TNB: Death on Forbidden Peak – Was the NPS Complicit?On September 14, Tyler Barton, a 31-year-old man from Seattle was struck by a falling rock while descending from the West Ridge (III 5.5) of Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades of Washington. According to some reports, he had been forced into a loose rappel gully because park rangers had chopped two bolted rappel stations. This raises the issue of whether the NPS was directly or even indirectly involved in Barton’s death.
On the afternoon of September 14, Tyler Barton, a 31-year-old man from Seattle was struck by a falling rock while descending from the West Ridge (III 5.5) of Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades of Washington. The rock knocked him off his stance, he fell about 300 feet and died. According to some reports, he had been forced into a loose rappel gully because park rangers had chopped two bolted rappel stations that had been placed to keep climbers out of the rockfall zone. This raises the issue of whether the NPS was directly or even indirectly involved in Barton’s death.
The West Ridge is a popular route with easy rock, moderate snow and epic views. It’s one of the 50 Classic Climbs (Roper/Steck) and this notoriety combined with the quality of the climbing make the route a highly sought-after prize. The day the accident occurred, the route was crowded with multiple parties.
The descent from the West Ridge involves five or six rappels (or two or three if double ropes are employed). The rappel stations consist of blocks tied off with “nests” of tat and there are various, more-or-less reliable descent lines you can take. Several years ago, the very last anchor, the one that climbers commonly used to access the glacier—a big horn—started to wobble, and someone established a two-bolt station so that climbers wouldn’t have to rap off the loose block.
In August 2012, a Cascades guide named Kurt Hicks decided to establish another bolted anchor near the top of the rappels that, he claims, would allow climbers to stay on more solid rock to the climber’s left of the gully which, by all accounts is a potential shooting gallery made more treacherous by the increasing number of climbers who kick through loose sections, repeatedly weight blocks, and pull ropes through choss. Hicks reasoned that the bolts would increase safety, reduce impact and allow him to remove pounds of unsightly webbing—“leave no trace,” and so forth—thereby preserving a little of the wilderness character on this “Crowded Classic.”
According to Kelly Bush (the wilderness district ranger that supervises the backcountry of North Cascades National Park), on the morning that Hicks placed the bolts, he crossed paths with two climbing rangers and they hiked together for roughly 30 minutes before heading off to different routes. When I reached her by phone, Bush noted that Hicks didn’t mention his plan to place the new anchor on the West Ridge descent, but that later in the day the climbing rangers heard the clinking of hammer and drill and subsequently discovered the freshly drilled bolts.
When Bush found out what happened she called Hicks. “I told him that the park has a no-bolting policy and that I really wished he would have called me.” Hicks offered to take the bolts out himself, but Bush told him the park would do it, and six days later the bolts were removed. In addition to the bolts Hicks added, the lower station—the bolts that had been there for years—were removed and climbers were again forced to rappel off the loose horn.
Technically there was no rule against bolting in North Cascades wilderness when Hicks hand-drilled that anchor.
Keith contacted the North Cascades National Park Chief Ranger, Kinsey Shilling, who advised they would look into the matter, but by that time, the bolts were already chopped and patched.
Why did this park impose an outright ban on a few anchors that clearly have a resource protection and safety purpose? Several other parks nationwide—Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Zion, Grand Teton—all accept a basic level of fixed anchors.
On May 13, 2013 the National Park Service released a policy directive entitled Director’s Orders #41 (DO #41) which contains the latest direction for managers within all national parks with designated wilderness. Section 7.2 of DO #41 authorized the use of fixed anchors in wilderness if climbing was deemed to be “appropriate.” Climbing advocacy groups were carefully optimistic that the climbing management plans mandated by DO #41 would allow bolting either on a case-by-case basis, or “programmatically.”
The powers at North Cascades National Park had a different interpretation of DO #41, however, and on August 23, Keith received a letter announcing a “moratorium” on bolting in all North Cascades designated wilderness. Park Superintendent Karen F. Taylor-Goodrich cited the authority of rule 36CFR 2.1 (a)(1)(iv) which prohibits “possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing, from its natural state: (iv) a mineral resource or cave formation or parts thereof.”
Then, on September 14, Barton was killed by rockfall in the descent gully on the West Ridge of Forbidden and the question of fixed anchors in the Cascades took on a new dimension. Washington climbing forums and Cascade guides’ Facebook pages lit up. Surprisingly, the rhetoric was pretty restrained. Most climbers were in favor of the responsible use of fixed anchors in the wilderness for two reasons: 1) increased safety and 2) the leave-no-trace ethic.
