American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaska, Mt. Huntington

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1966

Alaska, Mt. Huntington. On the night of July 30 Ed Bernd (20) and Dave Roberts (22) were descending Mt. Huntington’s west face after reaching the summit. Don Jensen and Matt Hale, the other two members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club expedition, were above in highest camp, waiting to descend later (since none of our camps could accommodate more than two people). We were descending the same route we had gone up, leaving all our fixed ropes in (they covered every foot of the route) for added protection. On our pitch 26, at about 10,300 feet Ed and I unroped to set up a rappel. Ed was in position to rappel first, so I clipped my waist loop into an overhand loop in the fixed rope above to anchor myself while I waited. The anchor from which Ed was about to rappel consisted of two pitons, through the eyes of which were tied our 1/4 inch nylon fixed ropes. Since we had no descending rings we decided to rappel from a carabiner, leaving it for Don and Matt to pick up. We had no extra rope to belay the rappel with, but knew the anchor pitons were extremely solid.

A few minutes before midnight, in the gloomy, but not pitch-dark, Ed clipped either a Chouinard or Bedayn carabiner into a knot of fixed rope near the eye of one of the two pitons. He clipped the climbing rope into the carabiner, got in a body rappel position, and leaned back. I heard a scraping sound, and suddenly Ed was flying through the air with the rope. He fell, without a word, fifty feet free, then hit a steep ice gully and rolled and bounced down it 200 feet, then out of sight. I heard his body falling over cliffs beyond that, and knew from the route photos that there wasn’t a chance of his stopping until he hit the Tokositna Glacier, 4,000 feet below, nor a chance of his surviving the near-vertical fall,

I shouted for help, but it was obvious Don and Matt coudn’t hear me. I looked at the anchor and saw that the pitons were still in, the fixed ropes undamaged, but the carabiner was gone with the rope and Ed. After thinking a few minutes, I decided to try to get down to our next camp where a two-man tent was pitched, and wait. It was apparent that there was nothing we could do for Ed, and that any attempt I made to communicate with Matt and Don might only alarm them and endanger their lives. We had neither two-way radios nor a radio to the outside.

I managed to climb down the seven pitches to the tent by relying heavily on the fixed ropes. There I waited for two days until Matt and Don descended. Together we completed the descent to our base camp in a storm the next night. From here it would still have been a dangerous, possibly two-day trip to where Ed’s body lay, and we felt there would have been little chance of, or point in, finding it. Five days later Don Sheldon flew us out. He made several passes near the bottom of the face, but we saw nothing that resembled a body.

Source: David Roberts.

Analysis: (Roberts) All we know for sure about the accident is that the carabiner somehow came loose. We can suggest three possibilities:

The carabiner, during the process of Ed’s getting on rappel, somehow flipped, its gate pressed the rock, opened, and allowed the carabiner to snap loose when Ed put his weight on the rope.

The carabiner was defective, and the gate never closed or broke, allowing the carabiner to flip loose. Since the accident I have seen a large number of Bedayns with defective hinges or gates.

Ed somehow clipped into the knotted fixed rope in such a way that he wasn’t actually clipped in at all. For instance, into a half-hitch on the end of a knot. The darkness might have made this more likely.

Other possibilities exist, and since the accident seems such a freak, none of them can be discounted.

Ed was a superb rock climber, a careful and intelligent handler of climbing situations. The rappel was routine; we had done it three or four times before. We were being extra cautious on the descent because we were tired and it was the last time over the route. We had encountered greater dangers every day in the last 30 so that it seemed incomprehensible to have something go wrong on this easy maneuver, so close to the end of what seemed to be a perfect expedition.

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