Accident Report: Southern Alberta's Sofa Mountain
Editor's Note - On March 13, 2018, two Southern Alberta ACC members summited Sofa Mountain via the East Face. The team began to descend the mountain and were eventually separated while attempting to find a way down. One of the party members fell from an anchor, hitting several ledges before settling on a talus field.
This report from Brad Hurkett outlines the details of the accident, an analysis for what may have caused the anchor failure along with contributing factors to the fallen climber's survival.
The injured climber is expected to make a full recovery.
- Start 9:00am
- Summit 3:47pm
- Accident 6:50pm
- Emergency call 6:55pm
- Emergency response 8:30pm
- Flight to Foothills Hospital 9:25pm
Two Southern Alberta – Alpine Club of Canada (SOAB) members climbed the snow gulley route on Sofa Mountain’s east face on March 13, 2018. The crew parked at the Sofa Mountain Trailhead parking lot, beginning their day at 0948 hrs. They approached the route using the summer trail before contouring across the Crooked Creek basin to the base of their climbing objective. It took the group 6 hours to summit (1547 hrs) and after summiting they took a break at the top, taking advantage of the warm, stable weather before descending. Their descent began at 1600 hrs, down the summit ridge with intention of travelling the normal descent route – northeast shoulder down back to the summer trail.
Once leaving the summit ridge, they began scrambling down the route’s upper cliff band on the north face. To negotiate the lower ledges on the upper cliff, they rappelled down the lower pitch to the talus slopes below. Once down, both members descended fall line, where they began to veer off course of the descent route. They scrambled 175 meters down before reaching the first of a series of ledges on the lower cliff band. At this point they decided to follow the upper ramp travelling west, thinking it would lead them to an easier passage to the basin below. They scrambled 150 meters across the ledge until reaching a steep, chimney feature that was flowing with snow melt water from the snowy slopes above. The group decided to rappel down to the lower ledge to circumvent the chimney feature and cross the water-filled channel.
Once across, they continued scrambling down several ledges before reaching another dead end, approximately 60 feet above the talus slopes that would lead to the basin below.
With the end of the climb in sight, low energy levels, and a long strenuous day, team dynamics started to deteriorate as the crew split up to investigate different options down. The trip leader remained on the ledge to find a suitable anchor to set a rappel while his partner looked for features to down climb. Eventually the partner found a steep ramp that sloped down to a small ledge that would lead her to a lower ledge before the slopes below. She shouted to the trip leader to inform him of the passage and began scrambling down it before confirming if the leader heard her. Once on the lower ledge she began looking for an exit to the slopes below when suddenly she heard a loud scream from the leader above. She looked in the direction of the scream and saw the leader falling down the upper ledge (35 – 40 feet), before landing on top of the lower ledge, eventually rolling off the smaller ledge (12 – 18 feet), landing and cartwheeling 200 – 250 feet down the steep talus slopes below.
The partner reactively climbed down the lower ledge to the leader. Before reaching him, she called his name, but noted he was unconscious, and not breathing or moving. Shortly after she reached him, he had regained breathing and consciousness. At this point she called 911 for help using her cell phone.
Rescue services were deployed at 1855 hrs, ten minutes after the accident (1845 hrs). 911 services remained online to monitor the group until rescue teams arrived. Approximately 2030 hrs, STARS medivac arrived on scene, ten minutes before the rescue helicopter. Parks Canada’s safety technician crews were dropped off by the rescue helicopter at the bottom of the basin and hiked up to the group. Rescuers conducted first aid on the leader before immobilizing him in a boost bag and slinging him down to the medivac waiting in the basin below. He was loaded into the medivac at 2125 hrs and transported to the Calgary Airport where he was then loaded into an ambulance and transported to the Foothills Hospital where he was stabilised.
The leader sustained four fractured vertebrate, two cervical and two thoracic (C5/C6, C7 and T5 and T6) of varying degrees. He also sustained several broken ribs and sternum, several fractures in his scaphoid and contusions to his left radius and ulna (left arm), minor bleeding in his spinal column, and multiple lacerations and contusions to his head and legs. He underwent surgery on his vertebrate to stabilize the fractures and remained in the hospital before he was discharged on May 22. He is expected to make a full recovery.
The subject has no recollection of the fall or the events leading up to the accident, so the exact cause of the fall will remain uncertain. The subject’s partner was unaware of the rappel and did not observe what was used for an anchor or what made the fall happen. There was no damage to the rope and cordellete (anchor) and all knots remained tight and properly dressed. Based on the configuration of the rope and cordelette, we can assume that the subject slung the cordellette around a boulder or piece of bedrock; no hardware was attached to the cordellette and the rope remained through the cordellette loop. We can speculate that the cordellette rolled off the anchor or the anchor shifted or became dislodged, releasing the cordellette loop. The leader believes he might have slipped on the slippery rocks when starting his rappel which may have been enough force to make the anchor fail.
The severity of the leader’s fall was serious, and it is likely that the fall could have easily been fatal. There were several factors that were noted during the investigation that saved the leader’s life.
1 ) Personal Protective equipment:
The subject was wearing a climbing helmet and back pack (full of gear) during the fall. These items protected the subject’s head, neck, and spine on impact, especially on the ledge where he landed on his backside, with his head extended beyond the crest of the ledge. The helmet sustained significant damage on the back side where the subject’s head impacted the rock.
2) Impact zones:
The impact zone on the ledge was solid rock with some loose rock. Fortunately it was down sloped which likely reduced the impact of the subject’s fall. The lower impact zone was on a talus slope it too was steeply sloped (35 – 38 degrees) reducing impact. The lower impact zone consisted of fine shale and pulverized rock that produced a softer landing and likely absorbed his fall more than the larger blocky talus rock in the surrounding area.
3) Same day rescue:
The accident occurred late in the day which could have easily lead to the group having to stay overnight to wait for rescue. Fortunately, the group was in an area with cell service which resulted in an immediate rescue from the rescue services in Waterton and surrounding area.
The subject’s climbing partner was instrumental in the rescue. Her quick thinking and first aid kept the subject stabilized until rescue crews arrived on scene.