American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Accidents In North American Mountaineering, Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club

  • Editorials And Prefaces
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1973

This is the twenty-sixth Annual Report of the Safety Committee of the American Alpine Club and the thirteenth in conjunction with the Alpine Club of Canada.

Data from accidents not previously reported have been obtained, and the statistical tables have been corrected to include them. We have also included a detailed account of an accident that occurred in 1971 on Mt. Ritter. This report was not available in time last year and a number of enquiries came in concerning its not being included. It demonstrates the insidiousness of hypothermia.

It is, therefore, relevant to indicate that it is not possible to include a write-up of each accident. If a reporting group has an accident or a reasonable number of accidents that they deem should be included, they should so indicate. In all probability they can and will be included. In general, selected accidents are reported either because they reiterate an old lesson or there happened to be a number that year with a similar cause that warranted emphasis. The reports are used as potential teaching or training guides and are not used to try to indicate blame or to find a scapegoat. All too often, on the other hand, mere presentation of the facts makes the situation self-evident, and no special analysis is necessary.

Our more detailed analysis of the reported accidents of the past 20 years has been made. Rather little clear-cut associations came through. Some of this resulted from our having received incomplete data such as no age, no information on experience of climber, or whether he belonged to a climbing organization. We did take those with no information on experience and categorized them as little or no experience. Under such an assumption it was possible to show that the experienced climbers had a lower mortality of reported accidents than the less experienced climbers. This difference persisted even when those on whom we had insufficient information to classify their level of experience were eliminated. The difference, however, was not as great. This effect was enhanced if stranded climbers were eliminated — since these in general were less experienced climbers and also had no injury — they did have the good sense to stay put until rescued. The removal of that category increased the mortality figures for the less experienced group.

Unfortunately we are not able to obtain adequate data to estimate the population at risk — i.e. how many experienced climbers are climbing and what is their accident rate as compared with the inexperienced group. Intuitively one thinks that as with airplane pilots — there are bold pilots and old pilots but no old bold pilots — a similar statement might be made about climbers. All we can conclude from our data and analysis is that when experienced climbers are involved in an accident they have less chance of becoming a mortality statistic.

An examination of the accidents reveals certain categories of causes or failures to take proper action following the accident that deserve comment.

Hypothermia played an important role in a number of accidents. Examples are the Ritter accident that occurred last year and resulted in the death of four persons, and Rothgeb’s death on Mt. Stuart. In addition hypothermia caused the death of a student in New Mexico and the general inclement weather resulted in frostbite in a number of other students. This occurred despite their being equipped with tents and sleeping bags.

The Rothgeb accident also demonstrates the need for training in crevasse rescues and the importance of having prussik slings when travelling across glaciers. This accident also underscores the problem that arises when the leader of an inexperienced party gets into trouble and there is no one with the knowledge to rescue him.

Jam nuts are becoming popular devices to replace pitons because of their favorable effect on the environment — and enable one to climb clean. They can, however, have their own problems as shown in the accident on Seneca Rock involving Templeton and another similar episode in the Tetons involving Van Yancey. As Chouinard has suggested additional anchoring nuts should have been used. In addition there were ten more accidents involving failures of nuts or pitons either as primary or contributory causes.

Failures of rappels are inherently hazardous. This year there were a number of such accidents from which a number of points can be emphasized. There is a need for knots at the end of rappels especially when prussik slings or carabiner brakes are used. The accident involving Hogsed on Symmetry Spire demonstrates this. The other point from this accident is that the mid-point of the rope should be marked — preferably not with tape. Prussik knots should be carefully applied and not allowed to jam, as the extaordinary accident that killed Steven Maxwell indicates. This accident was further complicated by an improper attachment of the diaper sling to the prussik sling. Care must be taken at the start of a rappel so as not to disturb the anchor point which may tolerate considerable downward pull but little upward pull. This factor is shown in the accident on Pagoda Peak in Colorado that involved Steve Day. Another situation in which the anchor point may become unstable is during down-climbing. The irregular motion may release the rope. This occurred in an accident not written up. The individual involved was near the end of his down-climbing when the rappel failed and he slid onto a rock occupied by two other climbers. His fall knocked them and the rock off and he was saved by his companion who grabbed him before he too fell. The other two suffered moderately severe injuries as a result of their fall.

