Tragedy  On Mt Revelation

Johnny Mulheron probes the loss of a climber on the slopes of Mt Revelation and finds lessons that others should learn from.

Area: Mt Revelation, Fiordland National Park

Activity: Descending an un-named glacier

Deceased: 38-year-old female Australian climber

Date of Incident: 23 March 2011

Summary

The woman and her male partner travelled up Moraine Creek and camped at the bottom of the un-named glacier at the foot of Mt Revelation. In perfect weather they cramponed up the glacier, resting at the top before beginning the descent in the middle of the day.

Roped together for glacier travel with an estimated 10–15 metres of rope between them, they descended, with the woman above her partner. When they encountered a steeper icy section of glacier, some 20–30 metres in length, the man stopped, intending to place an anchor to secure further descent. The woman, approximately 15 metres above, slipped in a seated position, tried to stop with her crampons and then tried to self arrest.

The man prepared to hold the fall, but was swept from his unsecured stance and knocked unconscious. The woman was found lodged in a small crevasse approximately 15–20 metres above her partner, her death caused by the impact of crashing against the crevasse wall.

Cause of Death

Diffuse cerebral injury from blunt force impact, together with a fracture dislocation of thoracic spine.

Comments

Descents are generally more dangerous than ascents, because of:

  • The physical awkwardness of down-climbing
  • The visible exposure while down-climbing
  • Fatigue, having expended significant y physical and mental energy on the ascent
  • Changed conditions due to sun and heat on slopes
  • Climbers not being vigilant because of familiarity and thoughts of completion.

Expert comment described the terrain as: a steep, wet, hard ice slope of 30° or more, awkward and unnerving to move across.

Crampon technique relies on extremely good foot technique, not only to maintain purchase, but also to avoid crampons catching on themselves or clothing. When descending lowangled ice, climbers need to make every effort to ensure each foot is placed flat on the surface so the crampons gain maximum purchase. Your weight needs to be over your feet. Duck-like walking is required as ankles and knees are used to maintain flat-footed contact with the slope. As the slope steepens this becomes progressively more strenuous, fatiguing and difficult to implement.

On steeper slopes climbers turn sideways and use a step-through technique (American or Combined technique) requiring precision and balance. This combination of flat foot and front point technique requires moving only one contact point at a time. Maintain at least three points of contact e.g. move one foot, then the remaining foot while keeping the ice axe firmly in place. Common practice involves holding the ice axe in two hands, with one hand on the head and the other on the shaft in the self-arrest position. As the slope steepens, the climber should turn and face in, then front point down. Although the safest technique, this is also one of the most fatiguing positions, especially on the calves. Expert comment noted that front pointing would have made the descent significantly safer. The coroner commented that they ought to have changed their cramponing technique to better reflect the nature of the terrain.

Instruction courses serve as a vital part of a mountaineer’s experience. Courses teach techniques in a safe environment. Climbers who are out of practice should take time to revisit techniques such as self-arresting and cramponing before a climbing trip. Alternatively, practise during the trip on the safer slopes of the approach. The coroner noted that the climbing pair had achieved success in a number of adventures, some with significant technical difficulty, but had not attended any instruction courses. He stated, ‘… advice given on a training course may have told them of hazard identification and hazard mitigation, which their experience has not taught them.’

Roped glacier travel aims to arrest falls into crevasses. Although proven and safe on flat terrain, moving together roped without fixed belays on steep terrain can be disastrous. As the technique change-over can be awkward and precarious, parties should stop to fix a belay early – before the glacier steepens to a dangerous
slope with crevasses below.

Fixed belays are the best and safest. In the ice conditions this party encountered only an ice screw, ice axe or ice bollard would have been effective. The snow stake they carried would not have penetrated the hard ice they encountered. Moving belays have failed on numerous occasions and are not recommended.

When descending, the strongest climber should normally take the upper position as this climber can best arrest the fall. The Coroner noted that the man, as the stronger and more confident of the two, ought to have taken the upper position. When the woman first expressed her concern with the slope, belaying should have been initiated.

Self-arresting is an emergency technique requiring practice. The steeper and harder the ice, the more difficult it is to stop. Sitting facing out and trying to stop with crampons was a very poor position for effecting a self-arrest.

The coroners final comment ‘… a timely reminder to all visitors to the New Zealand mountains that the environment is hazardous, that no shortcuts in appropriate techniques can be taken, and that absolute care and concentration is essential at all times.’

Wilderlife