American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Forty-first Annual Report of the Safety Committee of The American Alpine Club and The Alpine Club of Canada

  • Editorials And Prefaces
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988

This is the forty-first issue of Accidents in North American Mountaineering and the eleventh that has been edited and published jointly by The American Alpine Club and The Alpine Club of Canada.

Canada: One of the less common causes of mishaps in the mountains is lightning. In 1987, however, lightning struck climbers twice, once in Quebec, with fatal results, and once in the western mountains with results that were merely traumatic.

A more relentless agent of death is the avalanche. This year, three climbers were carried away on Mount Bryce and one on Mount Robson. More skiers than climbers lost their lives this way, and one such incident is reported here. In one accident, seven in a group of ten helicopter skiers were killed on March 23 in the Monashees near Blue River, B.C. The best defense against both phenomena is not to be there when they happen.

Part of the mystery of the high mountains is that sometimes climbers who go there are never seen again. Last summer, this happened in Alaska and Canada, on Mount McKinley and Mount Logan.

On a more optimistic note, the number of injuries and deaths is down from last year, returning to a more usual level. In particular, there are no reports at all of climbers falling into crevasses.

We are grateful to the following persons for collecting reports: Tom Elliot, Lloyd Freese, Peter Fuhrman, Denis Gravel, Ian Kay, Ron Quilter, and Lahav Wolach.

United States: I didn’t realize the appropriateness the cover photo would ultimately have this year. There were several reports of cornice and snow bridge collapses. The loss of two great mountaineers, Katherine Freer and Dave Cheesmond, on Mount Logan most likely involved such an event, in conjunction with the weight of heavy snowfall and high winds. Many of us who knew them would not have been surprised—in fact, had somehow expected—to hear that they had turned up somewhere on the coast in June or July. The news was received with the same disbelief as when Hermann Buhl and Bruce Carson disappeared under somewhat similar circumstances.

Another accident cause that seemed to prevail in many locations was handholds and footholds coming off, which are reported under the “falling rock” category. Some, of course, were the result of “failure to test holds.” But many seemed to involve large blocks which had been used frequently on well-traveled routes. This was also another year in which the inadequate placement of protection proved to result in injuries which could have been avoided or at least rendered less severe. At least half the accidents reported from Yosemite Valley had this category ticked. The 20 “No hard hat” events speak for themselves, accounting for a significant increase from 1985, and for about ten percent of the injuries this year.

Just before going to press this spring, we received 46 additional reports from the Yosemite Clinic, and 16 from Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. While none of these is in the narrative section, all are incorporated in the data. Most of these last-minute entries resulted in fractures, and were caused by inadequate or no protection (including five bouldering falls from over ten feet) and falling rocks, half of which were dislodged by climbing parties above the victim who also did not signal, Rock! One French climber in Yosemite came to the rangers and reported, "A stone is fallen!" Two rather unfortunate Yosemite incidents included a climber being hit severely in the forehead by his own carabiner when the nut he was testing sprang out, and an old piton on an aid section of the Zodiac Wall pulling out as the leader stepped into the etrier.

I am often asked what percentage of the total accidents which probably happen in North America are reported to the safety committees. The answer for Mexico is obvious, though one report involving an inability to self-arrest on Popocatepetl in 1986 did come in belatedly. As for the United States and Canada, the answer is that reports on all accidents involving rescue by custodians of public lands and most of those involving MRA units are sent in. Accidents involving injury but no rescue go mostly unreported in areas such as Boulder, Smith Rocks, Tahquitz, Hueco Tanks, and Looking Glass, where difficult routes abound, and where falling and even injury are accepted as part of the game. The only reason for our plea to report these is if there is an object lesson which can be passed along to other Climbers.

Of interest to some mountaineers who travel in snow and avalanche terrain is the unveiling of the “Mount Hood Locater Unit,” developed by Telonics, a company that produces tracking devices used to follow wild animals across arctic areas. The instrument, developed in the wake of the Mount Hood tragedy of 1986, works over long distances, through snow, and in severe weather. It is currently available for rent in the Portland area, and its use is, at this writing, on a voluntary basis.

In addition to the Safety Committee, we are grateful to the following individuals for collecting data and helping with the report: Peter Armington, Dr. William Bowie, Kenneth Brink, Jr., Micki Canfield (who has typed the manuscript for the past 15 years), David Essex, Tim Kovacs, Lawrence Laine, Ruth Mendenhall, Larry Novak, Judi Nigbor, Bob Siebert, Tom Scheuer, Reed Thome, and Mike Wilkinson. A special thanks to committee member George Sainsbury for outstanding reporting from the Northwest, and to John Dill for his careful analyses, and the rapport he has established with Yosemite “regulars.”

John E.Williamson, Editor, USA 7 River Ridge

Hanover, New Hampshire 03755

J. Whitteker, Editor, Canada 25 Clcadon Drive Nepean, Ontario K2H 5P4

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