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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Fall ....Part Two: Jack's Last Lesson.

Jack, running it out on Curtain Call, just prior to a 60' whipper from a solid stance below the first roof visible above him.

" Why did Jack fall? He was at a good stance, looking solid. He was using Black Diamond tethers and had both tools in. One tether came unclipped in the fall, both of their clips were bent and a tool ended up on the ground. It seems to me that for some reason Jack’s hand came off his tool while he was going to clip his quick draw into the screw. He fell onto his tethers, overloaded them and popped both tools. I’m fairly convinced that Jack had something go wrong medically, a heart attack, seizure, coughing fit, something. I just have a hard time believing that he simply fell from a solid stance. I will never know." Jonathon  Miller

Jonathon and I have talked a lot since Jack died.  We've talked about Jack's quirks and his humor and his friendship.  And how he really enjoyed mentoring and at times messing with people's heads.  Just for the fun of it.  I liked and could appreciate that.

We've both talked with Pam about our observations as well.  And Pam had thoughts of her own to share.  So this wasn't easy for anyone.  But I think Jack would appreciate the effort.  Simply because he loved to teach and pass on what he knew and his  experiences.  From our friendship I know he did that honestly and with out ego, just as he did with most every climber he met.  If we can learn something from this accident and Jack's life may be we'll all be better for it.

Some times I hate this blog.  Over the blog's three year history it gets the most views when some one in the tribe dies.  I have to admit it makes me angry.  But just as there is so much beauty in climbing there is also death.  More than most of us like to admit.  And may be the blog can make a difference in some small way.  I truly hope so.

I am well aware of the fact some might take offense to my comments here and my opinion.  It has taken all of us a long time to even want to share this in public.   So I'll get on with it.

Jack not only grew up in the school of modern ice climbing but in many ways helped defined it and  "wrote the book" on it.   And that may have been what killed him.

The picture above and the one previous of Jack on the first pitch of Curtain Call are classic examples of that in my mind.  On Curtain Call that day a few years ago,  Jack was 100 feet out and had stopped at a decent, no hands  rest.  He was on double ropes, with good screws, the first at 30' and a second at 65 or 70'.   We were chatting rather casually about the amount of ice being dropped from above by another pair of climbers.  Jack was safe and protected, just waiting for them to clear the final pillar.   I was getting bombarded and it was dangerous.  Then, Jack simply fell off.  It was like he intentionally just stepped out into space.  I was dumb founded!  

Just like on Bridalveil later, Jack fell off for no apparent reason.  An autopsy was performed and Jack did not have a heart attack as Jonathon and I had first speculated.  And at least on Curtain Call he was aware enough to maintain his tools through the entire flight and catch.  I took note and was impressed by that.  Pam didn't think the Medical Examiner went any farther with the autopsy than looking for the initial cause of death and the damage from the fall.   So we'll never know what caused either fall.  But it does cause one to ponder.

Pam's comments, "I know that some people have conjectured that maybe he had a heart attack or some other physical glitch that caused him to fall. All I know is that they did a full autopsy on him, and didn't find anything that indicated anything like that, for what it's worth. He had been sick with a bad cough over Christmas break, so maybe it was something as simple as a coughing fit. Who knows..........."

Jack wasn't hurt seriously on Curtain Call only slightly tweaked a knee from hooking a crampon just prior to stopping.  Two reasons Jack had no serious injuries from that fall.  One is, the ice was very steep that year and the other...was just shear dumb luck. 
The moderate conditions on Curtain Call (WI6) when Jack fell.  He was at a good stance just below the first roof and  20' below the obvious belay cave.

From those two incidents I have no doubt how we all can make our own ice climbing safer.  Jack just gave us all one last, costly, climbing lesson.  

Mind you,  Jack and I had been playing at this game over the same decades.  Jack had  always just been a lot better at it.   I have to admit I had never seen anyone take a whipper like that on ice.  No one.  I had time to think about the end result of Jack hooking a crampon or going upside down on that fall and smacking his head.  It was a long fall and we both had a lot of time to think about it.    It is a 120K  drive from Curtain Call to Jasper and no phone or services mid winter between them.  I've seen serious injuries from much shorter and seemingly less serious falls.

In that fall on Curtain Call Jack never dropped his tools, which were untethered.  And he finished that pitch straight away.  I was wide eyed and impressed.  He scared the shit out of me to be honest.  All the while Jack was apologizing profusely to me.   He said it was his first ever lead fall on ice...and I believe that. 

The day previous I had chastised Jack about the amount of pro he used...or rather lack of pro he used.  Typically if you are incapable of climbing a piece of ice, you lace it up.   It is a technique which almost guarantees you won't be able to climb that piece of ice.  There is no fine line between control and stupidity.  Being in control on ice  is mindset, strength and skill.   Stupidity is putting your partners and yourself at risk by trying to climb over your head.   

