Surviving An 80-Foot Whipper — On Ice

In mid-December, I went to the ever-pleasant “South Fork” just outside of Cody to find big frozen ice formations, climb them, drink beer with my buddies, and overall have a good time climbing. We managed all those items and on top of that, we discovered that a 10-centimeter “stubby” ice screw will hold a huge fall.

I thought a lot about not telling this story. I thought about not telling my wife about it. I grew up climbing in the “leader must not fall” camp of traditional climbing philosophy. All you ever hear (and for good reason) about ice leading is that the leader must not fall. I’m finding that most ice climbers I know only have one lead-fall experience or none at all. On this crazy day, I witnessed a huge leader-fall and when I say 80 feet, I’m not exaggerating. It could have been more! Embarrassment is the real reason I didn’t want to tell this story but the more I thought about it, the more lame that sounded to me. Mick walked away from this unscathed. We walked away from it with our eyes the size of moon pies. Maybe if you are an ice climber, you’ll take away some added caution next time you are spiking up the gully above the pitch you just proudly dispatched. I know I will.

Mick Follari, Scott Rourke and I were a team of three for the day and we set out to climb the South Fork classics, “High on Boulder” and “Moonrise.” I led “High on” and we got a good look at the well-formed “Moonrise” on our way down. Mick was keen to lead Moonrise. I set an anchor on the ledge with about six feet of tail so I could run away from any ice bombs coming my way. Mick led the pitch solidly as he always does and Scott and I were standing there commenting on how well he’d done after he surmounted the bulge at the top of the steep stuff.

As I was standing at the belay paying out slack I said to Scott, “That was awesome, no drama. Mick totally hiked that pitch”.

The next thing I heard was a loud set of yelling from above and I looked up just in time to see a body rocketing off the top of the ice-fall. I put my head down and locked off my ATC (belay device). A few seconds later I was dragged about 6 feet across the ledge as I watched Mick come to a halt about forty feet above me..

“Are you hurt?” That was the obvious question. “How bad?” Would follow that up.

“I’m not hurt.”

“Are you sure?” I had to ask. 

After a few loud laughs and commensurate “Holy sheep shits,” I snapped a few pictures to memorialize the craziest leader fall I hope I’ll ever witness.

After gathering ourselves up a little, Mick told us how it happened. He was using these first generation Petzl Nomics (no steel spikes on the pommels) and had put them over his shoulder as he was “no-hands” spiking his way up the slabby ice. After about 25 feet of that, one of his stomp-steps slipped sideways and quicker than a whistle, he was on his ass sliding with no tools to arrest the fall. Mick then proceeded to ski jump right off the end of the waterfall!

The Forensic Facts:

The rope situation:

We were using two half ropes. One of the two half ropes caught the fall.

The point of protection: 10cm Black Diamond Express screw. No Screamer (load limiter sling)/regular Petzl quickdraw

Sharp Objects: Mick’s Nomics took flying lessons and were nowhere near him during the fall or the arrest of the fall. Also, perhaps due to the gelande jump situation, I think Mick was airborne until the rope started stopping the fall. That no spikes contacted the ice totally averted a potential shattered set of Follari bones.

Dynamic Belay:By this I mean getting dragged six feet through the snow. I’m sure this reduced the load on the heroic stubby.

The Stubby: Mick’s last screw before surmounting the bulge was a stubby. I looked at it as I finished the pitch and the ice was cracked in deep vertical fractures around the screw— but it held. Mick had another screw about six feet below that one that I think would have been a great backup if the stubby would have popped or tacoed.