American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

California, Death Valley National Monument, Telescope Peak

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

California, Death Valley National Monument, Telescope Peak—At 9:00 a.m. on November 26, Richard Lee Hill (17) left his parents at Mahogany Flat Campground (elev. 8,000 feet) in the Panamint Mountains, to make a solo ascent of Telescope Peak (11,049). Although it had snowed recently and the seven mile trail to the summit was partially covered by drifts, the weather at the time of Hill’s departure was clear and warm. Hill planned a routine ascent, returning to Mahogany Flat by dusk. He was wearing smooth-soled hiking boots, levi trousers and a quilted parka; he carried no ice axe or survival gear except some matches in a waterproof case. He had neither a map or a compass. Hill was a moderately experienced hiker.

By 12:30 p.m. on the day of departure observers in the valley noted that the peak was covered by storm clouds. By 4:00 p.m. blizzard conditions prevailed on the peak and snow was falling down to 7,000 feet.

When their son had not returned by dark, Mr. and Mrs. Roland Hill became worried and advised the National Park Service of the situation. The time was 6:20 p.m. Immediately one man was dispatched to make a reconnaissance of the trail, but he was forced to return because of weather conditions (snow, wind, and sub-freezing temperatures). The search was postponed until 6:30 a.m. the following morning.

On the following day (November 27) the skies were clear, but 60 m.p.h. winds at 10,000 feet hampered aircraft that were requested during the night. Ground parties encountered blowing snow and temperatures of 8 to 14 degrees. One search party succeeded in reaching the summit of Telescope Peak and discovered that Hill had signed the register at 1:00 p.m. He noted in his entry that he was in a blizzard and that visibility was zero. The day closed with an improvement in the weather, but no trace of young Hill.

The search continued both from the air and from the ground through December 4, when it was discontinued. Throughout the search period high winds and cold temperatures prevailed. Hill has never been found.

Source: Robert C. Gardner, Altadena Mountain Rescue Squad; and Granville B. Liles, Superintendent, Death Valley National Monument.

Analysis: It is believed that Hill strayed from the trail due to the blizzard and poor visibility. He undoubtedly fell down one of the steep slopes leading down from the crest of the mountains and was killed, or injured and froze to death. When Hill started his climb the weather was pleasant, but on the descent he was facing snow driven by high winds under conditions of low temperature.

A search for the body is planned for the spring when the winter snows melt and weather conditions are more predictable.

This is another example of the dangers of climbing alone. Although an experienced climber familiar with weather conditions in the desert ranges perhaps could have foreseen the approaching storm the morning of departure, young Hill could not. Thus he went prepared for a comfortable, fair day. When the weather showed signs of deteriorating the victim should have turned back; his decision to continue for the summit shows lack of proper judgment, particularly in view of the fact that he was alone. Had Hill been properly equipped (ice axe, warm clothing, map, compass, etc.) he would have been more justified in continuing for the summit. Considering how he was equipped, however, a night in the open at temperatures encountered on the mountain was probably more than he could survive, particularly if injured.

It is not advisable, even for experienced climbers to attempt solo ascents of the major summits in the desert ranges.

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