American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Capitol Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1958

Colorado, Capitol Peak—On July 25, 1957, John W. Heckert, a student at Eileen Ginter and Richard A. Slusser left the Colorado Mountain Club’s camp at Snowmass Lake to explore a possible route to Pierre Basin and Capitol Peak. They left at 4:40 A.M.; all carried ice axes, and they had one 120-foot rope. They reached the pass into Pierre Basin by 7:30, and since they were making good time, they decided to attempt the peak. The weather was overcast but not stormy.

They approached the east ridge of Capitol Peak from the south. Three gullies were seen to lead to this ridge, the most easterly looking the easiest; they climbed this gully and followed the ridge to the summit. The ridge was very narrow, rough, and wet from light sleet which had begun to fall, and it took an hour and a half to traverse the ridge, a distance of well under a mile. They reached the summit soon after 1:00 p.m.

Returning, they soon came to the westernmost of the three gullies they had seen from below. Rather than retrace their steps over the wet knife-edge ridge, they decided to explore this gully as an alternative route. Slusser went ahead down the first 300 feet, which was a narrow couloir with rock walls and no snow. Below this, the gully broadened out and a snow slope began which seemed to provide a glissade route down to the basin. Slusser called to the others to join him, which they did, belaying as they came. At the bottom of the narrow section they removed the rope.

Heckert immediately prepared to glissade the snow without waiting for the others. Ginter was coiling the rope and did not see him start; Slusser was kicking steps in the top of the snow tongue and removing the guard from his ice axe when he saw Heckert start in a sitting glissade. He immediately picked up speed and rolled into a prone self-arrest position. Slusser saw the point of his axe bite into the hard snow, but it did not check his speed. Bouncing over bumps in the snow, Heckert flew through the air, hit a large boulder some 100 feet below his starting point, bounced off, and disappeared from sight. His body landed in a small crevasse 30 feet lower down. He was evidently killed instantly when his head struck the boulder. It took Ginter and Slusser a full hour, kicking steps all the way down, to reach him.

It was now evident that the snow slope down which Heckert had slid was convex and even steeper than had appeared at the top; moreover, the fall line led away from the center line of the gully to the side where the large boulder was. This could not be seen from above owing to the convexity of the snow and the flat light. (The sun had come out, but the gully was in shadow.)

Evacuation of the body took two days and was completed with help of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.

Source: Written and oral statements by Eileen Ginter and Richard Slusser, summarized by Harold Walton. See also Appalachia 31: 569, 1957.

Analysis: (By Harold Walton, safety chairman, Colorado Mountain Club.) The party was strong but lacked experienced and proper leadership. Slusser and Ginter had Colorado Mountain Club Class 3 ratings, but had done little technical rock climbing and little or no snow and ice work. Heckert, an Appalachian Mountain Club member, had signed out as leader of the party, but his experience was also very limited. He had climbed Snowmass Peak the previous day and no doubt overestimated his ability and judgement.

It is a pity so many climbers have to learn the hard way that snow can be treacherous. No experienced mountaineer would ever glissade a snow slope without having ascended it first or at least testing it and making very sure he knew where he was going.

The choice of a new and unknown route for the descent could be questioned, but it was understandable under the circumstances and need not have involved any danger had the party continued down the gully with as much caution as they had used initially.

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