American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

California, Sierra Nevada, North Face University Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970

California, Sierra Nevada, North Face University Peak. On 15 August at about 6:00 p.m. while descending the North Face from a successful ascent via the Southeast Ridge (Class 2), Kurt Benkman (16) slipped and fell 400 feet to his death. Benkman was the third member of the party of five to descend the 35° slab from which he slipped. Dennis Arnon (17) (leader) and Peter Carmel (14) who had had little previous experience had already descended the slab. Immediately following the accident they traversed twenty feet over rock and descended diagonally 600 feet over the soft snow to the point where the victim had come to rest in a moat at the lower west edge of a rock island near the center of a larger snowfield. (This was the only snow encountered on the ascent or descent.) The other two members of the party were directed by Amon not to attempt to descend the slab, but to reascend the peak and return to camp via Kearsarge Lakes bivouacing when darkness fell and continuing to camp the next day. This they did successfully.

When Arnon and Carmel reached Benkman they found him unconscious but breathing and suffering from a prominent wound on the left flank and multiple skull fractures, including a skull flap. Arnon left Carmel with Benkman with instructions to note the time of any significant occurrence and to give artificial respiration if the victim stopped breathing, but otherwise not to disturb Benkman in any way. Arnon then descended three miles to camp at Onion Valley and drove with Dr. Willard Carmel, the trip doctor, to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office at Independence, arriving there at about 7:30 p.m. Because of the lateness of the hour, a helicopter could not be secured for that evening. The Sheriff’s Office asked the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group to attempt a rescue that night.

At about 9:30 p.m. a Sheriff’s Deputy brought Peter Carmel to the Sheriff’s Office where P. Carmel reported that the victim had stopped breathing and presumably died at 7:00 p.m. Peter Carmel had then returned to camp where the Sheriff’s deputy encountered him.

The China Lake team reached Benkman at about 5:30 a.m. on the 16th and confirmed that he had been dead since about 7:00 p.m. on the 15th. A Forest Service helicopter removed the victim to the County Morgue at Lone Pine.

Source: A. Green and D. Arnon.

Analysis: (Green) The descent route was definitely Class 3, and the party was not equipped nor experienced enough to cope with it. This accident can be largely credited to inexperience both in the party and in the leader. We want to emphasize, however, that Dennis Amon is a mature, responsible 17 year old. A more experienced leader, however, would not have attempted a more difficult and unknown descent route. He also would not have climbed a Class 3 route with an inexperienced party without having a rope along.

In the opinion of the rescue team, it was of questionable judgment to descend the route in question without ropes for safety on the rock and without ice axes for safety on the snow.

Analysis: Dennis Arnon. The accident occurred following two decisions I made during the climb. First was the decision to try a direct route of about Class 3 difficulty on the descent, rather than one of the longer and easier routes. I was anxious to get the party down as quickly as possible as we did not reach the summit until 2:45 p.m. and the weather was becoming overcast. The party had spent six hours on the Class 2 ascent (the ascent was 4,400 vertical feet from Camp and some five-six miles— the first two on trail). We seemed to be climbing the more difficult Class pitches without problem. I felt that by moving slowly and carefully we could successfully negotiate the route I chose.

Second was the decision to continue the route when we encountered climbing of close to Class 3 difficulty near the mountain’s base. All the members of the party seemed to be climbing well on the descent, and we had already descended one pitch of Class 3 difficulty when we reached the Class 3 slab on which the accident occurred. Once over this slab there only remained a brief Class 2 traverse to the snowfield at the mountain’s base. I felt that since we had come this far without difficulty, and since it was then 6:00 p.m., we would be better advised to continue rather than turn back and choose a new route, which would have necessitated returning nearly to the summit.

We did not have a rope with us for two reasons: 1) We intended to attempt only routes that the party could negotiate without a rope, and 2) only one of the party besides myself was trained or experienced in the proper use of a rope.

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