accident.

Good job! We need more lessons like this.

I wonder if your pick was actually cutting through the snow? Many times I've planted the pick and tugged hard to test the traction, and the pick simply cuts through the hardpack. These days I tend to do a modified glissade brake INSTEAD of a full self arrest because the wide shaft can generate more force against the snow than a narrow pick can. I've never seen pick angle matter on anything other than blue ice.

My technique (putting the point of the shaft behind you and wrapping your torso around it to keep the center of gravity below the center of force) takes lots of practice to master... but it does allow me to glissade ice too hard to kick my plastic boots into at up to 40 degree slope (like the standard route on Orizaba, where I was the only one glissading). I keep my speed down and stop frequently to make sure I still can.

When all else fails, a kayaking friend of mine survived by sitting up and facing downhill to kick rocks in the snow just like you would in whitewater. Takes momentum out of your slide, lets you prepare for impact, and minimizes the chance that you'll break your legs and/or flip over backward if your feet hang up while you're sliding in arrest position.

Kevin Craig adds:

Actually, that would be "Doug's accident"; Kevin provided the medical and moral support.

It should be noted that Doug is not only a BMS instructor of several years, but a very experienced mountaineer as well. Accidents happen and conditions are never ideal. We opted to glissade where we did rather than the snow and loose rock we ascended because the east slopes snowfield is longer, reaches nearer the summit and a storm was approaching quickly. It seemed the best and safest option to mitigate the storm danger. That said, one should always have clear view of the runout and keep speed under control. Until it has happened to you though, it's not easy to realize how quickly speed can get out of control in some conditions.

Paul Wilson adds:

Sorry to hear about your fall - Welcome to the club. You take the prize for body damage.

Let me ramble about this glissading business with a bunch of incidents.

Event 1) My first and worst time was on Wilson Peak. I had little training an was at the beginning of my climbing career. I kicked steps up hard snow to the summit and decided to descend another way from the summit (10' below the summit for the start)I looked at that rout on the way up and dumb me I did not recognize the initial steepness. I started out with the ADZE in the soft snow then tried to switch to the pick when.....I lost control from a sitting position - instantly when the soft snow turned to ice. I rolled over to self arrest position and lost the axe but the wrist strap kept it attached. I finally hauled it in and did a self arrest. I did 4 sky/snow tumbles and had a couple of tears in my clothing from the flailing axe. The slope had a flat walk off (a saving feature), so I thought I could just slide to the flats. I stopped a the same elevation as my tent at Silver Pick. I think now, 35 years later I could do that glissade but it would be a screamer speed wise. Of course the panic took over and I kept trying to stop and the result was I dug in my boots and proceeded to do the usual back flip over and over.

The axe for this event was a wood shaft US army issue made by the Swiss. It has a pick like a blunt knife. No positive or negative geometry.

Event 2) The leader of a CMC trip could not hold his sitting glissade and went over a cliff 1/3 of the way down the N face of El Diente and landed on the axe and broke it in half. I belayed him the rest of the way down in self arrest and he was at the end of the rope to the bottom of the valley. Very steep for the lower part but moderate where he lost control. His axe was similar to mine meaning it had a pointy pick and wood shaft.

These two events showed me that the pick did not matter. In soft snow in #2 it did not stop him. (More later about axes). Ice on #1 did not stop me. The wood shaft axe is now a decoration on my office wall.

Lesson A) Snow composition is variable, try to evaluate it before the slide.

Lesson B) Be ready for a screamer on a steep slope and know what to do (see below).

Lesson C) Make sure the slope run out is flat. No lesson required for wood shafts. Nobody uses them.

Event 3) Descent down the N couloir of Crestone, I had my present axe which has a sharp re-grind to positive clearance. Same result as #1. The short snow chute looked easy as my speed was predicted as slow. I bounced on the rocks at the bottom of the snow. I took most of the blow with my pack which had a 3" tear on its bottom. I had to sit on a soft pillow for the next 3 months due to the bad bruise on my bottom

Lesson 4) My good friend started out from the top of Taylor glacier. The snow was soft enough for a glissade but his initial velocity had him going to fast for comfort. The tried all the text book methods to self arrest. The final thing is he dug in his boots and proceeded to tumble. I judged he would have made it on a sitting slide if he had not tried to stop. Sure is would have been fast but he came to rest without any self action. He was laid up with a sprained ankle for a time. He hobbled out since the rangers did not get to him until he was almost back to the car. BTW, I think the slope was too steep for me to try. I guess I am getting more careful in my old age.