6 screws for pro and 2 for anchors seems legit on the long 2nd pitch of the Right Hand side of  Weeping wall.  The day previous Jack used only 3 Helix screws.  I was impressed but not pleased. I couldn't image the aftermath of holding a 60+ foot fall on ice.
Look, I know Jack was a better climber than I am.  But I also have stayed alive while climbing over four decades by being a little conservative at times.  I've taken any number of good sized falls on rock including a 70'er onto a swami and held a 150er' on a body belay.  No injuries to speak of and no falls leading on ice.   So when I think a partner is out of line, I have no problem giving them some shit about it.  Including Jack.
And as you might imagine after the conversation of 3 screws on a steep lead the previous day I wasn't all that happy about the winger on Curtain Call.  We both  wanted to finish the line, which, silly enough, seemed important at the time.
One of the conversations that came up later on that trip was umbilicals.  Jack had forgotten his Nomics at a rap station.  I collected them and refused to return them.  It  was the second set of tools I we had found that season at a rap station.  I had already told Jack that if you are gonna run it out at least use umbilicals so I wouldn't have to be totally responsible for his mistake.  Half in jest of course..and I made Jack buy me a burger and a beer to get his Nomics back.   Fair's, fair, right?  But Jack manned up and took the comments to heart.  He was gracious even as I rode him a bit.  I get cranky when I get scared.  Jack knew he had scared me.  He had scared himself I suspect as well.
Use umbilicals and use an appropriate amount of pro.  Or heaven forbid, just stay off things you are incapable of climbing safely.
So Jack liked to run ice out on lead.  He was very, very good at climbing steep ice.  And at least in our minds running it out above pro showed a level of skill and control few will ever attain.  It was a badge of honor. 
Adding a set of reliable umbilicals to the mix should have prevented any sort of serious accident.  Even though there isn't a single pair of commercially made umbilicals that are rated to hold a leader fall.  All the while most every one counts on umbilicals doing just that, catching a fall or momentary slip.    The unreliability of any commercial umbilical leash set should be well known by now.  If not this is your warning!
And if you are going to use an umbilical please make sure it is one that at the very least has a reliable attachment point to the tool.  And a strong attachment point on the tool.  Only a locking biner or a direct tie in from leash to tool is guaranteed to keep tools and leash attached.  Grivel and Blue Ice figured that out a while ago with their umbilicals.  Any sort of simple gated carabiner (no matter the biner you choose)  will not stay attached reliably on a metal to metal attachment system.  They will lever themselves off.
You might want to rethink your system if they look anything like this.
You are trusting your life to that system if something should fail.  Choose wisely.
Know what a fall factor is in climbing.  Know how to calculate it on lead and to minimise it to safe levels. It is important.  You need to have that knowledge if you want to lead on rock or ice. Make sure your partner is aware of the same info and can figure it out himself.  Communicate!
Know how to place pro and where, on any ice climb.  The best ice screws now are easy to place by comparison,  And it is easy to carry a bunch of them.  Be conservative, place good pro often enough to be safe and ..NEVER, ever fall.
More reading material on the subject here:
Jack, very proud to be included as one of the authors of our sport @ the Bozeman Ice Fest in in 2012.
Photo courtesy of
Claudia Lopez
 and the Bozeman Ice fest


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing, Dane...I carry Jacks stoke everyday I am out in the mountains climbing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the follow up, Dane. Inexplicable why Jack may have fallen for no real reason. The discussion of under protecting a route is a tough one. When a friend of mine and I did BV a couple of years ago we did it in 2 70m pitches. My friend is on par with Jack skills wise and lead both pitches. In all, I think he placed 5 screws maybe 6 TOTAL. I didn't think much of it, as he is an extraordinary climber, but after reading this I wonder. I've run out some lines for sure, but rarely over 25ft if that much. Something that's sits with me is something that Craig Lubben once mentioned... Never be ashamed of a well protected route. One aspect I'm still not sold on is tethers, I can see the benefit in terms of possible dropping a tool, but certainly not in terms of a self belay. Might as well just use leashes it seems... IDK maybe I should give them a chance... Good write up. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the sobering analysis on the potential cause of Jack Roberts death. Too often, when I am leading WI 4 and below, I tend to run it out and not think about the consequences of a fall. I'm probably a little too comfortable relying on my tool placements. And as you stated, and everyone that climbs ice should know, falling is not a good option. But there is always that potential so you still need to place adequate pro.


Anonymous said...

Really good article. Its always good to be reminded that just because we are confident doesn't mean we won't fail.

