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Middle Sister fall claims Benjamin Newkirk of Bend, Oregon

The primary purpose of this accident report and the American Alpine Club's 67 Annual Reports of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, is to aid in the prevention of accidents.
Benjamin Newkirk, 39, on Wednesday, November 12, 2014, at about 10 pm, slipped on the west-facing steep friable Class 4, volcanic rock slope of the south-east ridge of Middle Sister, a 10,047 foot high summit in the Three Sisters Wilderness, as he was downclimbing just below the summit. He slid and tumbled down 800 to 900 vertical feet and was fatally injured.

Newkirk and a friend, (name withheld by request), had walked into the Three Sisters Wilderness from Pole Creek Trail Head, start of the established hiking trail leading to popular Camp Lake, one of the several "Chambers Lakes", features of the east-west pass which cuts through the Cascades Mountain chain between South and Middle Sister. The hikers left overnight gear near the Lake and likely hurried on - up the south-east ridge of Middle Sister to the summit under clear cold skies. There is no trail to this summit. Newkirk, descending at about 10 pm, likely simply slipped on the steep west side of the prominent south-east ridge - sliding and tumbling to his death.

The fall was reported to 911 by the father of Newkirk's friend late Wednesday night after a phone call made at the time of the fall, from just below the summit. Deschutes, Lane, Eugene and Portland Mountain Rescue organizations began work together. Winds to 60 mph and near-whiteout conditions lasting through Sunday prevented searchers from finding and then retrieving the body, according to the rescue lead agency, Lane County Search and Rescue. His remains were found and recovered on November 26, 2014.

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
Middle Sister is a classic fourth class volcanic scree and talus summit with significant inherent dangers. It can be approached from the south (the chosen route) along the south-east ridge by faint traces high up following the spine of the ridge. An alterative approach is by way of the north-south ridge, popular with spring and summer climbers equipped with boots, crampons and mountaineering ice axes (and the skills and experience to use them in steep hard snow and scree climbing). Mid summer climbs of the Three Sisters can be scrambled in stiff soled trail shoes. (See the 16 page essay on the skills needed to climb steep hard snow slopes by the American Alpine Club in the 67th annual edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2014.)

End of summer thunderstorms typically coat the west side of the 9,000 to 10,000 foot-high steep, volcanic scree slopes of the Three Sisters volcanoes with hard snow and ice amidst the scree. Slips under these conditions have lead to uncontrollable falls and several deaths.

Several climbers have fallen in recent years on Middle and North Sister and Three Fingered Jack, some from inexperience and a failure to mitigate the high exposure and objective dangers of these friable scree covered volcanoes. (See listed links below).

It is very unusual that an attempt to summit Middle Sister would be made so late in the day, leading to a 10 pm return from the summit, and very unusual in the face such a clearly forecast heavy winter storm.

It is important to note a common severe-weather pattern identified in the high west to east alpine passes of the Cascades and other ranges. Rescuers reported winds up to 60 miles per hour in the forecast storm, carrying huge amounts of snow, and overwhelming Camp Lake and the trail on the east slope. It is sad to note the deaths of two young Outward Bound campers who became lost and overwhelmed in a similar storm below Middle Sister. (The young women perished from hypothermia in 1971. See the contemporary Report linked below).

Additional Comments:
We do not know what Essential gear the two men carried, what they were wearing, or the level of technical knowledge and the Class 4 exposed-climbing experience of Benjamin Newkirk and his companion. He is identified by friends and his personal Facebook page as an accomplished and committed long distance hiker. We do not know the mechanism of the fall. His companion is understood to have witnessed the fall, but is unwilling at this time, November 2014, to talk about the loss of his friend.

Ryan Burton, Newkirk's friend, was identified and interviewed at the end of January, 2015, by a staff environmental reporter for The Bulletin, an influential newspaper in Central Oregon.

According to his Facebook Public Page, Burton worked with Newkirk at a popular Bend restaurant and was also an accomplished long distance trail hiker, but there was no indication on the Facebook pages, of their experience in Mountaineering, an unforgiving and advanced skill. If Ryan Burton will contact me, we will try to help others learn mitigations of the inherent risks of steep frozen scree slopes and summitting Middle Sister in the Fall, at night and in the face of a clearly forecast Winter storm. According to the Bulletin interview, Burton stated that the purpose of their adventure was to "test themselves".

