Ice climber Keith Spencer died January 2 when a rare and powerful avalanche swept the Main Vein ice climb in the South Fork Valley, near Cody, Wyoming.
Spencer, 45, was following partner Mark Jenkins on the fourth ice pitch of the five-pitch WI4, and was about 15 feet below Jenkins' belay stance when the avalanche began. Jenkins was belaying at a small stance on the right side of the climb with a Jaws device clipped directly to two long, equalized ice screws; these were placed at chest height in vertical ice. Jenkins described a "horrific roar" that continued for at least 30 seconds. Yanked off the climb by the enormous, speeding mass of snow, Spencer ripped the full length of the icy 60-meter lead rope through Jenkins' completely locked-off belay, and then came to a stop with the rope taut. When Jenkins reached his partner, Spencer was dead. Although he'd been pummeled by falling debris, Jenkins miraculously escaped serious injury.
As rescuers recovered Spencer’s body the next day, a search and rescue plane flew along South Fork Canyon to photograph the drainage above the Main Vein. The avalanche was determined to have started at least 1,500 feet above the climbers, leaving a crown face five to 10 feet high and a quarter-mile wide. The slide likely was triggered by a cornice collapse.
Although the South Fork Valley holds dozens of ice climbs, snowfall in the area is relatively light and avalanches are unusual. Local ice climber Aaron Mulkey told the Cody Enterprise this was “the first avalanche I’ve seen here in 10 years,” and no previous avalanche death is known to have occurred in the valley.
Around the holidays, however, extremely high winds and cold temperatures had helped create an unstable snowpack above the climb. The weather was stormy on the day of the accident, and Jenkins and Spencer experienced a spindrift avalanche on the second pitch and found avalanche debris at the base of the third pitch. Still, nothing in their extensive experience in the valley suggested excessive danger (Jenkins had done Main Vein three times before), and they speculated the debris might mean that any dangerous snow above the climb had already slid.
Both Jenkins, 50, and Spencer have climbed difficult mountain routes around the world. Spencer had recently completed an ascent of 8,201-meter Cho Oyu and was planning an expedition to Lhotse.
Date of Accident: January 2, 2008
Sources: Mark Jenkins, Cody Enterprise