American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Safety in the Mountains, Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club 1949

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1949

Safety in the Mountains

Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club 1949

THE mountain accidents of the climbing year 1948 surpassed in number those of 1947. In 1947 there were 15 persons killed or injured; in 1948 this number rose to 28. Although not all the accidents of the 1948 season can be described strictly as mountaineering accidents, they all throw emphasis again on the recommendations offered in last year’s report.

It was pointed out last year that interest in mountaineering was increasing. This is still true. There is a large body of eager climbers who have not yet received sufficient training, and too often are fired with the romance of high conquest without appreciating the risks involved. The group needs and deserves guidance: it is a group that has contributed heavily to the toll, as the summaries of accidents will quickly show. Much of the preventive activity, therefore, should be directed at this large group of inexperienced and inadequately trained climbers. The first step, as recommended last year, is to encourage them to join an organized climbing group or club in which they can receive instruction and have a chance to gain experience under proper guidance. Second, literature and general information about the hazards of the various climbing areas should be made readily accessible to them. The National Park Service and U. S. Forest Service are aware of the need for information; and regional clubs, which should make efforts to reach all potential climbers in their areas, have generally undertaken likewise to act as disseminating agencies.

Last summer there was a great wave of accidents in the Alps. Many of the individuals concerned were English. Apparently the maintenance of monetary restrictions in Great Britain was one reason why so many English met with mishaps: aspiring climbers, unable to take sufficient funds out of the country, could not remain any length of time in the climbing districts, let alone afford guides.

With only a little time at their disposal, they took unusual risks in the effort to accomplish as much as possible. Further, since Great Britain has no truly Alpine heights, inexperienced climbers attempting the Alps without guides tended to overreach themselves.

The report presented herewith summarizes a number of safety programs now being carried forward by organizations throughout the country, and then reviews accidents which are known to have occurred in 1948.

Maynard M. Miller, Chairman

Ome Daiber

Benjamin G. Ferris, Jr.

M. Beckett Howorth Richard M. Leonard


Pacific Northwest. The Mazamas have a rescue group organized to assist in emergencies in all mountainous areas. The Mountaineers, Inc. (Seattle, Everett and Tacoma) give annual training programs in elementary and intermediate climbing, both on rock and on ice, and in ski mountaineering. They have also a Safety Committee, which is responsible for the outlining and promotion of safe mountain practices. Together with the Washington Alpine Club and the regional section of the National Ski Patrol System, the Mountaineers sponsor the Mountain Rescue and Safety Council organized last year. This group functions in cooperation with, and sometimes at the request of, USAAF and USCG Search and Rescue and other local and national governmental services.

Sierra Nevada. For the Sierra Club, which is interested primarily in conservation, mountaineering activities are administered by a Mountaineering Committee, at present under the chairmanship of Morgan Harris. Local rock climbing committees conduct activities in the field. A subcommittee on safety plans an educational program and carefully investigates such accidents as do occur. Rescue techniques are practised on local cliffs, and latest developments discussed at evening meetings. A classification of climbers has been completed, for better control of safety, and a copy of the classification furnished to the National Park Service. For nearly ten years an expert climber has been recommended to the Superintendent of Yosemite National Park as a temporary ranger during the height of the tourist season.

Rocky Mountains. Holding indoctrination in safety to be “of prime importance,” the Colorado Mountain Club in 1948 repeated its “technical climbing school” (three evening lectures with a maximum attendance of 48 and three field trips with 38 in attendance) and continued the work of instruction, in so far as possible, on all climbing trips. In May 1949 a course of four weekly lectures, to be followed by week end and summer trips, drew a regular attendance of 80. The club has also (1) worked out a classification of scheduled trips and of intending participants; (2) published in Trail and Timberline a series of sketches, with running commentary, under the title “This Could Happen to You”; (3) held classes in first aid, including winter and mountain first aid, under the direction of a certified Red Cross instructor who is also a member of the club; (4) run qualification tests for skiers wishing to go on ski climbs; and (5) sponsored, jointly with the Red Cross, the National Ski Patrol System and the Southern Rocky Mountain Ski Association, two programs on avalanches and winter safety. This spring André Roch spoke to a group of members on the subject of avalanches.

The Kachinas, of Phoenix, Arizona, are ideally situated to attract young members and teach them to climb safely, since they were originally associated with the Boy Scouts. Not even the best of safety programs, however, can eliminate all possibility of human error. An accident involving a Kachina is summarized below.

