American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Sierra Blanca

  • In Memoriam
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1973

Colorado, Sierra Blanca. On 28 May George Bell, Larry Campbell (30), Ross Harder, Bill Hendry, Karl Horak, and David Michael, while descending a snow face on the north side of the east ridge of Sierra Blanca, set off a wet snow avalanche. The slide carried Campbell about fifty feet over rocky ledges and a further hundred feet on snow before he was able to extricate himself from the sliding snow. With slight assistance he was able to climb to an adjacent rock rib with large ledges but was unable to continue the descent. He was evacuated the remaining 1,500 feet to the valley floor next morning and flown to a hospital by helicopter. Injuries included a broken knee cap and minor crack of the pelvis associated with a massive bruise of the hip. Campbell was wearing a hard hat which was cracked in the accident and undoubtedly saved him from serious head injuries.

The party had made a technical ascent of Blanca and chose this as the descent route. The danger of avalanche was not recognized in time. The steeper upper parts of the slope seemed free of slide hazard; there was little wet snow on them, rocks kicked from above caused no action, and there were no signs of spontaneous slides on nearby slopes. As the slope became more gentle an increasing depth of wet snow was found, which was in fact poorly bonded to a hard snow surface beneath. The slide began, as one climber sat down to see if a glissade was possible, with a fairly clean break and about three feet of snow sliding. The slope was between 25 and 30 degrees. A large party had ascened this slope, a standard route, the same day and was thought to have descended by it. In fact they had recognized the dangerous snow conditions near where the slide started and had elected to descend by an alternative route. The climber who started the slide was able to get out of it without difficulty, since only snow below him was moving, while Campbell, who was a hundred feet lower down was caught and immediately carried over the ledges.

Source: George Bell.

Analysis: The cause of the accident was the failure to recognize the hazard. The slope being descended should have been treated with more respect in view of the warm weather, late hour (1700), and the fact that the party had not ascended it and was thus not sure of the snow conditions. Party was unroped, but it is doubtful that a man in the slide could have been held.

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