American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Climbing Unroped, Inadequate Equipment and Experience—Colorado, Maroon Bells

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 1976

CLIMBING UN ROPED, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT AND EXPERIENCE —Colorado, Maroon Bells. The following was related by James McKinney (29) during an interview regarding the fatal climbing accident of his fiancée, Beatrice Venice Sawyer (24).

The two climbers left Littleton Friday evening, August 22, 1975, arriving the same evening at Crater Lake in the Snowmass Wilderness Area approximately 12 miles south of Aspen. They camped at the lake overnight and had intended to climb both north portions of North and South Maroon Peaks the following day. They started their ascent of North Maroon Peak around 9 a.m. Saturday and climbed a portion of the North Maroon Peak. Approximately four o’clock in the afternoon, while crossing the ridge which connects North Maroon Peak to South Maroon Peak, they noticed a trail below them, which connected the two peaks and appeared, at that point, easier going. In order to get to the trail it appeared necessary for them to descend through a rock chimney, of sorts, approximately 20-30 feet in length, to get to the lower trail. McKinney took the packs and began the descent first, and Sawyer followed him. She was in a position above as they were descending this crevice when, for reasons unknown, she lost her footing, fell backwards away from the mountain and away from McKinney. At this time he attempted to grab for her ankles, made partial contact but was unable to control her fall; apparently from this point she fell free some distance descending the slope, and traveled approximately 1000 feet before her body came to rest on a lower level on the Crater Lake side of the incline. McKinney immediately descended as directly as possible to her location. Upon his arrival, she was already dead. He immediately, or shortly thereafter, began his descent to summon assistance and at approximately 7 p.m. gained the attention of several other hikers in the area who were beginning their ascent of the mountain. After establishing contact with these hikers, the word was relayed down the mountain to their base camp to go to the Sheriff's office in Aspen and request assistance. This was done, our office being contacted around 10 p.m. The climbers and McKinney continued their descent of the mountain throughout the course of the evening, which entailed climbing in the dark for some time. They arrived at Crater Lake and hiked immediately back to Maroon Lake where a vehicle was located and McKinney responded directly to the S.O. to notify us of the exact situation. McKinney said that, in respect to the condition and experience of both parties, he had done considerable climbing, had been trained with Outward Bound and two technical climbing programs, and that Sawyer had accompanied him on a climb in the Uncompahgre National Forest at one time.

McKinney said that they did not have climbing equipment, other than climbing boots and parkas, to assist them in this climb, as he had been advised several times that the climb did not entail that sort of equipment. They had neither ropes, helmets, nor climbing picks, and had not intended to camp, but rather to return to their base camp following their hike that afternoon. As to the condition of the area, McKinney said that during the climb, around noon, they had encountered some rain on North Maroon Peak. However, as he recalled, the conditions of the accident scene were on dry rock and their climbing and her fall occurred on a dry rock and dirt basin, as opposed to any snowslide areas or snow basins. McKinney did mention the existence of intermittent turbulent winds in the area throughout the afternoon; however, he did not attribute the accident to these winds. McKinney said that, to the best of his knowledge, Sawyer had no physical conditions that would preclude such activities, and she was, in his opinion, in good physical condition.

McKinney did say that Sawyer had complained of problems with her left knee. He obviously had no previous knowledge of this condition and did not attribute the fall to the condition of the knee at the time. McKinney felt that neither he nor Sawyer were adequately acclimated to the altitude and that Sawyer did say something regarding a period of dizziness during the climb. He said that she appeared frightened and a little exhausted late in the afternoon the same day. The two parties apparently had only intended to stay the afternoon on the two ridges and return to Crater Lake and camp on Saturday evening, then come into Aspen, returning to Denver Sunday evening. The only equipment they had per se was hiking boots, rain parkas, and packs containing food to sustain them through the hike, and some photographic equipment. (Source: Report from Mountain Rescue-Aspen, Inc.)

Analysis: This party lacked knowledge of this mountain, of the routes thereon, and of the equipment needed. A climbing rope, crampons, and ice axes are normally carried for this climb, and parties usually are tied in under the conditions mentioned. It should also be noted that training with Outward Bound Schools or technical climbing schools does not qualify one to lead such a climb. (Sources: Alfred Braun and J. Williamson.)

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