Middle West. The Safety Committee of the Iowa Mountaineers reports that a clearly defined program was adopted in January 1949. Jointly with the State University of Iowa, the club is sponsoring a course in “Outings and Mountaineering” (two hours a week, for credit), with lectures and demonstrations supplemented by week-end practice climbing. In April 18 members completed an advanced Red Cross course which stressed particularly the problems of mountaineers and skiers. The club intends to schedule a greater number of outings for practice climbs, and to sponsor a “school of mountaineering” on the annual summer outing. All leaders and guides on club outings must be approved by the Safety Committee.

The Chicago Mountaineering Club held a special meeting on 1 October 1948 to discuss safety and training. Six classes were held between that date and the end of May 1949.

East. The Appalachian Mountain Club is in the process of organizing courses and talks on mountaineering problems. It is expected that rock climbing, and the special rescue problems involved, will receive particular attention.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has initiated a series of talks and articles on safety. A number of members who work in governmental laboratories, and who assisted in tests for the Army during the war, have continued to be interested in testing equipment and techniques. It is reported that one member, an electrical engineer, has undertaken a study of electric storms and the best methods of protection. In view of the disastrous accident on Bugaboo Spire last summer, this is decidedly pertinent.

National. The National Park Service has been keenly aware of the dangers to be encountered in the mountains, especially after the accidents in the Tetons last summer. Various suggestions have been offered: (1) trail markers to warn climbers of hazards ahead and inform them of the equipment they should have, and (2) pamphlets or bulletins, to be distributed in the Parks where climbing is carried on, with data on requirements and conditions. In September 1948 the National Park Service sponsored the Mountain Climbing and Rescue Training School at Mount Rainier National Park.* It is hoped that the school will be held again in 1950. Since this training is intended primarily for Park personnel, and since accommodations are limited, only a few outsiders can be invited; but an outline of the course, if it were made available, would undoubtedly be of great interest and value to local climbing organizations.


Alaska: Mt. Juneau. On 14 May 1948 Ralph E. Mott, a sailor on shore leave, without adequate training or equipment, became separated from his five companions on Mt. Juneau and, descending alone, apparently slipped. He perished on the upper snow slopes. The search and rescue operation occupied 75 men for ten days.

Sources of information: local reports, and U. S. Forest Service.

Analysis. So little is known that only the obvious general comments can be made: inexperienced—ill-equipped—alone.

Purcell Range, British Columbia: Bugaboo Spire. On 4 August 1948 a party of four climbers, Rudolph Pundt, Robert Becker, Ann Strong and Ian MacKinlay, reached the summit of Bugaboo Spire. They were members of a large group of Sierra Club and Stanford Alpine Club climbers who had joined forces for an informal two- week trip. On the descent they were struck by a severe thunderstorm. Only a few hundred feet below the summit, they sought shelter in a small cave below the crest of the ridge, and unroped. Shortly afterwards, a bolt of lightning struck near them, and all lost consciousness. MacKinlay, the first to revive, saw Pundt writhing at the edge of the ledge. Before MacKinlay could reach him, Pundt slipped over the edge and fell approximately 1000 feet. Miss Strong soon regained consciousness, and Becker partially regained it. He was paralyzed from the waist down, but the other two, though severely burned and shaken, were able to move. Since in their condition it was impossible for MacKinlay and Miss Strong to bring Becker down unaided, they tied him to the rock, left extra clothing and their entire food supply, and descended to the valley, where they reported the accident to the rest of the group. They were themselves taken out to the hospital at Cranbrook.

Strong rescue parties were driven back by the continuing bad weather, with snow; and it was not until the 7th that a party was able to reach Becker. He was dead, in exactly the position in which he had been left, with the food and supplies untouched. On being released from the rope, the body slipped over the edge. It was therefore impossible to ascertain the precise cause of death. Doubtless it was a combination of initial burns and secondary shock. Both Miss Strong and MacKinlay recovered, but only after several weeks’ hospitalization. Treatment of their second- and third-degree burns included skin-grafting.

Sources of information: Report of the Mountaineering Committee, Sierra Club, and newspaper accounts.

Analysis. This accident seems to have fallen within the limits of risk normally accepted in mountaineering. (Two children were killed by lightning on the same day in Oklahoma, in an open field.) Most climbers have developed a healthy respect for lightning; but the history of lightning accidents, even on high peaks, has been such that shelter below the crest of a ridge has generally been considered adequate protection. The tragedy suggests the need for fuller investigation of the lightning hazard to climbers, especially in regions where electrical storms are frequent and severe.*

Northern Cascades, Washington: (1) Mt. Shuksan. On 7 August 1948 R. Koenig (18), K. Barr and a companion, returning from a climb of Mt. Shuksan, were at the bottom of Fisher’s Chimney. They were standing on a small snow field, planning a climb of Mt. Baker for the next week end. Without thinking, Koenig stepped backwards and broke through the snow where it had thawed too thin from the underside—an area of danger previously recognized. He fell about six feet, and fractured both bones of one leg.

