The Tooth - Off Rappel, Then A Long Spinning Slide on Hard Snow

After summiting the Tooth, we were descending from Pineapple Pass around 4pm and had set up a single rope rappel to get a student down the rock step onto the steep snow below. After rappelling the line, she was moving down the snowfield below and slipped and fell about 40 feet down the slope sliding on the snow.
David Shema David Shema
Safety Committee Member
May 09, 2017

The Tooth, Snoqualmie Pass - 25 May


After summiting the Tooth, we were descending from Pineapple pass around 4pm and had set up a single rope rappel to get a student down the rock step onto the steep snow below.

One of our Intermediate Rope leads went ahead of me and rapped the rock step onto the snow below in preparation for the one student who needed a rappel to follow. After rappelling the line, she was moving down the snowfield below and slipped and fell about 40 feet down the slope sliding on the snow.

She attempted self-arrest but was unable to do so, hitting her back hard on a large stump, then spinning and sliding further before coming to rest in a tree well. Somewhere along the way she impacted the top of her head on something, we are not sure what, it may have been the tree trunk. She was wearing a helmet, however, and it appears to have almost completely absorbed the impact.

I, and one of the basic students, descended carefully to where she was and administered first aid. After examining her, we determined she had possibly suffered a minor concussion and had injured her upper back. She also had a 4cm gash on her chin, possibly from the adze on her ice-axe; this may have been caused while she was attempting to arrest her fall.

I assessed her mental state, fearing a head injury, but other than a minor headache she appeared to be totally lucid. I had her follow my finger with her eyes and checked them for dilation as well and she appeared to be normal.

After a few minutes we split up her stuff and had her stand up. She said she could proceed, so we had everyone carefully climb down the snow slope then up the next gully and carefully down from the pass into Great Scott Basin.

She was able to walk out on her own and appeared to do better and better as we approached the cars.

The next day she reported that she had seen a doctor and had no injuries to report other than muscular bruising in her upper back.

From my perspective, her fall was pretty scary. She slid a good 40 feet down the couloir and bounced off a couple of objects. Her helmet crumpled from the impact and most certainly saved a more serious injury. Also, the fact that she was wearing her pack at the time most likely prevented more serious injury to her back.

Lessons Learned

The slope was steep and the snow was treacherous. She attempted to go down the slope face-outward, perhaps thinking she could plunge step. But the snow wasn't good for that and she went down hard. In retrospect, she should have turned to face the slope and used her ice ax aggressively along with kicking steps down the snowfield. This is how I had everyone else descend and it was safe with this technique.


Add a comment

Log in to add comments.
Dale Flynn
Dale Flynn says:
May 13, 2017 10:15 PM

In my experience, the most common source of injury - that I have witnessed in my own parties or the parties of others - has been a failure to successfully self-arrest with the ice axe after a slip, or a fall, or a glissade. I have long believed that snow and glacier climbers need more practice doing self-arrest on harder, steeper snow than what they typically get in climbing field trips. Dale Flynn

Doug Sanders
Doug Sanders says:
May 15, 2017 12:24 PM

Dale, well stated. I agree.

Jan Abendroth
Jan Abendroth says:
May 21, 2017 08:55 PM

Agree. The challenge will be a good implementation into the curriculum for Basics. Hard snow is hard to find early season, and needs to be accessible for training for ~120 students. We are open for ideas!

Nathan Reed
Nathan Reed says:
May 22, 2017 12:08 PM

I Agree. The Bellingham branch has long had a Hard Snow and Alpine Ice Field trip in late June or Early July to cover these techniques as part of our Basic Alpine Climbing Class. The Hard Snow portion emphasizes Self Belay as a safer technique, as Self Arrest is so often unsuccessful. Alpine Ice covers crampon and ice axe techniques on low angle ice. We hold Hard Snow on the steeper slopes adjacent to The Mt Baker Ski area. Alpine Ice is held at the Colman Seracs.

Hard Snow
Field Trip:

Purpose of this field trip: to practice ice snow travel under real world spring and summer conditions.
1.Self belay
2.Self arrest
3.Snow belays
4. Step kicking
5. Plunge stepping
6. Glissadin

Alpine Ice: Basic Techniques for Travel Field Trip:

Purpose of this field trip: to practice travel on alpine ice, use of the ice axe, and crampon
technique, under real world summer and fall conditions.
1.Glacier Talk (features, ice flow, compression zones and icefalls)
2. Walking on ice without crampons (gentle terrain).
3.Step cutting on short small ice ramps, including diagonal steps and making a turn,and sidesteps for descending.
4.Alpine Ice Talk (brief discussion of the proper conditions to make an ice ascent and a bit of ice climbing history)
5.French Technique (crampons on)
6.Pied (foot positions): Marché, À plat, Encanard, & Troisième.
7.Piolet (ice axe positions): Canne, Rampe, Ramasse, Poigard, Panne, “Allain,” Manche, Appuiand Ancre.

Steve Smith
Steve Smith says:
May 25, 2017 09:16 AM

It seems to me that there are two crucial elements to the timeline of events: The decision to plunge-step (which led to the slip), and the inability to arrest.

The most important skill that might have prevented this kind of incident is the ability to recognize and assess snow that is steep and firm/icy, and to select a style of travel on it that fits the conditions. This kind of skills comes from practice, mentorship, and experience. I remember taking a long, uncontrolled slide on very steep snow in the North Cascades early in my climbing career and it impressed on me the need to really assess terrain, runout, and style of ascent / descent.

The other piece is self-arrest practice, and actually practicing on challenging conditions to the point of failure -- learning what you can and can't do. Practicing with a pack on is also helpful, as you will likely have a pack on when a real slip occurs. So, practicing under the same kind of challenging conditions under which those skills will be tested in real life.

Thank you for sharing this incident report which provides a great opportunity for learning, and focusing on prevention for the future!