American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Exposure, Bad Weather, Inexperience, Colorado, Longs Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1982


Colorado, Longs Peak

In December 1981, James Duffy (24) froze to death during a blizzard on Longs Peak. His companion, Michael O’Donnell (25), descended the mountain safely earlier. (Source: The New York Times, December 12, 1981)


This case, like many, raises more questions than it answers. This year, our Colorado correspondents diminished, so the details are lacking. A general report from the Annual Mountaineering Search and Rescue Report in Rocky Mountain National Park provided the following:

“Two major body recoveries occurred on Longs Peak (January and December). The first fatality was due to a long pendulum and impacting the rock when an improperly placed Friend, mechanical chock, failed. The second fatality was due to hypothermia and injuries sustained in a fall while descending Longs Peak in severe winter conditions. Both victims were, at the time, climbing with the same person.”

The only other accident reported from Colorado appeared in the same report. Although general in nature, it was intriguing in its details:

“An unusual rescue occurred in January in which a rock climber lodged his knee in a near-vertical crack about 15 feet off the ground and could not pull it back out. He and his climbing partner worked on the knee for approximately 1½ hours before requesting assistance. Park rescue personnel spent approximately 1½ more hours working on the knee, trying first to lubricate the knee with motor oil. When that did not work, mason’s chisels were requested and the rock was eventually chipped away from around the knee, freeing the climber after nearly four hours of hanging in the crack.” (Source: J. Williamson and Rocky Mountain National Park)

(Editors Note: Reporting from Colorado was incomplete this year. Any additional narratives for 1981 will be included in the 1983 report.)


Minnesota, Devil Track River Gorge

On January 18, 1981, Brian McKinley and Peter Monkkonen, both experienced on ice, attempted a third ascent of Nightfall, a 200-foot, two-pitch ice climb in northern Minnesota. Both had done the climb previously. Both wore helmets. An 11-millimeter Perlon rope was used. The weather was unusually mild. Although most of the route was shaded, the ice was generally plastic. Monkkonen led the first pitch and established a belay anchor with two Chouinard tubular ice screws. McKinley followed and then led up the 150-foot second pitch, protecting with six Chouinard tubulars. After several vertical sections, the angle eased somewhat at the top. During McKinley’s final move, one of the climbing tools (Serac Sabre and Mjollnir) dislodged. He fell headfirst 20 feet to his last protection, a Chouinard 9-inch screw, and approximately 20 feet beyond, impacting the ice several times before being arrested by Monkkonen. McKinley suffered multiple lesions about the face, a concussion, a cerebral- nasal blowout, and compound orbital fractures. Recovery was awkward, as he arrested well above his belayer. Retreat was arduous over snow to the road, one mile away. Remarkably, McKinley did not lose consciousness and the party arrived at the road about an hour after the accident. (Source: Richard Loren Doege)


A survey of the site a week later disclosed a square-yard pocket at the lip of the ice where McKinley’s tool probably pulled out a dinner plate. The ice at this point seemed more brittle than elsewhere. Ice conditions often vary within a given pitch and climbing technique should be sensitive to the changes. However, a sense of euphoria or a relaxing of vigilance frequently prevails over caution during the final, often easier, moves of a strenuous climb. The protection that was in place was apparently adequate, as were the belay system, anchor and belayer. McKinley’s helmet (MSR) probably prevented worse injury. Falls on ice are almost always headfirst. Helmets are always advisable. Recovery and retreat would have been expedited by a third member in the party. (Source: Richard Loren Doege)

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