Sources of information: newspaper account, and local information.

Analysis. Apart from the act of stepping inadvertently on a place already recognized as dangerous, no climbing tactics were involved. The men were seasoned employees of the USFS, considered safe and reliable mountain men. The accident further demonstrates the need for constant alertness, even in the best of climbers.

Northern Cascades, Washington: (2) Mt. Rainier. A dual accident occurred on Mt. Rainier in the early summer of 1948. J. H. Hagood was crossing a six-foot snow bridge, which collapsed. He was precipitated into the crevasse and buried under snow. He was unconscious when he was rescued, three or four minutes later, but promptly regained consciousness. Apparently at this time, one of the rescuers (M. Gilber, a member of the climbing party) slipped into a crevasse and suffered a broken ankle. He also was rescued by other members of the party, and returned to a hospital. A summer blizzard was in full swing at the time.

Source of information: newspaper account.

Analysis. The single newspaper account is vague and incomplete. Gilber is said to have fallen 200 feet (!) into a crevasse, but there is no mention of a rope. The exact location is not known, nor is it known whether the mishaps occurred on an ascent or on a descent. All in all, they would seem to have been the result of inadequate training.

Northern Cascades, Washington: (3) Mt. St. Helens. On 10 August 1948 L. W. Taylor (55) and two companions were climbing without rope on Mt. St. Helens. Taylor slipped and slid about 200 feet, and then fell 50 feet into a crevasse, where he was killed.

Source of information: newspaper account.

Analysis. This again appears to be a case of persons attempting a climb beyond their capacities. Lack of detailed information concerning the circumstances makes further comment unwarranted.

Olympics, Washington: (1) Mt. Anderson. On 4 September 1948 a party of five, including Ronald Nece (21), hiked into the Olympics from the Dosewallips Ranger Station to the Anderson Pass shelter. On the 5th the party crossed Anderson Glacier and Flypaper Pass, to approach Mt. Anderson. Observing the time, the party decided that it would be unwise to attempt the ascent and therefore returned over Flypaper Pass, at about 3.00 P.M. Nece and McMillan descended by the snow finger, while the other three descended by the rocks. Nece had gone down only about ten feet when he realized that he was in a dangerous spot. Attempting to retrace his steps, he lost his footing and slid about 100 feet down the snow and off into the 20-foot crevasse between the snow finger and the rocks. He suffered severe lacerations and a broken kneecap. Two of the party remained with him, and the other two set out for help. A rescue party was formed, and the rescue was safely effected on the 6th.

Source of information: newspaper accounts.

Analysis. This accident appears to have been the result of a temporary lapse in the judgment of one man’s capacity, and of inability to correct the error soon enough. The party as a whole certainly had shown good judgment in postponing their climb.

Olympics, Washington: (2) South Brother. On 2 October 1948 a party of Bremerton High School students went into the Brothers Peaks. On the 3rd some of them attempted the South Peak, but most turned back a short distance from the summit because of rain and fatigue. Two decided to go on to the top, which they believed to be not far distant. These were Robert Thorson (17) and Jerry Heacock. Heavy fog and rain made visibility poor, and the two lost their way, but the survivor thought they reached the summit. Having failed to regain contact with the others, they spent the night on the mountain. At daybreak they started down, still off the regular route; and about 500 feet below the summit Thorson slipped and fell headfirst some 50 feet or more. He was instantly killed. A large rescue party reached the body 24 hours after the accident and, 20 hours later, returned it to the road.

Sources of information: newspaper accounts, and reports from members of the rescue party.

Analysis. A case that emphasizes the need for proper education and some supervised training of prospective enthusiastic climbers. The youths were unroped and poorly equipped—Thorson’s boots had only two or three Tricounis and a few loose hobs. The area in which the accident occurred is described by one of the rescuers as a series of cliffs and ledges joined by chimneys or gullies. The party separated below the summit, in rain and fog. Certainly, in deciding to wait for daybreak before descending, Thor- son and Heacock did show good judgment.

Southern Cascades, Oregon: Applegate Peak (Crater Lake National Park. On 6 August 1948 George M. Roest (18), a concessioner’s employee, off duty, fell to his death while climbing alone on Applegate Peak. Apparently he planned to skirt the peak, but either misunderstood or disregarded instructions.

Source of information: National Park Service.

