American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rock Dislodged—Causing Fall on Rock, Wyoming, Devil's Tower National Monument

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997


Wyoming, Devil’s Tower National Monument

On August 20 at 1445, Jeff Pettenger (21) was leading a variation of the Bailey Direct finish to the Durrance Route when he fell approximately 100 feet, receiving fatal head injuries. Jeff’s father, Noel Pettenger, summoned help from other climbers. Immediate assistance was provided by Markus Silpala and Jim McDermott, who climbed up to the Pettengers. McDermott, a paramedic, attempted to secure and maintain an unobstructed airway. However, Jeff Pettenger’s breathing eventually slowed, then stopped; and his heart subsequently stopped a short time later. Further attempts at basic life support were not attempted due to the injuries, location and evacuation considerations. Jeff Pettenger was recovered by the Devil’s Tower Search and Rescue Team. He was pronounced dead at the base of the Bowling Alley by Physician’s Assistant Bob Cummings at 1840. (Source: Jim Schlinkman, NPS Ranger)


At 0930 on August 21, Robert Moelder and I ascended the fixed lines left the evening before to the ledge that was the scene of the Pettenger fatality.

There we found the equipment left behind from the previous day. We completed the route via the Jump Traverse and gained the summit.

From the summit we rappelled down, over the pitch from which J. Pettenger had fallen. Here we photographed the climbing gear as placed by Jeff the day before. We observed a fresh rock scar, indicating that a rock had recently fallen, about 12 feet below the belay ledge at the end of the pitch.

The route J. Pettenger chose as the last pitch to their route is one crack right of the Bailey Direct route. This pitch is 112 feet long. Twelve feet from the finish we observed a 24" x 24" mark on the face of a column indicating that a rock had recently dislodged. Fifty feet lower we found the highest piece of climbing gear placed in the crack. Four other pieces of climbing gear were found placed in the crack between the highest piece and the ledge Jeff Pettenger landed on. All distances are approximate. (Source, Chris Holbeck, NPS Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: Chief Ranger Jim Schlinkmann estimates from registrations that about 5000 climbers visited the Tower during the year.)

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