Accidents in North American Mountaineering, Fifty-Seventh Annual Report of the Safety Committees

Publication Year: 2004.

Canada: This was the year of the avalanche. In two incidents involving backcountry skiers 14 people died. Although these incidents did not involve climbers, the effect will be felt by the climbing community for years to come. Parks Canada is currently revising their rules to require “custodial” groups (the definition of which is possibly as wide as “minors not accompanied by their parents”) to hire professional guides to accompany them into the Park areas. This is a major change in philosophy and noteworthy for that reason alone.

It was also the year of the falling object. Spontaneous or climber-generated rock fall, ice fall, or hold failure accounted for a remarkably high number of incidents, resulting in a variety of injuries. Also of note this year was the unusually difficult forest fire situation which forced the closure of many areas in the National and Provincial Parks in Alberta and British Columbia in late July and August. Despite this fact, an increased number of accidents were reported this year.

Once again, it was difficult to get accident data from outside of the Rockies. There are many climbing areas in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec for which we have no data. If anyone has knowledge of a climbing or mountaineering accident, please report it to the editor. You may be able to help others avoid a similar fate in a similar situation.

We would like to express our gratitude to the following individuals who contributed to the Canadian section of this year’s book: John Booth, Burke Duncan, Stephane Durocher, Jonathan Holzman, Brent Kozachenko, Mike Lezarre, JimMamalis, George Porter, Dave Stephens and Bradford White. Thanks also to those who indicated that they had nothing to report this year and to those whose reports were not included in this year’s book.

United States: The number of accidents submitted for this year was significantly lower when compared to the last two decades. Even with three of the high-traffic climbing places—Rocky Mountain National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Devil’s Lake State Park—not forwarding reports, this is important to consider when we know that climbing activity in the U.S. has increased. I stand by the estimate of about 300,000 climbers (people who rope up ten days or more a year), so when we look at the ratio of the number of accidents and fatalities to the number of climbers, it is hard to understand how the sport gets ranked by the National Safety Council as being in the top five in terms of risk level.

Under the category “falling rock, ice, or object,” all eleven incidents this year were the result of rocks being dislodged, either by foot or by hand. In only two cases could this have been attributed to a failure to test holds. The primary reason was being in areas known for loose rock. Several narratives are devoted to this topic.

For many years I have been saying that we seem to be past the problem of rappelling off the end of the rope. But there have been several of these in the past few years. I am told that with the use of longer ropes, some climbers are reluctant to tie the rope-ends together for fear the knot will get hung up when the ropes are thrown down. I guess it depends on which of the two situations you would prefer to be exposed to.

Most of the descending errors this year were the result of lowering climbers—both from the bottom (sling-shot belays) and the top—rather than rappels. These were primarily due to ropes being too short (and no knot being tied in the end), speed build-up so the belayer could not hang on, and inadequate anchoring.

For the sake of continuity, we have used the original format for Table III, with a few minor changes—such as removing the word “bad” in front of weather. I have developed a matrix (first designed by Dan Meyer) of potential accident causes that has three major headings: unsafe conditions, unsafe acts, and errors in judgment. Table III does not include such descriptors as “physical and/or psychological profile,” “trying to stick to a schedule,” and “trying to please other people.” When analyzing an accident, it is important to look at the variety of ways that climbers interact with the climbing environment, their partners, and the equipment they have chosen. For those interested in the topic, consider attending the annual Wilderness Risk Managers Conference, this year to be held in Banff from October 28 to 30. (Go to for information.)

In addition to the dedicated individuals on 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, Dave Brown, Al Hospers, Tom Moyer, Steve Muelhauser, Leo Paik, Steve Rollins, Brad Shilling, Robert Speik, Eric White, all individuals who sent in personal stories, and, of course, George Sainsbury.

John E. (Jed) Williamson Edwina Podemski

Managing Editor Canadian Editor

7 River Ridge Road 700 Phipps McKinnon Building

Hanover, NH 03755 10020-101A Avenue

e-mail: Edmonton, Alberta T5J 3G2


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