Analysis. From the meager data, only the most general conclusions can be drawn: here was a lone climber of (apparently) little experience—not enough, anyhow, to know how to make use of instructions.

Sierra Nevada, California: (1) Half Dome (Yosemite National Park). On 19 June 1948 Chalmer J. Groff (19) and a friend, both National Park Service employees, off duty, were descending below the face of Half Dome, in sneakers. Groff slipped on a mossy rock and fell, almost striking his companion. He continued to fall— 70 feet over rough boulder terrain—and was instantly killed. The party was inexperienced and without a rope. The climb was classified by the Sierra Club as Class 3.

Source of information: National Park Service.

Analysis. Again, heavy payment for inexperience—and it might have been even heavier, since Groff’s companion narrowly missed being knocked off the cliff by Groff’s fall. But it should be pointed out that such an accident might happen even to the most experienced, and emphasized that one must always be on the alert to danger, even on the easiest and simplest climbs—especially descents.

Sierra Nevada, California: (2) Half Dome (Yosemite National Park). On 15 September 1948 Paul H. Garinger (30-35) was seen descending the cable on Half Dome. He stopped and appeared to be ill. Seconds later, he disappeared. It is thought that he fainted and then fell to his death.

The most severe forest fire in the history of the Park drew experienced personnel away, and thus hampered rescue operations. Recovery of the body was accomplished several days later by a small Sierra Club party, including Al Baxter, who had himself been rescued in a serious Yosemite accident the year before. Severe skull fracture indicated instant death.

Sources of information: National Park Service, and Sierra Club.

Analysis. The route is protected by two heavy steel cables as handrails, waist-high for 800 feet on smooth 43-degree granite slabs. It is intended for use by totally inexperienced persons. This was the first such accident in thousands of ascents since the cables were installed in 1919; it could have been caused by mountain sickness brought on by dehydration and overexertion on the rapid climb of 5000 vertical feet.

Sierra Nevada, California: (3) Mt. Humphrey. A party of five, having climbed Mt. Humphrey and descended from the summit area, were taking off the rope at the top of a scree chimney. Harry Abraham (27), leader of the party, was coiling the rope; others were above. He had instructed the others not to move. Someone dislodged a rock which, in turn, dislodged another rock. Abraham was unable to dodge both rocks, and one of them struck him. Knocked off balance, he tumbled some 50 feet, sustaining moderately severe lacerations and contusions about the head. This accident occurred on 17 August 1948.

Sources of information: newspaper accounts, and personal account from Abraham.

Analysis. This mishap emphasizes again the need for caution when a party is on loose rock. Extreme care must be taken to prevent dislodgement of rocks.

Near Tucson, Arizona. On 9 August 1948 John D. Anderson, a sheriff’s deputy, was assisting in the rescue of a 15-year-old boy who had become isolated on a cliff face the day before. Anderson had been lowered 500 feet down the 1000-foot cliff to the place where the boy was trapped. He then tied the rope around the boy; but, as the two were hoisted upward, he himself merely held onto the rope. About ten feet from the top, Anderson lost his grip and fell 1000 feet. He was instantly killed.

Source of information: newspaper account.

Analysis. This accident was the result of faulty rescue technique. Both persons should certainly have been tied to the rope, or else there should have been two trips or two ropes. The report failed to state whether Anderson had been tied in on the downward trip. Fatigue probably was an important factor in the loss of his grip on the ascent.

Rocky Mountains of Colorado: (1) Pikes Peak. On 24 July 1948 James Slack (20), a medical student at the University of Oklahoma, left Colorado Springs for a solo climb up Pikes Peak. He had been warned against the undertaking by the friends with whom he was staying, since he was inexperienced and poorly equipped. He is reported to have been wearing only a T-shirt and Army trousers for protection, and to have had very little food. When he failed to reappear the next day, search parties were organized by Scouts, 38th Regimental Combat Team troops and the sheriff’s office. On the 28th he was found dead, with a fractured skull, some distance below the summit. It was believed that he had lost his footing on some slabs and fallen 15-20 feet.

Sources of information: newspaper accounts, and Colorado Mountain Club reports.

Analysis. Another proof that a mountain is no place for a climber to be alone—especially if he lacks experience. What caused the slip will never be known, but the elements of tragedy were already present when the young man set out to climb a big mountain alone, poorly equipped, without mountain experience, and against the advice of friends. The spirit which urges men to try unknowns will, we hope, never die. But obviously more educational work, by mountaineering organizations, is needed to persuade prospective young climbers not to aim too high.

