Lots of news and commentary has been published recently in regards to the recent accident on the Root Canal Glacier. In short, Christopher Lackey, a young man from Houston Texas, was camped on the Root Canal Glacier hoping to climb Ham & Eggs on the South face of the Mooses Tooth. KTNA (Talkeetna Public Radio) reports that sometime during the night a small earthquake triggered serac fall on the hanging glaciers that cling to the Eye Tooth / Bear Tooth ridge just above camp. Apparently the icefall was immense and debris poured onto the glacier and obliterated the entire camp. Only Mr. Lackey was killed - the other 3 climbers somehow escaped.
Sue Deyoe's story on KTNA released just after the accident is most informative. Listen to it below.
In recent years the rags and some guiding companies have been touting the Ham & Eggs route up the Mooses Tooth as a straightforward - albeit "moderately" difficult - route up a prominent Alaska summit (Climbing Magazine bills it as "an entrance exam for aspiring alpinists"). It's also becoming a route that gets guided quite often; just about every guiding company out there will find somebody to take you up the route.
While the rags and guides are touting Ham & Eggs as straight forward, the truth is you cannot escape all the objective hazards of the route. Icefall, rockfall and avalanches are always going to be a concern regardless of how many safety precautions you take. With as many people tromping up the route as we've been seeing lately (the day we climbed it in May 2010 there were 13 people on the route) it's only a matter of time before we see a bad accident due to rock or icefall in the couloir proper - or worse yet a bad fall due to cornice failure or slab avalanche on the summit ridge.
The West Ridge isn't much easier. Puryear's guidebook touts the route to the West Summit as a moderate climb - which it is. But Puryear's book takes objective hazards as a given and even though he makes a point of saying that that the route beyond the West summit changes drastically in character (from "fun" to mind boggling scary) he doesn't point out the hazards of reaching the West ridge proper which include ascending though a rather horrifying icefall (lovingly referred to as the "asshole of death" by a partner of mine during a 2002 attempt) followed by a really (really) crevassed icefall, a high consequence traverse across granite slabs covered in snow (which offers no protection opportunities) all topped with snow over ice on a wildly corniced summit ridge that gets worse the higher you go.
Technically you can't say this marks the first death on the Mooses Tooth since the climbers weren't actually on the mountain - but this certainly marks the first death in the near vicinity. The route that goes from the lower Ruth up the Root Canal Glacier has been the scene of at least one near fatal epic and of course various peaks and routes that line the Ruth have seen a total of 11 fatalities over the years. About the only thing you can say for certain about climbing in the Ruth is that if a route sees a lot of traffic it will [eventually] [see] [a] [fatality].
And with accidents comes the inevitable questions and armchair quarterbacking. Was this accident avoidable? Technically, yes, the accident could have been avoided had camp been placed further down the glacier. However the area where camp was placed has been used heavily ever since Roderick opened up the Root Canal landing strip in the 90s. A lower camp would have been safer - but the lower camp is also exposed to wind and weather and in the event of a storm it would be an uncomfortable place to camp whereas the usual site is sheltered by a small bump to the south, which breaks the wind. In other words it was avoidable, but until now climbers have been willing to risk the unlikelihood of massive icefall over the inevitable daily winds and weather. The serac fall was obviously larger than normal, but there have been reports of past avalanches of this magnitude and Google Maps even shows debris from the icefall extending out into the traditional camp. Given what we know now (a fatal avalanche event and clear knowledge of what that serac is capable of doing), I think most climbers would agree that it would be foolhardy to continue camping in this zone. This was not a freak event. The serac fall was predictable in hindsight and it will happen again, but hopefully not with people camped in the runout.
In short what I'm trying to say is that all sorts of things can kill you on the Mooses Tooth. For most alpinist this is a given. And if and when something happens then you can't write it off as "freak" or "unavoidable" accident. Rockfall, icefall and avalanches are all part of the game. You do what you can to mitigate the dangers but if you want to climb big mountains exposing yourself to objective danger is a given.
The season is just getting started in the Alaska Range and climbers from all over the world are passing through Anchorage. At least a handful of those climbers will be flying in to attempt the Mooses Tooth. All of them know what they're getting and reading about an accident won't make any of them change their plans. It might make some think a little more - but even the jarring sight of a body being sling loaded away by helicopter usually just prompts basecamp jokes among partners followed by solo introspection in the tent.
And so all I can really say is: Good luck to all this season. Be safe. Take good pictures. And most importantly, come back.
Note: this entry was updated on July 13th, 2011. Previously I had erroneously referred to the serac fall as a "hundred year event". An unnamed source familiar with the area contacted me and expressed concern at my language. According to him there have been two confirmed D3 size range avalanches in the area in the past 5 years. He also told me to check out Google Maps for photographic evidence of past events. He offered some sound advice in regards to camping at the traditional Root Canal camp:
Part of managing the risks in the big mountains is understanding what is possible from the objective hazards. Some people may continue to call this an acceptable risk. For myself, I wouldn't hesitate to travel underneath this serac. Camping under it for multiple days or weeks is an entirely different risk assessment that I would consider unacceptable. It goes back to the risk assessment formula: probability x exposure x consequences = risk. In this case, even though the probability is low, if you expose yourself long enough the overall risk becomes high.
My condolences to the wife and child of Christopher Lackey. At his funeral his family requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Mount Rainier National Park climbing education or rescue and search efforts. A family that can make a request as such after a mountaineering accident displays great strength.
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