A few weeks ago, I survived a total anchor failure in the alpine, attached via personal to a second climber. That’s a scenario that not many people walk away from. Sam and I were both lucky in our injuries and the nature of the fall. Alpine climbing is invariably and uncontrollably dangerous, but the wheels really fall off when you can’t keep climbing. That’s what happened to us. Here’s the story.
The Planning Process: Casual Hand Waving
Sam, Matt and I were planning on doing the West Arete of Eldorado Peak and Southwest Buttress on the Dorado Needle over 5 days to help Matt prepare for his AMGA advanced alpine course, coming up in less than a week. Sam and I are also mountain guides 1-2 years behind matt in our progression.
We had less sketchy alpine rock experience than him, but were certainly not too far out of our comfort zones. The North Cascades are a perfect training ground for the sort of mixed, scrappy climbing that Matt wanted to train, with long glaciated approaches and low traffic.
Our agreed premise was that Matt would be ‘mock-guiding’ us, i.e. treating us as if we were clients. This meant keeping us extra-safe, not letting us lead any pitches or force us to do any planning. Sam and I were just along for the ride. After a long guiding season Sam and I were both grateful to be able to sit back and relax.
Part of the value of mock guiding is that the guide doesn’t get to bounce ideas and decisions off of partners. They must make the calls alone, as she would do while working. Our passivity, while a helpful training exercise for Matt, would also, predictably, interfere with our real-world well-being and ultimately shape our accident.
As is typical for my personal trips with Matt, we left late and took our time once we did leave. Late breakfasts and midday naps characterized our approach. The approach took longer than we planned for (1.5 days) and involved un-noted pitches of 5th class rock to access marble creek drainage.
Already we were beginning to doubt the meager beta we had on the objective. There was no mention of technical climbing to access the marble creek drainage. Our goal of Eldoradoa and the Dorado Needle was already looking highly optimistic, but we were confident that a long 5.8 ridge wouldn’t stop us. We could all climb 5.8 easily.
It didn’t help that Matt had a bad cold and we were all tired from a summer of alpine work. Every return to movement was a battle, and every stop was an invitation to pull visors over our eyes and rest. We began making nervous jokes about our collective enthusiasm, broaching an early turnaround to each other, but no one bit. It seemed silly to turn before we had even seen the route, so the sleepy army kept marching.
The Route: a Slow, Sketchy Struggle
Our beta had indicated accessing the buttress from the southwest, as Fred Beckey had done on the first ascent. Other, more modern beta indicated approaching from the north, but we were coming from the south and behind schedule anyway. As we soon learned, Beckey’s approach no longer exists.
The small southwest glacier on Eldodaro had retreated thousands of feet from Beckey’s day, and the gully was a booming alley of serac and rock fall. This forced us into wet, mossy , unprotectable 4th class pitches. We were slow along this stretch, as mountain boots and 30 pound packs made for slow, tenuous climbing. Our mindset was still casual, but Matt was beginning to lose his head.
After the first two pitches, Matt hit the sketch-wall and refused to go further, but we coaxed him into more climbing. After all, the AMGA used this route for a different running of his course two weeks before. It couldn’t be that sketchy or hard. As we continued climbing, it became increasingly clear that retreat was going to be harder and more painful than continuing the easy but loose climbing ahead of us.
Progress on route was slow and a planned summit bivy seemed unlikely as we approached the crux 1700′ below the summit at 4pm. We sat in a comfortable notch as rock and ice fell in the near-distance around us. This was quickly becoming real. Abandoning our training scenario, it was all hands on deck.
We were going to need all of our brains and muscle. Looking ahead at hard-to-protect 5.8 slab traverse under a chossy downclimb, we were worried. Climbing end-roped on one of the skinniest single ropes on the market, a fall on the traverse was likely to cut the rope and send one or two of us into the void.
With 5-day carryover bags and mountain boots, our confidence for no-fall climbing. We decided to bail. The beta said we could go down the northside of our notch, rapping onto a dying, thunderous glacier. It looked steep, but we couldn’t see any of it. An onsight descent could leave us in a dangerous position, especially if reascending to the notch was beyond us.
The setting sun was already casting much of the landscape around us in shadow and alpenglow, obscuring the stupendously loose rock around us. ~7 runout 60m pitches stood between us and ground. No worry that we only had 1 60m rope.
The Napoleonic Retreat
In our sizable notch, the anchor was set back behind a block. I rapped first, as the heaviest. the rope ran around a sharp corner, but we spent several minutes padding it. We rigged for a 60m single line rappel, planning to place gear for Matt to down-lead the pitches in order to save gear and prevent intermediate anchors.
As soon as I loaded the rope, the rope slipped off the edge pro. I was leaning back and was about to rappel over a lip (5′ from the stance) as I saw the sheath shredding and the core obviously exposed. I was barely able to scramble up and unweight the rope before the core was cut…
“Had I been unable, it would have been a long death fall (600’+) to Beckey’s glacial void below.”
We isolated the core shot in a butterfly knot and rerigged for double-strand 30m rappels. This would considerably slow us down and force us to abandon far more gear, but we didn’t have a choice. These shorter rappels went well, and we were able to abandon minimal gear (we had 12 cams and many rappels yet to do).
As we retreated, we realized that we would be bivying on the ridge, not making it back to fully horizontal terrain. We eyed a flat spot 3-400′ off the glacial remnants that we called ‘Sunshine Col’, as it was holding the last rays of the evening sun.
As we got closer, the rock quality deteriorated (we had done these hard 4th pitches as 60m sections with 1-2 pieces per pitch) and we had to look more carefully for anchors. We were in full damage-control mode.