Rocky Mountains of Colorado: (2) The Flatirons (near Boulder). On 10 October 1948 a group of students from the University of Colorado climbed to the top of the first Flatiron by a short, easy route up the back. Two of them then decided to descend by the face, a tremendous slab that slopes at about 45 degrees. Climbing on this formation is primarily friction work. Abrupt endings of strata in the section which the boys chose to descend form several short but often impassable overhangs on the downhill side. The climbers had no knowledge of the route, and almost no climbing experience—as is indicated by the fact that one of them was wearing leather-soled shoes with steel heel-plates. The other, who was killed, was wearing composition soles.

At a point about 150 feet from the top, John Hawkins, who was descending first, slipped a short distance. Alarmed, he told his companion, Robert Pankey, who was about 25 feet higher, to stay where he was. A few seconds later, Pankey slipped and fell some 500 vertical feet down the slanting rock. Hawkins, unable to see the base of the rock, continued down the face until he was able to progress no further. A county park policeman witnessed the fall and summoned help. Rescue was effected by the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a volunteer organization. Apparently Pankey had been killed almost instantly. Newspapers stated that nearly every bone in his body had been broken.

Sources of information: members of the rescue party, Colorado Mountain Club report (Safety Committee), and newspaper accounts.

Analysis. Lack of equipment, and lack of experience. There was no rope in the party; but if there had been one, and if the boys had been tied in, the fall would very likely have been fatal to both. They were both freshmen at the University, 17 years of age. Probably they had been attracted by the notoriety of the Flatirons and encouraged by their success on the rather spectacular but easy climbing on the back. The Flatirons seem particularly deceptive for beginners: seven fatalities have occurred on them.

The case points up the extreme importance of educational work—of instruction in basic mountaineering—by local climbing groups. The Colorado Mountain Club has, in fact, carried on classes. While it must always be expected that some individuals will remain uninfluenced, this seems to be the only effective means whereby ambitious but inexperienced young climbers can be led to an understanding of proper techniques.

Rocky Mountains of Colorado: (3) Kreuger Rock (near Estes Park). On 31 July 1948 Donald and Ralph Vodicka (15 and 17) were climbing on a rock spire called Kreuger Rock, near Estes Park. This pinnacle is easily climbed on one side; on the others, it drops off precipitously. The two boys ascended by the easy route and then attempted a descent by one of the steep faces. They had no equipment, and they were decidedly inexperienced. Donald slipped and, unable to arrest himself, fell a short distance. The older boy tried to reach him. Before he could, Donald lost his hold and fell 150 feet. He was instantly killed. Ralph returned to the top and descended to his brother’s body by the easy route.

Sources of information: newspaper accounts, and National Park Service (Rocky Mountain National Park).

Analysis. Young, inexperienced, untrained climbers, they went up by the easy way—and tried something more exciting on the way down. Again one is driven to emphasize the need for instruction.

Rocky Mountains of Colorado: (4) Longs Peak. On 17 July 1948 B. B. Van Diver (21) and William Eubank (20) were attempting to climb the east face of Longs Peak by the Stettner Ledges. At some spot near the top of the ledges, Van Diver, who had taken a 20-foot lead beyond his last piton, slipped and fell. Eubank, who had secured himself to a piton, applied the principle of the “dynamic belay” and thus was able to arrest Van Diver’s 40-foot fall. Despite the “dynamic belay,” however, he was pulled tightly against his own belay piton. Van Diver suffered a head laceration and mild concussion. The excellent rescue team of the Rocky Mountain National Park effected a prompt rescue, and further injury and shock were avoided.

Sources of information: newspaper accounts, and Colorado Mountain Club reports.

Analysis. The exact cause of the slip is unknown. Still, the accident does demonstrate two important points. First, on difficult and exposed rock, a lead of 20 feet is too great, since a fall would be likely to cover double the distance and its force would be increased by acceleration. Second, good grounding in proper techniques of belaying can do much to avert disaster. The minimizing of injury in this case speaks well for the training of the climbers.

Tetons, Wyoming: (1) Nez Perce. On 5 July 1948 Winthrop Akin and Ben Pedrick, members of the Kachina Mountain Club, of Phoenix, Arizona, climbed Nez Perce from Jenny Lake by the usual route (west ridge and north face). They reached the summit at 12.45 P.M. While Pedrick was signing the register, Akin unroped and moved south of him, in order to take a photograph. While he was getting into position, he stepped on a large, loose rock on the edge. It tipped, or slid under his weight, and precipitated him into space. He fell approximately 80 feet, and on the way his head struck a projection with such force that he was instantly killed. After hitting solid ground, his body rolled for some distance. Pedrick climbed down and ascertained that Akin was dead. He then regained the summit and, in three hours, descended to Jenny Lake, where he reported the accident. Akin was 20 years old.

