Tragedy Close to Home

Contributor and friend Mark Jenkins has a close call with an avalanche. His partner is killed.

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On Friday, January 2nd, Keith Spencer (45) and Mark Jenkins (50) the well-known adventure writer for National Geo, Outside – and a long-time Field Editor alumni here at Backpacker – were climbing The Main Vein (WI IV), a 900-foot, frozen waterfall in the South Fork of Shoshone River Canyon southwest of Cody, Wyoming.

As the pair reached the bottom of the last pitch, they were struck by a massive avalanche. Jenkins survived because he was sheltered under an ice bulge. Spencer was killed instantly.

Snow in the South Fork is usually just calf deep, because it sits east of Yellowstone National Park in the rain-shadow of the Absaroka Range. But 16 inches had fallen there recently, and gale winds from the north had piled stiff, brittle cornices onto the rim of Ishawooa Mesa. Much of this ‘starting zone’ avalanche terrain is 3,500 feet above the canyon road, out of sight from valley-bottom scouting efforts.

Jenkins began the Vein’s final headwall by leading 115 feet up the 4th pitch and placing two ice screws beneath a bulge. Spencer, who had recently soloed 8,000-meter Cho Oyu in Nepal (round-trip in a day from Camp II), was seconding to the belay and 15 feet below Jenkins when he hollered “avalanche” in what Jenkins described as a “nonchalant” voice. (The pair had been hit by a small spindrift slide earlier.)

Unfortunately, the slide quickly turned into a huge roar that Jenkins described to a Cody Enterprise reporter as like “placing your head against a railroad track as a freight train blasts by.”

When the slide cleared, Jenkins was still attached to the belay, pummeled but O.K. A full length of rope had been pulled through his locked-off belay device, which was self-equalized against two, deeply set ice screws. (A well-placed screw can hold 5,000 or more foot pounds.)

Jenkins rappeled the length of the rope to find Spencer dead. An aerial overflight revealed that a ridgetop cornice had released naturally, leaving a fracture line a quarter mile across and five to ten feet thick. At the Main Vein headwall, 1,500 feet below, all this was funneled into a 30-foot-wide gully. According to local climber Aaron Mulkey, avalanche danger remains high in the South Fork.

Our condolences go out to Spencer’s family, friends, and especially “Marco”, who had a very narrow escape thanks only to luck combined with good climbing habits. I just got done talking with him on the phone, which brought to mind that I’ve talked on the phone with too damn many friends like this over the years.

One thing Marco and I yakked about was how backcountry tragedies can happen to you, and they’re never 100 percent preventable. Whenever you go on an adventure (or the morning commute, for that matter) there’s a background level of risk that never goes away, no matter how experienced you are or how sound your judgment.

It’s not morbid to keep that in mind. Challenge, wilderness and adrenalin are the spices that separate a life worth living from the bovine feedlot existence of modern society. But mortality awareness should make us all cautious, even hyper-attentive, when engaging in those run-wild activities we all love so much. Luck, combined with good climbing policy, worked for Marco. If he hadn’t placed his belay in the sheltered right side of the couloir, if he hadn’t buried two full-length screws and equalized the belay brake directly off them, this would have been a double fatality.

You see, in the long term – and it’s all about the long term – the key to recreational survival is about not letting up, never getting careless, building good habits into cell-level reactions that carry you through extreme times, or weekend adventures that suddenly turn serious.

So pay attention. Life is a game we all play for keeps every day, and there’s no buy-back-in if you go bust. What you put in your pack, how you adjust the rear view mirror, where you place that ice screw, can indeed make the difference between life and death.

The other thing we talked about is how adventure tragedies don’t just happen to those involved. They radiate out like a shock wave through family and friends. Seeing the internet tributes and photos from Keith Spencer’s friends makes that very clear. His passing leaves a hole in many people. Play safe out there. –Steve Howe