A full page Bulletin interview of Burton in January 2015 covered little critical technical information such as the ice conditions from the previous day's weather events at 10,000 on the exposed "difficult section" where Newkirk slipped and fell on the west side of the south east ridge, were their crampons on or off, was Newkirk's ice axe type long or short, was his ice axe in hand or on his pack at the time of the fatal slip - and more questions specifically helpful to climbers, the purpose of this Report to the American Alpine Club..

The published interview by the Bulletin reporter included information from a Lane County Sherriff's Accident Report. Burton stated that, at the summit, his friend felt he was "bonking", reasonable after the long hike up and into their Wilderness campsite and the long climb up to the 10,045' summit. The Rescuers later asked Burton what "bonking" was, and were told that Newkirk was dizzy, according to the Lane County report. “He said that walking up the mountain in the dark with a headlamp can be disorienting and that he thinks that is what Newkirk was talking about.” He stated that they rested for about 15 minutes, out of the wind, before starting downclimbing the steep slopes to the South East. He noted that they ate something and drank some water (but we do not know if Newkirk ate the requisite carbohydrates at the campsite and the summit as needed to stave off "bonking"). Read more here:

Burton noted that Newkirk "made no sound" and did not attempt to ice axe self-arrest in the split seconds as he slid away in the darkness. In the interview, Burton suggested Newkirk may have suddenly "fainted" in the  particularly dangerous section. What is clear is that Benjamin Newkirk slipped and fell to his death 800 to 900 vertical feet down a steep snow, rock and ice mountain face.

Report filed by Robert Speik for the 68th edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2015.
Copyright© 2015 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved


Fallen Climber Found Deceased

Lane County Sheriff's Office
News Release dated November 13, 2014
Fallen Climber

Lane County Search and Rescue received a request for assistance locating a climber who was returning from climbing the Middle Sister in Lane County. The climber reportedly fell down the west face of the mountain during descent around 10:00 pm on 11/12/14, disappearing from sight of the person he was climbing with. Deschutes County Search and Rescue and Portland Mountain Rescue responded with six volunteers total. Weather conditions rapidly deteriorated in the areas of the search with low temperatures, freezing rain, and snowfall. A Lane County Team, comprised of eight Eugene Mountain Rescue volunteers, deployed from the Obsidian Trailhead but was unable to climb higher than 6,200 feet due to high winds and white-out conditions. Searchers were unable to reach the area where the climber is thought to have fallen. At approximately 2:00 pm, the search was discontinued due to dangerous weather conditions that prohibited searchers from safely accessing the area. The search will continue when the weather allows safe access for teams to deploy. The missing climber is a 39 year old male from Bend named Benjamin Newkirk. The second climber is safe and is assisting rescue personnel by providing information.

Lane County Sheriff's Office
News Release dated November 14, 2014
Update on Fallen Climber on Middle Sister

Fallen Climber: Benjamin Newkirk, 39 years old, Bend
The search is continuing for Ben Newkirk, a 39 year old Bend, Oregon resident who is reported to have fallen to the west off the south-east ridge of the Middle Sister in the Three Sisters Wilderness around 10:00 pm on Wednesday, November 12th. Search and Rescue Teams from Deschutes and Lane County responded. The climbing partner of Newkirk was able to walk out to Camp Lake where their camp was established. He was assisted out and back to Bend by Deschutes Search and Rescue personnel.

Attempts were made all day on Thursday, November 13th to access the area of the accident (9,500 foot level) by a team of eight members of Eugene Mountain Rescue. The team was able to hike in 7 miles and access the mountain to the 6,200 foot level before they were driven back to the Obsidian Trail head by high winds and white-out conditions. Current weather conditions and forecast for the day will prevent search teams from accessing the area today; however, we are currently working with the Oregon National Guard to fly into the area to assess for life.

If weather permits, we are planning to send personnel into the area if it is feasible on Saturday or Sunday.

Lane County Sheriff's Office
November 16, 2014
Fallen Climber Found Deceased:

Benjamin Newkirk, the 39 year old climber from Bend, Oregon, was found deceased late this morning after a multi-day search that was complicated by extreme weather. Newkirk was climbing Middle Sister with another climber when he fell off the west side of the south-east ridge of the mountain on November 12, 2014 at approximately 10:00 pm.