Guide Marc Chauvin wrote in a Facebook post: “The huge amount of slings and junk is also a problem. This is the kind of discussion we should be able to have with well-informed land managers. We need more public servants informed about the types of use our lands get and less law enforcement specialists.”
The implication, of course, was that the present land managers were, basically, ill-informed policemen.
At the heart of North Cascades National Park’s fixed anchor moratorium was the justification that it had been enacted: “In order to preserve a wilderness experience that reflects a raw style of mountaineering in a range that has changed little since Fred Beckey made first ascents of now-popular peaks.”
The elephant in the room, however, was the death of the climber. The topic played around the edges of the discourse in terse posts like: “That would be unfortunate if the recent accident was partially a result of the bolt chopping.”
The question hung in the air: Was the park somehow complicit in this guy’s death?
Kelly Bush has been a ranger at North Cascades for 30 years. She’s well respected by climbers who appreciate her search and rescue efforts—she heads up the SAR team—and consider her a climber, too. She told me she had climbed more in the past, but these days only climbs a couple of peaks every summer. Regarding the accident, she seemed sure that the removal of the bolts and the accident were “in no way related.” She had talked to Barton’s partner and they (Bush and the partner) both concluded that the rock had been knocked loose when the climbers had pulled the rope after the third rappel.
When I asked if the climbers would have arrived at a different stance had they rappelled off the anchors Hicks had drilled, she said, “Same gully. They would’ve done the same pull.”
As far as DO #41, Bush said she’d been hoping for more guidance, stating that there’s “no strong direction” and that it’s “open to interpretation.” She’s now awaiting her “superintendent’s directions.”
Bush mentioned that she’d been meeting with climbing groups and the Access Fund. In reference to the AF she said, “We’ve been having a dialog … well you can’t have a dialog with those guys. We’ve been meeting.”
Bush told me that the main proponents of allowing fixed anchors in the wilderness seemed to be the Access Fund and private guides, adding: “I guess it makes their job easier. Otherwise I don’t hear too much about it from the general climbing population.”
In a phone conversation, the Access Fund’s Jason Keith told me about a series of meetings with the park where groups as diverse as the Mountaineers, the Washington Climber’s Coalition, the American Alpine Club, the Wilderness Society and Washington Wild were “on our side, trying to get the park to do public process to make these rules.”
“Then, the fatality happened … ” Keith said. “We were careful not to point fingers because we can’t say what caused the rockfall, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that rocks coming down a crowded gully…”
I finished the sentence: “ … were climber triggered.”
“There’s no question the [Hicks] descent is safer,” Keith said, “and less visually trashy.” Keith characterized the park’s position on fixed anchors as an “extreme outlier.”
“They could right now issue a special permit for two rap anchors on Forbidden Peak,” said Keith. “[The anchors] would be visually not obvious; they’d improve the use pattern and reduce impact, and make the descent much safer. We’re not disparaging of the park, not saying I told you so. But a future fatality is less likely if you replace those anchors.”
I was curious about whether rockfall had resulted in other accidents on Forbidden. Bush told me about a “minor incident” in 2010 where a guy was hit by rock and got a concussion. “Given that it’s so popular its [accident rate] might be low.”
In contrast, several climbers reported that rockfall was relatively common on the descent. Dan Hilden (posting on cascadeclimbers.com) wrote: “I myself was hit by a rock while rappelling there six years ago (there is a trip report on this site), and things got pretty serious because we were on a chossy ledge and I was very nearly killed by a second rock that popped when I weighted our anchor as I tried to stop the bleeding. That whole area to the looker’s left of the couloir is covered in random trash and rap stations, which could be really cleaned up by a few bolts. So what I’m getting at is that on a super popular route like that, where bolts are far safer and cleaner, what’s the problem?”
I tend to agree that when fixed anchors will make a descent safer and less visually impactful, they should be allowed—even in wilderness. To me, slings around blocks are unsightly and on routes as popular as the West Ridge of Forbidden, they are, for practical purposes, “permanent.” Further, the issue of climber-triggered rockfall is one that needs to be addressed on popular peaks. If a descent can be made safer by directing traffic onto more solid rock, then land managers should allow climbers to install those stations. DO #41 has officially acknowledged that bolts have a legitimate place in wilderness climbing. The NPS needs to get its bureaucratic house in order and draft climbing management plans so that these important environmental and safety issues can be addressed.
What do you think about bolts in wilderness and/or the North Cascades bolting moratorium? By choosing to chop Hicks’ bolts, was the park at all complicit in the death of the climber? Finally, what about bolts used to protect blank faces? Do these have a place in wilderness? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.