American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing


  • Feature Article
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1948

FROM the review of recent mountaineering accidents, it is clear that valuable lessons may be learned, many of them simply reiterations of fundamental maxims of safety. An accumulation of authoritative data not only from 1947 but from previous seasons and from seasons in the future can well be a continuing source of study and of reference for the development of more information on cause and prevention. Not to be overlooked, of course, are those tales of near accidents which were prevented by the proper training of the personnel involved. Space does not allow such a digression, but at least it is advisable to mention the point to emphasize fully the need for an ever-present consciousness of safety. The following list of recommendations for general mountain safety is gathered from the foregoing cases to illustrate how analysis of accidents can bring out factors which may not be easily seen in practice until too late.

A. Orientation and Cooperation for Safety

(1) PERSONS INTERESTED IN MOUNTAINEERING and wilderness exploration should be urged to join climbing organizations so that they will become aware of the necessity and the “know how” of safety in mountaineering instead of going off “on their own” and learning the “hard way” which so often leads to trouble. The Mount Index disaster shows only too well why this recommendation should be taken seriously.

(2) A system for KEEPING NON-CLIMBERS ON ESTABLISHED TRAILS should be set up. Signs similar to fire prevention trail markers, pamphlets, or friendly indoctrination (like that referred to below) might be considered.

(3) Although the PROBLEM OF REGISTRATION with local authority before climbing should be studied, it is recommended that no actual restriction be imposed to preclude mountaineering in a given area, but rather that a system of persuasive but friendly advice by authorities be organized and firmly placed in effect. Of course it must be recognized that in the National Parks of this country the National Park Service, by an act of Congress, is directly responsible for the lives of all Park visitors. Therefore, in these areas, registration is supported by the law. But no amount of registration will stop an occasional rash and impetuous climber, especially if he feels it restricts his freedom. Hence, in other districts, perhaps a kind of voluntary registration should be encouraged, so that climbers will be induced to register for their own protection without feeling required to do so by edict.

B. Leadership and Party Management

(1) THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF LEADERSHIP, especially in matters of safety, should be continually stressed during instruction given to members of various mountaineering organizations throughout the country, in order to prevent or minimize such accidents as those which occurred on Wilmon Spires and below the rappel sling on Mount Owen. One-half of the accidents described in this report were party accidents; that is, accidents which resulted from improper cooperation within the party as a whole. In other words, Develop more leaders instead of just climbers. Because the trend today is definitely away from professional mountaineering, it is the direct responsibility of regional clubs to train amateur climbers patiently, properly and effectively.

(2) It is the LEADER’S RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT HIMSELF adequately with pitons, with safety rope, or with whatever means he has at his command, to insure a minimum of danger to himself and to the rest of the party in case he falls. This was borne out particularly by the accidents on Upper Cathedral Spire, Devil’s Slide, Wilmon Spires and Mount Owen.

(3) Leaders should be constantly reminded that they must be in good PHYSICAL CONDITION. Such a stipulation is obvious for professional guides. Too often other persons undertake the responsibilities of leadership with stamina insufficient to perform their role.

C. The Guide Problem

(1) The accidents on New Mexico’s Truchas Peak and at Tahoe in the Sierras suggest that a thorough investigation of the PROFESSIONAL GUIDE situation in the various mountain climbing districts of America should be undertaken, with a view to the development of reliable and safe guiding. Thought should be given both to the problem of alpine guides and to that of trail guides who might be called upon to take parties into high country. Perhaps the American Alpine Club Guides Committee could work out a cooperative plan with the Government, possibly through the National Park Service, the Forest Service, or other agency, somewhat like the plan now being worked out by the Alpine Club of Canada in collaboration with the Canadian National Parks to develop competent concessionary guides. The plan should include examinations in such fields as knowledge of general wilderness lore, climbing skill and technique, leadership, and safety and rescue. Of particular importance is the necessity that guides hold their parties under control with respect to safety. If cooperation cannot be obtained, the guide should consider it his duty to call off the climb. Perhaps a system somewhat like that in effect on Mount Rainier, where the Government must approve the licensing of a guide before he is permitted to operate, could be duplicated in other mountain areas. In districts where there is not enough demand to keep guides employed, the development of capable leaders is often impossible. In such cases, if guiding is ever needed, attention should be directed to qualified guides available from other areas.

D. Individual Mountaineers

(1) The dangers of SOLO CLIMBING should be broadcast more widely not only within organizations but to the public at large. Of the fatal accidents already reviewed, four happened to men climbing alone.

(2) The deleterious effect of publicity gained by “PEAK- BAGGERS” should be made known in all regional clubs.

(3) Emphasis should be placed on the climber’s own appreciation of the limits, under varying conditions, of his individual ability and on the necessity of maintaining a MARGIN OF SAFETY within those limits. It should be recognized that these two factors vary considerably under different circumstances and at different times. In climbing there is a certain legitimate risk, but this risk should be calculated and minimized.

E. Rock Climbing and General Rope Technique

(1) The Hood and Pettit accidents stress the importance of extreme caution on LOOSE ROCK or on types of rock with which the climber has not had extensive experience.

(2) A fall of 30 to 40 feet entails great danger even if the rope does hold (note Hood and Baxter accidents), because of the tendency of the body to swing in and smash against a cliff. For this reason, it is recommended that LONG RUN-OUTS BE AVOIDED between belays and particularly between pitons in a line trending sharply upward.

(3) Increased instruction should be given to all in the proper USE OF THE BELAY. Especially, all should be taught when to use it. More importance should be placed also on the testing of belays.

