Nine Lives And Counting

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Rock fall in the mountains happens all the time. These events are explosive, immediate, and usually happen so fast there is usually no time to react. What I remember most about my own experiences is the utter violence and power of these events.

In August of 1976 I witnessed a large portion of a mountainside fall onto the glacier below Gannet Peak in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. The fractured mountainside slammed into the glacier with a thunderous roar, bulldozed a camp-site which the day before had been populated by ten or fifteen tents and then crashed into the terminal moraine. The collision jettisoned debris far down the valley into the forest a full mile below the moraine.

The first time I was hit by falling rock I was eighteen years old while climbing the Overhanging Tower in the Wind River Mountains. I was leading a rope team of two students up an snow filled couloir when I heard a loud crack above me. I looked up to see several black projectiles, some the size of a beach balls, bounding down the snow toward me.

Hot needles of adrenaline pulsed in my finger tips as the rocks sailed toward me. I mashed my body against the snow as one of the rocks smote my pack and bounced into the void. The impact sagged me against my ice axe. A dull pain echoed between my shoulder blades. In an instance, the rocks were gone, only to be shattered against the boulders four hundred feet below.

Shaking, I looked down. I could see gouges in the snow where the missiles had dinted the ice near the rope. I felt naked, exposed to the violence of the mountain with no where to hide from the rocks of death.

I climbed up to a ledge that was sheltered from the couloir and I led my students out of the gully. After summiting the peak we used a different way down.

Gullies and chimneys are bowling alleys, virtual conduits for falling debris. Climbing or descending in them gives one pause for obvious reasons: there is no where to shelter from falling rock.

In the early 1980’s I was guiding a client on Wolfs Head in the Wind River Mountains. I’ll call him Jeff. It was a brilliant day with high puffy clouds that streamed across a cobalt sky. We summited Wolfs Head around ten or eleven a.m. in the morning without any problems.

A fellow guide had suggested that I try a different descent route than the usual scramble to a steep scree trail that lead back to camp. I had decided to follow his advice since his way seemed to be faster than the normal descent by at least an hour or more.

Upon leaving the summit we came to the alternative descent. Even as I looked down the massive chimney and contemplated my friends advice, every warning bell in my gut sounded off. I hesitated. I could see the standard descent to the north maybe a few hundred yards away. I remember thinking: Its just time—thats all it is—time.

But my friend had said that the rappel was fast and easy—two rappels—and so I tossed my rope down the chasm and rapped to the first anchor—a hanging belay in a frightful, overhanging void. The place unnerved me, my heart raced, cold sweat beaded on my palms.

I waited impatiently as Jeff began his descent. I hung over the void in stillness—no wind, no dripping water. Looking back it seems to me that I should have heard something: my client shouting, “Rock,” or the loud crack of rock cutting loose, or the ricochet of the rock off of one of the nearby walls—nada—nothing.

Yet something made me look up.

And that’s when the rock hit me.

The impact flipped me upside down on the belay. I might have passed out initially…but I remember my eyes fixating on the thin rivulets of blood that streamed from my face into the void.

With a struggle, I righted my self. My two front teeth were loose, tilted toward the roof of my mouth. I reached inside and pushed them back into my head. I leaned against the cold granite and took deep breaths. Agonizing pain lanced my face, my hands and torso were covered in blood. A heavy metallic taste coated the back of my throat. Dizziness swirled, my consciousness slipping into a haze—I was caught between darkness and light. I thought, don’t pass out or you’ll die.

I willed myself to function. If I passed out there was no telling what my client might attempt—I shuddered at the thought. My life and his life depended on me pulling together and getting us out of here. I shook off the dizziness, spit out the blood.

I surveyed my injuries with blood slick hands. The rock had taken the skin off the tip of my nose and impacted me in the flesh between my nose and my two front teeth. I was bleeding profusely from my nose and lacerations in my upper lip. I looked up again to see Jeff, barely sixteen years old, hanging perhaps twenty feet above the belay.

