American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

New Mexico, Shiprock

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1971

New Mexico, Shiprock. On 26 March two climbing parties started up Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico. The first party was composed of Jim Smith (46) and Bill Bull (40) of Boulder, Colorado, and George Andrews (52) of Menlo Park, California. They proceeded up the normal route, intending to climb the main summit on Thursday, bivouac below the summit at the “Horn”, and climb the South Summit on Friday, before returning to their car. The second party included Larry Davelsberg and Don Liska of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Bill Hackett of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Dave Beckstead of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who were scouting a new route up the west face of Shiprock. The weather Thursday was overcast and cool, though the forecast was for clearing.

The Smith party did not climb the summit on Thursday, but got only as far as the chockstones below the “Prussik Pitch” at the base of the north summit (“Fin”) before they bivouacked. At this point they were about 600 feet above the start of the climb. About 1:00 a.m. Friday morning, a fast-moving cold front out of the northwest caught both parties high on the peak in their respective bivouacs. It began to snow and continued all night and most of the next day. The Los Alamos party of four rappelled off the face as soon as daylight allowed and reached the base of the west wall at about 10:30 a.m. By this time the desert was drifted over with about 6–12 inches of snow and it was near freezing. Fortunately a third climbing party, acquaintances of the Los Alamos group, had arrived the afternoon before and had camped near their VW. These were Beed Cundiff and another climber from Las Cruces. All six climbers pooled efforts in pushing Cundiff’s VW through the drifts to the Red Rock “highway” some 5 miles to the south. Once there they piled into and on top of the tiny car and headed for the town of Shiprock, about 14 miles away, freezing cold and mud-spattered. They were soon stopped by Highway Police who thought they had a clear case of Hippie invasion. Once the emergency was understood, however, the police gave all possible assistance. In Shiprock, the climbers called Los Alamos and alerted other climbers to possible trouble. This was about 12:00 noon, and Ernie Anderson and Bill Gage drove out in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, leaving Los Alamos about 3:00 p.m. Friday. A call was also placed to the Boulder Rescue Group to inform them of the incipiently dangerous situation.

At the time of these phone calls, nothing had as yet occurred to cause undue alarm, but it was feared that if the Smith party had indeed reached the Horn on Thursday, as they intended, and had not left a handline at the “traverse”, as they had implied they would not, then they were trapped above the icy slabs and couloirs on the east side of Shiprock and were in serious trouble. To try to determine the extent of this trouble, Cundiff and his companion were driven to the rock in an official 4-wheel- drive vehicle about mid-afternoon. It was snowing and they saw nothing on the east side. On the west side, Cundiff reported difficulty in reaching the top of the talus at the start of the climb in the west gulley, They did not see the Smith party, though it was later ascertained that Cundiff must have climbed to within 500 feet of them at that time. Upon returning these reports to the base of operations at the Shiprock Hotel, Cundiff and his companion departed for Albuquerque intending to return the next morning if a full rescue attempt was indicated.

About 7:30 p.m. that night, Liska and Davelsberg returned to the rock under somewhat clearing conditions hoping to establish contact with the Smith party. They used Navajo Tribal Authority (NTA) 4-wheel-drive vehicles which were generously supplied along with drivers and radios. Upon reaching the rock, they came upon Smith and Bull wandering about dazedly in the snow near their car. Smith was bleeding and both appeared hurt and shaken. They related that their entire party had fallen and they had had to leave Andrews badly hurt about 150 feet above the “Cave Pitch” (the first pitch) in the Black Bowl near the Topp Memorial plaque.

Liska and Davelsberg called the other two climbers at the hotel to come on out and shortly after (about 9:00 p.m.) Anderson and Gage also arrived. By 11:00 p.m. the reinforced Los Alamos climbers were on their way up to the base of the west gulley with a Stokes litter, first-aid kit, radio and lights, and their climbing gear. There was a great deal of snow on the talus, over knee-deep in drifted crevices, and some ice, but the weather was now clear and the temperature only slightly below freezing. The NTA provided a number of volunteers who would come up later to help haul the litter. As the team started up the technical rock, this base support team was told to call Los Alamos for more fresh climbers just in case the original six might fail. Another 5-man team started out from Los Alamos at 2:00 a.m. Saturday. Also, the Boulder Rescue Group was again contacted and informed of the developments though they were not asked to mobilize at that time since everything seemed to be moving smoothly.

