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Fatal Accident on Crestone Needle

by Cy Cantrell

Many of us heard about the accident on Crestone Needle, Colorado last August that claimed the lives of two experienced mountaineers, Duane and Linda Buhrmester. Media accounts of this accident did not provide enough detail for those of us who regularly visit above timberline to learn how we, and those whom we lead, can improve our safety odds in our wilderness adventures. The bottom line is that scree slopes can be dangerous, even for those of us who never engage in technical climbing.

The most complete analysis of the accident is contained in a Web posting by the Buhrmester's older son, Michael, who is also an accomplished climber and mountaineer. According to Michael's summary of what he learned from Custer County Search and Rescue, Duane and Linda were completely buried by an apparent debris flow in an area of talus and scree near the base of the Crestone Needle, not far from their tent. Contrary to media accounts, they did not fall during a technical part of the climb. Instead, the facts that they were found wearing their hiking boots instead of their rock shoes and that they were carrying their rope in a mountaineer's coil suggest that they were unexpectedly engulfed by a large amount of moving scree and talus in non-technical terrain.

The rule of thumb is that scree consists of rocks up to roughly the size of your fist that have fallen from a mountain and accumulated in a gully. Anything that has fallen off a steep slope or cliff and is head-size or larger is talus.

Those of us who have ventured near the tops of long scree gullies know that substantial amounts of scree may slump under our feet. As long as the slump does not grow into a cascade, we can descend quickly and, usually, safely. I have had some narrow escapes near the tops of gullies that end high on a ridge of a fourteener. Scree that is lubricated and destabilized by water can be especially treacherous. The water may come from copious snowmelt as well as a hard rain. Even on dry days, rocks may spontaneously fall from loose areas high in gullies.

Some visual clues can help you assess the safety of a debris slope. From a distance, see whether the debris includes areas that look as if a giant glob of thick batter has flowed down the slope. If so, the debris slope has probably undergone large-scale movement recently. If there is no vegetation growing among the rocks, and you cannot see any lichen on the larger rocks, that is additional evidence that the material on the slope moves frequently. Above all, stop and listen for falling rocks for a few minutes, and use some common sense as you descend. If the material on the slope slumps alarmingly under your feet, stay at the edges, near sold rock. And, given that even superb mountaineers may misjudge the safety of a scree slope, it might be best to sit out a downpour rather than try to "scree down" quickly. You don't want to get to the bottom too fast.

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