Freak Accident in Wind Rivers: Rockfall Severs Anchor Slings
Janette Heung, 35, died in the Cirque of the Towers, in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, after a fluke anchor failure in which slings were sheared by rockfall.
Janette Heung led expert-level ice, alpine rock and everything in between. The circles in which she moved were dealt a painful blow on Saturday, September 5, when Heung died in a freak accident in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. An anchor broke on her descent from Pingora, in the Cirque of the Towers.
Jeremey Collins, the artist and climber, told Rock and Ice, “I met Janette shortly after she discovered climbing. She was bursting with energy and quickly excelled at ice after a shockingly brief introduction. She was a shining light who cared deeply about the climbing community.”
Heung, 35, was one of the strongest women ice climbers in the country, supported by Arc’teryx, Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Bobos.
On ice, Heung led WI 5 and 6 routes in many of North America’s best cold-weather climbing destinations. A small selection of those includes: Nemesis (WI 6) on the Stanley Headwall in Banff National Park, Canada; Mummy Cooler IV (WI 5-6) in Hyalite Canyon, Montana; Bridalveil Falls (WI 5+/6) and Ames Ice Hose (WI5 M6 R) in Telluride, Colorado; The Black Dike (WI 4-5 M3) on Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire; Gravity’s Rainbow (WI 5 M1) and Bird Brain Boulevard (WI 5 M5) in Ouray, Colorado; The Fang (WI 5-6) and the Rigid Designator (WI 5) in Vail, Colorado; Alexander’s Chimney (WI 4 M4) and Hallett Chimney (AI 5 M5) in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; the Weeping Pillar (WI 5-6) on Upper Weeping Wall, Icefields Parkway, Canada; and Mindbender (WI 5+) on Mt. Pisgah, Lake Willoughby, Vermont.
As recounted by her climbing partner Josh Digrugilliers, on September 5 he and Heung, as well as two others, Colin Landeck and Stephen Miller, climbed the East Face, Left Side Cracks (III 5.7+, 11 pitches) of Pingora.
After summiting just before 1:30 p.m., the foursome began descending via the South Buttress rappels. They did double-rope rappels so as to descend more quickly. At the bottom of the second rappel, all four climbers clipped in direct to an anchor consisting of an in-situ Dyneema sling and 1-inch tubular nylon webbing.
In a personal write-up of the accident provided to Rock and Ice, Digrugilliers further described the anchor materials as “a new double-length Dyneema sling from this season, a bit of tubular webbing which was sun-damaged but could have been from this season, and a new maillon connecting the two.” The sling and webbing were around the top of a boulder—akin to a slung horn.
Landeck was pulling the ropes when Digrugilliers heard him yell, “Rock!”
The rockfall “most likely originated from pulling the rope from the first rappel at the ledge atop the S. Buttress of Pingora,” Digrugilliers wrote.
The rockfall hit the anchor, severing both the sling and the webbing. Heung fell 400 feet to the base of Pingora, while Digrugilliers, Landeck and Miller remained on the cliff face.
Digrugilliers recounted the series of events in his write up. The below begins when he heard the shout of “Rock!”
I think I grabbed the nested slings of [an] old rappel anchor to the left of the anchor to which we were clipped in, no more than old webbing, slings, and a rusty quick link. I did not see the rock strike the anchor but I heard the tensioned sling and webbing break. I saw Janette fall backward and felt my legs surge against a great force. I watched Janette hit the first ledge about 100 ft. down with her right side and [bounce] further out from the wall. She was still falling when I noticed Stephen had fallen about 8 feet but remained with us. He had grabbed my sling that was girth hitched to my hard point and arrested his fall some 8 feet below and quickly found footing. At that point Colin and I realized there was nothing connecting us to the wall. I quickly clipped an alpine draw to my belay loop and extended it, clipping the other biner to the rusted quicklink of the old rappel anchor. I then clipped two alpines together and to myself so Stephen could clip one into his harness. Once he was clipped in Colin used his In-Reach to call in a rescue. I used some cordelette to back up the old rappel long enough so Stephen could clip into it and use it to get up. Once he rejoined us at the ledge, Colin cut some cordelette to back up the old rappel anchor and I passed him a number 2 cam to place above the anchor to back it up. At that point we were safe again and our focus shifted to Janette.
Digrugillers, Landeck and Miller rappelled to the ground safely and reached Heung. She had severe injuries to her head, torso and limbs. She was not breathing and was unresponsive, but had a weak pulse. Digrugillers, Landeck and Miller provided as much first aid as possible (Digrugillers and Landeck are both wilderness first responders). They performed CPR and rescue breaths for 1.5 hours, and applied tourniquets.
A helicopter carrying members of Tip Top Search and Rescue from Sublette County arrived on scene approximately one hour after Heung’s fall, and SAR members reached them 30 minutes later. The SAR members administered CPR for an additional 30 minutes, but could not find a pulse.
“Janette Heung was the real deal; she climbed because she loved being in the mountains,” her climbing partner and friend Beth Goralski told Rock and Ice in an email. “Not only did she excel in climbing, she was a highly accomplished woman with degrees from the most prestigious universities in the country. One of the things I loved about her was her ability to cut through the small talk and get in depth quickly. On long car drives we’d spent hours talking about metaphysics, sociology, culture, existentialism, philosophy and of course, boys. She was funny, warm, and an instant friend.”
Indeed, Heung was as impressive in her academic and professional life as she was on the sharp end. After attending Tufts University, where she studied physics and biomedical engineering, Heung earned a masters in environmental health from the Harvard School of Public Health.
She an assistant director at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier in her career she had served as the the deputy director for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and also founded JWG, a “management consulting and research think tank based in Colorado” focused on conservation and global health. Her JWG clients included The Nature Conservancy and the City of Denver.
Heung was also the founder of The OutdoorRx Collaborative, described on her LinkedIn page as “a knowledge sharing and technical support network, comprised of passionate leaders from the healthcare, environmental, and outdoor industries whose mission is to collaborate across sectors and improve public health through nature-based recreation.”
Katie Millard, who worked with Heung at The Nature Conservancy, told Rock and Ice, “I’ve never met anyone like Janette. Her uber-networking skills and ability to bring people together of different backgrounds was infectious. Her passion for connecting conservation, outdoor recreation, and public health was wise above her years. She understood the world she lived within was a bright, beautiful place that she wanted to show up fully, protecting and playing the whole time.”
Janette Heung is survived by her father Philip Heung, her mother Joanna Ng, her brother Vincent Ng, her grandmother Lee Sau Yin, and her boyfriend Carl Himpsel.
A full remembrance of Heung is forthcoming.
A comprehensive analysis of 30 years worth of data of climbing accidents recorded in Accidents in North American Climbing.read more
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help with the medical costs.read more