(4) A constant awareness should be encouraged that on all severe pitches the BELAYER MUST BE ANCHORED; and the feeling should be instilled that the leader really “is going to fall,” so that the second man will ever be ready and alert. Signals should be used and stressed at all times. In severe climbing, it should also be stressed that the leader must not start up until he has tested the belay and sees that his companions on the rope are ready and in place. After that, no shift of belays should ever occur.

(5) Climbers should try to AVOID PLACING A HEAVY MAN AHEAD of a very light man. In other words, for safety in case of a fall, careful consideration should be given to balance of weight on a rope.

(6) Reiteration seems advisable here: TEST OLD PITONS carefully—or, better yet, replace them before using. Avoid using old rappel slings; if possible, replace them with new ones. Here an analysis of the mathematics of slings seems advisable. Often a sling installed around a large rock is so tight, and the down-pulling rappel rope hangs from it at such a wide angle, that resulting stresses may be sufficient to snap even a new rope. Neither pitons nor slings should be trusted without a safety test. The Baxter and the Rams- land accidents might well have had less serious consequences if these precautions had been observed.

(7) At all times, one should STAND WELL CLEAR WHEN PULLING DOWN A ROPE from above. For the same reason, whenever possible, one should avoid standing immediately beneath climbers overhead. Keep alert, and keep looking up.

(8) IN THROWING ROPES DOWN FROM ABOVE, one is wise to make sure the line is thrown well clear of any projections or loose rocks behind which an end might lodge. Particularly is this true if other members of the party are out of sight below. Here also should be kept in mind the added risk involved if a free end becomes lodged so that someone has to climb down over a difficult and unfamiliar cliff to retrieve it.

F. Snow and Ice Climbing

(1) ALL SNOW SLOPES SHOULD always be viewed with extreme caution and studied most carefully. Particular attention should be paid to slopes when they are exposed to the SUN’S RAYS on hot days, especially in the morning when the first avalanches begin to slide and a party is most likely to be caught off-guard. Also, the dangers of making a steep diagonal traverse on a snow slope which might avalanche should always be carefully weighed. Especially suspect lee slopes which may be subject to the formation of wind slab. Dry snow avalanches may be every bit as dangerous as those from wet snow, and even less predictable.

(2) It is recommended that MORE STUDY AND TRAINING IN ICE AND SNOW CLIMBING, IN SKI MOUNTAINEERING AND IN RESCUE TECHNIQUE on ice and snow be emphasized by all organizations. Because on such terrain there is more of an uncontrollable risk than on rock, the problem should be given added thought and respect. The theory of avalanche formation should be particularly stressed.

G. Night Climbing

(1) In general, NIGHT CLIMBING SHOULD BE STRICTLY AVOIDED. Far better to wait for dawn, not only because of the difficulty in seeing holds, but also because of the usually attendant cold and fatigue, which are often conspicuous factors in bringing about accidents. The Guye Peake and Wilmon Spires accidents resulted from night climbing. A good axiom here: “Measure your climb by your abilities; avoid a late start, and turn back in time to be off the mountain by dark.” No summit is worth the deliberate risk incurred by pushing the climb too far. If the party has the misfortune to be caught out after dark, it must be more cautious than ever, and must avoid taking chances just for the sake of getting off the mountain faster. Possibly the only occasion when night climbing is wise is on high snow peaks at places where avalanche danger would make daytime travel hazardous.

H. Other Hazards (1) It should be made clear that the mountaineer runs other definite hazards. These hazards might be termed “secondary dangers.” They are connected with mountaineering, but not directly dependent upon climbing; and they are to be encountered particularly in wild and unsettled country. Difficulty with bears is one example, for which the best axiom is “Keep well clear.” The dangers of snow blindness are well known. Mountaineers must keep their sun glasses with them at all times. Climbers must also ever be alert for sudden and unexpected rock falls from above. And the danger of drowning in the course of a mountain trip must not be overlooked. There is a technique in crossing mountain streams. In the history of mountain travel many persons have perished in the waters of a rushing stream. If a party camps for the night by the side of a torrent and crosses in the early morning when the river is low, otherwise treacherous water may be safely and easily waded.

I. Rescue Technique and First Aid

(1) If an INJURED MAN IS UNCONSCIOUS, he should be carefully watched—or at least TIED IN by some means to his resting place. It is essential to minimize the danger of his becoming dislodged by convulsions or uncontrolled reflexes and sliding farther down the slope. If at all possible, avoid leaving an injured man alone. The importance of this principle is clearly brought out by the Boyd accident in Yosemite, the Truchas Peak affair, and the British Columbia Coast Range accident. All three resulted in deaths.

(2) There should be more instruction in WHAT TO DO IF ONE IS LOST, INJURED, OR IN TROUBLE.

J. A Proper Mountaineering Attitude (1) As interest grows in distant EXPEDITIONARY MOUNTAINEERING, it is hoped that parties going into the field will be more cognizant than ever of the need for being well equipped and sufficiently strong IN EXPERIENCE AND NUMBERS TO MINIMIZE THE POSSIBILITY OF ACCIDENT. It should be patent that an accident occurring in the heart of a little-known and far- off mountain range could have much more serious consequences than a similar accident near civilization.

(2) In conclusion, an overall general attitude toward mountaineering should be developed from the premise that the most difficult climb done properly can be achieved more safely than an easy climb done carelessly. And above all it should be reiterated that no summit is worth the deliberate risk of life.

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