American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Inadequate Equipment, California, Mount Whitney

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1990


California, Mount Whitney

On October 6, 1989, Louis Morris (31), Steve Nootenboom (33) and Bruce Hubbard

(36) were descending the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney about 1600, after climbing the East Face to the summit. They were unroped, without crampons or ice axes, and were wearing lightweight trail boots. They had descended about 125 meters down the chute from the notch, or about a third of the way, plunge-stepping down, breaking through a light crust. Morris, taking the lead after a rest stop at a rock outcropping, stepped out again onto the snow. His first step was onto crust that was unexpectedly harder than they had encountred previously. He lost his footing and slid feet first on his back over a stretch of hard surface for about 150 meters. By the time he reached softer snow, he was going too fast for any type of self-arrest. He continued sliding down over snow for another 60 meters, mostly feet first on his back, until he struck a band of rocks at high speed. At this point he became airborne and disappeared from the view of his companions. They descended carefully down the rocks next to the snow until they could see his body on rocks at the end of the snow, about 250 meters below. On reaching Morris, they found him unconscious but still breathing. Nooten- boom made a fast trip out to the roadhead where he called the Inyo County Sheriff for help. Hubbard tried CPR when Morris stopped breathing, but by 1800 felt he was dead.

Several members of the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group reached the victim at first light on the following day. With the help of additional personnel from the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team, Morris’ body was carried down to Iceberg Lake where it was loaded into a CH47D “Chinook” helicopter supplied by the Army National Guard “Delta Schooners” from G Company, 140th Aviation, in Stockton, and flown with all the rescue personnel to Lone Pine. (Source: John Inskeep, Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team)


Few climbers elect to carry ice axes and crampons on a climb of the East Face of Mount Whitney just to have them available for the usually routine descent down the Mountaineers Route. Those who don’t should use the more tedious routes down the loose rocks on the edges of the chute rather than the snow in the middle.

This accident happened late in a season of very little snowfall in the Sierra; seldom will there be less snow on the Mountaineers Route, meaning that snow should always be anticipated on this descent route from a classic rock climb. Especially at this time of year, portions of the chute are in shade all day. (Source: John Inskeep, Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team)

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