Colorado, Estes Park, The Thumb. On 20 September Jim Russell (17), Gary Hartman (16), and Penny McMahon (16), one of two parties, started to climb The Needle. Jim Russell took the first lead and arrived at the ledge about forty feet above the ground, having placed only one piton because of a scarcity of suitable cracks. The piton used was a Holubar angle and could only be driven with great difficulty upside down. It was placed at approximately 25 feet above the ground — slightly over halfway to the ledge Russell had attained. It was placed considerably off to the right of the most direct route to the ledge as this was the only crack to be found.
No piton could be driven at the ledge which Russell had attained and no piton cracks could be seen nearby. Hartman was then brought up. (He was tied-in near the center of the 150 foot Columbian Nylon rope.) The two climbers switched positions as Hartman wanted to take the lead. At this time Miss McMahon scrambled up about 10 feet off the ground to the top of a large rock leaning against the lower part of the face directly below the two climbers and proceeded to tie onto their rope.
The climbing party was now roped and ready to climb. Hartman took the lead, being belayed by Russell, who had found an adequate position on the ledge. Hartman had climbed only 6-10 feet above Russell when he slipped and fell. As he slid downwards he struck Russell, dislodging him from his belaying position and they both fell downwards. On his way down, Hartman struck Miss McMahon and landed on his back on the large rock on which she was standing — a fall of approximately 30 feet.
As Russell came down he was arrested by the piton which was clipped to the rope between him and Miss McMahon. He pendulummed across the face, jerking Miss McMahon into the air. They both ended up hanging from the piton a few feet above the ground.
Hartman was killed instantly as a result of a broken neck or backbone. Miss McMahon received a brain concussion and Russell received serious bruises. His hard hat prevented serious injury to his head, as there were two fractures found on the fiberglass “Bucco” helmet.
It is the general consensus of opinion that Gary Hartman’s fatal injuries could not have been prevented by a hard hat. Russell and Miss McMahon were both confined to a hospital for several days.
Source: David Whiteman.
Analysis: This is another of those cases where a piton could not be placed for the protection of the leader. Perhaps a bolt should have been placed (neither of the climbers carried bolts) or perhaps another party should have gone up an easier route and belayed the climbers from above.
Jim Russell has suggested that perhaps they should not have attempted a climb of this severity on a CMC trip. He rated the climb as moderately difficult, but stresses that Hartman had often climbed more difficult routes than this. No reason can be offered to explain the fall.