His eyes widened, the color drained from his face. I must have looked like a fucking monster. I can only imagine the fear he must have felt realizing that I was hurt and we were in such a terrifying place hanging one hundred and sixty-five feet above the talus fields.

I waved him down, clipped him off to the anchor, and we pulled the rope. Setting the next rappel, I pre-clipped him into the rope as I had for the first rappel and then I rapped to the ground. In this way I was able to belay him by taking the rope tight. By the time we had reached the safety of the ground my face was a mass of throbbing pain and the best I could do was to blubber through a broken mouth when I spoke.

Over the next few days my injuries were reduced to two black eyes and a massive purple bruise centered on my nose like a bulls-eye. I’m lucky the rock was small and that I wasn’t killed.

Yet it wasn’t until around 2005 as an Exum guide that I experienced the mother of all rock falls. Not that I didn’t encounter rock fall until mid-2005—just that those experiences paled in comparison to this special day in Grand Teton National Park. It happened just after climbing Baxter’s Pinnacle with a client I will call Liz.

On the day of the incident I met Liz at 6:00 am at the Exum headquarters at Jenny Lake. Liz was an upper level executive from Los Angeles, California. She was a decent climber and was comfortable in the woods—she was the kind of client you looked forward to guiding.

Baxter’s Pinnacle is a sweet assignment because the approach is short and not very athletic unlike Symmetry Peak which requires two or three hours of strenuous hiking just to get to the climb. The climb on Baxter’s is about four hundred feet to a small summit. Clients love the climb because its easy to get to and the summit of Baxter’s is spectacular.

From the point of view of danger, the main issue with Baxter’s Pinnacle is the decent. From the top there is a seventy-five foot free hanging rappel to a notch. From the notch the climbers work down a chimney into the main descent gully which is scrambled in order to return to the base of the climb.

The ravine is a bowling alley full of loose rock with no real protection from flying projectiles. In terms of guiding Baxter’s Pinnacle, I always try to be the first party on the route and down the gully before anyone else is on the climb. You don’t want to be in the descent gully below another party if you can avoid it because of the rock fall risk.

And so it was that we took the first boat across Jenny Lake and made the thirty minute hike to the base of Baxter’s. The trail cuts across a boulder field on its right side, works up and over a cliff system and then doubles back along the top of the cliffs. Eventually you come to the base of the pinnacle with the gully opening on the left side of the climb.

The terrain at the base of the climb is a steep, grassy shoulder which empties over the cliffs onto the boulder field below. Anything that falls on the shoulder tumbles into the void to be smashed when it lands in the boulder field.

At the base of the climb there is a tree that most parties use to stage their gear. Over the years I stopped using it because I experienced rock fall that ricocheted out of the gully and actually hit the tree. So I led Liz past the tree, and the gully, to another tree that is on the left side of the bowling alley. Here we donned our gear, hung our packs in the tree to prevent ground squirrels from rampaging our packs, and made our way to the first pitch of the climb.

The route is five pitches long or about four hundred feet to a small spectacular summit. Most of the climbing is on steep, exposed faces split by cracks and well featured with edges and ripples for the hands and feet. We passed these pitches easily to the headwall pitch which is the crux of the climb.

The headwall pitch starts slightly down hill near an old pin and works its way up an arching crack system that bends to the left. I made the summit and set the belay so I could see Liz as she moved into the hard climbing.

I watched her step down to the right and then make the sketchy reach up to the crack. She passed the pin and had made her way to the upper headwall. Here she hesitated in the immense exposure before rocking into a layback and making the final moves to the top of the pinnacle.

We sat together on the narrow summit in the sun and took in the amazing view of Jenny Lake and the surrounding peaks until we heard the voices of other climbers arriving at the base of the crux pitch. This was our signal to descend because I wanted to be off the peak and back at the packs before the other team entered the bowling alley above us. So we rapped into the notch and started our descent into the gully.

