Glaciers and Snowfields can be hazardous

Alpine mountaineering presents some great adventures, but it also has a few hazards we should be aware of, and understand how to recognize and deal with.

Spring and Early Summer snow fields here in Utah are great fun, and if we catch them in the correct condition, they provide easy access to the summit. One of my favorites ways is way for a cold snap, and then with and Ice Axe and a pair of Crampons, you can ascend to the summit with relative ease; then glissade back down.

BUT, beware, if you are unfamiliar with the under snow topography you could end up in a moat. There are two common features often miss-quoted; that is a Bergschrund and a Moat. They are very similar, except a “Bergschrund” it the crevasse that develops between the place where a glacier (we do not have any sizeable ones in Utah) pulls away from the snowpack on the mountainside, and the active glacier itself.

A moat it the crack or crevasse that develops between the snow and a cliff within the snowpack. Like glacier, but not to the same extent, snowpack move. The creep and glide to some extent, making room for crevasses to form next to cliffs. Also the cliff face is sometimes warmer that the snow, thus helping melt the snow.

While on a glacier it is not uncommon to feel them shift underneath your feet. In fact, one night, at 23:30 hrs, on Mt. McKinley we were awoken by the glacier shifting more seriously than I had ever experienced. I was about ready to try and go back to sleep when one of the team members was listening to the radio and heard we had just experienced a 6.3 on the Richter magnitude scale earthquake.

Whether on a glacier or a snowfield, locating your camp in a low-risk place is very important. We call it “being able to *Sleep During a Storm.” Had we located our camp in a bad place, one of maybe 25 to 50 avalanches the were set off by the earthquake might have ruined our night.

This is 14,000 feet on McKinley. The idea of “Sleeping during a Storm,” has to do with doing the work, like building wind walls before you need them. It is miserable to climb out of the tent in the middle of the night and deal with problems like gear blowing away, broken tent poles, or . . . The tent on the center-right came blowing by, with gear in it, while we were outside checking our wind walls. We caught it and staked it out for the owners, who came chasing after it.

Below is a place along the Aspen Grove Trail where a waterfall and a moat combine to create a deadly hazard. Three people that I know of have died in this one. Below you can see the Utah County Search and Rescue at work doing their best to minimize this hazard.

After the first accident, explosives were used to make the opening bigger, with a thicker edge as a preventative measure.

Below you can see a drawing I made to use in a brochure about safety; which I made available in my store, I also gave the Forest Service and the Park Service brochures, in an effort to prevent future accidents.

I used “cut and paste” the sort-of old fashion way, using an IBM Selectric typewriter to put together a brochure. Then I took a picture of the page, so it could be used for offset printing.

After carrying a few dead bodies off the mountain, and a few live ones, I wanted to do what I could to prevent accidents.  So I use my rough drawing skills and an IBM Selectric typewriter to layout a safety brochure that I made available to climbers and hikers. Today, desktop publishing makes things like this much easier. It shows how the snow was, on the underside of the above picture.

If approached correctly mountaineering is a low-risk activity.  Those who have earned their wilderness citizenship, or have been trained in the various aspects of the wilderness, will likely agree.   

I will go as far as to say many who enjoy this activity could benefit greatly, or maybe not, by attending.  It has been my experience that we pay for our training one way or another; either through years of practice and study or through formal training.  Good formal training, combined with experience, is a good way to avoid some other the more common pitfalls.  Like driving, or other elevated risk activity.  Knowledge often prevents things from escalating into something undesirable.  

When accidents occur, there can be knee jerk reactions. Both on the mountain and off the mountain. We often do better with 20-20 hindsight.  Here’s a prime example that came to mind. It occurred on Mt. Timpanogos a number of years ago. 

This is how I recall the details of the story, although I have not conducted a detailed investigation.  Either way, the story still supports the concept I am suggesting — be cautious in all of our activities.

A climber wanted to make a late winter/early spring climb of Mt. Timpanogos, via the Aspen Grove Trailhead.   He made his ascent on a Sunday, June 8th, 1980. ?-On June 9th, 1980, when he did not return home, friends and family went looking for him?  ?-Two brothers decided to climb the same side, or just happen to decide to climb the same side the next day?

I am not sure how high up they went, but on the way down they did what is common, they glissaded or slid down the snow. Well, on Aspen Grove side near the bottom one was glissading a ways in front of the other, and he disappeared into the snow.  He had fallen into a moat/waterfall, so the other brother rolled over and grabbed hold of some bushes and willows. 

Then the brother quickly descended the mountain to call for help. The Search and Rescue Team quickly responded.    Upon arrival, the team deemed it necessary to don wet suits and use technical rope equipment to descend into the moat.  Who wouldn’t? Icy water pouring in as you descend into an icy cavern. Upon reaching the bottom, they found the body, and the helicopter flew it to the bottom for a positive ID.   “It was the wrong body?!?!?”  Unbeknownst to them, the missing 26 year old Lambert, who had gone missing the day before, had fallen in the same moat!

The Sheriff’s SAR (Search and Rescue) Team quickly returned to the Moat and recovered the other body. 

If you do not know the under snow topography, the cautious way to descend a snowfield (the Smart way) is to use ropes and Ice axes.  With a rope you can stop falls. An Ice Axe can be used to probe for hidden moats/crevasses, used to arrest a fall, or arrest the fall into a moat or crevasse of a partner, provided you are connected with a rope.


