Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-11-11
Submitted By: Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston
Place: Flat Top Mountain, North Gully, Chugach State Park
State: AK
Country: USA
Summary: 1 Climber critically injured and 1 dog slightly injured

FLAT TOP MOUNTAIN AVALANCHE ACCIDENT

Prepared by Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston,

Alaska Mountain Safety Center, Inc.

November 13, 2000

Location: Flat Top Mountain, North Gully, Chugach State Park, Anchorage, Alaska

Date of Accident: November 11, 2000

Synopsis: One climber was critically injured and one dog slightly injured when caught and carried by a small slab avalanche triggered while ascending a steep, narrow gully.

Terrain Background: The accident occurred in a steep (? 45?) scree and rock gully less than 12' wide located at approximately 950 m (timberline is at 700 m) on the northeast side of Flat Top Mountain (1070 m). The gully, which originates at ridgecrest, is narrow at the top, but widens as it corkscrews onto an open 35? scree slope. Although Flat Top Mt. is a heavily traveled mountain any time of year, the north gully is not a standard route.

Weather Background: The weather at the accident site during the preceding three days consisted of high winds (35-75 mph), warm temperatures (high 30?s - low 40?s F), and freezing rain turning to dry snow. Most of the original snowpack sublimated or eroded during the storm except for in wind-loaded gullies. At the end of the storm, temperatures dropped and the rain turned to snow. Less than 3" (7 ? cm) of snow accumulated without wind, but at the end of the storm the wind stripped snow from ridges (O") and deposited it into the gullies (variable depths up to 60 cm [24"], but typically 15 cm [6"] or less). On the day of the accident, the winds were calm, temperatures were in the low 30?s (F), and the sky was partly cloudy. It was a nice day for hiking.

Snow Background: The area of the accident had virtually no snow except for a shallow layer of wind-deposited snow (soft slab depth 2 ? -12 cm or 1-5") overlaying a shear layer of 1-2" (2 ? -5 cm) of unmetamorphosed new, dry, cold snow. The bed surface was pencil hard and of unknown depth (probably less than 6 cm or 2.5"). This condition existed only in gullies and to the lee of rocks and ridges. Everywhere else was bare of snow and coated in ice. The initial area of fracture was small: perhaps only 3 m wide and 5-10 m long and the maximum depth of the fracture line was about 3 ? cm (1 ? inches) deep. Slab depth was probably 3-5" (7 ? - 12 cm), but unknown.

Victim Background: The victim was a 36 year old newspaper publisher who was in prime physical condition, an experienced outdoor traveler, and familiar with the route. He carried a day pack with a few extra warm clothes, water and food, and a cell phone. He has a reputation for being safety conscious and exercising sound judgement. His traveling companion was his dog. When found he was wearing a thin polypro undershirt, a medium weight polar fleece type shirt, wind pants, and 3 season hiking boots with gaiters. His hat, gloves, and pack were found later.

Report: On Saturday Nov. 11, 2000, Nick Coltman and his dog Boozer decided to get some exercise and do a fast hike up Flat Top Mountain via the back side - not a standard route but one Coltman had traveled many times before. Walking was easy because the snow was less than ankle deep most of the way and the tundra was blown bare in many places. The crux of the route is the last 100 meters to the ridge where the gully narrows and steepens through an S-shaped curve. The snow conditions, as Coltman entered this segment, were different (i.e., more unstable) than any of the previous route. Within a few steps the snow broke beneath him and sent him falling out of control down the gully. The slide occurred around noon. Scrape marks from his finger tips were found in the old bed surface where he had attempted to arrest his fall (he carried no ice axe). Coltman slid an estimated 60 m down the gully at high speed (estimated at 35-45 mph). As the avalanche gained momentum and distance it entrained additional unstable snow on the surface. Where the gully opened onto a 35? scree slope he was carried in soft slab debris another 120 m. In the process he was banged against many boulders lodged in the frozen scree and his dog was scraped and bruised. Debris in the runout zone was less than 30 cm (1') deep by 50 m wide by 200m long. The debris extended about 60 m beyond Coltman in a shallow arc.

Coltman was found in a vertical alignment lying on his back, arms out, legs twisted with his feet upslope and head downslope. His hands and head were bare. All ten fingers were white with frostbite. His head covered with blood. In his right hand, he held a cell phone. He was conscious of his situation, mildly hypothermic, complained of difficulty breathing, and had no feeling in the lower portion of his body. He said later, that he knew he would die if he couldn't reach his cell phone in the bottom of his pack. Somehow, with one lung collapsed and the other partially collapsed, a broken back and paralyzed legs, and frozen fingers, he managed to remove his backpack, retrieve his cell phone, dial 911, and describe his location and predicament.

Rescuers from multiple agencies and groups responded immediately to the Glen Alps parking lot in Chugach State Park. Within minutes, a Life-Flight helicopter lifted two paramedics and an avalanche/mountain rescue specialist to the top of Flat Top Mt, the nearest landing zone. They down-climbed to the site. When the first rescuer arrived approximately 45 minutes after the 911 call, Coltman was lucid, uncomfortable, resolved to stay alive, and worried about his fingers. He said he was sure his back was broken. A primary and secondary survey was performed, heat packs and clothing added, and a snow platform constructed horizontal to the slope. Coltman was carefully moved onto the platform and stabilized with whatever gear was available.

It was clear from the beginning that the most expeditious means of evacuating Coltman would be by using a helicopter sling hoist. Unfortunately, the Life Flight helicopter was not sling hoist equipped. In anticipation of this, a Pave Hawk helicopter was requested from the 210th Air National Guard. The request was approved, but they wouldn't be able to launch for an hour at the earliest. Meanwhile preparations were made for a ground evacuation which would require belaying the litter from equalizing anchor systems using rescuers as anchor points (no solid natural anchors existed). This was not the preferred option because of the additional time and exposure demanded of the gravely injured patient. Meanwhile, Coltman was becoming increasingly hypothermic and having difficulty breathing.

Eventually, the Pave Hawk arrived on site and as the two PJs were lowered with a litter on the winch cable, they started to spin. As the length of the cable increased, the rate of the spin increased. By the time they were nearing the ground, they were spinning out-of-control directly over the heads of the ground team, who were hunkered down in the 75-90 mph winds (from the helicopter rotorwash) trying to keep the patient from blowing away. Two ground team member were hit by the spinning legs and litter and one was knocked a short distance downslope. This was an avoidable near-miss accident that could have resulted in several injuries to rescuers and/or death to the patient, but placement of personnel using a sling hoist in the mountain environment is difficult at best, especially with blowing snow and no radio communication between air and ground teams.

Within 10 minutes the patient was secured in the litter and hoisted out with one PJ. Then the second PJ was lifted out and the patient transported to Providence Hospital. Ground teams cleaned up the area and headed back to the staging area. When Coltman arrived at Providence hospital he reportedly had a core temperature of 85? F.

Contributory Factors:

Several terrain, weather, snow stability, and human factors conspired to cause this accident. The terrain was steep and exposed. It afforded poor anchoring for the thin unstable slab created during the preceding night's snowfall and wind. What would be considered a minor instability of little consequence on a less exposed slope became critically important in the more exposed gully. When a small slab dishplated out from underneath the climber, it sent him tumbling over rough terrain and without an ice axe, he was unable to arrest the fall. Overconfidence, based upon experience on the same route under different conditions may also have played a part. In summary, this was a minor slab release in a high consequence terrain. Luck, the cell phone, the helicopters, the rescuers, and Coltman's will power and toughness all contributed to his survival.