Lesson D) What is the max angle for a safe slide? I submit it is less than Taylor, However many others I know have done it. Is speed bad or is technique bad?

Event 5) Saint Marys glacier last spring with soft PM snow about 10 others did a great sitting slides. The trench was deep and the drop from the top was about 10 feet. I landed in the hole and did a forward flip. I did not want to tumble so I wrenched my self to the side but could not get purchase in the soft snow so I proceeded to the run-out rolling sideways. No injuries except for my pride. The students were amazed as was I. I did not release my axe and the only ill result was the snow down my neck and backside.

Lesson E) Do not jump off cornices as the chance to tumble is great and injury is likely to say nothing about the excessive speed.

Event 6) BMS student sitting glissade off Pettingell. Easy to moderate and not a fast slope in my judgement. One student let the snow pile up in his crotch and with legs splayed he tore his knee up badly. He had to be carried out and required surgery for knee repair.

Lesson F) Bad technique and/or improper instruction and/or inattention caused his leg to project out and he rolled over on the leg. The legs are not inanimate objects but should be active in order to control the direction and snow buildup. Steve mentions the sitting method using the feet to slow and control. I find this method effective but needs practice. I use this method most of the time. Just keep the axe at the ready. The use the spike to slow and steer when speed builds up is another alternative to letting the snow build up in the crotch PS, Not Paul's student.

Bill is a conservative instructor and his advice is quite correct and prudent.

I agree with Steve about axes. The grind is not very important for soft snow but when you are desperate for some unpredicted event that needs protection. I would not be without my POSITIVE axe pick. The positive clearance has no influence in normal soft snow. A positive clearance will help in firm snow but nothing is effective against hard ice. The positive clearance is invaluable for self anchor when resting on that hard glacier. I have been able to do things with my positive clearance axe that would not be possible with negative clearance. I truly believe that the reason for dull picks, positive clearance picks, and dull adze has to do with the perception that the manufacturer has less liability. (Dumb equipment for dumb people??). I believe Freedom of the Hills is correct. The question is, can you hold a the axe when it grabs? For sure if speed is high you should not try to stop no matter what kind of axe you have or you will loose control if it grabs. So if you know the conditions then you will have correct conduct. I hope you will be lucky like me. My lessons do not include going too fast because I like to go fast. BUT, the other lessons are to remind me to use care.

PS my longest glissade was from Mt. Shasta in the afternoon. I do not remember the numbers, but I was below tree line at the end. It was about the same vertical as my out of control fall in incident #1. Very Fast and wet with my slickest over pants. And, yes, I decided to risk lessons D and E.

Howard Hansen adds:

One way to keep up the mental awareness of hazards in the mountains is to read the annual "Accidents in North American Mountaineering", latest issue is 2001. Well worth the price and published by the American Alpine Club. Colorado is well represented; I am sure they would like to add Doug's experience to their database (if not reported, nobody else can learn from your mistakes.) There are categories for everything - such as, "Fall on snow, loss of control-voluntary glisade, inexperience," and so forth. The Immediate Cause category for 2000 USA (Canada is separate) 30 "accidents" for Slip on snow or ice, 11 for loss of control/glissade.

Perhaps you guys who teach BMS should give each student a copy of these to read as homework. Just add it to the tuition.

Kevin Craig adds:

Interesting. That's more than half a dozen glissade incidents on Mt. Wilson or El Diente where I know the (generally experienced to very experienced) "injured" party 1st hand and several others that I know of by rumor. Is there something odd about the spring/summer snow on these peaks? Is it the angle of their slopes? Are the slope angles more deceiving than other peaks in Colorado?

Ideas, or is this just sampling bias?

