Colorado, Long's Peak

Publication Year: 1961.

Colorado, Long’s Peak—On April 19, Prince D. Willmon (23) (Leader),

David L. Jones (18), Jane R. Bendixen (18) and James Greig, left Long’s Peak campground early to climb the east face of Long’s Peak. They reached the base of Alexander’s Chimney about 10:00 a.m. Here Greig turned back, feeling unwell. When the climbers had not returned to the campground by midnight, Greig notified the Rocky Mountain National Park authorities and the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder. There was cause for concern because a bad storm had struck the peak at three o’clock.

The Park administration sent two rangers, Robert Frauson and John Clark to investigate. They reached Chasm Lake before 7:00 a.m. on April 20, and reported by radio that they saw no sign of anyone on the East Face, except for tracks which showed that the party had completed the roped part of the climb and had moved up the “Staircase” toward the summit. Additional help was then called, and seven members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group left Boulder soon after eight. Four of them joined Frauson and Clark to check the north face of Long’s Peak (the normal descent route) and the Keyhole; two went to the col between Long’s and Meeker Peaks to look at the south-west side of the peak. They saw tracks indicating that the party had gone down that way toward Wild Basin.

At 8:00 p.m. word came that Jane Bendixen had walked into the village of Allen’s Park, south-east of the peak. She was very weak from frostbite and shock, but gave what information she could. The party had spent the night high on the peak. That morning she had rappelled and, in part, been belayed down steep rocks, had fallen and been unconscious for a while, but had reached the snow and walked out through the timber. As far as she knew the men were still high on the mountain.

More searchers were called, and at 4:30 a.m. on April 21, two strong parties left, one from Wild Basin to retrace Miss Bendixen’s tracks up Hunters’ Creek, the other from Long’s Peak campground to climb over the col between Long’s and Meeker Peaks. A third support party left Wild Basin later in the morning. The two advance parties met in the snow circque south of Long’s Peak between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. and after some searching found the bodies of Willmon and Jones in the snow. Both had evidently fallen while trying to get off the rock with the help of two 120 feet ropes which were found tied together and anchored to a piton by a rough cave of snow and rock. The bodies were brought down to a frozen lake just below timberline, from whence they were evacuated next morning by helicopter.

From Jane Bendixen’s account and from evidence found at the scene, what apparently happened was this. The climb went well until the storm struck, at which time they were still several hundred feet from the summit. Rather than try to find the usual route, which is narrow and exposed at one point, they traversed over slabs to the “Notch” (south of the summit) and passed through it about 4:30 p.m. Visibility was almost zero with the driving snow. They went up to the right to try to find the “Keyhole route” which leads down from the summit, but were too low and got hopelessly lost. Compass readings were of no help. They came to steep rock which required a rappel. Jones rappelled once more and called back to Willmon and Miss Bendixen to stay where they were. They had shelter of a sort under a rock overhang with a snowdrift in front. Here they spent the night, Willmon and Miss Bendixen in the “cave,” Jones in a small niche in the rock a hundred feet below.

Next morning Willmon was too weak to do much, and all were frostbitten. Miss Bendixen tied the two ropes together and drove a piton for an anchor; at Willmon’s insistence she rappelled down to Jones and beyond, then, feeling too faint to rappell further, she tied in loosely to the rope and was belayed by Jones. Near the end of the rope she slipped and lost consciousness. When she recovered, she could see nothing of Jones. She unroped, and slid and fell to the snow, where marks showed that she slid for some distance.

The rappel route was a slanting one following a shallow chimney. From the position of the bodies, Jones must have fallen from a point close to where Miss Bendixen last saw him. Willmon, on the other hand, must have rappelled or climbed down the rope almost to its end before he fell; the marks he made in the snow were close to Miss Bendixen’s. Both men died from hitting rocks as they fell. Both were badly frostbitten. Had they not been frostbitten, they probably would not have fallen.

As one rescuer said, “They were inadequately clothed for Long’s Peak at any time of year.” Neither had warm underwear; Willmon had no mittens, only light belaying gloves and one spare sock. Jones was not wearing mittens when found, but he had been wearing good mittens and evidently had removed them shortly before he fell.

Source: H. F. Walton.

Analysis (H. F. Walton): Willmon was not only a first class rock climber but a good mountaineer who had had winter experience. It is incredible that he should not have gone prepared to meet bad weather if it came. He and Jones had just been climbing Shiprock and other rock pinnacles in New Mexico and southern Colorado; perhaps it was hard to adjust psychologically to the fact that they had come back to a major peak where it was still winter. Moreover, in their enthusiasm to make the most of a week’s Easter vacation, Willmon and Jones pushed themselves too far. They had had little sleep for several days and did not have the reserve of strength needed on a major peak.

Had they known the mountain better they could have saved themselves. A continuous snow couloir leads down from the Notch to the shelter of Wild Basin.