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

This is the forty-ninth issue of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, published by the AAC, and the eighteenth that has been done with The Alpine Club of Canada.

Canada: The wet summer of 1995 suppressed climbing activity, especially mountaineering, in much of Canada. Correspondingly, the statistics show a light and even distribution of accidents through most of the year, with a norm of one per month, rising slightly in July and August as the usual summer vacation peaks. However, particularly fine weather arrived in September, and predictably, pent-up throngs of deprived climbers rushed out to make up for lost time. The result was a flurry of accidents in September. Again, the predominant causes were falls with inadequate safety systems, and rappel failures and errors.

We continually strive to improve coverage of the country for accounts of climbing accidents, and welcome a number of new reporters. We also thank the several people who have taken the time to write and send us their personal stories of involvement in accidents, often painful to do. Including the above with our regular reporters, we thank the following people for their help this year: Tim Auger, Steve Blake, Yves Bosse, Martin Brenner, Eric Dafoe, George Field, Harry Fischer, Lloyd Freese, Clair Israelson, Marc Ledwidge, Garth Lemke, Brian Merry, Amie Nashalik, Jean-Claude Neolet, Richard Parson, Shawn Shea, and Robert Stock. Our regrets to anyone we’ve missed.

United States: Everything goes in cycles, which in the case of causes for climbing accidents is unfortunate. Nothing could be more illustrative of this than the category “Rappel Failure/Error.” The number of reports in this category had been in a fairly steady decline, with some spikes, the average having been five per year for the past decade. The two most common errors in the earlier years were rappelling off the end of one s rope and having the rappel anchor “fail.” These were corrected by tying a knot in the end of the rappel rope and having more than one anchor point if the primary protection is not deemed to be bomb proof.

Last year there were twelve reports and this year there are fifteen that are attributed to rappel problems. They are mostly of a different nature than in the past, and at least half of them occurred on top-rope climbs. The major causes include: having doubled ropes uneven causing rappeller to experience entire rope slipping through the top anchor; rappel rope not being long enough to reach the bottom; climber not anchoring while setting up the rappel; not belaying beginning climbers or using a prussik as a back up; and misusing the rappel device—such as incorrect threading of rappel rope, and having the ropes jam so that they are irretrievable—thus stranding the climbers. The few cases involving hair or clothes caught in belay devices and neophytes not being belayed can only be attributed to ignoring basic principles. Coupled with all of these are some contributory factors that need to be recognized. First is the problem of distraction. Many of the accidents occurred in areas with many other climbers nearby, so attention to the details at hand were in competition with conversation. Second seems to be the problem of haste. Climbers have either started late in the day and want to get off before dark, or they are just plain in a hurry to get down and on to the next event (such as a meeting with friends in the bar, as one fellow admitted). Upon closer scrutiny, there seems to be a more subtle third cause: proximity to the roadhead. That is, the vast majority of these accidents took place in climbing areas that are just off the road. Many of the climbers involved have indicated that even though they were aware of the technical aspects of rappelling, they did not pay as close attention as they might have if they were hours or days from civilization.

California certainly had its share of weather related problems again this year. In Steve Roper’s book, Camp Four, there is the story about Galen Rowell pulling out a sleeping bag at a bivouac site back in the 60’s and being instantly chastised by T. M. Herbert for being such a wimp. None of the Yosemite climbers of that time would be caught with much more than a wool sweater and hat in their packs. Now there are portaledges and synthetics that breathe and allegedly don’t leak. So why are there so many weather related rescues on El Capitan these days? Part of it has to do with a general level of unpreparedness, and for that reason, the Park is citing climbers more often for “creating a hazardous condition.” It would be appropriate for other parks and the USFS to consider using this approach a bit more often.

In addition to the Safety Committee, we are grateful to the following individuals for collecting data and helping with the report: Hank Alicandri, Elliot Crooks, Micki Canfield, Jim Detterline, Gary Guenther, Charlie Logan, John Markwell, Tom McCrumm, Daniel Miskinis, Daryl Miller, Rich Perch, Roger Robinson, Steven Schmelzer, Jim Underwood, and, of course, George Sainsbury.

John E. (Jed) Williamson Orvel Miskiw

Editor, USA Editor, Canada

7 River Ridge 5 Meskanaw Road

Hanover, NH 03755 R.R. 2 Cochrane