American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Off Route, No Hard Hat, Exceeding Abilities, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, White Whale II

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1995


Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, White Whale II

On May 23, 1994, Jack L. McConnell (59) and his son Thomas H. McConnell (24) were climbing the White Whale Route II, 5.7, on the Left Book formation at Lumpy Ridge. On the second pitch, they traversed off route and into the flake column of Hiatus II, 5.7+. On the third pitch, they continued off route into Ten Years After Route II, 5.9R. Jack McConnell negotiated the roof successfully and disappeared from belayer Thomas McConnell’s view as he continued to finish the pitch in a 5.8R unprotected slab area. Thomas McConnell stated, “It's pretty thin.” When there was only 20 feet left of the 165 foot belay rope, Thomas McConnell heard a “crash” and then saw Jack McConnell fall past the roof until stopped by the belay. Thomas McConnell tied off Jack McConnell, and then down climbed to him. He noticed that Jack McConnell had labored breathing and that there was “blood everywhere.” Thomas McConnell then climbed back to his belay spot and lowered Jack McConnell as far as he could. Thomas McConnell then removed his harness, down climbed solo on the route to the base of the cliff, and went to the Twin Owls Trailhead to summon the Rocky Mountain National Park SAR Team. There was a major search in progress in the park, so a quick response by the technical rescue team was possible because of helicopter support. McConnell's injuries were immobilized by two climbing rescue paramedics and he was lowered vertically in the litter to the base of the cliff. During the scree evacuation by litter, however, McConnell expired from the severe blunt trauma injuries of the head including hemorrhage and contusion of the brain and skull fractures, a direct result of his fall.


The intent of the McConnell party was to climb the White Whale Route. There are several reasons that contributed to this party’s getting off route. The Left Book is a large cliff area with a number of similar-looking intermediate level crack features which confuse many climbers even when comparing features with a guidebook. The McConnells had a guidebook, but left it with their packs at the base of the route. Most modern guidebooks are not pocket-sized to easily transport on the climb. The McConnells got off route on the second pitch onto Hiatus and then on the third pitch on Ten Years After. It was their first time on the Left Book and they were not aware that they were off route. Both father and son then ended up in an area where they were climbing above their ability levels. For Jack McConnell, it was not possible to down climb the 5.8+ slab because it was above his ability level. He had been climbing for 15 years, normally lead climbing at the 5.6 to 5.7 level with some 5.8 leads. Without being able to place any protection on the smooth slab, Jack McConnell found himself in a serious predicament.

Jack McConnell was not wearing a helmet. Had he worn a helmet, his death due to massive head injuries might have been avoided, as all other injuries were not life threatening—multiple fractures of the ribs with contusions of the lungs, as well as a wrist fracture. (Source: Jim Detterline, Longs Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park)

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