Spring; It's Change You Better Believe In

Brief thoughts on seesaw meteorology and two instructive accidents

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Talk about the volatile season! March is supposed to come in like a lion, and go out like a lamb, but I’m not seein’ much of the lamb deal. On Saturday it was so hot and sunny I got cooked out of my wicking layers and came back with absurd red tan lines thanks to my sternum strap. The next day a snowstorm blew through so hard it snapped two 100-year-old evergreens in the middle of town, destroyed two sheds, and flipped a parked car. That was just wind. No twister needed.

According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, which ranks wind speed according to its effect on land and water, little Torrey town probably saw Force 12, hurricane-level wind gusts of 75mph. And it hasn’t settled much since then. Yesterday was warm. Now it’s snowing again. I’ve got flip-flops and puffy gear strewn all over the place trying to choose which spacesuit to wear from moment to moment.

The upshot: All you pilgrims getting ready to descend on Southern Utah for Easter warmth better bring full shell gear, a sturdy tent, and maybe even goggles. Expect one windy day in three.

I was waiting for some interesting rescues before posting. Aside from the depressing string of kayak drownings and the usual background static of hikers getting briefly lost on short trails, nothing much was happening. Then two instructive incidents popped out of my news feeds:

New Zealand Tramper Self-Rescues After Eight Days Injured

On March 20th, experienced hiker/scrambler Matthew Briggs, 33, was climbing near the Douglas Glacier on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island when he took a 17-foot fall off a cliff band and broke his ankle, one wrist, and put huge gashes in his back, butt, and legs. At the time, Briggs thought he might also have broken ribs. He managed to make a compression bandage from his t-shirt to control the bleeding.

At that point the tough, experienced hiker began looking for his PLB, and realized he’d either lost or forgotten it. Since he was out for eight days, Briggs knew that friends wouldn’t alert rescuers for more than a week. He retrieved gear from a stream where it had tumbled, and set up his tent and sleeping bag. With him was a small border collie, Little Dog. Briggs put himself and the dog on half rations, and used salt water rinses to ward off infection in his injured leg (way smart).

In the distance, Briggs could see the Horace Walker Hut, one of New Zealand’s “Doc” (Department of Conservation) huts that were originally built for government hunters trying to rid the island of introduced possums and red deer. Many of these huts are in extremely remote, hard-to-reach areas and may be visited only a handful of times each year. The Douglas Glacier/Fox Glacier region of the South Island’s west coast is one of the ruggedest, rainiest spots on earth, known for tangled forests, steep terrain, massive post-storm flash floods, and loose glacial moraines created by the rapid shrinking of New Zealand’s icefields.

After a week passed and the rations were running out, Briggs decided to break for the hut. He fashioned crutches out of his tent poles, then took two days to crawl down 3 kilometers of glacial moraine. About the same time, authorities were beginning to look for him, and had difficulty finding where his car was parked. Briggs route had taken him far from the parking area, and a search would have taken weeks, according to authorities. Fortunately, Briggs encountered two hunters camped at the Walker hut. They hiked 13 hours to notify authorities. Briggs was evacuated by helicopter and underwent surgery for his injuries. The salt water rinses apparently worked; His wounds were not infected.

While Briggs was clearly tough and prepared (he refused pain killers when evacuated), police criticized him for wasting their time by not leaving a more detailed itinerary. Briggs himself readily admits he should have left more information, but noted that he thought the PLB would have that taken care of. (Readers should know that constables in New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. are often very critical of the subjects in any recreational rescue, deserved or not.) Regardless of finger-wag details, this incident shows just how long an injured person can survive with a cool head and the right gear – And just what kind of epic anyone faces if they’re injured near the beginning of a long trip without emergency signalling capability.

Ice Climber Craters Near Vail and Survives

Last Saturday, March 21st, Chris Boratenski, 31, of Evergreen, Colorado took a 72-foot fall off the Rigid Designator, a free-hanging ice pillar that is clearly visible south of I-70, just upcanyon from the Vail golf course. Boratenski had led the pitch, then run the rope straight through nylon anchor slings at the top of the climb before rappelling back down.

His two companions then climbed the route as a ‘pulley-style’ top rope climb, where the rope runs from the climber, up through a locking carabiner at the top anchor, then back down to a belayer on the ground. Climbers are typically lowered back down via this pulley system rather than rappelling, simply because it saves the time of untying and re-rigging. Unfortunately, Boratenski had not run the rope through a carabiner or metal descending ring; Instead, it was sawing back and forth against the anchor sling, nylon on nylon.

Boratenski climbed the Designator a second time while being top-roped. As he was being lowered back down, the nylon sling snapped and he cratered, landing on his back after a 70-foot plunge and cartwheeling another 30 feet down the landing slope. After being evacuated by SAR personnel (the approach to the climb is a straightforward 300-foot slope), Boratenski underwent serious surgery for nine broken vertebrae, a broken rib, and a collapsed lung. He’ll be in a full back brace for at least 8 weeks. While a “complete recovery” is expected, no one ever really recovers from injuries like this.

Boratenski made –and admits– a very serious, climbing 101 error: Running the rope directly through nylon webbing at the top of the climb. When a moving rope is loaded and run back or forth over a sling or other rope, the weight and friction WILL saw right through the stationary nylon due to friction and heat. In this case, cold temperatures, snow, and wet nylon probably allowed the sling to hold until the third lower. In hot, dry summer conditions it probably would have parted on the first round

The moral: Always use a carabiner or descending ring. And never trust nylon slings you find in place until you’ve thoroughly examined and tested them. It’s common for climbers on popular routes to set rappel ropes straight against nylon slings and then rappel, since the rope and sling aren’t sawing against each other during the rappeler’s descent. However, once the rope is pulled over the sling for rope-retrieval, the remaining sling sits in place, a damaged and weakened hazard.

So beware. Safety is always in the details, like not forgetting your beacon, and paying very close attention to climbing rigs. Stay safe. –Steve Howe

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