American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Devil's Thumb

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1956

Colorado, Devil’s Thumb—On Sunday, August 7, 1955, John Auld (16), Jim Auld (19), and Sheldon Schiager (18) drove from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the Boulder area intending to climb the Maiden, a popular rock formation famous for the spectacular free rappel from its summit. They evidently misunderstood instructions they had been given for finding the Maiden, and they hiked to the base of the Devil’s Thumb. Devil’s Thumb is in the same area as the Maiden; it is similar in appearance to the Maiden, and is often mistaken for the Maiden. The two rock formations

are visible from each other, but not easily recognized. Unaware of their error, the three climbed the Thumb, reaching the top at about 1:00 p.m. Here they had some suspicion that they were not on the right rock, because the summit did not look quite as it had been described to them. There is a register on the Thumb, but the title page was missing.

At about 1:30 the party prepared to rappel from the rock. John started to rappel first, using a single strand 7/16 inch nylon rope and a French type of rappelling device which takes all rope friction away from the body. He rappelled to the edge of the overhanging face and saw that the rope did not reach to the bottom. He estimated that it would stretch to a small ledge from which he could climb down, and so he continued with the free part of the rappel. Up to this point he was belayed, but the combination of the single strand rope and the rappel device made him twist in circles, tangling the belay rope with the rappel rope. The belay rope was untied and thrown down. John then rappelled to the end of his rope and found himself several feet above the ledge to which he had planned to jump. He swung in towards the ledge and jumped for it. He either missed the ledge or fell from it. He fell a distance of about 80 feet down the 45- to 60-degree face, landing on a ledge still far above the ground. Jim and Sheldon saw where he had fallen and began rappelling and climbing down the way they had come up. When they got down they found that John had fallen some 40 or 50 feet more from where they had first seen him. He had landed on a narrow ledge just a few feet above the ground. He was semi-conscious and appeared badly injured. Jim stayed with John while Sheldon went for help.

Sheldon drove to Boulder, called an ambulance, and returned with the ambulance driver to the scene of the fall. Realizing that he could do nothing, the driver told Sheldon to return to Boulder and notify the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. Sheldon called the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group at about 5:30 p.m., telling them that the climber had fallen from the rappel on the Maiden, and had landed at the base of the rock on the south side. Actually, the injured body was at the base of the north side of Devil’s Thumb, a mile away from the Maiden.

Ten Rocky Mountain Rescue members reached the south side of the Maiden at 7:00 p.m. Sheldon had remained in Boulder. Finding no sign of the accident, the group went around the rock to the north side. The group then prepared to search the three rocks in the area which might have been confused with the Maiden. One party returned to the cars to get in touch with Sheldon before going on to search the Matrom. Another party set out immediately to scout the unnamed rock immediately south of the Maiden. This party heard shouts from an adjacent valley. The shouts were from the ambulance driver, who was descending to find what was keeping the rescuers. The Rocky Mountain Rescue Group reached the accident scene at 10:00 p.m. A physician diagnosed the injuries as a broken leg and a possible broken back. John was given morphine, then placed in a Stokes litter. The evacuation began at 11:00. The litter was belayed as six men carried it down a half mile of steep, loose talus. Twelve more Rocky Mountain Rescue members joined the party at 1:30 a.m. The evacuation continued through a mile of rocky, densely timbered valley, reaching the cars at 4:00 a.m.

It turned out that John’s only serious injury was a broken back-compres- sion fractures of three vertebrae. His leg was not broken. The injury caused no damage to the spinal cord and John enjoyed a complete recovery.

Source: L. D. Lewis.

Analysis: L. D. Lewis.

Conversation with John Auld after the accident seems to show that the mistake of climbing the wrong rock was not a factor of the cause of the fall. Apparently the accident resulted entirely from John’s failure to judge the rappel properly. The erroneous report of the scene of the fall probably delayed the rescue another two hours. The accident shows the deceptive nature of vertical distances and points up the need for climbers to familiarize themselves with both the location of the rocks and the local agencies of rescue before making climbs in unfamiliar areas.

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.