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Stranded, Unable to Find Route, Weather, Inadequate Equipment, Exhaustion, Hypothermia, Etc., Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak


Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak

On September 12, 1993, at 2330, Rocky Mountain National Park rangers were notified about an overdue party of two climbers attempting a route on the East Face of Longs Peak. Charles B. “Bo” Judd (34) and Thomas Kelly (27) had bivouacked at Mills Glacier on September 11. They got a late start on Kiener's Route on September 12, and were benighted around the 14,000 foot elevation at the base of the dihedral adjacent to the Diamond step. They did not figure out the simple third class connection to the summit. A severe winter storm with one and a half feet of snow, high winds, low temperatures to near 0° F, and low visibility blew in late that evening as predicted. On the following day, they accomplished a difficult descent of the East Face. Although they heard a rescuer calling to them in the storm, they dismissed his calls as hallucination.

Judd and Thomas continued their descent, which included a rappel anchor failure just above Broadway Ledge, and a slip on Lamb s Slide by Thomas due to a crampon coming off, to Mills Glacier. At this time it was dark, and they continually separated but kept in touch as they passed one another enroute to the east shore of Chasm Lake, where they had cached and hidden their bivouac gear. Both persons were hypothermic and very exhausted. Judd reached the camp first, probably after midnight according to his recollection, and collapsed in his sleeping bag. Thomas succumbed to hypothermia on the north side of Chasm Lake in a boulder field. When the search resumed at first light on September 14, Judd was located and flown out to Estes Park Medical Center with frostbite to his feet and hypothermia. Thomas’ body was discovered under a rock, where he had been dead for about eight hours.


This tragedy was caused by an amalgamation of various small mistakes. Judd and Thomas were proficient rock climbers (leading to the 5.10 level) but they were not alpinists. Most of their background was gained in short “sport routes” at low elevation and in a benign climate. Their training and experience on snow and ice was almost nil. Their route finding abilities, most critical in an alpine environment were of the “tunnel-vision” type, where one focuses on the immediate problems of the terrain in the direct line in front of oneself, instead of the overall picture. They were not equipped to survive the storm. Thomas may have been colder than Judd because he was wearing the goretex hi- tech sneaker type of footwear (inappropriate with his crampons), which may have allowed him to become colder through his feet. Although the party separated frequently during the retreat from Lamb's Slide to Chasm Lake, they did attempt to maintain contact with each other during this grueling dash for survival. The relocation of their camping gear from the established sites and dry caves of Mills Glacier to the far east side of Chasm Lake was a fatal mistake. Leaving that equipment where it was on the morning of their climb would have resulted in an earlier start on the climb (and they could have seen where the other Kiener's Route climbers were going), more energy available for the climb, and both would have reached the equipment alive on the retreat down. To Judd s credit, it must be mentioned that his survival of this tragedy was an amazing feat of willpower above all odds, and that he made every attempt to push his partner toward the critical stash of survival gear.

The overall lesson learned by this incident is that sport climbing is not the same as alpine climbing. Despite similarities among all of the disciplines of climbing (including bouldering, gymnastic competition climbing, sport climbing, traditional rock climbing, alpine climbing, ice climbing, high altitude climbing, alpine skiing, etc.), the differences are such that an expert in one discipline might be totally inexperienced in another. In recent years, those of us working rescue in alpine areas have noticed an increasing number of folks with backgrounds in sport or indoor climbing assuming they were automatically fit for the big wall or alpine routes just because they were capable of performing at high standards in the gyms and on the short bolt-protected outdoor walls. Judd and Thomas attempted to make the transition by doing a lot of reading research, but this unfortunately could not measure up to the experience of learning directly from either a guide or an experienced alpinist friend. (Source: Jim Detterline, Longs Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park)