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Accidents in North American Mountaineering, Forty-Fifth Annual Report of the Safety Committees of The American Alpine Club and The Alpine Club of Canada

This is the forty-fifth issue of Accidents in North American Mountaineering and the fourteenth that has been done jointly by the American Alpine Club and The Alpine Club of Canada.

Canada: Fewer accidents were reported this year than last year, and it would be nice to think it’s a trend; but the statistics toward the back of this book show that the numbers vary greatly from year to year. It’s likely that many accidents that result in injury are not reported, while those necessitating a rescue or which involve fatalities are reported.

As usual, falls on rock figured prominently in the accidents we described this year, followed by falls on snow and ice. There were two cornice collapses, an avalanche, a lightning strike, and a case of stranded climbers. The main contributing causes were “exceeding abilities” and “climbing unroped.” Though the former is often a subjective assessment, when a climber falls and is injured or killed not as a consequence of an external event such as rockfall or bee stings, it can usually be surmised that said climber exceeded his/her level of abilities.

On the other hand, damage that results from a fall while climbing unroped is purely an objective assessment of cause. In most cases, the seriousness of a fall can be greatly reduced if the climber is being held by a companion managing the rope linking them together —hence the symbolism of the rope in mountaineering. In any case, we should not be surprised to find that falls which occur while climbing unroped are very likely to be a major contributor to more severe injuries.

We are now seeing more helicopter rescues taking place, as the reader will notice in the narratives. The cost often outweighs the time spent in man hours and the hazards encountered. This year there is a report of at least one case where the rescue was started without a helicopter due to bad flying conditions, but the moment the weather improved, the helicopter took over because of the superior speed and support capability it was able to provide.

We thank Tim Auger, Eric Dafoe, George Field, Clair Israelson, Ian Kay, Marc Ledwidge, Rick Ralf, and Brian Wallace for their contributions to this edition, and all the others who contributed indirectly, even by writing to report happily that no accidents had happened in their area.

United States: This was a year when the category “other” made me think about what we might add to the Immediate and Contributory Cause columns—and which ones we might eliminate or modify. An example of the latter is the category “Rappel Failure,” to which I’ve added the word “Error.” In every rappel accident case I can recall, the “failure” has been in how the anchor has been set up; or how the rappeller has hooked into the system; or in not estimating the length of the rope in relation to the distance to the next ledge accurately; or in using webbing or other anchors which are already in place but are of an unknown age and therefore strength; or from not using a belay or back up system.

“Equipment Failure,” which is often recorded as a contributory cause, is another category that needs modification. When pitons break, webbing parts, ropes sever, and so forth, the fault has generally been either from the age of the material or the manner in which it was used.

Some causes which could be added include Communications (misunderstanding between climber and belayer, failing to file a route plan, not informing guides or friends of a medical condition, etc); Distraction; and Inadequate Supervision. All these seem to appear regularly enough to warrant consideration. The two other significant contributors have been mentioned before: 1) Trying to stick to a schedule; and 2) Trying to please other people.

There are geographic areas not represented in the report, Oregon being the most notable. There are also small pockets of climbing activity in many states now, but few reports of accidents are sent in. A lot of the sites are where hard rock and sport climbing practice take place. While many falls probably occur in these situations, they would not be considered as accidents unless there was a serious injury or fatality, because climbing until one falls is a necessary and accepted step toward improving one’s skill level.

There was one report from “south of the border”—Baja California. The San Diego Mountain Rescue Team evacuated a hiker/climber from Guadalupe Canyon where he had suffered a broken leg after being struck by rockfall. We know there are accidents occurring in the popular climbing area of Mexico—the volcanoes, but again, we have received no reports.

The media continues to characterize climbing as a dangerous endeavor, and to associate non-mountaineering and climbing accidents with the sport. Here’s a headline from the Yakima Herald Reporter, on June 3, 1991: “Climber killed in fall from building.” This was a man who was climbing a building in order to clean the roof and ventilation equipment when he brushed an electrical wire and then fell 35 feet. When such articles appear, it is good to follow up with a letter to the editor so readers have a chance to see the other side of the picture.

In addition to the Safety Committee, we are grateful to the following individuals for collecting data and helping with the report: Peter Armington, Dennis Burge, Micki Canfield, Dean Engle, Joseph Evans, Erik Hansen, George Hurley, Chris Jones, Matt Kamper, Kelley McCloskey, Ken Phillips, Phil Powers, Tod Schimelfenig, Thomas Sheuer, and, of course, George Sainsbury.

John E. (Jed) Williamson Orvel Miskiw

Editor, USA Editor, Canada

7 River Ridge 8631 - 34th Ave NW

Hanover, NH 03755 Calgary, Alberta