American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Sangre de Cristo, Little Bear

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

Colorado, Sangre de Cristo, Little Bear. On 5 August Dr. Bruce Stewart (48), Jay Stewart (21), Dion Stewart (20), and Dr. Harold Affsprung (45) planned to climb Little Bear Peak (14,040 ft.) and if possible, make the traverse to Blance Peak (14,363 ft.). The latter depended on obtaining a jeep to reach the base of the mountain at an early hour. Since a jeep was not found, we hiked the eight miles from the car to Lake Como, reaching timberline shortly after 10:00 a.m. After surveying the northwest face of Little Bear, it was agreed that the easiest and fastest route would be to head just above a gash to the right of the summit and follow the ridge to the top. After climbing for about an hour, Harold expressed doubt that there would be time for the traverse, with which we agreed. He then suggested moving the climbing route slightly leftward, to which I consented rather reluctantly. He apparently thought that since the traverse could not be made, then time would be available for a more challenging route.

The exposure and angle of rock increased steadily, and Harold was in the lead, now heading directly for the summit, despite the fact that this direct attack had not been approved. At about 13,500 feet I called for the rope. While I was ascending a steep pitch, Harold looked at me from above and called out “That’s right, if you don’t feel secure you should use the rope.” Then he turned and began climbing on above us, presumably to survey the route a short distance ahead without benefit of rope. The three of us were resting on a ledge, deciding our next move, when Harold called out “Rock”; Dion had to duck under an overhang to avoid high velocity rock from above. To judge from our last view, and the sound of his voice, Harold must have been 50 or 60 feet above us. A few seconds later there was a shower of rocks in the chute to our left and his body hurtled past. It was agreed that though falling freely he was not moving or struggling and so had probably already hit the rock wall at least once.

The time of the accident was approximately 12:30 p.m. A summit cloud had been covering the mountain since about 11:00 a.m. and this had prevented us from sending signals by mirror to the valley as we had planned. After we had recovered some composure, we began belaying downward very slowly. It was about 1:30 p.m. when we reached the body, which we could not see until we were almost upon it. It had fallen at least 200 feet. Jay covered it with a yellow poncho and hung his orange parka over a point of rock to mark the spot from below. We continued the descent as rapidly as possible. We returned to the car and drove back to the Sand Dunes, reaching there about 6:00 p.m. The rangers at the Dunes lent us every possible assistance. No helicopter was in the area and a rescue could not be attempted until the following day. A rescue team from Fort Carson at Colorado Springs arrived at 4:30 a.m. the following morning. It was led back to the accident scene by Jay Stewart. The rescue operation required 15 hours. A reporter who went to Lake Como with the team quoted Lt. Enyart, the leader, as saying it was the most difficult of his 200 rescue expeditions.

Source: Dr. Bruce Stewart.

Analysis: (Stewart) Exactly what happened as the immediate cause of the accident is unknown, but there are three logical possibilities: 1) Harold’s strength failed for holds on which he was depending, (2) the rock he was holding gave way, and (3) rockfall from above knocked him from his hold. The first is unlikely since Harold was in fine condition and had demonstrated unusual strength in practice rock climbs. The third is also unlikely since no spontaneous rock-fall had been observed during the climb. The second is rendered more probable by cases where a hold had given out after 50 or 100 pound pulls. While this may have been the precipitating cause of the accident, what mistakes made this failure so costly?

Harold had proceeded alone and unroped above the rest of the party in high angle rock, almost vertically above the others. He was the most experienced at this terrain among us. This plus the absence of a formal leader prevented any insistence on his use of the rope. In previous years there had been no leader because there was always agreement on the route after discussion. Jay and Harold had already negotiated one pitch (unroped) which was at least as difficult as the area of the accident. Dion and I had climbed around it.

Harold had attended climbing school in Switzerland two years earlier and since that time had become progressively more confident of his ability to surmount or control any dangers to himself in rock climbing. Hindsight now reveals this as overconfidence. The question remains: “Why this overconfidence?” Here we come to psychological factors which lie behind many accidents and are often unrecognized. Harold had become proud of his rock climbing skill. He was fond of referring to praise given him by his teacher John Harlin. He may have regarded a call for rope as an unfavorable reflection on his ability. It is possible that haste played some part in the accident, and the weather may have been a factor in haste since Harold was known to be quite fearful of mountain storms. While we were in clouds at the time of the accident, these dissipated soon afterward and and were revealed to have been localized. No thunder or lightning was observed.

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