American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

New York, Shawangunks

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1968

New York, Shawangunks. On 22 April it was planned that John Huels (28) would lead Northern Pillar, seconded by David T. Estroff, Francis de Monterey would lead Southern Pillar, seconded by Robert Jahn; MacRush, a member of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, had approached the group and requested to be taken on as a third member of de Monterey’s rope since he had never climbed at the Shawangunks before. He was taken on as middleman but not allowed to belay since his technical capabilities were not known. Roger Westman, the official trip leader, led Hawk, seconded by Gordon Jarrell and Robert Reagan. It had rained hard during the early morning hours and was rather foggy. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., the cliffs were shrouded in fog which lifted occasionally over restricted sections. The overall temperature was cool, probably in the upper forties or lower fifties. The rocks were generally wet and slippery, even bucket handholds were mostly filled with water, and required extreme caution. Some protected holds were dry.

The three ropes started climbing about 10:15 a.m., making steady progress. About 12:30 p.m. Westman had reached the last but one belay ledge of Hawk, de Monterey and Rush were anchored on the exit ledge of Southern Pillar, with the former bringing up Bob Jahn. Huels and Estroff could be heard talking above but could not be seen by de Monterey or Rush. From de Monterey’s stance by two trees on the ledge he could see that Gordon Jarrell had just anchored next to Westman, and that Reagan had begun climbing from below Westman. Shortly after, Huels appeared above and commented to de Monterey that he had taken the rear exit of Northern Pillar, rather than the customary route under the final roof which would have brought him out near de Monterey and Rush. At this moment, he seemed to stumble and his feet slithered; he stopped talking and attempted to regain his balance; this process took about two seconds or more. He then made more violent reflex movements which appeared strange to de Monterey and suddenly cartwheeled over the edge, about 25 feet above de Monterey, and 20 feet to his left, above Southern Pillar. He gained momentum rapidly and virtually flew over the Southern Pillar buttress, falling out of sight of de Monterey but in full sight of Westman, Jarrell, Reagan, and others climbing on “Tipsy Trees.” Huels fell free and hit the lowest (starting) ledge of Southern Pillar, then bounced off onto the boulder slope. He fell approximately 250 feet.

There were a number of people near, including Jim Yurchenco, one of the Delaware Valley Chapter climbers. The Stokes litter was procured and someone went to fetch Joe Donohue (the Mohonk Trust patrolman) with the truck. He had gone to lunch just before the accident. Dr. Hans Kraus attended to John Huels after de Monterey and his rope had finished their climb and had descended. Before descending, de Monterey had anchored on top of the cliff and closely investigated the area from which Huels had fallen. Tracks showed that Huels had been standing well back of the edge, on a ledge about three to four feet wide which was almost horizontal, but covered with some vegetation and soil. Two tufts of grass had pulled loose and the soil which had been very wet and slippery showed some scuff marks. The narrower ledge just below this one showed no real traces of foot movements, since it consisted mostly of wet rock with little soil or growth on its surface. Huels had fallen with his coiled rope carried over his shoulder and with his full equipment. His hard hat came off after impact. His hammer, according to eyewitnesses, hit one of the rock surfaces; the wooden handle had been sheared off completely, and the hammerhead was severely deformed and battered. There was no body contact prior to final impact. Huels died instantly from severe head and internal injuries. State Police investigated shortly after the accident and made arrangement for removal of John Huels’ body.

Source: Francis de Monterey.

Analysis: (de Monterey) Huels fell from an area, and type of area which is not normally considered technical terrain. Under adverse weather conditions, such terrain may turn extremely treacherous. This accident is clearly not a rock climbing accident in the proper sense of the term and could have happened to anyone who had walked along the plateau atop the cliffs, and who had come too near the edge. Huels was a mature and experienced mountaineer. (ed … Huels still did not appreciate the treacherous nature of the area. A similar situation during the climb could have been equally serious. This merely emphasizes the constant need for caution.)

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.