Accidents in North American Mountaineering, Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Safety Committees of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada

Publication Year: 1980.

This is the thirty-third issue of Accidents in North American Mountaineering and the fourth that has been edited and published jointly by the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada.

Canada: Over forty mountaineering accidents are known to us from 1979, and we have reports on most of them. Several of them, however, will have to be held over until next year. At least nineteen deaths occurred, not counting deaths when helicopter skiing. This is by far the largest number so far reported from Canada, but as significant improvements have been made in the collecting of reports, it is not certain whether there is a real increase in the actual number of deaths or an increase in the efficiency of collecting. Nevertheless, it is a serious and disturbing number, if our estimated number of climbers in Canada—5,000—is at all accurate.

Most of the Canadian reports have been edited to a reasonably standard format and kept as short as possible while still making the point. In this way, more reports have been included. The words of the reporters have, therefore, often been altered, we hope without significant alteration of the meaning.

Although helicopter skiing accidents fall outside the direct scope of these reports, they are of interest to mountain climbers because they occur under mountaineering conditions. Therefore, some reports have been included. If professional guides, who are helicopter skiing almost every day, sometimes have difficulty estimating the avalanche danger on steep slopes, then amateurs must have even more of a problem. Perhaps the best advice for amateurs is given by Ron Perla in “Avalanche Evaluation and Safety in the Back Country” (in Avalanche Control, Forecasting and Safety, edited by Ron Perla, National Research Council of Canada Technical Memorandum No. 120, Ottawa, 1978, p. 260), who recommends, among other things, staying off slopes steeper than 25° unless the snow is known to be stable.

Hans Gmoser has said that his helicopter skiing operations “had about 15 accidents involving slides of varying sizes out of 60,000 skier days” (in the book mentioned in the last paragraph, p. 257). If the average party was 8 people, then on the average, in one full year of skiing each day under these conditions, half of the skiers would have been in serious danger from an avalanche. Helicopter skiing is, of course, not mountain climbing, but ski mountaineers and helicopter skiers ski in similar terrain. Ski mountaineers probably spend less time on the average in dangerous areas than helicopter skiers, but are on the average more experienced and skilled in judging the conditions of snow slopes.

United States: This year there were again a number of accidents reported which do not fall technically within the purview of this journal. In the future we may devote one section to “accidents in the mountains” which happen to hikers, snowshoers, and crosscountry skiers, as the basic hazards of changing weather, rock fall, and avalanche, to name the most common, affect anyone who is in the mountains. There are also many “incidents” or “near miss” reports which, while not technically or statistically an accident, can provide useful information to mountaineers. We know there are many more of these than of accidents per se each year. It may be of interest to the reader that a recent study in which we examined over ten years of accident/near miss data from a broad based adventure program, a curious correlation showed up: in almost all near miss cases, accidents of a similar nature and in the same geographic area (often the same route) occurred within one year. Climbers are therefore encouraged to submit near miss data, an example of which is found in the Colorado report on carabiner failure, as they may be of as much educational value as accident reports.

A look at the total picture for 1979 reveals a few noteworthy facts. First, the number of accidents on Mt. McKinley has been about the same over the past years, but this year for the first time, foreign climbers had the most accidents—five out of the eight. (Most of these were related to altitude, which is not surprising.) The Chief Park Ranger for Mt. McKinley also points out that there are each year many “incidents” in his bailiwick which go unreported because the climbers take care of themselves, a process not uncommon in most climbing areas when no serious injury occurs. Second, there was a significant decrease in the number of accidents which usually occur in Grand Teton National Park, and most of these were snow related. Finally, there were no accidents reported from our correspondents in the Southwest, in the South, or in the Montana-Idaho region. In letters from some of them, there is an indication that there was not a great increase in climbing activity which suggests a decrease in new and inexperienced climbers. Efforts to gather data from all areas has increased, especially knowing that many new areas, including small cliffs, are coming into use.

We are grateful to the following persons for collecting reports. Canada: Ian Kay, Helen Butling, Bruce McKinnon, Chris Sadleir, Tim Auger, D. A. Dumpleton, Rory Flanagan, Lyn Michaud, Denis Gravel, and Ronald Frey. United States: Dennis Burge, Hugh Dougher, Bob Gerhard, Hal Grovert, Brad Snyder, Howard Stansbury, Ralph Tingey, Larry Van Slyke, and Rick Wilcox.

John E. Williamson, Editor/USA

Nottingham Square

Nottingham, New Hampshire 03290

E. Whalley, Editor/Canada

175 Blenheim Drive

Ottawa, Ontario