Accidents in American Mountaineering, Fourteenth Annual Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club

Publication Year: 1961.

This is the fourteenth annual report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club and it is with great pleasure that we announce that we are including those accidents that occur in Canada in this report. This has been made possible with the cooperation and enthusiastic assistance of the Alpine Club of Canada. Because of the splendid possibilities for climbing in Canada and the amount of climbing that is done, it has seemed logical to include any mountaineering accidents that may occur in Canada. There are, therefore, reports of two accidents that occurred in 1959 and two reported for this year from Canada. It is planned to keep separate geographical statistics, for the various provinces of Canada, as is done with the States. The other aspects such as cause, terrain, number in party, etc., will be pooled with the data from the United States.

A number of accidents occurred in the United States in 1959 that were not previously reported. These have been included and the tables have been corrected accordingly. Tabular data concerning the accidents will be found in the back of this report.

The year 1960 has produced a large number of accidents, some of them resulting in death to the whole party. The tragedy on Mt. Wadding- ton resulted in four deaths, lightning apparently caused the death of three persons in Colorado on Arapaho Peak. In addition three other accidents resulted in two deaths per accident. Hawaii has reported its first mountaineering accident. During the search and rescue operations one of the rescuers was injured fatally. Because of this and because it appeared as if there were a relatively large number of accidents during rescue operations that resulted in injury to the rescuers, the numbers of persons involved have been included in the tabular material. This gives added weight to the statement that rescuers risk their lives and limbs to save the unfortunate victim. If we should calculate the rates on the basis of this year’s experience it would be extremely high. This may be an abnormal year. Further experience along this line will be needed to clarify the risk. It does emphasize the hazardous nature of rescue operations and the need for a well-trained, well-equipped group. The newly formed Mountain Rescue Association discussed in the back of this report has been established to improve mountain rescue operations and to act as a central clearing house for ideas and information. Its founding is most timely.

In a number of accidents reported the individuals who were going for help almost became victims themselves in their haste. In some instances the information given to the rescue group was scanty and vague. If you are going for help remember it is important for you to get there. The lives of the victim and possibly others depend upon you. Be sure you have the facts and clearly describe the location of the victim and the extent of his injuries. Sending more than one person is best but not always possible. Two persons will gain support from each other and not be in so much of a hurry. Their information may complement each other and the rescue group will have a much better idea of their problem.

Three accidents resulted from avalanches, and resulted in a total of five deaths. Knowledge of snow conditions and when slopes are likely to avalanche is a must for climbers who plan to climb on ice and snow. The Appalachian Mountain Club is planning to reissue Bill Putnam’s articles on snow conditions. These should be available soon and before next winter’s climbing season.

Winter mountaineering is increasing. Such mountaineering requires special knowledge and precautions. The weather can change abruptly in mountainous terrain and, under winter conditions, survival may not be possible without extra clothing, food, and shelter. Failure to have good leadership and adequate supplies may lead to frostbite, severe exposure, and death. The responses of the human body to cold were summarized in this section last year. A more complete discussion has appeared in Appalachia, June, 1960, by Marlin B. Kreider. That article is recommended for all mountaineers. To insure safe winter climbing the Adirondak Mountain Club has established special requirements for those who do winter climbing.

Adequate leadership is the most important factor on any trip. Under good sound leadership difficult trips can be accomplished safely, successfully, and with enjoyment to all. Good leadership also implies a willingness to turn back when, in the judgment of the leader, the abilities of the group are not adequate for the climb, or if conditions are such that continuance is too hazardous. The surest sign of a good leader is the presence of this quality of judgment. It has been the presence or absence of this quality along with appropriate experience that has formed the basis for the various leadership qualifications offered by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Mountain Leadership Committee has been in operation almost three years. The requirements for the five grades were presented in the 1959 report. As of November 15, 1960, the following number of individuals had been approved to these grades: Grade 1, 71; Grade 2, 44; Grade 3, 11; Grade 4, 15; and Grade 5, 11. Training sessions have been held for these various grades except Grade 5. For further information interested persons should contact W. L. Putnam, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Injuries due to falling rocks are still occurring. Although hard hats will not insure protection from tremendous rocks they do offer considerable protection and their use is strongly encouraged. The committee also welcomes reports of accidents in which a hard hat has saved a head and a life. Perhaps we should have a special group like the silk worm group whose lives have been saved by parachutes, or the group whose eyes have been saved by safety glasses. Perhaps they could be called the pumpkin heads!

A special incident has come to the attention of the committee. Since it is not a mountaineering incident it has not been placed in the section of reported accidents. It does, however, present a condition of which mountaineers and particularly mountaineers engaged in winter climbing should be aware. A girl from the University of New Hampshire who had had considerable winter camping experience made her camp beside a parking lot at a ski resort in early April. The weather had been warm and there was melt water on the ice. It also rained during the night and one report stated she was in a snow cave. She was in a sleeping bag covered by a tarp. She was found dead in the morning and the edges of the tarp were frozen to the ice. Since there was no sign of her having struggled and she had been in good health and spirits previously, it is presumed she suffocated. This is possible, since the air under the closely lying tarp would have a limited supply of oxygen. As this supply was used up she would gradually lapse into unconsciousness and finally death. Carbon dioxide would be exhaled and might be expected to cause her to awaken. This gas, however, is quite soluble and might be absorbed by the moisture accumulated under the tarp. The insidious nature of low oxygen mixtures is not appreciated and since the effect causes a dulling of the senses even experienced persons exposed to low concentrations of oxygen do not realize that their faculties are failing, and death results. This episode demonstrates that impermeable tarps should not be allowed to freeze to the ground surfaces, unless there is opportunity for adequate ventilation. A similar explanation could account for the death of Tolland on Mt. St. Elias reported in the 1959 report.