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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 one

Jack, running out the first pitch of Curtain Call

By Jonathon Miller

It isn’t often that you get to become friends with your heroes.

It’s even rarer to be there when they fall.

I first bumped into Jack Roberts here and there over the years, at the crags in Boulder or at the Ice Festival.  He signed my copy of his new ice guide at the Ouray Mountain Shop, “Ice isn’t just for your scotch!”  I really got to know him when I moved to Telluride and started guiding.  Ice around Boulder had pretty much disappeared and Jack had started coming our way do some guiding as well for the same company.    We co-guided various trips and clinics together and it always amazed me that Jack seemed to consider me an equal.  Pretty quickly that work relationship turned into a friendship.  Eventually Jack started to stay with my wife and I for a month or two every season while he was guiding in the Telluride area. 

I have been struggling to overcome some mental issues while leading ice the last few years.  I had a rather nasty close call while soloing Stairway to Heaven in Silverton and it has been messing with me ever since.  Later on, trying to lead the same pitch with Jack and my boss I took my first ice lead fall.  I was gripped, over thinking, moving slow, over protecting, all in all a mental mess.  As I fell I thought to myself, “Ah shit, I just fell on Jack Freaking Roberts!”  Jack took it in stride and was totally willing to help me get back on the horse.  In fact insistent would be the right way to word it.    Jack and I would go out between trips and he’d coach me and remind me “This is supposed to be FUN!”  Bridalveil was supposed to be my getting out from the cloud climb.  He was going to lead the first two pitches and I would finish it out and deal with the exposure and all. 

Jack had come over to work and climb right after the New Year.  I had recently started a new job managing a local gear shop and hadn’t gotten out climbing a lot recently.  Jack hadn’t had a ton of guide work, but had helped with the Ouray Ice Festival  clinics and had been getting out climbing with friends a bunch.  He was looking and feeling strong, although he was fighting a little cold.  We hadn’t gotten out together this season yet, but made plans to get out and catch Bridalveil.  I was feeling good and ready to tackle the steep climb and prove to myself I could.  On the slog up the road Jack did complain a little bit about being cold all the time and that he felt like he was slower than he was used to.  He just chalked it up to getting older.  He wasn’t looking forward to turning 60 after all.  We talked about life and our wives, how lucky we both were.  Jack was looking forward to spending time with Pam in Spain that summer.  He felt like she was his greatest accomplishment in life.

Bridalveil was in good shape in January 2012.  There was a substantial cone at the bottom that reared up into steep climbing with some overhanging mushrooms leading to the second belay.  The second pitch looked steep and sustained, while the third looked a bit more moderate.  Overall the climb was fat and in good shape.

Jack took the first pitch in his usual style, methodical, clean and with little pro.  He put in one screw towards the top of the cone, another after traversing around to the left to better ice, and one more before traversing back right to the belay ledge.  I came up and found Jack with a big happy grin as he belayed me to him.  I told him how nice of a lead it was, and that I would have placed a couple more screws. He chuckled and we bantered a bit about how good the ice was and how nice the day was as I handed over the gear. 

As Jack took off on the next pitch I belayed off my harness tied in fairly tight to two screws.  He traversed out left 10 feet on the ledge from the anchor and then up about 15 for his first screw.  As usual for Jack he looked confident, collected and clean.  I snapped a photo of him right before he started moving up again.  I didn’t get his face, he was too focused on the task at hand.

Jack methodically climbed up another 20-30 ft before he stop to place another screw.  The climbing looked steep, but was in a bit of a dihedral feature.  Jack used an efficient sequence of stems, kicks, hooks and swings to move up.  The ice looked solid and clean, he didn’t knock down much as he moved up.  Jack cleaned a bit of ice and drilled his screw in.  I looked down at that point to get ready to feed rope for the ensuing clip.  That is when he fell.  I will always hear the yell.

Jack fell past me and past the ledge.  It was a 50-60 ft fall onto a single 17cm Grivel Helix.  As Jack flew past me I tried to pull in rope and braced for the pull.  As he hit the end of the rope I was pulled from my feet and came tight against the anchor.  I was terrified that the screw was going to pull with the impact. Everything held.  My first coherent thought once the chaos stopped was “What the hell just happened?”  That was quickly followed by yelling for Jack to see how he was.  I could not see him below me, the rope went past one of the mushrooms on the first pitch which blocked my view.  Jack didn’t answer my initial calls and I began to escape the belay.  At that point two hikers came around the corner.  I don’t know their names, and never got to meet them after, but I owe them a great deal of thanks.  I yelled to them to see if they could see Jack.  They told me he was upside down, but that he was moving.  At that point I could start to hear him moan a bit as well.  I told the hikers to call 911 and get a SAR moving.  They called and were fantastic in being a communication relay from that point until SAR was on scene. 

