American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Accident on Mt. Baker

  • Accident Reports
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1945

Cascade Range

Accident on Mt. Baker. Mr. Burge Bickford sent to Mr. Norman Bright the following information, which was forwarded to the American Alpine Club:

Here are the facts regarding the Strathdee case as far as we know. Larry and Jack Schwabland [members of the Seattle Mountaineers] went in to climb Glacier Peak on the 18th and 19th of August, and then came out and headed for Mt. Baker. However, they failed to check in with the ranger. In order to save weight they did not carry sleeping-bags to their high camp. Mt. Baker from this side (Boulder Creek) is easy and has been climbed many times by average and less than average parties. However, this party was violating some of the most elementary rules: 1. Party of two instead of three; 2. No adult in the party, one aged 16, one aged 17; 3. Carried the rope but did not rope up.

When they arrived nearly at the top about noon, they had a choice of a hard way and an easy way. Larry insisted on going the hard way and Jack tried his best to discourage his route. As a matter of fact, Jack would not go the way Larry did and Larry went on alone. His route was up a steep ice sheet above a big schrund. He was unroped and was not cutting steps. He was using the army crampons, which are not as good as the Eckenstein pattern. Apparently Larry lost his footing and began to slide down the ice sheet toward the schrund. He overshot the schrund and landed on the lower lip, a fall of about 50 ft.; he then slid about 200 ft. down steep ice. They were really in a bad way then, because Larry was badly hurt; they were a long way from help, no sleep- ing-bag at high camp, no one to leave with him. Jack spent some time trying to fix him up, gave him his spare clothes, etc. Then Jack rushed down for help. He arrived at the Ranger Station about 8.00 p.m. and the rescue party did not reach the scene of the accident until 5.30 p.m. the next day, about thirty hours after the accident, at which time Larry was dead. He probably died from a combination of head injuries, bad case of shock and exposure to cold. He had to lie on the glacier all that time Even a healthy person could not have survived such an ordeal.

Mr. John Case, President of the American Alpine Club, replied to Mr. Bright, as follows:

We believe it is very helpful to have the facts regarding these regrettable accidents placed before all climbing clubs so that we may all cooperate in trying to reduce them to a minimum while avoiding restrictive regulations by the park service or individual clubs. There have been various efforts in the past to restrict and regulate climbing in the belief that this will result in fewer accidents. We do not believe that this is the proper approach to the problem.

Love of the mountains, enthusiasm, physical aptitude and a degree of competitive spirit are fundamental requirements for the climber. The need of skill in climbing and the mastery of technique are so obvious that we sometimes tend to overlook those qualities which are more difficult to acquire before a climber can be considered a mountaineer capable of leading on difficult mountains and climbing safely under all conditions. These qualities are: perspective or a sensible attitude towards climbing, self-reliance, an accurate knowledge of one’s own capacities and above all—good judgment—which perhaps sums up all of the other qualities. We are convinced that our efforts should be in the direction of developing the climber himself rather than in the enunciation of rules and regulations, and that we must stress the necessity of good training, sound attitude, and the development of judgment. The result should be a great reduction in the number of avoidable accidents.

It is intimated that your club may have to frown on such climbs by parties of two. It is, of course, the responsibility of the officers of any club to make such rules as in their judgment will assist and protect their members, but since this is a question which may affect climbers everywhere we are taking the liberty of expressing an opinion based on many years’ climbing experience.

We do not believe that a large party is necessarily safer than one or two. In fact, the reverse may easily-be the case. It is customary to discourage expeditions by a party of two on crevassed glaciers because of the great difficulty of rescuing a man from a crevasse after an accident has occurred, but even here we do not think that the rule should be a firm one since the most important factors in safety are the experience and capability of the party and the precautions which they take. Nor do we consider it sound or wise to condemn unroped climbing. Climbing without the rope develops judgment and self- reliance. It requires the climber to assess his own capacity. Undue reliance on the rope leads to carelessness and to attempting climbs or short pitches which are really beyond his ability with the proper margin of safety. This naturally does not apply to highly competent and experienced climbers.

Training in advanced techniques on short difficult pitches under ideal conditions should develop skill and the ability to climb safely under all conditions On big mountains, but without constant effort to develop judgment we think it can tend in the opposite direction. We have seem something of this in the Alps where many accidents have occurred to climbers who had acquired great technical skill on small climbs and did not realize the hazards introduced by weather and exhaustion on big mountains.

In our opinion the fundamental mistake in this instance was the failure of the leader to recognize his responsibility towards his companion. He insisted upon proceeding with a climb which his companion considered beyond his powers and was unwilling to attempt. Under these conditions he had no right to leave his friend. The slip of the leader would have occurred regardless of the size of the party and might have involved his his companions with even more serious results.

It may be that he was also at fault in judgment. The climb may have been above his powers or it may not have been safe under the conditions then existing without step-cutting, but the accident could have resulted from a moment’s carelessness. Carelessness, of course, is in itself a fault, and a fault which we are less inclined to struggle to overcome as mechanical safeguards are improved. I do not see how the quality of the crampons could have been a factor unless they actually broke. Any skilled climber certainly knows when his crampons are biting and when he is safe without resorting to step-cutting.

The survivor seems to have shown excellent judgment both before and after the accident. The responsibility of the older climbers is very great. We encourage the boys to take to climbing, and besides giving them training in climbing itself we must try to see that their enthusiasm and competitive spirit are tempered by a proper attitude, sound judgment and some of the caution which is so natural to us in our old age. We want them to know that we are proud of their achievement, but make them feel that they have a great responsibility also for the good repute of mountaineering as a sport and as a way of life.

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