American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, North Maroon Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1967

Colorado, North Maroon Peak. On 22 April, Joe Fullop (19), Richard Alan Cole (19), and Ronald Fjeseth (19), left Gunnison at about 6:00 p.m. They drove that evening to the Maroon Lake Campground. They had sleeping bags and slept at the Campground. They got up at about 4:00 a.m. and started their hike toward the Maroon Bells at about 4:30 a.m. The boys had decided to take the standard route up the North Maroon Bell. At about 6:00 o’clock in the morning the weather cleared and the day became warm. About two to three inches of fresh snow had fallen during the night. They saw small surface avalanches come off the Bells ahead of them on their climbing route. The snow became very soft and hazardous. They had crampons but because of the soft snow conditions, these were not used. After they reached the face of North Maroon Bells, the ascent was made by belaying each other the rest of the way up to the top. During the ascent, there were three minor falls by members of the group. Arrests were made with no particular problems. The falls were only about eight feet before they were arrested. This points out the hazardous condition of the snow. The boys were using ice axe belays. At about 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon, Fullop and Fjeseth were beginning to have problems with their feet becoming very cold. At an altitude of about 12,500 and up, frostbite began. They decided not to turn around at that point because they did not want to go back over the route they had come up. They thought they would get to the top and possibly be able to see an easier and safer route down. The summit was reached at approximately 6:30 p.m. Three or four minutes were spent on the top deciding which route to descend, then they started down. Their route down was basically not one of the more commonly used routes. They took the “second” gully straight down the mountain. They had no particular problems for about one-third of the way down, other than very cold hands and feet. It should be pointed out that all three climbers had climbing helmets; however, one had lost his helmet close to the top of Maroon Peak during the ascent and was bareheaded. At about one third of the way down, cold and exhaustion began to overtake the climbers. Fullop and Fjeseth probably had frostbitten feet at this time and Cole’s hands were extremely cold and probably frostbitten. The party had been climbing for nearly 20 hours. Cole began having trouble during his belays keeping awake. He would apparently doze off for 8 or 10 seconds before he could arouse himself or could be aroused by the other two members. He was also having some hallucinations, according to Fullop. The climbers were belaying each other during the descent.

After it got dark the visibility was poor. The group had no flashlights, and it was necessary for each man to kick his own foot holes because they could not see the holes that had been kicked in front of them. As the night wore on, the snow became harder and harder as the temperature dropped. At this time, the boys still did not have on their crampons and were unable to get them on because of their extremely cold hands. At about 2:30 a.m. the climbers were nearly at the bottom of the North Bell. Fjeseth was in the lead of the group and had about 150 feet of rope between Cole and Fullop, who was the last man on the line. All three were standing together about 20 feet apart when the accident happened. Fullop was in the process of setting up an ice axe belay. No one in the party was moving. Suddenly Cole began to fall without giving any warning, cry, or any other sound. Fullop tried to catch the rope between him and Cole to make an arrest. He was unable to do so and when Cole hit the end of the rope Fullop was jerked off his feet. Quickly after that, so was Fjeseth. No one was apparently able to get into an ice axe arrest position, and the group slid down a very steep, narrow snow-filled gully to the bottom. It is not known how far the group fell, but Fullop estimates about 300 feet. Someone who looked at the tracks with binoculars thought the fall was as much as 1,000 feet vertical. The hard hat on one of the boys came off during the fall. Fullop’s hat stayed on. Having looked at Fullop’s hard hat after the fall, it is obvious it was instrumental in saving his life. Fullop can remember coming in contact with rock several times during the fall.

The fall happened about 2:30 a.m. Fullop gained consciousness about 4:30 a.m. (the sun was just coming up) after having woken up partially once before. According to him, he was in shock and had a tremendous problem getting out of his rope with his frozen hands. He had no broken bones, but was pretty badly battered. Fullop remembers looking up and seeing one crumpled body above him, but not the other. He decided that because of his condition he had better try to get out and get help, which he did. At about 11:00 a.m. he arrived at Maroon Lake which is approximately three miles from the accident scene. There he found some fishermen and another person who went to town to notify the Sheriff and the rescue group. It was obvious from Fullop’s tracks that he had had a difficult time in getting down to Maroon Lake. There were places where he fell, got up, and fell again, where he walked around in a circle and so on. The rescuers retrieved the bodies of his two companions.

Source: Michael J. Penfold, District Forest Ranger, White River National Forest.

Analysis: This climbing group had not registered with the Forest Service at Aspen. They had used the Wilderness Register above Crater Lake which is not maintained during the winter season. Fullop said that their major mistake was not turning back soon enough. It is interesting to note that if Fullop had not been able to make it by himself to Maroon Lake that it might have been days before anyone knew that an accident had occurred. This accident is a classic example of the many hazards that the Maroon Bells present to mountain climbers.

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