Doug Cook concludes:

Thanks to Paul Wilson, Steve Eckert and the others that shared glissading *adventures.* Paul certainly wins the prize for the most stories (but he's older with more experience!) especially since many of them were personal experience. If nothing else, it's important to recognize that glissading is much more dangerous than we're inclined to believe even after a lot of "butts-on snow" and teaching experience. If only it just wasn't so much fun! I know in the future I'll be teaching glissading with even more emphasis on safety.

I "thought" I was pretty careful glissading having been hurt 20+ years ago coming off Rainier in deep snow and bouncing off a hidden stump, and then a couple of years ago hitting my tailbone hard on a hidden rock while following in someone else's glissade chute. Those were very painful lessons. In BMS you hear stories of people tearing knees from getting their legs pulled apart and/or tangled up in heavy snow. Last year on St Mary's Glacier a Sr Instructor friend was glissading so fast that he took the legs out from under an innocent bystander student near the bottom of the runout. And then like Paul described when you start a glissade off a steep section you sometimes "auger into" soft snow with an abrupt stop and the momentum carries you head-over-heels downhill. Add crampons and things really get out-of-control and exciting!

In trying to post a "brief" accident report, I left out the following details. The slope was about 35-40 degrees - after I crashed, Kevin led us down the snowfield 200-300 feet by facing into the slope and kicking steps with an uphill ice axe self-belay. It was very slippery from a few inches of soft corn-snow on top of the consolidated base. Only when the slope angle started to ease up could we face out and hike down faster with heel plunges. From my starting point, I should have had plenty of unobstructed snow to afford a safe run-out on the nearly flat snowfield about 800 feet below. (I've often wondered how beat-up I might have been if I had been unable to self-arrest and slid/spun/possibly flipped over all the way down to the flat runout. Picking up speed on that long a slope could cause serious injuries, maybe worse than crashing to a stop in a rock band?) When I started my glissade, I post-holed my right leg in up to my waist and had to wallow out of the softer snow. I then proceeded in a sitting position from a completely stopped position. On almost every glissade, after sliding only 20-30 feet I purposely roll over and stop with an ice axe arrest just to be sure that I can stay in control as the speed builds up. As Steve mentioned, you can get a lot of braking and steering control from aggressively dragging and pressing the ice axe spike in the snow. (With the right combination of spike and heel pressure, you can even do a limited amount of steering.) On Mt Wilson, even dragging the spike I felt the speed picking up quickly, and when I rolled over to stop I was unable to arrest and continued to slide on a traverse across rather than down the fall line, which lead me to crash into the rock band alongside the snowfield. The rest of the story was in the accident report. The bottom line - at least it started out as a cautious glissade with practiced technique, and consideration for obstacles and a safe run-out.

The advice on pick angles (the angle doesn't matter in anything other than hard ice) seems logical, and I'm sure that Steve and Paul have plenty of experience to justify modifying ice axe picks to a positive clearance. The positive clearance improves the ability of the pick to penetrate harder snow/ice which could be especially important for mixed alpine routes where ice tools are not carried. I am still concerned that the positive angle on my ice axe caused the pick to snag in the hard, underlying snow and may have contributed to my losing control and not being able to self-arrest. I'm sure it was a combination of factors.

The ice axe I currently carry has a significant negative clearance on the pick which will help prevent it from snagging in hard ice/snow. (Pull a negative clearance pick down the surface of hard snow/ice and the angle on the pick prevents it from digging in. A positive clearance pick will tend to dig in.) Yet, I miss seeing that nice positive clearance sharp point and secure teeth you know you prefer when you want to swing the axe and plant the pick securely for climbing moves on mixed alpine routes. Hopefully, the negative clearance ice axe is a wise compromise. Some limited testing of the negative clearance pick on Lincoln Falls ice demonstrated that it holds securely when well planted, but testing is ongoing. As Paul pointed out, if you are glissading fast and/or on hard alpine ice you probably won't be able to hold onto an ice axe and self-arrest with either a negative or positive clearance pick. If you're on hard alpine ice, just don't glissade and hope that if you fall you can self-arrest before picking up any speed.

To file a trip report, please fill in the Report Entry form or contact the webmaster.