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January 06, 2009 3:57 am

Avalanche claims ice climber on South Fork

Written by Tribune Staff

An avalanche on the South Fork of the Shoshone River last week claimed the life of an ice climber, Keith Spencer of Laramie.

Spencer, 45, and a companion, Mark Jenkins, 50, also of Laramie were climbing in an area known as “The Main Vein” approximately 40 miles southwest of Cody on Friday, Jan. 2, when the avalanche occurred.

According to Park County Sheriff Scott Steward, Jenkins reported the two were connected by rope and had climbed more than 1,000 feet. As they neared the top of the climb, Spencer, who was leading the climb, yelled an avalanche warning just before he was hit head on by a wall of snow. Jenkins felt the rope go tight as Spencer was knocked off the mountain.

Jenkins rappelled down to where Spencer's body came to rest and determined he was dead. He then hiked to a nearby ranch and contacted the sheriff's office.

Steward said the call was received around 3:30 p.m. Friday.

The Park County Search and Rescue squad was called and, based on Jenkins' account of the climb, determined that recovery on Friday would be too dangerous. The area had received heavy snow throughout the day, and Jenkins reported he and Spencer had encountered two other avalanches prior to the fatal one.

After surveying the situation on Saturday, local climbers Aaron Mulkey, Don Foote and Travis Hannon climbed to Spencer's location, reaching it about 12:30 p.m., and lowered his body approximately 1,000 feet. Other search and rescue personnel assisted with the transport from that point and reached the road about 4 p.m.

Steward commended Mulkey, Foote and Hannon for their efforts, given the extreme conditions on Saturday.

Steward said there has been a big increase in winter recreation along the South Fork in recent years, particularly in ice climbing. He said there have been three fatalities involving ice climbers in recent years. He said Friday's incident made it evident that the department needs to look at its readiness to deal with similar accidents.

Steward added that individuals engaging in high-risk activities in remote areas need to be aware that they are on their own, because “there's no such thing as a quick rescue.”

“People have to understand that we're not going to risk rescuers' lives, and our efforts will be dictated by safety conditions,” Steward said.

Otherwise, Steward said, a situation can snowball into a bigger emergency.

“There's nothing worse than going after someone and getting two or three more people in trouble as a result,” Steward said.