This summer, one of our members was killed near the top of Mt. Assiniboine.
It was August 12, a beautiful day, and the north-side standard route was dry. Five parties set out early from the Hind Hut to climb the mountain. Our friend, let’s call him Vic (the Victim) and his partner, I’ll call him Fred (his Friend–I actually don’t know who he was, just a student from Toronto, met online, with little climbing experience) were the first away, at 5:30, after a good rest at the hut, granted by strong wind the previous day.
At least two of the five parties were Guides with single clients, and all made good progress, and were working their way through the upper half of the north ridge by 10 am. Two of the parties passed Vic and Fred before they reached the Grey Band at about 11,500ft (3500m): a pair of amateurs from Toronto reached the summit and were returning, while one Guide and his client were also above that short obstacle when Vic got to its base. At age 59 and with some health and physical problems, he was slowing down and a bit unsteady. Fred, being younger and more energetic, had already scrambled up the Grey Band, carrying their rope, and was watching Vic below and asking whether to drop him an end.
Just then the Toronto pair came down from the summit to the top of the Grey Band and were asked what they thought about a belay: they said they had done the whole mountain without using their rope. Then they descended the Grey Band and continued down. So Vic declined the belay and started up the grey rock, a well-featured and moderate wall about 4m high, with ‘a couple of moves’. A handhold pulled out on him, he grabbed for another, that also pulled out, and he fell backward a short distance, then rolled some 60m downslope to a dip just above the Red Band.
Vic suffered a broken neck along the way and died on the spot. The Guide above the Grey Band helped Fred to descend the step, and at least with all the Guides on the route, good communication was available, so Rescue was called for quickly. Rangers responded by helicopter from Canmore, and Vic and Fred were flown off the mountain. The remaining three climbing teams reached the summit and descended successfully.
Vic was not a novice climber at all, as he had been at it for at least 18 years, and so much more experienced than Fred, but both showed a surprising lack of awareness of the danger of exposure: greenhorns are usually very cautious in that regard just because of their inexperience coupled with a natural instinct for self preservation, and most experienced climbers are naturally cautious through having been through a wide range of climbing situations and incidents, and having had ample time to think over the possibilities: options and consequences.
1. In this case, ego may have played a part in Vic’s decision to solo the step, but should have been tempered by a self-awareness of his tired condition, never mind the exposure.
2. Even though ‘junior’, Fred apparently was concerned about Vic’s ability to manage the difficulty of the Grey Band, and should clearly have been more forceful, and belayed him.
3. The Toronto team also present an appearance of being more interested in their own superiority, having reached the summit first and that through not having ‘needed’ to use their rope, but in fact they also were incompetent in not recognizing the dangerous situation developing in front of them, essentially ‘egging on’ someone less capable, to follow their reckless lead.
4. Taking someone else’s advice is a good idea when the advice is to be MORE cautious, but is best avoided or at least reconsidered seriously when it’s to be LESS cautious.
5. Finally the most iconic images of climbing and mountaineering still include ropes, and that for the very good reason that they routinely avoid disaster by making dangerous terrain safe. But obviously a person must be tied in and belayed for the rope to protect him.