California, Yosemite (2)—On April 15, 1955 Don Claunch and George W. Whitmore attempted a direct ascent of Eagle Peak via the east face. Approximately 1,200 feet above camp Four. They were engaged in a traverse. Don led the pitch, placing a piton at a point which required considerable care; as Whitmore followed, he removed the piton. While attempting to negotiate a smooth step his remaining foot slipped. Since his hands were on under holds at the time, he lost four points simultaneously. As he dropped on the rope he was swung in an arc of perhaps 30 feet across steep slabs, being brought to an abrupt halt as he slammed into a wall which abutted the slabs at right angles. The actual vertical distance covered was about 15 feet, the effect being that of dropping 15 feet onto a sidewalk while in a prone position. This fall resulted in the loss of three teeth, a fractured jaw, an elbow bone chip, and the expected sprains, lacerations, abrasions, and contusions. Fortunately the cliff face had been studied previously from the valley floor, thus permitting the selection of a rappeling route which involved a minimum amount of climbing. Even so, the descent was so exhausting that he was forced to spend the night on the talus, finishing the descent in the morning with the additional assistance of John Ohrenschall.
Source: George Whitmore.
Analysis: (George Whitmore) “It might appear, at first thought, that this accident was caused because a second piton had not been placed by the leader. It is frequently overlooked that a traversing leader, in order to protect his second man, must place a piton after passing the difficult spot, as well as placing one before to protect himself. To let it go at this would be a gross oversimplification. The fact remains that the fall was caused by a slip, something over which I had complete control, something which I never should have allowed to happen, and yet which did happen. Why? The reason I fell was not that I slipped. That was merely the means to the end. In retrospect, I am convinced that, had I not fallen at that point, I would have fallen later that day. I am not one to worry, and, ordinarily, I am able to exercise reasonable control over my feelings and emotions. At that time, however, I was emotionally upset. Because of this, I was accident prone, and unable to realize it. I had had two close calls immediately preceding the fall, but had failed to recognize them for the warning signs that they were. Just as an emotionally disturbed person should not drive a car or engage in other potentially dangerous activities, so I should not have been climbing that day.
“In summarizing, then, the accident can be attributed to (a) relying on under-hand holds when the footing is insecure; (b) failure to have in a second piton to protect the last man on a traverse; (c) climbing while emotionally upset.”