Safety Stories | A Fall on Cutthroat Peak

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, a seasoned volunteer and climber shares her experience taking a fall on Cutthroat Peak, and the impacts it's made on her.
Sherrie Trecker Sherrie Trecker
Mountaineers Climb Leader
May 19, 2020
Safety Stories | A Fall on Cutthroat Peak

Everything about this climb was perfect, until it wasn’t.

The trip started at 5am on a Tuesday morning in mid-June, 2018. With steep snow gullies visible from Highway 20, my climbing partner Ben and I knew that we faced carrying boots and ice axes for the day. We would be ascending the South Buttress of Cutthroat Peak, a 5.8+ 16-pitch route, then descending the West Ridge, a low fifth-class route with plenty of exposed ridge climbing.

It was clear from the boot track that it had not been climbed
more than maybe once since the last snow; we may have been
only the second ascent on the South Buttress that year. The
common approach to the base of the South Buttress was still
filled with ice, and since we only had microspikes, we opted to
take an approach to the right, which included a quick rappel
down to the base of the climb. Despite this re-route, we were
ready to start the first pitch in 3 hours.

We made two 30-meter rappels down the west ridge, then took
a beautiful exposed fourth-class ridge walk to our next rappel
station. We made two more rappels down to some third-class
sandy ledges, and then descended onto a steep snow finger,
still well ahead of where we thought we’d be for the day.

We had hoped the snow would be less steep and icy than what
we had seen looking up at the gully in the morning, but that
isn’t what we got. We quickly recognized that we would be
face-in down climbing for several hundred feet. Ben started
the descent, and I followed in his footsteps. I was plunging
my axe in at every step, and though my feet slipped out from
under me a couple times my self-belay position stopped me.
The slope angle changed slightly, and Ben decided to try to
side-angle down – or at least that’s what it looked like in the
footsteps I was following. I shifted position, and on my first
step I was swooped off my feet. I had not plunged my axe as
I had been when I was face-in down climbing, and I started to
slide, unable to self-belay. I tried my hardest to go into self-arrest, but the ice axe popped out of my hands as I slid.

With my leash on I tried to regain control of my axe and
perform an arrest, but as I gained speed the axe remained just outside my reach. I turned around in time to see that I was
headed toward a small rock formation with a moat in front of
it, and I hoped it would at least slow me down. Instead I flew
right over it, slamming down hard on my thigh as I landed.
At that point the axe leash had come off my wrist and I had
nothing to stop myself except another rock formation, this one
150 feet away and rapidly approaching as I barreled down the
slope. Quick thinking led me to decide that my best approach
would be to put my body into a glissade position and dig my
heels and butt into the snow as much as possible to slow my
descent. I braced for impact, hoping that I would at most break
an ankle or hurt a knee.

My plan sort of worked. I hit those rocks at a little less than full speed, but still tumbled 10 feet down the rock gully, unable to keep my feet down as I hit rock. I remember the entire impact, and every body part that struck rocks. I kept wondering not if, but when, I would lose consciousness. I couldn’t see how I was going to walk away from this one. When I finally stopped I saw blood everywhere, which really freaked me out, but I also did not feel much pain, which freaked me out even more.

Fortunately I had a great partner in Ben, who saw me fall but
managed to keep his cool and continue his slow face-in down
climb for approximately 300 feet to reach me. He did not rush,
which could have caused a second accident. By the time he
got to me I was in full-on sympathetic ASR (automatic stress
response), which meant I was breathing heavily, had a high
heart rate, and was freaking the hell out, tears and all. I was
not feeling much pain and, unfortunately for Ben, also not
making a ton of sense. I had already felt my head, neck, and
back, and thought that I didn’t have a spine or head injury. I
also confirmed that most of the blood was coming from skin
having ripped off a hand, not from my head or any other
extremity. Ben did a quick check as well.