It is still necessary to emphasize the need for climbers to practice selfarrests with their ice-axe. These should be done on gentle slopes and only when proficiency has been demonstrated there should steeper slopes be tried. Failure to use such self-arrests resulted in the death of Boullion on Guye Peak, Kent Evans on Mt. Shuksin and Dan Hines on Temple Crag in California. In some instances no real attempt was made to try selfarrest. In another instance the individual came to a stop but then started to slide again.

Avalanches still claim their victims; one on Mt. Athabasca involved a very experienced group that apparently did not realize that avalanche conditions existed. Two other groups, one on Mt. Blanca in Colorado, and another in Canada on Mt. Colossal also did not recognize avalanche conditions. In the former instance only one person was involved and was injured. In the latter instance all three climbers were involved and injuries were sustained when they fell over a cliff. This resulted in two deaths and one severely injured person.

The use of helicopters in rescues can at times be a life-saving matter. The rescuers of Hale on Mt. Athabasca were convinced that the time saved by the use of the helicopter allowed a prompt rescue and evacuation to hospital before hypothermia became a problem. On the other hand, Dr. Sprecker when he was evacuated by helicopter after the Mt. Colossal accident felt that the vibration of the machine jarred his broken legs enough to make him feel he was going into shock. It may have been that his legs were inadequately splinted. This does point to a potential hazard of helicopter evacuation of individuals whose broken limbs may not be adequately splinted.

With the increased interest in ski mountaineering it is appropriate to emphasize that the so-called racing cross-country ski is not an adequate piece of equipment for ski-mountaineering — neither is the modern downhill ski and boots. Preferable is the older type of ski that can be waxed and that uses a so-called touring binding that can be used loose for climbing or secured for downhill. These skis are heavier and stronger than the cross-country racing skis but are much more suitable. Older versions from Switzerland used to be hinged so they could be folded and carried beside the pack more easily when travel was over non-snowy terrain.

Hard hats have finally made the grade and it is encouraging to read the number of reports which state that the hard hat undoubtedly prevented more extensive injury. There are still a significant number of persons who do not wear them and they appear in the reports as those whose injuries might have been less if they had worn a hard hat. Hard hats will not protect against massive falls as occurred on Mt. Stuart and on the Clemenceau Ice Field. They are, however, very good for the lesser rock falls that could result in serious injury if no hard hat were worn.

Rock rolling attracts some of the members of the climbing fraternity and others as well. In general this is an activity that should be discouraged, especially in populated areas. An accident not reported or included in our statistics involved such a situation. A man was killed in New Mexico in the Sandia Mountains while walking along a trail. Apparently rocks had been pushed off higher up by unidentified persons.

Attention is called to a new book on rescue techniques that should be published shortly. It is by William G. May of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and is entitled “Mountain Search and Rescue Techniques.” It will be available from RMRG, P.O. Box Y, Boulder, CO 80302. Price has not been fixed.


Benjamin G. Ferris, Jr., Chairman

Weston, Massachusetts

Peter L. Renz

Wellesley, Massachusetts

Edward O. Nester

Princeton, New Jersey

Arnold Wexler

Washington, D. C.

Thomas O. Nevison

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Harold F. Walton

Boulder, Colorado

William G. May

Boulder, Colorado

Ross Petrie

Portland, Oregon

Hal Foss

Olympia, Washington

Dennis Burge

China Lake, California

David Harrah

Riverside, California

Michael Sherrick

Reseda, California

Wayne P. Merry

Yosemite, California


Dick Culbert

Vancouver, B.C.

Don G. Linke

Edmonton, Alberta

Helen Butling

Nelson, B.C.

R. D. Lyon

Calgary, Alberta


George Sainsbury

Seattle, Washington

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