A recovery party under John de la Montagne left Jenny Lake at 4.00 A.M. on July 6th, located the body at 2.00 P.M., wrapped it in canvas, and raised it to the summit. A crew of eight and a relief crew of three lowered it thence to Garnet Canyon. It was then transported in a Stokes stretcher by horse to Jenny Lake, which was reached at 1.00 A.M. on the 7th.

Sources of information: National Park Service report, and letter from the president of the Kachina Mountain Club.

Analysis. No place on a steep mountain can be considered safe. Ordinary precautions are as necessary on the summit as elsewhere. The Kachinas are known to have paid a great deal of attention to proper training and safety in their local climbs, but unfortunately this is no permanent and sure preventive against human error.

The efficiency of the recovery team deserves special mention: it was due to forethought and to advance planning and training by the Park staff—a good example of what can be done in mountain areas by the Park organization. Also, the party lowering the bodv saved much time and effort by following the fall line throughout.

Tetons, Wyoming: (2) Nez Perce. Facts concerning another accident on Nez Perce are obscure. A rock dislodged by a climber above nearly severed a finger of a woman below. No special evacuation was necessary: the injured woman was helped down the mountain by her own party.

Source of information: conversation with individuals in the Tetons at the time of the accident.

Analysis. The data are so sparse that no complete analysis can be made. It can be said again, however, that leaders and others are responsible for those climbing below them, and that everyone must be extremely careful on loose rock. The excellence of the rock on many of the peaks in the Tetons should not be taken as eliminating the need for caution on others where the rock is more broken, e.g. on the upper slopes of Nez Perce.

Tetons, Wyoming: (3) Middle Teton. On 21 July 1948 a party of five from the Chicago Mountaineering Club, led by Paul Stettner and including also Mary Casebeer, John Farr, William Primak and Arthur Tielsch, left Garnet Canyon on their first day of climbing from high camp to try to find a new route on the north ridge of the Middle Teton via the lower saddle. They reached the summit early in the evening and descended by the south couloir to the saddle between the South and Middle Tetons. On this part of the descent, they lost their way; and they had to continue by moonlight. Not far below the saddle, the party unroped, because it was felt that the going would be easy; and Stettner led downward in a traverse of the upper tongue of a steep convex snow field that extends in a drop-off into the walls of the south fork of Garnet Canyon. The angle was estimated at about 30 degrees.

Mary Casebeer wore Bramani-type boots; Farr, Army combat boots with smooth soles and heels; the rest of the party, heavy leather boots nailed with Tricounis and hobs. There was one ice- axe in the party. In the descent they joined hands and proceeded diagonally downward, apparently intending to hit the point where the snow field narrows and to follow its crest along the rocks. About 80 feet short of the narrowing of the snow field, one member slipped and knocked Farr and Tielsch off their feet. Apparently the handhold between Farr and Tielsch was broken, and Tielsch slid down on his back. He slid about 300 feet, out of control, to a point where the snow field steepened to about 45 degrees, and then on for another 300 feet into a pile of scree. He was found shortly thereafter, dead, 40 feet below the snow.

After the accident the party roped and moved to safety along the upper edge of the snow field. When it had been ascertained that Tielsch was dead, Primak was sent down alone to summon help while the others of the party rested and awaited dawn. Primak reached headquarters at 7.30 A.M. on July 22nd. Park authorities and members of the Chicago Mountaineering Club packed equipment and reached the body at 4.00 P.M. Evacuation to the campsite in Garnet Canyon was accomplished by Stokes stretcher and a six- man carry. From there a horse-borne stretcher with special cargo saddle was used as far as the road at Lupine Meadows.

Sources of information: National Park Service report, and Chicago Mountaineering Club report.

Analysis. This accident resulted from a combination of fatigue, night climbing and failure to observe basic precautions on steep snow slopes. After a long day of climbing (especially if it be the first high climbing of the season), one must be careful not to underestimate the effects of fatigue on a party’s physical strength and on its judgment. It is well known that fatigue, plus a desire to escape the discomforts of an enforced bivouac, can lead even experienced climbers to far exceed the reasonable margin of safety without being aware of it. Moreover, the hazards of nighttime descent by an uncertain route on steep frozen snow are such as to suggest at least the careful use of rope and ice-axe—there was rope for all, and Primak had the axe—or the finding of another, less dangerous route. Since the party was under the leadership of a climber of some experience, one can only conclude that fatigue and the desire to get his party off the mountain at all costs must have obscured his recognition of the very real hazards to which he was exposing it.

