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Two climbers die in fall from Horsethief Butte Crags, WA

Purpose and Description: The primary purpose of these reports and the Annual Report of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is to aid in the prevention of accidents.

Washington, Columbia Hill State Park, Horsethief Butte

On Sunday April 5, Tony Silva (30), a Gresham Oregon Police Detective, his sister-in-law Laura (26), and her husband, Bobby Silva, along with three young children, planned to set a top rope at Horsethief Butte, a sport climbing area popular with beginning to intermediate climbers from nearby Portland, Oregon, and towns in Washington on the Columbia River.

Horsethief Butte is characterized by many user traces and scrambles climbing up 25 to 50 feet to large flat weathered basalt overlooks. The Park has a “no bolt policy” because of the Native American culturally sensitive nature of this area.

The investigative report and photos show that Tony and Laura were linked together by the system they were constructing. If one fell, the other would be pulled off.

The report stated, “The anchor consisted of two stoppers placed in cracks at the top of the route with three separate loops of grey nylon webbing attached… The middle loop of webbing appeared to be the only loop that had been bearing weight due to all of the knots being weighted… All of the knots in the other two loops (and a third stopper) were non-weighted…” A third stopper was left in place and not attached to the webbing.

Detective Gresham and Laura Silva fell to their deaths from the top of the cliff. The actual fall was not observed.

Experience tells us that stopper placement in the typical shallow, worn, narrow, parallel cracks in the flat top of basaltic columns is very insecure. Placements are certainly one directional.

It is believed that one of the climbers was standing or kneeling at the cliff-edge while the other was searching for a placement just below the cliff-edge. When the fall occurred, the anchor was shock-loaded by both climbers and possibly pulled up and out by the climber above.

The Washington State Patrol Investigative Report concludes: “This fall most likely occurred due to human error in building the anchor.”

Members of the Mazama climbing club from Portland were also sport climbing nearby. Their monthly print and web publications noted the tragic accident and offered this advice to their readers: “When setting a top-rope or rappel anchor on a cliff-top, a rule of thumb is always secure yourself if you are within two meters of the edge.” They suggested that you self-belay by attaching the end of your climbing rope with a locking carabineer to a solid natural or constructed “SERENE” (Secure, Equalized, Redundant, No Extension) anchor “well back from the cliff”, attaching the climbing rope to your harness with a Prusik or Klemheist friction knot looped through a locking carabineer. Of course, traditional practice dictates you should back up your friction knot by tying a figure eight on a bight of the climbing rope a couple of feet below your Prusik loop and clip it to the locker on your harness. The climber should work on the anchor system in the exposed area with a slack-free self-belay.

The Experience Level was described in the Investigative Report as “low intermediate and high intermediate”. Both were gym climbers, but neither had much experience in setting traditional anchor systems on basalt columns at Horsethief Butte. (Source: Robert Speik, following interviews with witnesses and study of the Investigative Report and photographs from the Washington State Patrol, Investigative Services Bureau)
Report filed by Robert Speik for the 63rd edition of ANAM to be published in 2010
Copyright© 2009-2010 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.



Two climbers die in fall from Horsethief Butte Crags

Climbing fatalities at Columbia Hills State Park
News Media contact: Sandy Mealing

OLYMPIA – April 6, 2009 – The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission confirms that two climbers were killed in a climbing accident Sunday afternoon at the Columbia Hills State Park – Horsethief Butte in Klickitat County.

The victims were identified as 30-year-old Tony Silva and his sister-in-law, 26-year-old Laura Silva, both from the Portland, Ore. area. Next of kin have been notified. Tony Silva was declared dead-at-the-scene, while Laura Silva was taken to The Dalles Hospital and later died.

Ranger staff were notified of an accident at 12:57 p.m. Sunday, April 5, by Klickitat County Dispatch. State Parks rangers were the first officers on the scene. The investigation is ongoing, but initial information suggests the deaths were accidental.

Washington State Parks is leading the investigation with assistance from the Washington State Patrol. The area where the accident took place is closed until the investigation is concluded. Columbia Hills State Park (which includes the Horsethief Lake area and Dalles Mountain Ranch area) is a 3,338-acre camping park with 7,500 feet of freshwater shoreline on the Columbia River. Horsethief Butte dominates the skyline and is a popular climbing location.



What can be learned from this tragic event?

The primary purpose of our TraditionalMountaineering experience reports (and the purpose of the American Alpine Club's sixty-two published Annual Reports of Accidents in North American Mountaineering) is to "aid in the prevention of accidents".

The investigation of this fatal accident was conducted by the Washington State Patrol. All of the technical questions were addressed in the Washington State Patrol Investigative Report. Our Report to the American Alpine Club for the 2010 edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is based on interviews with witnesses and on a study of the Investigative Report and Photographs.
Please click here to go to News coverage of this sad event.
--Robert Speik



See yonder height! 'Tis far away -- unbidden comes the word "Impossible!"

"Not so," says the mountaineer.  "The way is long, I know; its difficult -- it may be dangerous."

"It's possible, I'm sure; I'll seek the way, take counsel of my brother mountaineers,
and find out how they have reached similar heights and learned to avoid the dangers."

He starts (all slumbering down below); the path is slippery and may be dangerous too. 
Caution and perseverance gain the day -- the height is reached! and those beneath cry, "Incredible! 'Tis superhuman!"

This is a passage we found on page 161 of "Scrambles Amongst the Alps" by Edward Wymper,
first published in 1871 and reprinted 1981 by Ten Speed Press, Berkley, CA.




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
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