That said, I disagree with you on the assessment of tethers. Tethers are a great tool to keep you from dropping a tool; however, they're awkward to hang from (at best) and they suck to fall onto. They're certainly better than a run-out lead fall, but there's only a small amount of dynamic-ness in the system (your body wrenching) so tools get loaded with significant force which could easily cause them to pop. I'm sure you've seen the tool-stabing-eye warning that BD puts along side their Spinner instructions. If you want to depend on your tool for protection, leashes are a lot safer; however, a well protected route will be safer than any of those.

I own a pair of Spinners and I quite like the fact that the ends don't lock. It could be that I'm just sloppy, but as much as I try, I inevitably mix the tether up with the ropes while seconding or doing other similar strange things. Being able to quickly unclip and sort it out saves a lot of effort. Also, I've never had problems with it unclipping on its own, but perhaps I'm just lucky.

Dane said...

I am very aware of what any of the commenrcial tethers are capable of holding on a dynamic load. A quick search here on CT will turn up most of it. Including the BD article you mention.

Jane said...

Hi, Dane,

Thanks for yours and Jon's articles. Here it is an interview Kitty Calhoun conducted with Bill Belcourt of Black Diamond, along with Michael Kennedy, Jack Tackle and Jay Smith about the use of leashes, screamers and ice screws. According to their conversation, using leashes is obviously a better choice. I also noticed that Guy Lacelle used leashes on Nomic while free soloing.

Rod said...

A quick comment from someone who is 60 but was never as good as you guys so take it with salt. There is no way you are as sharp at 60 yrs as you were when you are younger. We still might be pretty neat but there is a small piece missing and sometimes thats all it takes. The other thing I wonder about is the chronic pain from his feet that can cloud ones concentration.

Anonymous said...

Very grateful to you Dane! This write up is a the sense of both being a source of great knowledge and a tremendous amount of experience. I am on one hand sorry you went through it...and other hand glad you were the one there for Jack. I lost a friend in the mountains and to this day do not have the answers as to why and I will never know......and I constantly wish I had done one or two things differently. It was a similar case in that I was climbing with someone I looked up to and I would never question his choices.

Thank you again for finding the lesson in the loss.


Dane said...

Hi Tonya, It was Jonathon that we owe the lesson to, not me. Jonathon was with Jack on Bridalveil and spent his last hours with Jack. I was not there.

This part was the 2nd piece, which I wrote to try to make some little sense of Jack's fatal fall from our adventures together.

Jack and Jonathon deserve the credit for what ever you can glean from this.

Anonymous said...

Dane, I have just found your blog recently and have been reading it quite a bit.

I know this article is a month old, and I apologize for that. The thing that struck me was the comment about "hating this blog" and the peak in hits when someone passes away.

Please do not be discouraged. There are many blogs about trips, gear and all of the frivolous things in life. When someone passes away it is unique. It is the opportunity to reflect on their lives and, for those of us to not be in "the circle" to get a glimpse into the life and person behind that story.

Anyone who reads this blog, specifically this article, has now been reinforced on the need to be safe and place extra protection. Everyone who reads it is now aware not only that "some climber named Jack" passed away, but through your writing you honor and memorize who Jack was and what he meant to your circle.

You may see the pop in hits as a bad thing, but it is also a good thing. I live nowhere near you, I've never heard of Jack before this and yet ... I wish I had.

Thanks for this blog. Not just for the gear and the trips and the thoughts but also for having the courage to put up the humanity side of life as well.

Stay strong and take care.

Anonymous said...

i really appreciate your blog. As a new ice climber it's given me a lot of great insights.

Question: you said that both of Jack's tethers blew when he slipped. If that's the case, do tethers give you a false sense of security that they will catch you if you do slip?

Would it instead be better to clip a quick draw to your ice tool and clip the rope to the draw as protection while you're putting in the screw?

Dane said...

Jon and I talked at length about what he thought happened. It is all speculation on our part as to what actually did happen. The BD tethers Jack was on had inverted biner gates on one or both biners, can't remember which. I have used the BD tether and seen the come off the tools others used as well as my own. Metal to metal contact is not a good idea from my experience. The webbing on both tether lines was intact how ever.

Generally any commercial tether will catch a slip and stay intact. Even BD's. It takes a decent load to snap the nylon straight away but it does happen. The tethers are not rated very high...usually only a couple hundred pounds. I still use tethers but there are a lot of ways to add extra protection while placing a screw. Grivel Speedy screws, rope over your axe, a QD on the tool? Tethers make the most sense to me but wire gate biners are a bad idea, as are really weak teather lines IMO. Always good stuff to keep in the back of your mind.