Tetons, Wyoming: (4) Teewinot. Early on 7 August 1948 Dean and Lawrence Worth left Lupine Meadows to climb Teewinot. They had a good out-of-doors background, but little “alpine” experience. They had done a little work with the ice-axe on practice slopes, and Dean had undergone some training in New England with the Dartmouth Outing Club.

They reached the col between the two summits, but decided not to attempt the steep wall to the main summit. In the late afternoon they descended, coming from the steep, rocky upper slopes to the top of a steep snow field extending about 300 yards and terminating in a talus pile. They were in sneakers, and Dean had the only ice-axe. At the snow field they unroped, and Dean started across it with his brother holding onto his belt. A slip occurred, and both went sliding down the slope, head over heels, unable to check themselves. Eventually they smashed into a large rock near the bottom, and finally they came to rest on the talus. Lawrence had a severe compound fracture of the left leg, and Dean was cut up about the face. This was at 5.30 P.M. Dean left Lawrence with as much clothing as possible and made his way to Park headquarters, where he reported the accident at 7.30 P.M.

As after other accidents in the Park, rescue plans previously perfected were at once put into operation. An advance party was on the way shortly after 8.00 P.M., carrying morphine, penicillin, plasma, splints and sleeping bag. It arrived at the scene about 10.30 P.M. and, after first aid had been administered by Dr. John Holyoke, prepared the patient for removal. The main party, consisting of nine Park employes, arrived an hour later with a Stokes stretcher and commenced evacuation. A six-man crew, with reliefs, was used; route-finders were sent ahead. A heavy blowdown in Avalanche Canyon delayed the rescue, and it was not until 4.20 A.M. on the 8th that the carry was completed and the patient transferred to a waiting Park Service truck, which took him to Jackson.

Source of information: National Park Service report.

Analysis. Here is an example of ignorance of the hazards to be encountered on steep snow slopes, especially in the afternoon when they begin to harden. It may be natural for inexperienced climbers to regard the lower snow slopes of a mountain as offering no peril because they seem inconsiderable in comparison with the upper slopes. The brothers in this case so far disregarded the danger that they took off the rope before they started across the slope— despite the fact that they were both in sneakers and had only one ice-axe. They certainly had showed good judgment in deciding not to attempt the summit, but apparently they did not realize that a slip on steep, hard snow can produce just about the same effect as a free fall, and that under these conditions sneakers are most dangerous footgear.

Near Rollins Springs, Missouri. On 14 October 1948, 30 staff members of the Savitar, a University of Missouri student publication, were picnicking near Hinkson Creek. Richard K. Phelps, Jr. (20), attempted to climb a bluff near the creek. When a rock to which he was holding gave way, he fell backwards from a height of about 15 feet. He succumbed to head injuries without regaining consciousness.

Source of information: local information.

Analysis. Phelps was an enthusiastic potential climber: he read extensively and longed to climb mountains, but he had never had the opportunity. The case is one of tragically undirected enthusiasm.

Appalachian Mountains: (1) Mt. Katahdin. On 4 July 1948 Albertine Parker (about 25), a member of a large party, fell while she was trying to pass the first (lowest) chockstone in the Chimney route on Mt. Katahdin. She sustained a badly fractured left ankle and lacerations about the face and arms. The party, which was apparently not very experienced, was not using a rope. Rescuers were hampered by a large and treacherous snow field, which they avoided, and below it by boulders and bushes. Evacuation was completed six hours after the accident.

Sources of information: Appalachia, XXVII (December 1948), 240; and letter from H. J. Dyer, Supervisor of Baxter State Park.

Analysis. The Chimney route on Katahdin, though not extremely difficult, is yet difficult enough to warrant the conclusion that only experienced persons should attempt it. This was a case of an inadequately prepared person attempting something beyond her ability.

Appalachian Mountains: (2) Mt. Katahdin. On 4 September 1948 Mary Rossbach (25-30) was climbing with her husband on Mt. Katahdin. They had climbed to Baxter Peak from the Chimney Pond Campground and had crossed the Knife Edge to Chimney Peak. In the descent of Chimney Peak, a simple scramble, Mrs. Rossbach fell into Chimney Notch. She had been in an insecure stance where she had only one foothold and practically no handholds. She was knocked unconscious and suffered a severe scalp laceration. Another climbing party was in the vicinity, and two of its members remained with the Rossbachs while the third went down to notify the Park Ranger.

