American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Pagoda Peak

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

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Pagoda Peak. On 18 June Dave Whiteman and Steve Day started off from Black Lake at 0445 to climb the west ridge of Pagoda. They cramponed up the snow tongue to the Pagoda — Chiefshead col which they reached at 0700. They noted a strong wind on the ridge and summit so they roped up at the top of the col and started up the west ridge carrying coils. The wind was terrible. After negotiating the second small pinnacle on the ridge (4th class), they came upon the first large pinnacle. It looked like tough climbing so they decided to descend to the right (south) to go around the base of the pinnacle and then attempt to regain the ridge on the other (east) side. Once they got below the pinnacle the wind died off and they had a clear view of the Broadway-type horizontal ledge that continued on around the Keplinger Lake cirque. They decided to carry through on their plans to attempt to regain the ridge rather than to take the temptingly easy walk along the ledge and the easier climb to the summit along the south ridge.

Steve then put up three leads in an attempt to reach some dark gullies which they thought would lead them back to the west ridge. The first two leads were uncomfortable due to the cold rock and the necessity of climbing without gloves on the 5th class leads. Steve led the third lead and placed about four pitons for protection. The lead was about 5.6. The sun started to shine and the temperature rose. It began to look as if they would have pretty good weather after all. Steve placed a two-inch aluminum bong-bong (the type with holes drilled in the sides) for an anchor and then belayed Whiteman up. It became apparent once they looked over their position that they were in a cul-de-sac and that there was little hope for continuing this line towards the ridge. Whiteman got on belay and Steve tried to reach a handhold at the limit of his reach on a short overhand above the ledge. The hold was insufficient and they made a firm decision to descend. The last lead was too hard to down-climb so they decided to set up a rappel and sacrifice the bong-bong. The bong-bong was driven straight down behind a large flake (approximately 12x12x2 feet) which marked the lower limit of the sloping ledge they were on. Whiteman set up a single strand rappel with the 150-foot perlon, a hero loop, a carabiner, and an undetermined length of pull down cord. Whiteman volunteered to rappel first to figure out how long the pull-down cord was. He could only rappel to the end of the pull-down cord, of course, and they figured it was longer than one-half of a rope length (75 feet) but shorter than one rope length (150 feet). He determined to be very cautious on the rappel since a single-rope rappel is inherently dangerous due to the danger of the rope being cut when rappelling over sharp rock protuberances. (They had such an experience in McHenry’s Notch in 1966). He basically down climbed, using the rappel mostly for balance and not putting any real strain on the rope. He found a good ledge 70 feet below Steve and off to one side. The pull-down cord turned out to be 90 feet in length and there were no good ledges within that range.

They decided that, since it would be safer (presumably) to rappel on a double rope, Steve should re-rig the rappel. He pulled down the pull-down cord and saw to it that the two ends of the doubled rope were even.

Steve put on the climbing pack and began the rappel by leaning back. Whiteman heard him yell and saw him fall backwards and tumble about 80 feet. He hit some outsloping ledges at this point and began to roll. He then hit a three-foot flat ledge very hard which slowed his fall. He rolled off this ledge and ended up about 200 feet below the rappel point when the rope tangled in some loose boulders on one of the ledges.

Whiteman was certain that Steve was dead due to the length and severity of the fall. He was lucky enough to be in a position where he could climb unassisted the remainder of the distance down the broadway-type ledge and walk over to Steve. Steve was dead and it became clear that there was nothing that could be done at this point. He lowered Steve to a more substantial ledge, pounded a piton, and anchored the body to the ledge. He retrieved the climbing pack and the ice-axe he would need to descend to Black Lake and surveyed the scene. It was clear that the bong-bong had failed at the beginning of the rappel. The pin was still attached to the rappel rope and was only about six feet from Steve’s brake bar. He descended to Black Lake and then hiked out to notify the authorities.

Source: Dave Whiteman.

Analysis: (Whiteman). I had rappelled on the same piton. I feel that the piton failed because the friction in the double-rope brake system put an upwards pressure on the piton. This caused it to pull out from its position behind the flake at the start of the rappel. Had the pressure on the piton been from below, the piton would have held.

The weather conditions were good at the time of the accident. It was partly cloudy, but the wind had stopped. The accident occurred at 0900. We were both experienced mountaineers and had done a great deal of climbing together. We were climbing within our abilities, had the best of equipment, and considered that we had a good margin of safety.

A forced rappel is one of the most dangerous maneuvers in rock climbing since the last rappeller cannot be belayed unless additional equipment is left in place on the rock. The angle piton which failed appeared to be well placed in a good granite crack and apparently had not shifted when we used it as a belay anchor. I rappelled on the piton and there was no indication that it was unsafe. A thorough check of the piton before rappelling might have prevented the accident.

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