American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The First Twenty-Seven Years, The Safety Report of the American Alpine Club

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1990

The First Twenty-Seven Years

The Safety Report of the American Alpine Club

Benjamin G. Ferris, Jr., M.D.

SHORTLY AFTER WORLD WAR II, in 1947, a large number, more than 300 climbing fatalities or accidents, were reported in Europe—mainly in Switzerland. Walter Wood, then president of the American Alpine Club, noted this and anticipated a similar situation in the United States. He commented:

“No mountaineer, looking back on the 1947 climbing season, can fail to be impressed and saddened by the shocking number of fatal or near-fatal accidents that have cast a shadow on the ever-broadening enthusiasm of our sport. Nor can he content himself—if he be a true mountaineer—to sit back and assuage his conscience with the vague hope that something will be done to foster a balanced understanding of mountaineering principles. Yet, with reason, he can ask, ‘What can the individual do?’

“To stimulate the thinking of all mountaineers and lovers of mountainous regions, the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club has prepared a survey of accidents which occurred in the summer of 1947, broadly analyz ing the factors which caused or contributed to the tragedy. To this survey the Committee has appended recommendations, implementations of which, it believes, will succeed in fostering national respect for the high places, wider understanding of established techniques, and a saner philosophical approach to the benefits which accrue to those who would know the mountains.

“I commend to you this survey, not as a finished product, but as food for thought; not as a localized effort but as a challenge to national action. Only through the cooperation of all those who love the mountains can ignorance be replaced by experience, sound discretion and mature judgment. Safe climbing means more enjoyment.”1

These words are as timely now as they were then. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The first Safety Committee was formed in 1947 by the action of Walter Wood and was chaired by William P. House. The other members were M. Beckett Howorth, Maynard M. Miller and David A. Robertson, Jr. Their report was presented as a separate booklet2 that was later to be the format followed by similar separate reports.

Miller was the chairman of the second Safety Committee. Also serving were Ome Daiber, Howorth, Richard Leonard and I. The report for 1949, or the second report, was compiled and written by Miller and published in the Amer ican Alpine Journal.3 This was the only one so published. All subsequent reports have been separate entities like the first one. Miller also wrote the third report. John Fralick and Dr. Hans Kraus were added to the committee in 1950 and Hassler Whitney took Howorth’s place the next year. Fralick wrote the fourth report. He initiated the tabulation of accidents and their statistical information for the previous four years. I did the fifth report in 1952. Standardization of reports followed and it was quickly realized that critical demographic data and other specifics were not recorded. This was accomplished by a simple question naire, completed by those individuals in the accident or rescue operations. Some accidents were reported by others from newspaper reports or personal knowl edge of the incident. I expanded the statistical categorization of accidents. Since Miller’s geological and glaciological responsibilities were making demands on his time, he resigned and I became the Chairman of the Safety Committee in 1952.

The accident report form was made more detailed and informative by Dr. Thomas O. Nevison as a part of his work as a student at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1958-59 when he was a candidate for a Master’s degree in the Aerospace Program directed by Dr. Ross McFarland.

From the material collected through the reports and standardized question naires, we were able to develop risk estimates based on estimated man-mountain days in 1954 through 1956. These man-mountain days were developed from data provided by the larger mountaineering clubs over a two-year period. We obtained estimates of man-mountain days from the National Parks, against which we could compare the accident rates and separate data for rock climbing (Yosemite) and snow climbing (McKinley) from additional information from the parks. These were rough comparisons, but they were the best we could do. We always worry about the adequacy of our information. In general our data are under-reported due either to not enough information or to persons not reporting the event. We encouraged many reports even if they resulted in duplications. We have had rare instances in which the individual(s) involved refused to report their accidents. Sometimes we have obtained the information and included the data in the statistical tables and not reported the information in the written text.

Comparisons were made with data from other sports. The mountaineering accident rates were comparable to those in other sports when “standardized” for periods of risk or exposure, but the mortalities were higher. In 1959, more detailed analyses were possible and the results were presented in graphic form. The data collected were used as a basis for two articles in the New England

Journal of Medicine.4,5 in 1963. Further discussions of various aspects of mountaineering safety were presented in the Encyclopedia of Sport Sciences and Medicine6 in 1971.