By now I had escaped the belay and started to rap down a couple of feet to get a view of Jack and the situation.  The first thing I saw was his foot peaking above a bulge of ice.  As I got a little closer Jack came around and started talking to me.  He told me to give him a minute to get himself turned around.  I heard a bit of thrashing and then he got upright.  I still couldn’t see him well, he was hidden by the bulge of ice.  I asked him how he was doing.  “I think I’ve dislocated my hip!”  I asked if he thought he hit his head and he said no. He also said that he didn’t know what happened, why he fell.  And that he was sorry.  Jack then said there was a ledge below him and asked if I could lower him to it.  That sounded better than hanging in space, so I clambered back up to the belay and re-rigged to lower Jack.  I lowered him down slow and when he got to the ledge he was able to put in a screw and clip off.  He yelled up that he was safe, but he that he couldn’t untie his ropes.   I tied off both ropes and rapped to him.  We were on doubles and I will always kick myself that I tied BOTH off.  I should have tied one and left the other free so I could pull it from below.  Hindsight is a bitch.

I rapped down to Jack and got established at the small ledge.  We were at the base of the main pillar, at the top of the cone.  I did an assessment of Jacks injuries and level of consciousness, he knew who he was, what we were doing, when it was.  Everything but what caused the fall.  He looked at me and said how sorry he was and “Jon, I’m going to die.”  Matter of fact.  I told him that he was crazy and finished my assessment of his back and body.  His chief complaint was his right hip, but he was also having difficulty breathing and his right hand was not functioning quite right. 

The hikers were still talking to 911 and so I passed on my quick assessment.  They told me that SAR was gathering at the parking lot and that they would be on scene as soon as possible.  They also asked if I was capable of a long line evac as there was a helicopter in the area capable of it.  Unfortunately there are cables above the falls that would make that impossible.  I also told them that I would continue self rescue as far as I could to speed things up. 

I asked Jack if he thought I could move him.  He was in pain, but game to give it a go. I anchored the ropes again to the new anchor after realizing that I couldn’t pull either of them.  I set up a rappel on a extension and hooked Jack to it with a sling.  I removed his crampons and tossed them down so they wouldn’t catch on anything.  I was worried about his hip and moving him, but more worried about getting him down, there isn’t a lot of medical assistance that can be performed while on the side of an ice fall. I cradled him as best as possible in my lap and began rapping us down.  It was a slow and painful process. 

Jack was able to go down a few feet at a time with me simul-rapping and holding him.  Too much jostling was very painful, and his breathing was difficult when moving.  I kept talking to him and we would go a few feet then stop so he could catch his breath.  Then a few more.  After 50ish feet I was becoming very concerned that I was doing more harm than good.  The pain was increasing and it was taking him longer to catch his breath each time.  Jack kept asking me to stop, to help him.  I kept telling him it was going to be okay, and that I was trying.

The hikers told me that SAR was 10 minutes out and I could hear the snowmobiles down the switchbacks.  My ropes were about 12ft short to hit the ground and they hung on a steep section just before the ground.  With Jack’s increasing pain level and difficulty breathing when we were hanging I made the call to hunker down on a tiny ledge in the ice about 30 feet off the ground and wait for more hands.  I figured we would be able to get him down more comfortably, safely and without causing any more damage with the proper equipment. 

I wrapped Jack in my jacket and we waited, just talking to each other.  Jack kept saying how sorry he was and that he wished he could tell me how he fell.  I kept telling him not to worry about it, we’d figure it all out later.  Within a few minutes the first two SAR personnel arrived on scene, acquaintances of mine Con and Karen.  They quickly climbed up to and started giving their assessment over the radio.  The rest of the SAR team began arriving in a trickle of continuous snowmobile laps dropping off more people and equipment. I continued to hold Jack and make him as comfortable as possible while they rigged a new lowering anchor and prepared to haul up the litter.  Jack had been steadily losing consciousness, at this point he would not talk to anyone but me.  His pulse rate was getting low and his color was pale.  He kept asking me to help him, that he couldn’t do it on his own.  All too quickly Jack stopped talking to me and was just mumbling. 

More and more SAR personnel were arriving.  They wanted to know if Jack need pain killers and what they could do to help, Con and Karen said no, we just need to get him to the ground fast.  The litter was being hauled up when I believe Jack died.  He just faded away in my arms.

