American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rocky Mountains of Colorado: (2) The Flatirons (near Boulder)

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1949

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.

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