The approach was getting a bit sketchy. Bare ice patches were starting to appear, and I started looking for a place to stop and put on crampons. A sizeable flat section was only a couple steps away. I gently stepped out with my left foot onto another patch of snow, stuck in a sizeable crack in some ice. Testing it, I began to shift my weight but the snow crumbled under my full 175lbs + gear, my boot sole suddenly gripping nothing. The rapid shift in balance cut out my right foot and I found myself horizontal and sliding down the ice and over the lip of the bulge…
It was Friday morning and we were out for a casual day of ice cragging. Monte was back in Canmore for a few days of ice climbing in between his ski guide training and exam, while John had recently come back to the Bow Valley after a year away back home in Australia. We hadn’t climbed together in a while, and had decided to run up some routes Monte hadn’t done yet, among them Carlsberg Column in Field, BC. As we drove along the back road in Field, the snow was gently falling, temps hovered around freezing and it was shaping up to be a really, really good day.
Typically for me in Field, we got slightly disoriented and took the wrong drainage, quickly realizing we were coming up to Heineken Hall, a WI3 route in the next gully right from Carlsberg. A short traverse through the trees — the snowpack was solid — and we joined the proper approach trail. There are two ways to get to the base of Carlsberg: you can either climb the approach ice, a 25m-or-so pitch of WI3/4, or head up the bypass trail on climbers’ right. We heard voices and concluded the fresh tracks we’d seen on the road belonged to the party climbing the approach ice, and excited at the prospect of ‘scooping’ them, essentially out of nowhere, we quickly headed up the bypass trail.
Following a solid bootpack we made good time, but soon enough the snow turned to patches of ice and each step had to be more considered. Still, it was easy going with good traction and solid foot placements. As the snow solidity started to diminish, and the ice patches became bigger, I started looking around for a place to put on crampons. And then my foot slipped…
“Oh shit!” I yelled as I slid over the edge of the bulge. “Huh, I guess this is it” whipped through my head as the ice bulge below got increasingly closer, fast. Time did not slow down. I got scared. Then I impacted. I have no idea which part of my body hit, but I continued to fall, slide, tumble and cartwheel down the mountain. Somewhat surprised to still be conscious, I started to consider that I might actually live through this as snow, ice, rocks and trees blurred together in a kaleidoscope of winter. Somewhere along the way I hit a few more hard spots, and lost my trekking pole. After around 40 meters I rolled to a stop, I think on my side or back, and immediately rolled onto my knees.
“I’m good!” I shouted up to my friends, stunned to be able to move but afraid of what injuries I’d discover. I shrugged off my pack and did a quick assessment: I could move my arms, legs, neck, my back felt good, fingers all looked to be straight. I touched my head and face and my gloves came away covered in blood. “I’m bleeding!” was the next status report. Monte yelled for me to not move as he ran down the hill.
Monte is a ski patroller and rock guide, and after a checkover for pupil response, back injuries and head trauma was relieved to find me fully conscious and aware. After the obligatory face-covered-in-blood photo, he started breaking trail down to the truck. John, who had been a little further along the approach trail than Monte, hurried to catch up with us.
Greg Shire at the Banff hospital stitched me up, and a few x-rays determined I hadn’t broken anything. That said, my neck is sore, my left thigh is incredibly tender, my right inside elbow/forearm is not feeling 100% and the pinky on my right hand has swollen up and purpled — there’s definitely something injured there, too. Obligatory post-climbing-accident beers have helped, as did some good Scotch, good friends, and, through the next three nights, some Percocet.
Feeling a bit roughed up as the adrenaline wears off on the drive to the hospital. Photo by John Price.
So, what did I do wrong?
A number of factors contributed to my slip. We were ‘cragging’ and it is easy to get complacent and forget how unforgiving the mountains are. This was probably my sixth or seventh time heading up to Carlsberg, and as I was with two other experienced climbers, we weren’t as careful or as communicative as if we had been out with someone newer to this environment. In our accident analysis we all agreed that if we’d been out with someone less experienced, or had been guiding, we would have geared up long before getting to this point, and may have even pitched out this section. Or just climbed the approach ice, as the other party was doing.
A thought on packs
We all agree that my pack probably saved my life — the packed top lid prevented my head from flinging back, and judging by the impact marks and scratches on my ice tools, they and the pack absorbed a couple of hits, too. I always ensure my hipbelt and sternum strap are done up tight, which I think prevented the pack from sliding as I tumbled around.
What did I learn?
I’ve decided I’m going to take a wilderness first aid course. While I have a pretty good knowledge base, I’ve never taken a formal course and if this had been one of my friends I’d like to know for sure that I know what I’m doing. At the very least, I feel I owe that to my climbing partners.
I’ll keep wearing my packs tight, and I’ll keep using 35L+ packs with a tough back panel. I’ll be putting crampons on more often, and ensuring I pack them near the top so they’re quick and easy to access. I’ll probably wear my helmet more, too.
And I’ll definitely take these casual, easy, fun days out in the mountains with friends a lot more seriously.
This is not the first accident on Carlsberg. In 2004, another climber, Brent Raymond took a fall which sounds incredibly similar to mine, “slipping off the edge of the ledge and disappearing over a short cliff below” and “[falling] over 35 metres” but unfortunately he died of injuries in hospital. AAC report here.
And two years ago less a week from my fall (Feb 27, 2013 – freaky!) a good friend of mine took a lead fall off the top of the route, ripping a couple of screws and ending up upside down and unconscious a few feet above his belayer. He practically ripped his ear off in the fall, too, but has since fully recovered. I’m sure there have been others, but these are the only two I am aware of.
When I first went over the edge and flew towards the next ledge I honestly thought this was it. That I am here functioning as normal, more or less, is beyond incredible and I suspect something that will sink in deeper as the days go by. I can only say that I got very, very lucky. But luck is something I don’t want to rely on to make it back home. I’ll be a whole lot more careful, even when “just cragging.”