AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

French-Italian Alps: the Dent du Géant

French-Italian Alps: the Dent du Géant. On 18 August 1949 a party of four Americans was climbing this peak from the Rifugio Torino in Italy. They were paired in ropes of two each. At the time of the accident, J. Graham McNear (Chicago Mountaineering Club) was leading Irving Fisk (Harvard Mountaineering Club) on the first rope, and John F. Speck (Chicago Mountaineering Club) was ahead of David J. Taylor (Dartmouth Mountaineering Club) on the second. At about 10 A.M. they had finished scrambling up the easy part of the climb, and three of them waited on a wide ledge while McNear led the first and most difficult pitch on the main massif. He advanced up a flake and around a corner and disappeared from view directly above Fisk, at a distance of about 60 feet. There he put in a piton and started up again. In the meantime, a party of Italians arrived at the base of this pitch. Out of courtesy, to speed up the climb, Speck and Taylor moved closer along the ledge so that they came to sit by Fisk. They felt no need of a belay and laid the rope in a neat coil between them. McNear had by then climbed a short distance above the piton, but suddenly he slipped. He made no outcry. Fisk felt the rope go loose; and, as he heard the rasp of McNear’s clothing on the rock, he looked up to see the rope drop slack behind the flake without any tension ever being felt. The pop of the piton pulling out had been immediately followed by the snap of the rope as McNear’s falling weight broke it over the knife-edge of the flake. Falling directly from above, McNear’s body hit Speck. Both disappeared in complete silence. Taylor saw only Speck’s feet go over the edge of the ledge, and the entire coil of rope which was between them unwound before Taylor had time to take a stance. Most of Speck’s momentum was absorbed when he hit a steep ice slope below and hung suspended by the rope. The impact brought Taylor half-way to the edge of the ledge, but fortunately he was not pulled off. The two men who had fallen were killed instantly. With the aid of the Italian party on the ledge and a British party close behind them, the guide service was informed; and that afternoon anti evening the bodies were brought down to Courmayeur.

There is no readily apparent reason for McNear’s fall. He was well-trained in rock climbing in the United States and had completed several difficult climbs earlier in the summer, among them the Charmoz and the Grepon. The rope was nearly new, and it is considered by members of the party that Fisk’s belay would have been strong enough to withstand the shock of McNear’s weight, had he not fallen outside the flake which cut the rope. Whatever lessons can be garnered from this tragedy probably do not lead to criticism of McNear’s rock technique, although it is known that he particularly liked to use wafer-type pitons and hence may not have inserted a piton large enough to ensure a substantial margin of safety. What can be fairly said, however, is that, on mountains where a large number of parties are interested in climbing at the same time, if one party feels rushed it must take special care not to hurry along too rapidly, and not to permit one rope to remain waiting directly beneath another. It is possible that McNear felt a psychological pressure to speed up his climb, although the route was one which he had not climbed before, because he knew that an Italian and an English party were coming from below.