American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Accidents in American Mountaineering Sixth Annual Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club 1953

  • Editorials And Prefaces
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1953

The year 1952 unfortunately was one of the worst on record in the United States. The total number of reported accidents attributable to mountaineering in a broad sense was the greatest—35 total, the number of fatalities was exceeded only by those occurring in 1948. At first glance this would appear to be an extremely discouraging situation. However any compilation and comparison of statistics is hazardous. Whether the reporting has been complete, or at least equally complete in the different years is important in making comparisons. The committee does not wish to minimize the significance of the increase in the number of accidents, but points out that much interest has been stimulated recently in mountaineering and in mountaineering safety and that there are more climbers, and more of the accidents are being reported.

A not inconsiderable number of the reports of accidents included in this report have come from members of the party involved in the accidents. This is a healthy attitude and gives the committee the advantage of first hand information. Most of these accidents were not fatal and it is in this category that it is hardest to obtain complete reporting.

Comparing the numbers of accidents in various categories is interesting; for example in different age groups. Most of the accidents reported have involved persons 15 to 25 years of age. On the basis of this one might conclude that it is best to climb after the age of 25, or think, ‘naturally these are the young and inexperienced.” This is an important problem as such, but in the comparison of the numbers of accidents it is only a part of the whole. There are undoubtedly many more climbers in the younger age groups. A satisfactory comparison requires knowing the total number of climbers in the different age groups or better still knowing the number of days that these various climbers climbed. This would permit the calculation of an accident rate based on the duration of risk, similar to those calculated for the hazards of air travel. This latter is based on the number of passenger miles, or passenger air hours. As pointed out in earlier reports from this committee the accident rate is probably low. This rate may show fluctuation from year to year which could be attributable to chance alone rather than to improved education of the climbers. Since we are dealing with human beings this variation may be classified as that ever present variable—‘the human element.’

Many individuals have contributed time and thought to the compilation of the following data. In addition, the National Park Service, U. S. Forest Service, and numbers of mountaineering and outdoor clubs have been most cooperative. These groups have also done much in keeping the accidents as low as they are. They deserve much credit for their efforts.

The following tables present a summary of the various accidents for the year 1952. Comparable figures for the previous five year period reported in the 1952 report are included for comparison. This break-down is not as complete as would be liked since the information in many instances was not adequate.

As has been emphasized in previous reports and by others the greatest number of accidents occur on the descent. This underlines the need for constant vigilance and attention to detail especially on the descent. Once the summit has been reached, the stimulus for attentiveness becomes less and there is likely to be a relaxation of concentration. The results speak for themselves.

Geographical Distribution of Accidents

1947-1951

1952



Appalachian Mts.—New Eng. and N. Y.

6

2



Southern 



1



Colorado Rockies 

12

9



Utah 

—

2



Tetons and Wind Rivers

11

3



Montana Rockies

1

1



Arizona and New Mexico

3

—



Sierra Nevada 

9

7



Cascades—Oregon 

13





Cascades—Washington 



9



Olympics—Washington 

—

1



Practice Cliffs—all regions

3

—



Terrain







Rock 

39

27



Snow 

21

8



Unknown 

6

—



Ascent or Descent







Ascent 

17

9



Descent 

31

14



Unknown 

18

12



Immediate Cause







Fall or slip on rock

21

13



Loose rock (Handhold pulled out)

5

5



Falling rock 

6

3



Failure of rappel

3

2



Slip on snow or ice

13

4



Fall into crevasse

2

2



Loss of control in voluntary glissade

3

2



Avalanche 

2





Lightning

1

1



Failure to follow route

—

1



Stuck rope 

—

1



Unknown 

10

1



Contributory Causes







Climbing unroped 

21

14



Climbing alone 

6

5



Attempt to excel abilities

4

3



Darkness 

3

2



One 

6

5



Two

18

10



Three

11

13



Four

5

3



Five

4

1



Six Or over

7

8



Unknown

15

5



Ages of Individuals







15-20 

38

13



“young or college age”

30

1



21-25 

13

7



26-30 

2

3



31-35 

4

2



over 35

3

2



Unknown



8



Affiliation with Climbing Group







Unaffiliated 

26

6



Not stated

18

17



Member of mountaineering club

18

11



Estimate of Experience







None or little

30

16



Moderate 



7



Experienced 

18

4



Unknown 

18

7



Month of the year—1952



April 

3



May

3



June





July 

11



August 

11



September 

3



October 

3



November

1



Unroped climbing is still dangerous. There are conditions under which it might be dangerous to be roped, as in areas where there is a large amount of loose rock that the rope could knock off and cause to fall on other members of the party, but proper rope handling would keep such occurrences to a minimum. The teaching of proper rope techniques should be a primary objective of any training program. The rope should be looked on as an aid, not looked down upon as a hindrance or for those who are afraid. Proper rope technique is a sign of a polished, well-grounded mountainer.

This year the number of accidents on rock was more than those occurring on snow or ice. An evalution of the relative hazards of rock climbing as compared with snow or ice climbing will depend upon the accident rates in the two types. This can only be obtained if the total number of climbs on rock and ice and snow is known. Since the snow accidents are less than the rock accidents it seems likely that there is more rock climbing than

snow and ice climbing. If so, then the two rates may be equal or if rock climbing is much more popular, the snow and ice rate may be even higher.

Any analysis of accidents of this sort must be approached humbly. It is not our purpose necessarily to lay blame, but rather to point out possible errors so that we may learn from the experience of others. How many readers as they read over the following reports can say, “There but by good fortune go I”? Many who have spent much time in the mountains, climbing or hiking, have experienced near accidents. That an accident did not occur may have been in part due to good fortune. Frequently, however, it is due to the alertness of the individual or individuals concerned; the quick belay, the anticipation of dangerous conditions, or innate dexterity. This re-emphasizes the need for a careful training program with much attention to detail so that the “mountaineer” thinks automatically, and appreciates dangerous conditions. Some time ago the Colorado Mountain Club ran a series of sketches in their bulletin entitled, “It Can’t Happen To Me—but it did.” All of the incidents involved documented happenings. They demonstrated that constant attention to apparently minor detail was important.

A short bibliography is appended below. This collection is an excellent basis from which to start a training program and all beginning climbers should study this group as a minimum. It is by no means a complete list.

Mountain Craft—Geoffrey Winthrop Young

Handbook of American Mountaineering—K. A. Henderson (copies are still available from the AAC clubhouse).

Belaying the Leader—R. M. Leonard and A. Wexler—Sierra Club Bulletin 31:68, 1946.

Snow Structures and Ski Fields—Gerald Seligman

Benjamin G. Ferris, Jr. Weston Mass., Chairman

Hassler Whitney Princeton, N. J.

John F. Fralick Detroit, Mich.

Hans Kraus New York, N. Y.

Evelyn Runette Denver, Colo.

John de la Montagne Laramie, Wyo.

Ome Daiber Seattle, Wash.

Ralph Johnson Seattle, Wash.

Russell McJury Portland, Ore.

William Siri Berkeley, Calif.

Raymond de Saussure San Francisco, Calif.

James Bonner Pasadena, Calif.

Maynard M. Miller Cambridge, England

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