American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Accidents in North American Mountaineering, Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club

  • Editorials And Prefaces
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970

This is the twenty-third report of the Safety Committee and the tenth in conjunction with the Alpine Club of Canada.

Data from accidents not previously reported have been obtained and statistical tables have been corrected to include them.

The total number of accidents reported this year has reached a new high. This undoubtedly reflects two factors: one is the large number of persons who are out climbing in the mountains, and the other is that over the years the reporting of accidents has improved so that even minor accidents or incidents without injury are being reported. This latter aspect points out that there are many accidents or incidents that occur in the mountains that do not result in death or even injury. Despite the high number of reported accidents, the number of deaths is not the highest recorded. Needless to say all accidents should be prevented as all too often inexperience or exceeding one’s capabilities are underlying factors.

In these reports, we have tried to limit inclusion to those whose intent has been to climb a mountain. Hikers, hunters, or persons lost from camp sites are not included. At times it is difficult to follow the arbitrary criteria. Hikers do become climbers and we have even included climbers who have been hiking into or out from a climb. Considerable reliance is placed on the local representative and his report since he knows the terrain and usually the persons involved so his judgment concerning the classification is important.

Not all accidents reported are included in the descriptive write-ups. We have tried to select those that seem to have something to teach other climbers, either as to the cause of the accident, faulty use of equipment, faulty equipment, or when the proper use of equipment or protective devices have offered protection. All accidents reported are included in the statistical tables that appear at the end of this report.

A number of factors that seem to be primary in the causation of accidents recur year after year, others seem to be more common one year and less so another. This latter reflects the relatively small number of accidents that do occur of a given type and such variations are merely a manifestation of the randomness of their occurrence and the fact that the probability of their occurring is small. Certain factors do deserve emphasis.

More effort should be directed to training new climbers in the handling of an ice axe, and its use to control a glissade or to do self arrests. The Callaghan and Vetterlein accidents point this out as does one of the accidents on Mt. Washington.

Avalanches were relatively common this year but fortunately did not result in severe injuries or deaths.

Attention is directed to the lightning episode in Colorado (Hart). Lightning is a very real danger and it has involved a number of hikers during the year and has resulted in death. If one climbs in potential lightning country like Colorado, one should climb early in the day and be off the peaks by early afternoon when the likelihood of lightning is greatest.

Hard hats still deserve comment. Although they will not protect against a massive blow, they can offer considerable protection. In one of the Mt. Washington accidents hard hats were worn by two of the climbers but not the third. He received severe head lacerations in that fall. Whereas the other two did not. This was a winter climb and indicates that hard hats are important on snow and ice climbs as well as rock. A hard hat also gave considerable protection to Bailey on the Dome, and possibly could have to Clark in the Grand Teton National Park. It certainly seems sensible to encourage strongly the use of such protective headgear. One incident was reported in which a ranger was watching and assisting in a rescue when a small falling rock came down. He covered his head with his hands and the rock struck his hands fracturing two fingers. He commented that the injury would have been worse if he had been wearing a hard hat. On the other hand, had he been wearing a hard hat he would not have had to put his hands on his head for protection. He also probably should not have been in the fall line of rocks!

Belayers should be anchored securely. The Clark episode in GTNP demonstrates the importance of this, since the failure to be anchored resulted in serious injury to the belayer.

Medical problems, and specifically high altitude pulmonary edema and altitude sickness deserve comment. Three episodes are reported here— one resulted in death and one was a near death. They demonstrate the need to recognize the early symptoms and once recognized, the appropriate action is a prompt descent to a considerably lower altitude.

The important signs and symptoms of altitude sickness are headache, nausea, vomiting, rapid respirations and rapid pulse. These may occur at 10-12,000 feet elevation. There are medications that can be taken to alleviate some of the symptoms, but they do not improve the rate of acclimatization as measured by rate of return to the more normal pulse and respiratory rate.

These symptoms may progress or be by-passed into those of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)—the precise mechanism whereby HAPE occurs has not been demonstrated but it is most likely to be due to failure of the heart as a result of the lowered oxygen pressure. This results in leakage of fluid into the lung air spaces and this in turn interferes with the uptake of oxygen by the blood as it passes through the lungs.

The symptoms of pulmonary edema are—rapid breathing; there may be bubbly or gushy sounds in the chest; froth may appear at the mouth and it may be pink tinged; the individual may have cyanosis (bluish color) of lips, tongue and skin; he will have considerable weakness, he may be unable to move, and he may be comatose. It is a particularly bad omen if his condition deteriorates rapidly.

Recognition of the signs and symptoms and an appreciation of their seriousness is the responsibility of the other members of the party. But they in turn may be affected by the altitude and the lower oxygen pressure so that their judgment is impaired.

The reports on Hamilton on Mt. Whitney, and Cole and Waterman on Mt. McKinley are dramatic examples of some of these problems.

Prevention involves good physical conditioning prior to the climb and gradual ascent so that acclimatization can take place. It may well be advisable to climb to a high camp with supplies which are cached and then return to the lower camp for sleep. Prompt recognition of the signs and symptoms is essential and it is especially difficult through the cerebral haze of hypoxia. Treatment is a prompt return to lower altitude. In the case of Waterman a 3,000 foot descent was sufficient from 17,200. Oxygen certainly will help, but unless there is a considerable supply it is only a temporary measure. For further discussion see Hultgren (AAJ 14 363- 372, 1965).

Frostbite is another medical problem. The accident involving Rowat on Wedge Mtn., B.C. indicates the importance of good treatment after the event. Prompt thawing in a warm environment and then a considerable wait for recovery are essential. Avoid and resist efforts for quick amputation. Reference should be made to the excellent article on the treatment of frostbite by Washburn AAJ 13: 1-26, 1962. For further information concerning proper foot protection see Davis AAJ 14, 373-376, 1965.


Benjamin G. Ferris, Jr., Chairman

Weston, Massachusetts

William L. Putnam

Springfield, Massachusetts

Arnold Wexler

Washington, D.C.

Harold Walton

Boulder, Colorado

Thomas O. Nevison

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ross Petrie

Portland, Oregon

Hal Foss

Olympia, Washington

David Harrah

Riverside, California

Al Steck

Berkeley, California


Dick Culbert

Vancouver, B.C.

J. G. Kato

So. Edmonton, Alberta

Helen Butling

Nelson, B.C.

R. D. Lyon

Calgary, Alberta


Jack Baldwin

Portland, Oregon


Paul M. Williams, Chairman

Seattle, Washington

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