The search team today included 15 volunteers total from Eugene Mountain Rescue and Corvallis Mountain Rescue, 2 Incident Command staff in Bend assisting with communications, and Command staff managing the mission from Eugene. Knowledge of the mountain terrain as well aircraft surveillance assisted in locating Newkirk, who was found approximately 800-900 feet below where he fell.

Once located, Search and Rescue personnel performed a technical recovery using ropes and other equipment to transport Newkirk 6/10th of a mile to an area where he could be transported back to Eugene to a Medical Examiner. Newkirk is reported to have been an experienced climber.

Our thoughts are with Mr. Newkirk's friends and family on this very sad and difficult day.


"Questions linger after Bend man dies on Middle Sister" and "Cause of Benjamin Newkirk’s fall is unclear"

According to a front page story in The Bulletin newspaper on Sunday, November 23, 2014, written by reporter Dylan J. Darling under the headlines "Questions linger after Bend man dies on Middle Sister" and "Cause of Benjamin Newkirk’s fall is unclear", in part, the following:

"The Lane County Sheriff’s Office oversaw the search for Newkirk, but Sgt. Carrie Carver, a spokeswoman, said she does not have details about what led up to the fall. Last week, the agency released the name of Newkirk’s climbing partner, Ryan Burton, 25, of Bend. Burton saw Newkirk’s fall and his friend vanish from the mountain."

"Contacted Friday, Burton was still shaken and didn’t want to comment. 'It is too soon for me to bring those images up', he said."




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


Read more . . .
American Alpine Club
Accidents in North American Mountaineering

Snowshoe searchers assist overdue BrokenTop climber
Solo backcountry ski to Broken Top Bowl and return
McArthur Rim - responsible climber slips on steep hard snow
A fine winter summit of Broken Top by Eric Seyler
Broken Top - climber disappears
Broken Top - climber slips on hard snow

South Sister Hiker falls near summit
Climber rescued from South Sister's east side Route
South Sister climber injured, rescued by commercial helicopter
Two rescued in Three Sisters Wilderness
Bend Teen Falls Into Crevasse on South Sister
Three Stranded Hikers Assisted from Atop South Sister by SAR 
Father and sons rescued descending South Sister in storm on Labor Day
Man rescued from crevasse just off South Sister climber's trail
Prospectus for a summer climb of South Sister
Hiking to the summit of South Sister
Family of five and exhausted Great Dane dog rescued from South Sister Climber's Trail
Photos of a South Sister snow-climb in June 2006
A cross country circumnavigation of South Sister in September
Once again, cell phone alerts rescuers of injured climber
South sister spring overnight snow climb for gear and skills

Middle Sister fall claims Benjamin Newkirk of Bend, Oregon
Middle Sister solo from PCT avoids fire closures
Outward Bound in 1971, Hypothermia Claims Two
Middle and North Sister exploratory adventure  
North Sister and Middle Sister spring summits on telemark skis
Middle Sister - climb proves need for equipment and experience

North_Sister - Fall injures climber on east side, hoisted by helicopter crew
North Sister - Fall claims Brian Jones
North Sister - Fall claims climber Dr. Bruce Shively
North Sister - Accident analyzed for ANAM by Fitz Cahall
North Sister - Trip Report June 2007
North Sister - Climbers swept by avalanche while descending Thayer Glacier Snowfield
North Sister - Climbing with Allan Throop
North Sister - Accident Report to the American Alpine Club on a fatal fall
North Sister - Fatal accident news reports on the loss of Dr. Shively
North Sister - Middle Sister - Trip Report, spring summits on telemark skis
North Sister - North Ridge Trip Report by Sam Carpenter
North Sister - Report of fatal fall from east side by Martina Testa
North Sister - SE Ridge Solo, a Trip Report by Sam Carpenter

AAC Report - Fatal fall from Three Fingered Jack in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness 
News - Three Fingered Jack - OSU grad student falls on steep scree slope 
AAC Report - Three Fingered Jack - Fatal slip on snow patch 
AAC Report - Three Fingered Jack - belayed fall from The Crawl 
Photos: Climbing Three Fingered Jack, a deceptively dangerous fifth class summit 
Photos: Three Fingered Jack
Three Fingered Jack experience by Ben Siebel
A violent fall on Three Fingered Jack by Julie Zeidman
A violent fall in Spain on caught on video    mpeg file  - WARNING - This may be disturbing! The climbers did recover.