Once we confirmed that I’d be able to walk out on my own, he
started to find a good descent path. I was still super confused,
and unable to follow him down relatively easy terrain. I was
breathing deep, labored breaths, and couldn’t get my shaking
under control. I was terrified. I couldn’t get my thoughts
together, and felt like I couldn’t continue down, but knew I
had to. Ben recognized that I was not making good decisions
and had me sit down, then he set up a rappel down the class
3/4 rock scramble terrain. While he was setting up the rappel
I sat, trying to calm myself with the thought that this was just
an automatic stress response and I was fine. I took 800mg
of ibuprofen, drank some water, and by the time we did the
rappel I was able to think clearly again.

However, from that rappel we still had around 500 feet of
steep face-in down climbing on snow. Ben led the way, kicking
great steps for me, but I was still so terrified. I plunged my
ice axe in as deeply as it would go with every single step.
This made for a very long descent process. I was bleeding
through my gloves, trickling a trail of blood as we went. It
was unsafe to stop, so I continued my slow, methodical down
climbing until reaching a rock outcropping. Mercifully, the snow slope angle decreased significantly, and I was able to
enjoy a glissade to the basin. The glissade hurt my bruised
tailbone and thighs, but it was worth it to not have to worry
about falling again. I gingerly limped out of the snow basin
and down the climber’s trail to the car. We arrived at our
cars at 8pm. Even with the fall, our 15 hour car-to-car time
was in line with what we’d expected when we set out that
day. As I walked out I was dismissing my fall as a near-miss.
We’d just climbed an awesome route and made good time.
I was okay.

Update: Spring 2020

It's been almost two years since my accident. Though my
initial response was to be thankful that I didn’t sustain greater
physical injuries, the accident had a greater impact on me
than I could have expected right after the climb. I hope that
by reading this, you gain a few takeaways without having
to go through the experience yourself. Of course there are
the basics, like practicing your self-arrest technique at least
annually, bringing the right gear for the objective, keeping
your WFR or WFA up-to-date, and having an emergency
communication device with you at all times. Those are
things I recognized as helpful almost immediately. However,
I never could have predicted the long-term ramifications of
this accident.

Even though my external injuries were minimal, in hindsight I
should have gone to the doctor after the climb. My butt bruise
healed quickly, along with my pride, but I probably developed
microfractures in my heel that kept me from climbing a few
really cool routes in 2018. If I had gone to the doctor they
would have properly assessed me, and I might have healed
more quickly with physical therapy.

Perhaps more importantly than the physical injuries, I
experienced long-term psychological damage from the
fall. I have recurring dreams and flashbacks of falling, not
just on steep snow, but also off rock cliffs. Sometimes I get
anxiety leading up to climbs that is so great I have to cancel.
Sometimes I just don’t want to climb at all; I want to give it
up completely, despite it being one of my main sources of joy
over the last decade.

I finally sought professional help for this in 2019, and was
diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I
think that if this topic was more frequently discussed, I could
have recognized symptoms of a stress injury in myself much
sooner after the incident. There is not a lot of information out
there on stress injuries as they relate to climbing accidents,
which makes people who are experiencing them feel isolated
and alone. However, awareness is increasing. I had the
opportunity to talk about my fall and the impact it had on
me with American Alpine Club’s The Sharp End podcast for
Episode 45, “One False Step and a Year of Recovery”. By
discussing this important topic and seeking help as needed, it
will hopefully keep people like me from withdrawing from our
lives’ greatest passions.

MAIN IMAGE OF Cutthroat Peak. The ascent and technical portion of the descent identified in black, fall location identified in red. Photo courtesy of Sherrie Trecker.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

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Peter Hendrickson
Peter Hendrickson says:
Jul 29, 2020 09:47 AM

Thanks for bringing forward this experience, Sherrie. Seeking help is its own display of courage. It triggered the memory of a failed dagger belay on Cotopaxi many years ago. With global warming, I'm guessing the crevasse bridge that held (really, its descendants) is now simply volcanic rock. The mountains still call but my response is more measured.

Steve Smith
Steve Smith says:
Jul 29, 2020 11:10 AM

Sharing stories of our experiences and lessons learned is one of the greatest gifts we can give to other climbers and adventurers. I admire your vulnerability and ability to tell this story and lessons learned so effectively, Sherrie!