American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

San Mateo Sea Cliffs, California: Devil's Slide

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1948

San Mateo Sea Cliffs, California: Devil’s Slide. On 17 August 1947 a local practice group from the Sierra Club was climbing on cliffs of disintegrating granite south of San Francisco. John Hood, leading an unfamiliar route, had placed three pitons for safety. At a point 40 feet above the belayer, the slope moderated somewhat on unsound rock. At that point, and with no further pitons for protection, he called out, “Falling!” He fell backwards, turning over in the air. He was too high above the nearest piton to be checked by the rope; and he struck the belayer’s ledge on one shoulder and the back of his head, sustaining a severe fracture of the skull from which he died about 16 hours later. The rope prevented a further fall. Telephone calls to experienced Sierra Club rock climbers, the County Hospital and the State Highway Patrol speeded the rescue. According to the attending physicians, the injury was so severe that no amount of speed would have saved his life. The reason for the fall is not known.

Source of information : Sierra Club Mountaineering Committee.

Analysis. On careful study, a Sierra Club Committee could find no fault with the climbing and rescue techniques employed. The committee could only conclude that Hood was so far above his last piton that, even if the rope had come into play, a 40-foot fall was bound to ensue. Hood was reasonably experienced and had a reputation as a conservative and careful climber; but, since most of his experience, according to reports, had been on the firm rock of Yosemite, he may not have had sufficient appreciation of the danger of unsound rock and of the need for additional care. Perhaps he relaxed his vigilance as the slope eased off, despite the poor quality of the rock, which should have kept him constantly on the alert. Whether the cause of his fall was a simple slip, loss of balance, or the collapse of a hold, is impossible to determine. One may conclude, however, that his margin of safety was too slim and that more awareness of this might have saved his life. Here might be emphasized the need for understanding that such climbing is dangerous and that only constant care, watchfulness and recognition of one’s limitations can eliminate the danger factor.

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