Did Gusty Winds Cause a Fatal Climbing Accident at Grand Teton National Park?

Grand Teton is a magnet for climbers, but danger lurks there, even for experts like George Gardner. NPS photo.

Investigators may never know for sure why 58-year old George Gardner, a climbing guide with nearly three decades of experience, fell to his death while free soloing a route in Grand Teton National Park that was well within his capabilities. The only thing they know for sure is that the free solo climbing like George Gardner was doing leaves no appreciable margin for error or misfortune.

If you’ve watched rock climbers in action, you know that they almost always wear a harness that is clipped to a kernmantel rope and used with related fall-arresting gear. Working in pairs is the norm, since a partner managing the rope from a secure belay adds an important measure of safety. When everything works the way it is supposed to, and it almost always does, a climber who peels off the rock falls only a short distance before the rope arrests the fall. It is this protection that has made modern climbing a relatively safe sport, and its sport climbing variant a highly athletic “dance on the rock.”


Free soloing
, also known as free solo climbing, does not employ this scheme. In its pure form, free soloing requires that a climber go it alone and forego the normal protective measures. He or she relies only on physical strength, climbing skill, and mental discipline to prevent a lethal fall. This leaves no appreciable room for error or misfortune.

On a very difficult route, such as a long and steep one with an overhang at the crux, a lone climber may elect to combine free soloing with free climbing and aid climbing. That is to say, the lone climber may choose to climb some parts of the route – presumably the easier ones -- without protection, while free climbing other pitches (using fall-arresting gear) and aid climbing the crux (where holdless or overhanging rock compels the use of equipment that provides support/rest and aids in the ascent). To see an example of these mixed techniques in action, visit
this site.
and watch a video clip of Dean Potter doing a solo speed-climb of the classic Nose route on 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Fans of the “Man vs. Wild” series on the Discovery Channel have seen Bear Grylls free solo many a rock face.

If watching free soloing doesn’t make your palms sweat, you’ve got stronger nerves than I do. I look at it and think: “Do these guys really understand how dangerous this is?”

Of course they do. Free soloists understand the dangers better than you or I can ever understand. Their lives depend on knowing exactly what they are doing, and it is exceedingly rare for them to make a serious mistake.

But stuff happens. In 1993, for example, renowned British free soloist Derek Hersey fell to his death while attempting to free solo Sentinel Rock (opposite Yosemite Falls) at Yosemite National Park. Other climbers have died while free soloing, but not as many as you’d think (and none at Yosemite since 1993).

So, why did expert climber George Gardner fall to his death while climbing alone last Saturday? It’s unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure. It was what is called an “unattended death,” and it occurred under conditions that frustrate investigators.

Gardner, a resident of Ridgeway, Colorado, had some pretty impressive credentials as an alpinist and mountaineer. He had climbed many peaks in North America, South America, Europe, and the Himalayas, and his resume included such toughies as the southwest face of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain (28,169 feet). An American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) Certified Alpine Guide, Gardner had 28 years experience as a climbing guide, including 17 years with Exum Mountain Guides (founded 1926). You would feel safe with this man on the mountain.

On Saturday, July 19th, Gardner and several other Exum guides took a group of clients, including youths from Wilderness Ventures, to their Lower Saddle base camp at Grand Teton and got them fed and settled in. The group was scheduled to climb the next day. For detailed information about climbing routes and conditions at Grand Teton, see this site.

At around 5:00 p.m., Gardner left to do a free solo of the Lower Exum Ridge route. He had told his companions he would climb only as far as Wall Street and then return to spend the night with the group at the Lower Saddle base camp. No one was concerned about that. It isn’t unusual for guides to climb on their own after getting their clients settled into base camp, and the rated difficulty of the Lower Exum Ridge route (5.7) was comfortably within this climber’s abilities.

Gardner didn’t return before dark as expected, but there was no good reason to think that he was in trouble. The group at the base camp had seen the headlamps of a party of climbers descending the Upper Saddle route and assumed that Gardner had linked up with them, perhaps to provide assistance.

When the group awoke at 3:00 a.m. Sunday to start making preparations for the day’s climb, Gardner’s continued absence took on ominous meaning. He was reported missing, and the Teton Interagency Dispatch Center (TIDC) was duly notified. Park rangers immediately began coordinating a search and rescue operation, and an interagency contract helicopter was requested.

It was the Exum guides who spotted Gardner’s body on the Lower Exum Ridge -- or to put a finer point on it, on a ledge leading to the base of the Direct Exum (but beyond the initial chockstone chimney pitch). Climbing to that place, they confirmed that he was deceased and the operation switched from search and rescue to recovery and investigation. After a delay caused by lightning in the area, a helicopter short haul was employed to take the body off the mountain.

