American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Twin Owls

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1964

Colorado, Twin Owls. On 11 August Tom Fender and Stan Shepard were attempting a new climb on the South wall to the left of the chimney. On Twin Owls Shepard had nailed up a system of overhanging rotten cracks to a crumbly groove when he decided to retreat until the following weekend. They had done only two-thirds of the first lead and rain threatened. He writes:

“Backing down my aid pitons without protection seemed a poor idea; they were horrible. Therefore, I placed a small bong as well as I could in the groove, used my hauling line as a top rope, and started down the pitch.

“In retrospect, it seems incredible that I failed to place a bolt instead of that accursed bong. I recall feeling relaxed, disinterested, and annoyed that weather conditions had prevented us from doing a long climb on the high peaks.

“I started down, removing my pitons without effort. About three pins down I took aid from the top rope. The bong pulled out and I fell. The next two pitons also came out without resistance. The third held. I don’t know why; it shouldn’t have.

“I went about 50 feet until stopped by Tom’s belay.

“Since the angle of the pitch was about 110° the piton that did all of the work was inside my line of fall and caused me to swing in toward the wall. This, plus the elasticity of the rope, slammed me hard into the rock. The impact broke my neck.

“I swung out from the wall and hung about 10 feet from the ground. Since I wasn’t saying much, Tom eased me down, tied me in, and went for help.”

Source: Stan Shepard and Kathyryn Nielsen.

Analysis: (Shepard) Tom had done a beautiful job of belaying. There is not much else to be said about an accident of this nature except that I should have been wearing an impact absorbing crash helmet. Unfortunately they are at present too heavy.

The one thing that cannot be justified — the cause of the accident — was my failure to place that bolt. It is as simple as that.

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