Austrian visitor dies on Rocky Butte climb

German media reports that his friends “watched in horror”, as this 27-year-old visitor fell to his death. See why Portland officials say this grim story is a reminder to take care, while scaling this popular sheer rock face in outer East Portland …

After their initial evaluation, Portland Fire & Rescue’s Technical Rescue Team heads back from the base of Rocky Butte, after responding to a fatal climbing accident.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The east face of Rocky Butte, just across narrow NE Rocky Butte Road from Portland Bible College, is a spot cherished by mountaineering and rock- climbing enthusiasts.

Several climbing areas feature pinions and chains, securely fastened to rock shelves at the top – and access is quick and easy. However, emergency access at the base is difficult. To the north, there’s closed-off private property belonging to The Grotto, and to the south, Rocky Butte abuts Interstate 205.

When a climb goes wrong – as it did about 2:00 p.m. on May 14 – Portland Fire & Rescue’s (PF&R) most experienced “high-angle/technical rescue” squad, the Technical Rescue Team, is not close by. They roll out of their home base across the river at Station 1, on NW Naito Parkway.

Members of PF&R’s Technical Rescue Team formulate a plan for recovering the fall victim, and helping the medical examiner conduct an investigation on the sheer face of the butte.

“On arrival, emergency personnel found an adult male at the bottom of a sheer rock face on the east side of the Butte,” PF&R spokesman Lt. Damon Simmons explained to East Portland News, speaking at the base camp established at the edge of the butte in the City of Maywood Park. “When responders were able to make access to the man, they determined that he was deceased.”

During their efforts, responders noted that some of the climber’s gear was still on the cliff face. “They’ve got a ledge up there with anchored chains set up,” Simmons described. “Climbers rope off on these chains at the ledge, and come down from there. It looks like that’s the point from which he most likely fell.”

A Technical Rescue Team member puts on his climbing harness, getting ready to climb down Rocky Butte to access the victim.

Reports are that the victim was in a party of four, three of whom were climbers, noted Simmons. “The victim is believed to have fallen approximately 50 feet.”

Exactly how the accident occurred isn’t clear; the friends of the victim declined to speak with local media. However, a German news outlet (translated) stated that the victim, and his climbing partner, were very experienced climbers and avid outdoorsmen, and that his friends “watched in horror has he plunged to his death”.

According to Damon O’Brien, a deputy in the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office, the fall victim was an Austrian visitor, 27-year-old Christian Steiner. “He died as a result of injuries from the fall.”

Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Lt. Damon Simmons agrees that Rocky Butte is a good site for recreational climbing – but it can be dangerous.

Five days after the accident, we revisited the area, atop Rocky Butte. Two young, eager climbers were hooking their climbing gear into the same anchors that had been used by Steiner.

“You’d have to drive a couple of hours to find a good climbing spot like this,” Biff Henkerson told us, has he readied his climbing ropes. He asked not to be photographed, adding “My girlfriend doesn’t like me doing this, because she’s worried that I’ll get hurt. But, we’ve got good gear and we’re careful.”

PF&R’s Simmons agreed, “This is a very popular climbing area. We respond on one to two climbing incidents every summer – with varying outcomes.”

Not being a climber, we didn’t venture close enough to the edge to see down to a belaying ridge; fifty feet is actually a very long way down.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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