American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

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

  • Editorials And Prefaces
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994

This is the forty-seventh issue of Accidents in North American Mountaineering and the sixteenth that has been done jointly with the American Alpine Club and The Alpine Club of Canada.

Canada: This year's data reflects a substantial increase in the number of accidents reported over the previous year, but represents the average for the past fifteen years. Finding a consistent reason for the increase would be difficult to identify, although the blame might be aimed at an unusual cluster of avalanche incidents. But there is no explanation for that phenomenon. As usual, falls account for a large portion—67%—of the accidents. And also as usual, a large portion—59%—of the injuries and fatalities may be attributed to lacking or faulty safety systems, including rope, protection, and belays.

Injury and fatalities do not seem to be much improved by forward thinking in climbing standards and bold trends in clothing styles. Gravity will not be denied consideration in mountaineering!

We issue our thanks again to our correspondents for contributing to this compilation by preparing or submitting reports this year. They include Eric Dafoe, George Field, Denis Gravel, Ian Kay, Andrew Lawrence, Marc Ledwidge, Garth Memke, Amis Nashalik, Ron Routledge, Dave Smith, Terry Willis, and especially Clair Israelson, who coordinates reporting for much of western Canada. Apologies for any we may have missed.

United States: A trip to the Lake District, UK, in the spring netted an exchange of information with the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association (LDSAMR). They publish an annual report called Mountain Accidents. It includes any climbing, walking, running, and boating incidents that require a callout. The data is reported in a way that allows us to see specifically the number of climbing incidents resulting in injury and fatality. In 1993, there were two fatalities (the annual average for the past eight years) and 21 injuries, and double this number found unhurt—overdue, stranded, etc. They report 274 “total casualties,” 27 of which were fatalities. Next year, we’ll figure out the area(s) in North America with which to compare all this.

It is apparent from the report and in talking with one of the SAR folks in Ambleside (Cumbria) that they get information on close to 100% of the incidents that happen there. While we receive most of the fatality and serious injury reports, especially from publicly managed lands and in those instances when rescue callouts were needed, we are getting a lesser percentage. This is due in part because of the escalation in climbing activity and the discovery and development of smaller climbing sites in the US, as well as an increasing reluctance on the part of climbers and land managers to provide information.

Many of the reports we receive contain very little information, and many, while describing the rescue in detail, are inconclusive as to cause. Follow-ups, especially when the information has come from a newspaper clipping, are not always productive. There is also a certain amount of repetition from one incident to the next. Readers are therefore reminded that the narratives selected for the text are for illustrative and educational purposes, and only represent about half of the total incidents reported.

A critical issue that has come to the surface during this year is the prospect of climbers being charged an additional fee on federal lands for the purpose of cost recovery for rescues. The first such proposal was put forth by Denali National Park, where it was decided that because the cost of mountain rescue for the previous season came to the equivalent of about $600 per climber, a $200 fee would be charged to help defray the costs of educating and rescuing climbers. We are on record as being opposed to any such discriminatory fee, and willing to help find some solutions. It is important to point out that of the costs for all search and rescue activity in the National Parks, the activity of climbing accounted for only six percent of the total. And this includes rescuing nonclimbers who entered into the climbing environment. When we divide the costs for SAR incurred directly by the National Park Service by the total number of visitors, the per capita amount comes to about a nickel.

So one solution, at least within the parks where fees are collected at the gate, is to charge everyone who enters (because no one is immune) the nominal amount needed and set these funds aside specifically for SAR. At the same time, we must recognize that all users have a responsibility for their own personal safety. But we should also have the opportunity to participate in any funding decisions being made by the custodians. Climbers interested in this issue should contact us, the Access Fund, and the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America (ORCA) for additional details and action plans.

Other issues on the rise include the increased use of cellular telephones in the wilderness. Too often, at the moment, this technology is being used as a substitute for self- reliance and preparedness. But their use has also saved lives by summoning needed life support services quickly in legitimate situations, such as the rockfall injury in Washington's Icicle River Canyon last July. In the works now is a wilderness VHF-FM Protocol for legitimate emergency and safety communications, which is one of Amateur Radio's foremost responsibilities.

When to call for helicopter rescue and evacuation is another issue being debated. Air evacuation of a victim with a non-life threatening injury or for a body recovery, especially if flying in adverse weather and/or hazardous terrain, calls into question the expense incurred and the risks involved. At the same time, it must be pointed out that in several high density climbing locations military helicopters are available, and rescue/ recovery activity is welcomed by them as “real” mission training. Tax dollars would be spent for equivalent simulation training, so costs involved under these conditions cannot be considered a burden.

To help work on these matters, a consortium of outdoor organizations, schools and programs, and federal land managers have formed a Wilderness Risk Management Committee. We are working toward disseminating a better understanding and management of risks inherent in wilderness activities. We have met several times, and will be conducting the first of a series of conferences for managers and practitioners in the fall of 1994.

Orvel Miskiw Editor, Canada 8631 - 34th Ave NW Calgary, Alberta

In addition to the Safety Committee, we are grateful to the following individuals for collecting data and helping with the report: Micki Canfield, Jim Detterline, Joseph Evans, George Hurley, Renny Jackson, Roger Robinson, Jeff Scheetz, Thomas Sheuer, and, of course, George Sainsbury.

John E. (Jed) Williamson Editor, USA 7 River Ridge Hanover, NH 03755

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