Well, two years later a similar event, occurred in the same moat.  A person was sliding or glissading down, and fell in the same moat, and was killed. Now as an administrative person, “What should you do?” As often happens at administrative levels, when something like this occurs, they Closed Mt. Timpanogos down.   This may or may not have been the best choice, but from their viewpoint, which I can understand, they closed the mountain..  Even in high-risk survival and safety training, we teach that approach: STOP!  S = Stop T = Think O = Observe P = Plan. How we apply this depends on the situation.

Hearing that the Forest Service had closed the mountain made me question the action. Many mountains around the world are more serious, yet remain open. I was familiar with roped glacier travel and axe skills, etc. So I prepared a letter suggesting a person knowledgeable in alpine mountaineering could climb the mountain in a low-risk manner. 

It appeared that with the preventative efforts of the Sheriff’s SAR Team, and possibly my letter, the Forest Service changed their approach and opened the mountain a couple of weeks later.

This year, 2018-19 seems to have a more than average snowfall. Although the upper Aspen Grove Bowl, does not seem to have as much snow as the lower part? I have spent most of this winter in the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. I took this picture while with a friend ski touring in this area. Photo by d.s.hansen
The above avalanche path is the site where three snow boarders died, snow boarding during a period of elevated avalanche probability. One of the boarders was not recovered until spring.
Also, Provo Canyon has had a couple of avalanches coming down from the upper slopes of Slide Canyon, Just south of the top of Sundance. There is a good chance it may be easy to find hidden moats “accidentally,” and streams may be seriously swollen with spring runoff.
This is a picture I took at the Aspen Grove Trailhead, early spring. Note the red arrows coming of Elk Point. This is an avalanche runout path. Typically this path is more dangerous in the early to mid-winter time, but the only rule in avalanche forecasting is, “There are not absolute rules.” Notice the trees that an unusual ( over our short lifetime) avalanche stripped the trees bare! This area, at the wrong time, is way dangerous. Food for thought.

*Training is essential if a climber expects to use it effectively.

The following is what other News Reports and People commented about the above accident.


Utah, Mt. Timpanogos

This narrative and analysis will cover the accidents of both Richard Lambert, m.D., and Richard Weaver because of the ironically similar events.

On June 8, 1980, Lambert (26) left for a solo ascent of Mt. Timpanogos via the Aspen Grove trail. From film retrieved from his camera, it appears that he followed the Grade 3 route via Emerald Lake to the summit. In late summer, this is a well-prepared and well- maintained trail. However, due to a heavy winter snowpack and an unusually large amount of avalanche deposition, the route was 95 per cent covered with consolidated snow.

Lambert was apparently descending a 30°-snowfield in a natural wide drainage when he either lost control of his glissade or unknowingly crossed a thin area at the edge of a 100-foot vertical rock band. He apparently fell through the snow, plunging into a large, cavernous moat created by a six-foot wide, three-foot deep stream. He fell free for 75 feet into the stream which formed a 75–100-foot waterfall before it disappeared beneath the snowpack. Lambert was not reported overdue until 9:30 a.m. on June 9. The delay in the report was due primarily to the fact that he and his sister had been overdue in the same area the previous week and had walked out before a search was organized. His sister felt that he had probably spent the night at the Emerald Lake Shelter.

On June 9, 1980, Richard Weaver (26) and his brother Roger (18) followed the Aspen Grove approach to Emerald Lake. After reaching the lake they began a glissading descent wearing tennis shoes. Richard was several hundred feet below Roger on the same 30°- snow slope that Lambert had descended when he lost control and plummeted through the same opening leading into the large moat. He fell approximately the same 75-foot distance into the water and died around 10:30 a.m. When Roger saw that Richard was lost, he rapidly descended for help.

The rescue team responded to the search for Weaver without any knowledge of Lambert’s whereabouts. After finding a passage into the cavern, the team was able to locate a body in the stream at the base of the waterfall. Because the water greatly hampered visibility and created a very cold atmosphere, the team quickly removed the body without further search for articles, etc. At the base of the mountain, it was determined that the body was not Weaver but Lambert. A second descent into and search of the moat resulted in the finding of Weaver’s body underwater and 15–20 feet downstream. Both victims suffered major head injuries and both had compound fractures of upper and lower extremities. (Source: Dr. Richard Wallin, Salt Lake City, Utah)


Lambert was traveling alone and without an ice ax. Had he been reported overdue earlier, it is doubtful that the outcome would have been different except that Weaver’s accident might have been averted, as the United States Forest Service closed the area until the snows cleared. Weaver’s accident was cause in part by the fact that he was wearing tennis shoes and had no ice ax. We are all reminded by these accidents that traveling on spring snow slopes, with the ever present potential danger of streams underneath and moats, should be done with ropes, as one would in glacier travel. (Source: Dr. Richard Wallin, Salt Lake City, Utah)


Utah, Mount Timpanogos

On May 23, 1982, Terrence Brown (28) left his residence at 0700 to hike up Mount Timpanogos. The following day, at 1000, he was reported missing. His dog was found with his vehicle at the Aspen Grove trail head. A hasty search revealed he had fallen 25–30 meters into a large moat, probably while glissading. The spot was approximately where two people had died two years previously. (See Accidents in North American Mountaineering 1980.) (Source: Dr. Richard Wallin and Owen Quarenberg)


This accident illustrates the high perils of travel over snow in areas of buried runoff channels, buried high-angle rock and other hidden dropoffs. Only knowledge and a high index of suspicion can prevent such an event. Proper safety precautions, including ice-ax probing, knowledge of self-arrest technique, wearing a hard hat and, perhaps, glacier travel technique, best meet the demand. (Source: Dr. Richard Wallin, Salt Lake City)