The Accident: Anchor Failure
The last anchor we built was at the lip of a 15’ deep gully leading down a broad 3rd-4th class shoulder to our planned bivy site. Sam built a 2-cam anchor in a single feature as we looked for adequate bail anchor (i.e. cheaper).
We were both clipped into the anchor, which looked solid , and free-hanging as we scuffled around looking for nut and sling placements. As Matt approached on the rappel from the last anchor, a block holding our cams in shifted and both released. Matt stood helpless as we fell away.
We took an approximately 15′ free fall into the small gully, knocking the far side, before tumbling down loose, steep 3rd class terrain for another 50′ vertical. Both Sam and I tried to arrest in the process, but our connection to each other made that difficult. We eventually slowed and stopped as the ridge flattened and widened.
I do not believe we were at major risk of tumbling off of the ridge and down several hundred feet to the southern glacial remnant (southern from the west ridge), but we were definitely still hundreds of feet off the deck.
We both initially landed upright and it was immediately clear that Sam’s injuries were more serious than mine. Sam likely had broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and perhaps knee trauma. She also had immediate and pronounced stomach swelling. This made us very worried about possible internal bleeding or pneumothorax.
I was scraped up and had a likely broken wrist, but nothing worse. Matt was able to downclimb the section to reach us and help get us into a secure position. We immediately pressed the SOS button on our InReach and were in contact with the NPS shortly.
Aftermath: a Free Helicopter Ride to Seattle
By this time, it was about 6:45 pm and the sun was touching the western skyline, so we prepared for an evening on the ridge. Neither Sam nor I could move over technical terrain, so we were at the mercy of a rescue to get off of the mountain. As the sun set over North Cascades National Park, we settled into our rocky makeshift bivy, we began to relax and the adrenaline wore off.
The InReach buzzed occasionally as the NPS asked us questions, and I put in headphones and started into a This American Life episode about being a prisoner. Fitting.
The sky lost its fiery red glow and went grey and pallid, but we then got the message: rescue incoming and prepare for extraction. The helicopter circled us and then flew off beyond earshot. We figured that they called it for the night, and our excitement faded. But back they came, holding a stable hover in the dark on this ridge.
It looked like they put the transmission in park. Down came two Navy pararescue men on a steel cable, kitted out with a backboard. Matt and I were raised to the waiting bay, having been clipped into the giant winch. The helicopter circled Eldorado for maybe 20 minutes as the ground team prepped Sam in the backboard. She was then winched up in the backboard and off we flew to Seattle Harborview.
“In a rare stroke of luck, the Cascades had held off its typical poor weather and we were rescued at 9pm (in the dark! with night-vision goggles!).”
It was astounding to see the rescue team pull off a high-angle rescue in the dark with night-vision. Their setup was incredibly sophisticated, and they were surprisingly friendly.
I had expected some gruff military dudes, but we ended up with excellent care and some very conscientious treatment of our gear.
I ended up with a broken wrist (left) and torn bicep (right), and Sam ended up with the worst bruises of her life and a concussion, but no broken bones or severe trauma. One of the greatest difficulties of the aftermath was that our clothes, wallets and cars were still in the North Cascades.
We were lucky enough to have a friend to drive us up several days after we arrived in Seattle, but I definitely survived on the generosity of friends in Seattle. If I was in a city full of strangers, the experience would have been considerably more expensive.
Takeaways From the Experience
The obvious take-away is that a 2-piece 1 feature anchor is insufficient. However, in that situation, we were either going to downclimb steep, chossy (dirt) 4th class, or rappel, and the rock looked solid, or at least as solid as anything we’d done already. This was a heuristic trap, but also in line with our standards up to that point.
The main learning for me was definitely of mindset. All three of us are working alpine guides, ‘sendy’, and hot off big seasons crushing easy objectives and looking like heroes in front of clients. That, obviously, will generate some hubris. Add to that that Matt was mock guiding us, and things became as casual as possible.
Sam and I were much more relaxed on beta and planning because Matt was ‘guiding us’, but our expectation of his organization and willingness to steer the boat aggressively differed from his. He expected, I think, a little more from us, and we should have voiced concerns when we had them, rather than throwing our hands up.
We should have communicated that. I had also come straight from the Sierra and Fishhook Arete, so harder climbing on better rock lulled me into a false sense of ease.
We all squeezed this trip in between work, so we all had our minds elsewhere as well. I had a high stakes trip coming up, Matt had his advanced alpine course, and Sam had work immediately following with a new company. None of us totally had our head in the game. We were also great friends who hadn’t seen each other in several months, so the inevitable chin-wagging dragged on our focus.
Also read: How To Become An Outdoor Adventure Guide
The most interesting issue was that the AMGA had used this route for an advanced alpine course two weeks before we got there. Every time the rock quality deteriorated or the climbing got worse, we looked at each other and shrugged: ‘the AMGA uses this route’. The AMGA stamp of approval’ functioned as a bizarre expert halo as we reached our high point.
We were also there to help Matt with his onsight head game, so there was an undercurrent of pushing Matt into an uncomfortable position in the name of training.
The thought that I’ve had in the aftermath is that none of this would have happened if we could have pulled the moves. Steve House always says that fitness is one of the best safety tools we have in the alpine. I always agreed, but never really comprehended the totality of what he said. If you never have to weight the rope, the anchor quality, edge wear and rope drag doesn’t really matter.
For me, this means that future objectives will be even further below my lead grade than this. Don’t push yourself in the alpine if there are any question marks over the route.