I short roped Liz down the bowling alley carefully moving from one wall to another using whatever shelter we could find on the way down. Climbing down the gully is a chess match between the climber and the stacked rubble. We tip-toed, zigged-zagged, always cognizant for any sounds above us. In this way we made our way to the bottom of the pinnacle and returned to our packs without dislodging any rock.

We changed out of long pants into shorts and stowed the climbing gear in our packs. It was at this point that Liz asked, “Is there a place where I can pee?”

Remember that we are standing on a trail that is atop a tall cliff band and that the two of us are positioned in front of the tree on a steep, grass covered slope that empties into a void above the boulder field below. A dropped water bottle is a goner.

I found her gaze. “Can you wait?”

She shook her head. “I’ve got to go really bad.”

“Well,” I said, with an apologetic tone. “You can pee here by the tree and I will turn away or you can wait until we get back down to the boulder field where you will be able to find privacy. What would you like to do?”

“I’m Ok with you turning away,” she said.

I turned away and faced up the cliff.

The breezes had stilled. There was no sound except for the stream of Liz’s urine that puddled the dust between her feet. I saw something move in an island of shrubs about ninety feet above us. The limbs of the bushes were swaying as if in a wind…but there was no wind. I thought it might be a marmot moving within the protection of the bushes but the island was isolated, a pocket ledge with no way for a marmot to reach that location. A sense that something was wrong swept into my gut—a slight constriction, a hitch in my breath.

The cliff-side fell with a concussive roar.

A massive section of wall sailed toward us. It fell with agonizing slowness. A wavering mass of granite like a black wave that smote the grass slope twenty feet above us and hurled straight at us. I remember turning to the left, taking Liz by the top of her tank top to duck under the first refrigerator sized boulders that ripped past our heads.

We arched in unison, jigged to the side and danced with the death rocks that whistled by our bodies and exploded around us on the hillside. The ground bumped and lifted us as the broken fragments of the wall pounded the slope and whirled into the void below.

And then it was over as suddenly as it had started. The sulfurous dust of smashed granite coated my throat and the insides of my nostrils. Below us I could see several small trees broken like twigs and a dust cloud rising off the boulder field. It was then that I realized I was still holding Liz by her tank top, her shorts down around her ankles. I let go of her as she pulled up her shorts. I found her eyes with my eyes. I wanted to say something but my voice was stuck in my throat.

Then we laughed. A deep throaty laugh that rises from the depths of your soul. A laugh that comes from the profound realization that you just survived the unsurvivable. We hugged each other like long lost lovers just as another rock thudded the ground near our feet and launched itself into the void. The cliff was still shedding projectiles.

We quickly donned our packs and hurried away from that deadly place. I led Liz down the trail at a near run. Behind us I could still hear the hot slap of rocks as they were shed from the newly broken cliff face. I wasn’t going to feel safe until we were back at the boat dock well away from the scene of the rock slide.

Later in the evening, after Liz and I had parted ways at the Exum office, I returned to the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch where I was staying. While I was preparing dinner I overheard some climbers who described seeing a massive rockfall up by Baxter’s Pinnacle that day—I didn’t say a word—anything I could have said would have sounded completely ridiculous like one-upmanship. And lord knows that the social scene at the Climber’s Ranch was rife with big cliff stories and I had no intention of adding to the noise.

Instead I wandered away out of ear shot and called my wife. “How was your day?” she asked me.

“Kinda rough,” I said. “We had some rock fall. Things got a little sketchy.”

“Pete!” She said. “Come home to me. Don’t get killed.”

How many lives had I used up?, I thought. Because if lives were based on the magnitude of this event, I couldn’t possibly have many left. After a few minutes I signed off with my wife, took another swig of beer and wandered back to the pavilion to finish making supper.

I listened to the big cliff stories and did what any rational person would do that had just survived what I had. I ate slowly, savored the stars in the night sky, and told my daughter Bad Bear stories by the fire.

The sound of her laughter meant more to me than any mountain ever would.

 

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