Rockfall – A Lesson Learned in Mountain Safety

Miles Clark | ClimbingClimbing | Featured ArticleFeatured Article
The Martial Glacier zone of Ushuaia, Argentina. Red arrow = line skied. Red circle = where rock hit me.
The Martial Glacier zone of Ushuaia, Argentina. Red arrow = line skied. Red circle = where rock hit me.

On November 20th 2014, I went backcountry skiing in Ushuaia, Argentina by myself.  I’d skied in the same zone that Saturday, that Wednesday, and three times two weeks ago totaling 5 days skied in the exact same zone.  It’s springtime here and I was feeling very familiar with the zone and the conditions.

So confident and familiar that last Sunday, I decided not to bring any safety equipment.  No beacon.  No shovel.  No probe.  No rescue gear.  No first aid kit.  No helmet.  No goggles.  And I was alone.

The cliff that threw the rock at me that could have hurt me badly.
The cliff that threw the rock at me that could have hurt me badly.

Sunday was a cold spring day and the mountain was essentially a ball of frozen corn.  There was no chance of an avalanche in my mind.  The terrain was mellow and I was feeling familiar with it so I decided I needed no emergency gear of any kind.  I wanted to be fast and light but really, I was just being lazy.

About 15 minutes from the top of a 2 hour climb I was daydreaming, meditating, and actually thinking about my good friend Mike who had just passed in an avalanche in Jackson Hole last winter when… BAM!  Something slammed into my right ski and boot with a force I was completely unprepared for.  It shocked me back to reality instantly.

The core shot that the falling rock gave my skis today.
The core shot that the falling rock gave my skis today. Down to the wood. That’s a lot of force…

I looked around wildly for an explanation but the culprit had already vanished.  I quickly realized what had happened.  A rock had tumbled down off the cliff above me and to the looker’s left.  I felt I’d chosen a route well out of the way of any rock and icefall that might come down but today was special.  It was special because the snow was hard and a rock that normally would fall and lose steam and sink in the snow could today, if it was just light enough, skip and bounce and tumble and slam right into a climbing skier in the middle of a distant daydream.

On closer inspection, I found that my ski was missing a significant portion of it’s plastic covering under my boot.  The rock had given me a core shot down to the wood on the top of the ski.  The force the rock exchanged with my ski would have caused me some serious damage had it hit me in the chest or head.  If in the head, it could have been severely traumatic.

Ushuaia, it's mountains, and it's casino.
Ushuaia, it’s mountains, and it’s casino.

I reflected back to my decision to bring no safety gear that day and felt like an idiot.  Felt like a complete donkey.  Would my safety gear have done me much good if I had been hit in the head or chest?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I would have at least been prepared for the unexpected, which is exactly what unfolded.

I think that rock was sent down by my buddy Mike who I was thinking about.  I think it was him saying:

“Wake the fuck up buddy!  Don’t turn your back on the mountains!”

Thanks Mike.  I won’t turn my back again.


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11 thoughts on “Rockfall – A Lesson Learned in Mountain Safety

  1. I was eating at lunch rock at the bottom of Tuckerman’s Ravine in the spring, sometime in the 80s. The crowd on lunch rock watched the cliffs above and would all yell “ROCK, ROCK, ROCK” whenever anything broke loose – every 5-10 minutes. The path of the rocks was down past lunch rock, about 30 feet from the edge of the rock. As one rock started down, two guys were standing in the path of the rock, talking. The crowd yelled “ROCK” louder and louder, but the two guys must have been trying to shut out the noise, they never even looked up. In the end, the rock shot through the 3 foot space between them. Truly frightening.

    1. Whoa, thanks so much for sharing. A rock almost got me in Tanner’s Gultch in Utah last year. Terrifying…

  2. June 14 2000 top of the apron on devil’s castle a rock the size of a mini fridge landed on me pack that I was booting up next to. Nearly broke my ski in half. Never heard it coming. On second my pack was next to me the next gone. So lucky

    1. Whoa… that’s crazy scary. Thanks for sharing. Stoked you’re ok.

      thanks,
      miles

  3. That makes sense to always prepare for the unexpected. Like you said, having your gear would’ve kept you from being taken off guard. That’s why cities build rockfall infrastructure when a known risk is present near population centers.

  4. My last text message with Mike was asking him where his fucking helmet was in response to a picture of him on top of Glory Bowl, beanie-only. Shoulda asked about the air bag too.

  5. I was about to drop into Main Chute one late spring and just as I tipped forward, a rock the size of a volleyball cut loose and tumbled down the exact fall-line I was about to ski. Spring melt out dangers. glad you’re OK; sounds like pure luck. well, used one of those lives, buddy.

  6. we were driving down big cottonwood canyon in around 1995 or so and a car ahead of us was completely squashed by a massive boulder. the rock itself was the size of the car it rested on top of the car killing the passenger. no part of the boulder was even touching the ground just balanced on top. the passenger was with his mother. a mother lost her son sitting next to her destroyed by a giant rock. huge tragedy that day. the road was closed we turned around and went to molly greens and drank beer it was a dark and solemn occasion, imbibing just trying to make the pain go away. it sucked because no safety equipment will save you from a rock that big.. it was unseasonably warm like how it is right now be carefull out there take the bus!

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