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CODY - A Laramie man died Friday afternoon while ice climbing in a remote part of the South Fork Valley, about 40 miles southwest of Cody.

Keith Spencer, 45, was climbing near the top of a 1,000-foot frozen waterfall when he was knocked off the ice by an avalanche and fell to his death, according to a statement released Monday by Park County Sheriff Scott Steward.

Spencer had been climbing with Mark Jenkins, 50, also from Laramie. Steward described both men as "very experienced" climbers.

Aaron Mulkey, a Cody ice climber who assisted Saturday in the recovery of Spencer's body, said he knew both men. They had extensive experience "climbing all over the world," he said.

The avalanche was the third slide the men had encountered Friday, a day when the area had received heavy snow, Steward said.

Mulkey said he spoke to Jenkins after the accident. He said Jenkins described the earlier two slides as minor snow releases that would not be significant enough to deter most climbers. Mulkey said he would have continued to climb in the same conditions.

Mulkey said the two men were about 10 feet apart on the ice and near the top of the last pitch at the time of the fatal avalanche, but Jenkins was shielded from the falling snow because he was underneath a protruding ice shelf.

Jenkins climbed down to assist Spencer but determined that he was dead. Jenkins hiked to a nearby ranch to report the incident, Steward said.

The waterfall, known by climbers as The Main Vein, is one of dozens of popular climbs in the area, and it lies in a rugged canyon not covered by cell phone service.

The approach to the waterfall begins near the end of Highway 291, about a quarter-mile north of Cabin Creek, Mulkey said.

Park County Search and Rescue went to the scene and determined that conditions were too risky late Friday to recover Spencer's body.

Mulkey and two other local climbers worked Saturday with Search and Rescue personnel to retrieve the body, completing the task by about 4 p.m., Steward said.

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Steward commended Mulkey, Don Foote and Travis Hannon, saying the men worked in extreme cold and under difficult conditions.

"The magnitude of this avalanche was enormous," Mulkey said, adding that avalanches on South Fork climbs are rare, and he had only seen evidence of one other significant slide during the past decade.

"This thing just came barreling down like a semi truck. It was unreal. It was so big that it went off into two different drainages," he said.

Recent heavy snowfall and gusting winds mean the risk of avalanches remains high in some drainages, and climbers are cautioned to check on conditions before climbing.

Steward said ice climbing in the South Fork Valley continues to grow in popularity.

"It's amazing the amount of people doing it. It's getting to be huge," he said, adding that more than a dozen vehicles were parked in the area over the weekend.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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