Rangers continue to investigate the accident, but hold little hope for determining the exact cause of this unattended death. The physical evidence suggests that Gardner fell from one of the upper pitches of the Lower Exum Ridge route. He was wearing a climbing harness and had protection gear with him, but there was no evidence of equipment failure.

Grand Teton Public Affairs Officer Jackie Skaggs told me that investigators have shown a keen interest in records obtained from a weather station installed at the Lower Saddle base camp. These records reveal that a “substantial and atypical” wind gust of 60 mph occurred at 6:00 pm on the day of the accident --that is, about an hour after Gardner left the base camp to begin his solo climb.

A 60 mph gust is gale force and then some. Being just 12 mph below the hurricane velocity threshold, a gust of that strength can be expected to take down big trees if it comes through your neighborhood.

Did this sudden gale force wind have something to do with George Gardner’s fatal fall? The investigators know that it certainly could have, but whether it actually did will probably remain a matter for speculation.

Investigators faced the same basic problem while trying to solve the puzzle of Derek Hersey’s fall from Sentinel Rock at Yosemite. There was unexpected rainfall while Hersey was on the cliff face, and that capricious weather event surely could have made the rock too slippery to grip.

Hazards of the capricious sort are an integral part of climbing and mountaineering, and the long list of fatalities attributable to them includes many world class climbers. A slab avalanche killed Alex Lowe. Mugs Stump, in whose honor a major alpine climbing award is named, was standing next to a crevasse on a Denali glacier back in May 1992 when the lip collapsed without warning, dumping him into the void and burying him under tons of cascading ice and snow. Lots of similar stories involve fatalities caused by rockfalls, sudden snow squalls, collapsing snow bridges or cornices, toppling ice blocks, and other objective hazards.

Some have said that spending a lot of time on cliffs and mountainsides is like playing Russian roulette with a many-chambered revolver. Given the nature of the risks, it’s just a matter of time before something really bad is going to happen.

Others may say it’s just karma, pointing to the fact that some expert climbers have been killed in car accidents or by other mundane hazards of daily life. One world class mountaineer died in the Oakland Firestorm of 1991. Daryl Hatten, a well known British Columbia climber, died in August 2004 when he fell out of a tree while trying to rescue a cat.

If you are going to die anyway, why not die doing something that you love? This is a thought that brings at least some small measure of comfort to the family and friends that George Gardner left behind.

Comments

Lest readers forget, Dean Potter is the guy who recklessly climbed Delicate Arch at Arches National Park in 2006, possibly damaging it and causing the NPS there to ban all climbing of arches named on USGS quads.

Here's a link to Outside Magazine's story on the incident: http://outside.away.com/outside/features/200606/dean-potter-delicate-arch-climb-1.html

You're right, SaltSage. That cute little trick cost Potter his Patagonia sponsorship and the respect of many climbers and environmentalists, including me. He's still a damn fine climber, though. What do you suggest we do with a guy like that?

The reason not to free solo is because it's an incredibly selfish endeavor. There are other people in the world who depend upon you, or at least love you. Engaging in such an unforgiving pursuit ignores the consequences to others.
As to "if you're going to die anyway, why not die doing something you love" - that also ignores the unforgiving nature of free climbing. If I never free climb, the chances that I'll die in a free climbing accident are zero. I may die in a car wreck, but my chances of death at an early age go up astronomically if I add the risk of free climbing on top of the common risks most people cannot avoid.

My husband is, in my opinion, an extreme risk-taker, and it tears my heart out everytime I stop at a the end of the trail, and he goes on, beyond the guardrail, beyond the marked outer trail, out on a ledge or up the crevasses and cracks and out of sight. Wind, rain patter, nothing stops him from pushing on. He's usually lugging a camera, and cares more about the lenses than his own well-being, and he's in real need of new tread on his boots. If he had formal training, and good gear, I'd feel better. I just hold my breath, my heart in a tight squeeze, until he re-emerges from his far-flung pursuit. I've tried to secure a promise that he won't do these things, and initially he agrees, but once he's there, he breaks the promise. He'd even pretended to scare me a little, teetering on the edge of a ledge, which I find cruel and out of character, normally speaking. In our last trip, I reached the end and turned my back to him, and pretended to be interested in something else. I can't bear to watch. But then he calls to me, several times, and I have to turn around lest he do something even more outrageous to get my attention. I've expressed all this to him, to no avail, and I post it here so other risk-takers might consider how loved ones feel. I know I'll lose him someday. It's hard to live with that knowledge.

Anon, your anguish comes through clearly in your post. I hope it will do some good. And perhaps, if your husband reads it -- sees it in print -- some of it might soak through.

Risk taking like that is probably closely related to the kinds of things that bring about addiction to subtances or gambling or any of many other self-destructive behavior. Have you considered trying to speak with mental health professional about your concerns.

Good luck. And don't give up.