American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Symmetry Spire

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1961

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Symmetry Spire (3)—On August 29, Sven Wihrheim (21) and Elwynn Taylor (18) attempted to climb the Durrance Ridge. They began the first lead at 1:30 p.m.

Elwynn Taylor had anchored himself to a rock nubbin and was belaying Wihrheim as he began the third lead on the climb. Wihrheim was 80 feet above and out of sight of his belayer when he encountered a mass of large loose rock that gave way with him. He fell amidst this shower of rocks a total of 170 feet, striking two ledges during the fall. Taylor suffered very severe rope burns to his left hand and forearm in bringing Wihrheim to a stop with a 10 foot dynamic belay. Taylor then exhausted the remainder of the rope in an attempt to lower the unconscious Wihrheim to a ledge below. The time was 2:15 p.m.

A party of three climbers in a nearby couloir had, fortunately, witnessed the fall. Two of them went directly to the aid of Taylor and his injured companion, while the third dashed hastily down to the valley for help. The two climbers, Art Burr and John Greenlee, climbed up to Wihrheim and tied him into their rope. They then cut the taut belay line that led to Taylor and lowered Wihrheim the remaining distance to the base of the ridge. There they made him comfortable and administered what aid they could. Wihrheim was still alive but suffering from a possible fractured skull and severe lacerations about the head, that were bleeding freely.

Meanwhile Shepard Burr had reached the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. Two members of the Park Rescue team, Pete Sinclair and Dave Dornan, were on their way with a sleeping bag and first aid equipment by 4:00 p.m. on the chance that the victim was alive. They reached the accident scene two hours later. By 8:00 p.m. seven more members of the rescue team had arrived and the victim was prepared for travel by 8:30 p.m.

During the first stages of the carry-out, Wihrheim, who was quite delirious, was very difficult to handle. He manifested tremendous feats of strength in trying to extricate himself from the sleeping bag and litter into which he was securely tied. However, as the descent continued, his condition became more bearable. Two periodic injections of Demerol undoubtedly aided in quieting him down somewhat.

A second team of three men joined forces with the rescue party at 10:30 p.m. and the evacuation was completed via boat across Jenny Lake at 3:00 a.m.

Source: J. M. Langford, Park Ranger, and H. L. Bill, Superintendent, G.T.N.P.

Analysis: From all appearances, Wihrheim paid insufficient attention to the danger of dislodging loose rocks, which undoubtedly contributed directly to his fall. It is questionable whether the terrain warranted a piton for protection, although a considerable degree of exposure is experienced on the entire ridge. The fact that Wihrheim’s most serious injuries were about the head, again gives rise to the query: “Would a hard-hat have helped?” The belayer, Taylor, was wearing only one glove.

Had the other hand been protected, his injuries would have been negligible. It is worth noting here that the climber reporting the accident left the scene in such haste that he had very little specific information other than the fact that a fall had occurred.

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