American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Accidents in North American Mountaineering, Fifty-Second Annual Report of the Safety Committees of The American Alpine Club and The Alpine Club of Canada

  • Editorials And Prefaces
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

Canada: I would like to start by thanking Geoff Powter for compiling the Canadian incidents for the 1998 edition. He took this project on in addition to his good work in editing the Canadian Alpine Journal. There were fewer accidents in 1998 than in previous years. Part of this can be attributed to the fabulous summer weather that prevailed in all of Western Canada. Many traditional snow and ice routes changed markedly, or even disappeared under the warm summer sun. There is no way of telling how many folks were out climbing last summer, but it is safe to say there were many more than usual, all taking advantage of the beautiful conditions. If this assumption is true, the percentage of accidents per climber days would definitely be down.

As Geoff reported last year, the increase in the number of ice climbing accidents is continuing. We are seeing ice climbers with lots of technical ability, but with very little “mountain sense.” It will be interesting to see if this is a trend.

The number of incidents of “stranded” climbers continues to be an issue, and is mostly attributable to inexperience.

I would like to thank all of the contributors, including: Tim Auger, Marc Ledwidge, J.P. Cors, Sylvai Forrest, and George Field.

United States: We know that everything goes in cycles. In the case of mountaineering accidents, just when we think a certain kind of cause is under control, in comes an unusual number of reports on that category. It will be obvious that there were too many lowering and rappelling incidents in which anchors were inadequate or the ropes were “too short,” resulting in rapid descents to the ground. (In one incident, the victim stated, “The ground acted as an effective brake.”)

In catching up on accidents from Eldorado Canyon State Park from the previous year, I learned that, according to Tim Metzger (with the Division of Parks), of the 250,000 visitors per year, 100,000 of those are technical rock climbers. The trick now is to figure out how many of them are repeat visitors, given the high concentration of climbers in the area. A reasonable and conservative estimate would be 5–10,000, leaving few who would be one-time visitors. As there are guides and climbing classes conducted by schools and programs, another aspect to determine is how many of the technical climbers are just clients for a day. In any case, Eldorado Canyon is certainly one of the most heavily used areas in the state.

Mount Hood and Mount Rainier receive a lot of publicity, especially when a major incident occurs. Fifty years ago, there were only a couple of hundred attempts per year on each, and now there are over 10,000. On Mount Rainier, the summit success rate is fifty percent. In the hundred or so years that records have been kept, Mount Hood has seen well over a hundred fatalities, while the count on Mount Rainier is just under 100. Last summer, each mountain experienced a big avalanche event, resulting in two fatalities. Descriptions will be found in the narrative section. An important thing to remember about avalanches is that 90 percent of them are triggered by the individuals who die in them. In Washington, avalanches have resulted in the deaths of 180 people— more than for any other natural phenomena in the state.

In the aftermath of these events, one reporter ventured that most “world- class” (whatever is meant by that is not explained) climbers “are dead before they are 40.” I would respectfully dispute that statement, and suggest that a look at data, even from Himalayan climbing, would show this statement to be at the least misleading. The reason the American Alpine Club continues to produce this report is to provide enough data to determine whether a large (“most”), moderate, or small percentage of climbers—experienced (“world- class”) or otherwise—meet an early demise. Given a conservative estimate of 300 to 500,000 active climbers and an average of 27 fatalities per year in the United States for the past ten years, which includes anyone who died in a climbing accident, suggests that reporters need to familiarize themselves with the facts.

A big, on-going discussion that got a lot of press again this year is whether individuals who need to be rescued should be charged for these services. This is a “stay tuned” issue, especially with politicians becoming involved and suggesting legislation to address what is perceived by them as a significant burden upon the tax payers. Fortunately, at least so far, the facts about actual costs of mountain rescue versus other lands of rescue operations are coming into focus. One sensational and seemingly costly mountain rescue can obscure the vastly greater amounts spent on lost hikers or boaters. The bottom line is this: SAR (Search and Rescue) costs for climbers are about six to eight percent of the total for this activity in our federal lands system.

In addition to the Safety Committee, we are grateful to the following (with apologies for any omissions) for collecting data and helping with the report: Hank Alicandri, Micki Canfield, Jim Detterline, George Hurley, Renny Jackson, Mark Magnuson, Daryl Miller, Leo Paik, James Roberts, Robert Speik, Ian Wade, and, of course, George Sainsbury.

John E. (Jed) Williamson Managing Editor 7 River Ridge Road Hanover, NH 03755 e-mail:

Rod Plasman

Canadian Editor

132 Settler Way

Canmore, AB T1W 1E2


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