The Safety Report went through a series of changes in its title. The first report in 1948 was called Mountaineering Safety: Report of the Safety Commit tee. The second report in 1949 was entitled Safety in the Mountains; in 1950, Safety and the Climber; in 1951, Alpine Accidents; and in 1952, Accidents in American Mountaineering, which was used thereafter until 1962 (14th report) when it was called Accidents in North American Mountaineering. The last title resulted because the Alpine Club of Canada joined in collecting data for the report in 1960 and has continued to do so. Also, initially some accidents from South and Central America had been included. These were soon dropped because there were no persons available to monitor the situations and submit reports. Thus, the eventual title Accidents in North American Mountaineering seemed to be a more accurate description of the geographic area which was being reported on.

The accident report stimulated the development of the Mountain Rescue Association. This group was particularly active in the Western states. The following is a brief account of the Mountain Rescue Association prepared with the help of George Sainsbury.

The Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) was formed in 1959 following a decade of inter-unit summer training conferences and two years of organiza tional meetings. Peter K. Schoening, Western Vice-President of the American Alpine Club and a past president of the Mountain Rescue Council, was keenly aware of this development, and in anticipation of it Schoening and Sainsbury explained a proposed project to coordinate mountain-safety education and rescue at the 1958 Annual Meeting of the American Alpine Club in Philadel phia. The most visible outcome of this was the inclusion of a listing of the existing mountain rescue groups in the 1959 Safety Report, a practice that continues to this day.

The proposed safety-education program was presented to the MRA board by the AAC Safety Committee member John Humphreys and MRA Vice-President Darrell Looff in October, 1960 in Yakama, Washington. Samples of proposed flyers were distributed. Nine of these were eventually developed by the MRA and published by the AAC to provide basic information to climbers throughout North America interested in organizing mountain-rescue teams.

George Sainsbury was asked to direct this program at the February MRA Board Meeting in 1961. Later in the year he reported on the program to the AAC Board of Councilors and the first article, “National Search and Rescue Plan,” was nationally distributed with the AAC News. The 1961 Safety Report included an article about the MRA and a general endorsement of the new association by the Board of Councilors of the AAC.

A joint AAC-MRA committee composed of Sainsbury, Ezra A. Campbell and Richard Pooley was formed to develop a supplemental report on rescues and the first of these reports appeared in the 1963 Safety Report. At this time a rescue report form was added to the accident-report form. Results from these question naires were used to determine how rescue operations could be improved. Three rather extensive annual rescue reports were prepared together with statistical tables, but the later reports were more sporadic. Eventually, this material was absorbed directly into the accident reports, if included at all.

Our format for the annual report was copied by some of the European climbing clubs and our questionnaire, properly modified, was used by spelunk- ers or cavers for their accident reports. I believe that our reports have been effective in educating persons to the hazards of mountain climbing and how to climb safely. Data to support this is almost impossible to come by. The best I can say is that the reports have been used repeatedly by various climbing organiza tions in their training programs.

Our philosophy from the start of the Safety Committee was to be as objective as possible and not to point a finger directly at any person or persons. Usually the reports themselves did an adequate job of describing the problems or errors. If analyses were presented, especially by the person(s) involved, they were pub lished. The fundamental effort was to try to let the material speak for itself and to make it useful as teaching material in learning how to enjoy mountaineering safely, which is really what Walter Wood stated in his introduction to the first report in 1947.

Very rarely has a report produced any negative reaction. Responses gener ally have been positive. I do recall one case in which there was a question of equipment failure or misplacement by the victim. In this instance a series of letters back and forth resulted without any real animosity. In another instance, I published two accounts, one by the victim and one by the reporters or rescuers. I was concerned that neither was entirely objective and so I left it up to the reader to decide what the facts were.

I was fortunate in not becoming involved in litigations, which now seem to be increasing. I hope this unfortunate development does not get out of hand. At the start of the reports, in the late 1940s to the early 1950s, no litigation had occurred. Later, primarily as a result of an accident on Mount Temple near Lake Louise, more concern arose. I personally was not involved in that incident.

I did most of the collating, tabulating and preparation of the reports and other material that the committee members supplied from 1952 to 1973 because it seemed more efficient. The committee members and others are to be com mended for their cooperation and the effort they contributed. They are the unsung heroes of our safety effort.

I continued as Chairman until 1974. Jed Williamson took over in 1975 and has done an excellent job since then. I have been a member of the Safety Committee from 1948 until the present.

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