Much confusion ensued, for the accident was reported as having occurred at the base of the Chimney. Finding no signs of trouble there, the Ranger realized that the accident had been somewhere up on the mountain. The party was finally located in Chimney Notch at dusk. Mrs. Rossbach had regained consciousness, but was dazed. She was made comfortable, and supplies were brought up that night. In the morning she was assisted down the Dudley Trail, and arrived at the campground that night.

Sources of information: Appalachia, XXVII (December 1948), 240-41; and letter from H. J. Dyer, Supervisor of Baxter State Park.

Analysis. Reports indicate that Mrs. Rossbach’s climbing experience had been extremely limited, even for “a simple scramble.” Also, she has been described as a “large, heavy woman” and in poor physical condition. It would seem, therefore, that fatigue was a significant factor, and that the mountain had been underestimated and the climber’s abilities overestimated.


Study of this report reveals an increase in the proportion of accidents involving climbers of little or no experience and without experienced companions. Of the 28 climbing accidents in 1948 on which data were available, 20 resulted directly from ignorance of mountain problems and hazards. Most of the cases involved young persons who ventured onto cliffs or high mountainous terrain without recognizing fundamental dangers and how to deal with them. Acting independently, without guidance, they invited tragedy. One can not but conjecture that there were hundreds of similar situations in which the elements of tragedy were present but—by good luck—suppressed.

We can expect that mountains will always attract the adventurous. Often these are individuals who are impatient under instruction and control, and prefer to teach themselves—“to learn on their own.” Many of today’s and yesterday’s great climbers started thus. There are today, however, mountaineering organizations that make a point of encouraging novices and would-be climbers to benefit by the skill and judgment already won by older members. Climbing instruction—some of a very high order—is available in all but a few mountain areas. The efforts of the regional mountaineering clubs to teach safe and sound techniques have been, indeed, of enormous value; and further expansion in this field offers one of the brightest hopes for a reduction in the number of future accidents. Here is the most important single contribution that the clubs can make to American mountaineering, and one worthy of their best efforts.

The American Alpine Club, working through the safety representatives of mountaineering clubs and interested government agencies, can do much, we believe, in calling attention to mountain dangers and in helping to develop principles of safety. But our main reliance must be on the regional clubs: they, and they alone, are in close contact with the young climbers and able to start them out right in their home territories.

How to instruct the would-be climbers is of course not the only problem. Eight accidents—the one on Bugaboo Spire constituting a possible exception—resulted from carelessness or errors of judgment on the part of climbers having more than a novice’s experience. No mere listing of do’s and don’t’s is of much value here. The lesson is that constant care and attention are essential in the mountains at all times, and that the responsibilities of leadership call for extraordinary amounts of both, plus a degree of judgment representing far more than technical ability.

There are few of us, surely, who can not look back to errors and mistakes in judgment similar to those reported here. That ours did not develop into accidents should make us not more critical of those who have suffered, but more critical of ourselves and of our own climbing. There are few of us indeed who can afford not to learn from others’ mishaps.

* For the report by Dee Molenaar, see A.A.J., VII (Ian. 1949), 222-3.—Ed.

* We are indebted to Philip C. Bettler, who was a member of the party, for supplementary observations: “This was an accident which could not have been foreseen or avoided by the climbers … The first-aid equipment carried on the trip was very complete, and certainly indispensable. Besides the usual items to be found in such a kit, we had morphine tablets, Nembutol tablets, sulphadiazine and penicillin. Both Cricket [Miss Strong] and Ian had second- and third-degree burns, so painful that the sedatives were required to enable them to rest. The sulphadiazine was used to help prevent infection of the open wounds. The doctor at Cranbrook commended John Thune [in charge of first aid] on his care of the patients. [The injured were able to travel down to the roadhead on August 7th; they reached Spillimacheen by truck early on the 9th.]

“The storm struck with a sudden fury that could not be anticipated. The climbers sought refuge as far down the ridge as they could get in the time allotted them. It seems almost certain that they were not struck by a direct bolt, but rather intercepted ground currents resulting from a stroke higher up. The burns were confined to backs, hips and legs, and paths between. These were the places where they were probably touching the rock or each other. From an analysis of ground current effects, one may conclude that it is best to get away from vertical faces where one might be touching the rock with the upper part of the body as well as the lower, and to crouch in such a way as to maintain only one point of contact with the rock. For a more complete discussion of this problem, see J. Wilson and R. Hansen, ‘Lightning and the Mountain,’ Sierra Club Bulletin (1949).”

Cf. R. Hansen, “They Climbed to Their Death,” Saturday Evening Post, 14 May 1949, pp. 38-9, 142, 144-6, 148.—Ed.

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