Smith and Bull had fixed their rappel rope to the chockstone above the second pitch and the climbers therefore were able to prussik up this rope and over the now icy overhangs to the scene of the accident 200 feet above the base of the rock. They reached the victim at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, administered first aid to his broken arm, and loaded Andrews onto the litter. Then they belayed the litter over the overhangs and down to the base of the technical pitches. Once back on the talus below, around 3:00–3:30 a.m., they muscled the litter back down the mountain to the trucks, receiving assistance from the volunteers below who came up to meet them near the end of their journey. The litter was delivered to the officials at the trucks at about 5:00 a.m., 6 hours after the team started up the mountain.

Smith and Bull had been taken to Farmington before midnight for treatment. Smith had a broken nose, jaw, and cheekbone, and required stitching of a deep cut over the right eye. Bull had bruised and battered ribs. Andrews arrived in Shiprock about 6:00 a.m. Saturday and was going into shock, though he had been in better condition on the mountain. He was given an intravenous glucose injection and then taken on to Farmington where it was ascertained that he had a fractured left elbow, a broken right shoulder blade, some cracked ribs, a concussion, and frostbitten toes. Later that day he was flown to the Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, for treatment. About 7:00 a.m. Saturday the reserve team from Los Alamos arrived, having driven the 210 miles in 5 hours, but were fortunately not needed. As a final step, the Boulder Rescue Group was informed that the rescue of Andrews was complete.

In piecing together the events that led to the accident, it was learned that the Smith party had spent a miserable night in light bivouac gear below the upper prussik pitch in the Rappel Gulley with snow cascading down surrounding rock faces on top of them. They left their perch at about 7:00 a.m. Friday at the height of the storm and took 4 hours to complete the 75-foot prussik up to the Colorado Col, experiencing difficulty with one of Smith’s Jumars due possibly to a worn lock and an icy rope. A combination of one Jumar and one Hiebler eventually had to be used to ascend the pitch. It continued to snow and visibility was below 200 feet due to wind-blown snow. They completed the 120-foot rappel off the notch into the upper west gulley and scrambled down to the grey-basalt water gulley on the north side of the west gulley. Here they rigged a single 300-foot rope to a piton. Smith rappelled first and apparently made it down o.k. He was followed by Andrews, who had descended 100 feet or so when the rappel piton pulled out. Andrews fell about 100 feet down the gulley or the cliffs adjacent to the gulley and off the steeper bottoming precipice. He probably suffered the bulk of his injuries in this tumbling fall. While all three of his party had hard hats, Andrews had apparently lost his earlier in the day, which may have contributed to his receiving a concussion. At the bottom of his fall, he crashed into Smith, when Smith sustained most of his injuries. It was now about 3:00 p.m. and still snowing lightly. Near this time, Cundiff had reached his high point below but was unable to see the Smith party or establish communications. Now Bull was stranded above with only a 120-foot rope. He securely anchored one end of his rope to several new pitons he drove in and then rappelled off. Reaching the rope’s end, he found himself still 80 feet or so above Smith and Andrews. Under Smith’s coaching, he then climbed back up the gulley about 25 feet to cut off a section of his rappel line for unbraiding. He drove in another piton for security and cut two strands off the rope’s end. He then unraveled these two lengths and tied them end-to-end to the uncut third strand, which gave him perhaps an extra 45 feet or so of line. He safely anchored the rappel rope to the intermediate piton also (which was driven about 105 feet above the base of the pitch) and then continued his descent. Considering the care and expertise with which he had done these things under the bad conditions, it’s unfortunate that his rope was so old and worn. Bull was near the end of the line when the uncut third strand broke about 7 feet below the unbraiding cut and dropped Bull at least 30 feet down the cliff to its base where he damaged his ribs by also landing on top of Smith. His rope was later recovered and it was determined that the break may have occurred by the rope impacting against a small sharp flake imbedded in the slabs. The cut in one sub-strand had a melted surface with the individual fibers fused together and the other strands had sharp ends of uniform length. The measured strength of the unlaid sections was only 350 pounds or less due to loss of “lay” and to the severely abraded surface of the entire original rope (compared with 1,500 pounds which might be “expected” from one-third the strength of a new layed rope). The rope was an old hand mountain-lay, white,7/16 -inch nylon.

Smith and Bull administered what first aid they could to Andrews, considering their own desperate situation and continued their descent, reaching the vicinity of their car about 7:30 p.m., where they were found by the Los Alamos climbers. Events then proceeded as outlined above.

Source: Don Liska.

Analysis: The alert action of the first party off the mountain, and the excellent cooperation received from local police and tribal authorities, made this a successful rescue.

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