I told Con and Karen that we were losing him and helped them get the litter up and in position.  It was cramped and dangerous on our little ledge, and both Con and Karen hung their own asses out there to get Jack into the litter and down as fast as they could. We got him in and Karen brought the litter to the ground.  Immediately Jack was swarmed by the team trying to revive him.  They did everything they could and worked him for over 45 minutes. (long past when they knew he was gone?)

Jack died of a Hemo Pneumo Thorax.  Blood from his broken ribs and subsequent internal injuries filled his chest cavity and compressed his heart and lungs to the point they no longer worked.  He had six broken ribs on his upper right back(?) side, and a dislocated and hairline fractured hip.  If he was going to have any chance, he needed immediate surgery to stop the bleeding and relive the pressure. The nearest surgical ward is a 30 minute heli ride to Montrose, more likely an hour to Junction.

After we had lowered Jack down, Con looked at me and said, “Jon. I’m so sorry, but I think he’s gone.”  I told him I already knew.

The rescue seemed to take an eternity.  In reality, the San Miguel Search and Rescue was on scene with Jack within 45 minutes of the 911 call going out.  He was on the ground within 90 minutes of the call.  I am still blown away by them, their speed, professionalism and their effort.  They took it badly and immediately debriefed to see what they can improve.  I can’t thank them enough.

Lots of questions, things I wish went different.  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 quickdraw 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.

I wish I hadn’t fixed both ropes.  I wish I pressed on getting him down further.  I wish we could have long lined him out of there.  The reality is that he would have died behind a snowmobile, or being worked on at the base, or maybe even in the ambulance.  Instead, he died in my arms in a beautiful place.  I think that was  better. 

I at least would like to think so. 

Many thanks go out to the San Miguel County Search and Rescue Team, EMS, Sherriff’s Department and Fire Department for all of their help and effort before and after the rescue.  They are all tremendous people.  Thank you to Will Gadd for prompting me to write this down shortly after the accident.  To so many people in the outdoor industry for their support after the accident.  To Josh and Tara Butson for being there.  To my wife, M’Lin for being my rock.  And to Pam Roberts, for understanding and being so strong for everyone, when we are trying to be strong for her.

Part two:  The Last Lesson



Jon Miller said...

Thanks for publishing this Dane. It's a little hard to see my words, but good at the same time.

Bruno Schull said...

Hi Jon. Thanks for writing and sharing this. I was once involved in an road accident where a friend of mine was killed, another very badly injured, and I think I can identify with some of your feelings. There are still things I regret doing/not doing during the response. You did your best. That's all you can do. And it sounds like now you are doing the most important thing, which is opening yourself to the world, if that makes any sense. Thanks again. Bruno.

Jim Davidson said...

Hi Jon

Thank you for being so brave and forthcoming by sharing this difficult story. By doing so, you honor Jack and the giving spirit of the climbing community.

As fellow climbers, we share in the sadness. Like you, I have helped save a few people in the mountains, and I once was unable to revive an injured friend and partner while climbing. From my perspective, you did an excellent job under very complex and difficult circumstances. I wish you peace, and I hope that in time, you will always remember Jack with a smile - Jim Davidson

rob said...

Great piece, shared on FB. Well written, thoughtful, and brave. Be proud. Jack would've been. I only met him a few times...but a gentleman and kind to a less experienced and less talented climber. He's missed and your story's a fitting tribute. Good job.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting.

Jones said...

An important, sad story, expressed fittingly, for the benefit of us all. Well done.

Plaidman said...

Thanks for posting this man. Well done.

You did all you could do in the moment. None of us were there so we can not second guess your efforts.

I am sorry you lost your friend. All the best.


Marty Garrison said...

Thank you so much for this post.

Kevin Craig said...

Thanks Jon for your courage in providing this previously unknown information around the accident. Jack's loss will never be easy to accept, but knowing more about the circumstances does help. Incredibly difficult, I have no doubt. You certainly did everything you could and were a good friend to the end. No one could ask any more.

Ed Keller said...

Thank you for writing this. I climbed in the Valley a little with Jack in the 80s. I was a kid then, he was such a generous climber/mentor/partner. Since then I hadn't seen him in years... but been in touch via email/FB with him and Pam. >>> You were in a super tough situation- and we all thank you for being with him like that in the end, present and focused. You did it well, let's remember his spirit and sharp eyes and his love of his people & of climbing. Abracos-

Jon Miller said...

Two years today. Going up to Bridalveil today with Pam, my wife and a few others.

Miss ya Jack!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

Long time reader.

Unknown said...

As a fellow ice climber stories like this really put things into perspective. Thanks very much for sharing what must have been a very difficult story to tell.