Saturday, September 17, 2016

American Alpine Club Chronicles Climbing Accidents

2016-accidents-croppedFor those who climb, Accidents in North American Climbing, issued annually by the American Alpine Club, should be required reading—not because climbers are morbid, but because they can learn from others’ mistakes, too many of which are fatal.

The 2016 edition, which was published recently, describes dozens of rock-climbing and mountaineering accidents from the previous year. Most occurred out west or in Alaska. The only incident in the Adirondacks involved a climber who fell on Wallface, a large and remote cliff in the High Peaks Wilderness.

I wrote about the Wallface accident on the Almanack soon after it happened. The climber, a 23-year-old man from Carmel, NY, plummeted 60 to 80 feet after his protection failed to hold on a popular route known as the Diagonal. State forest rangers and volunteer climbers carried out a complicated rescue and managed to get the victim to a hospital that night. He was knocked unconscious in the fall and suffered a deep head gash, but he was able to leave the hospital early the next day.

The editors of Accidents noted that the rescued party evidently had never climbed a multi-pitch route before and had never climbed even a short route that required placing protection, such as cams and chocks, in cracks to protect against a fall.

“It would have been better to develop those skills on shorter routes much closer to the road than a large backcountry cliff like Wallface, where loose or wet rock, route-finding challenges, time pressure, and weather concerns add several layers of difficulty and seriousness to a climb,” the editors wrote.

It’s uncommon that an incident in the Adirondacks makes the Accidents book. Browsing the American Alpine Club’s online archive, I found only 13 since 1962. Seven were on ice, five were on rock. The other was an avalanche that killed a backcountry skier. Seven other people died in the accidents on ice and rock. Most of the non-fatal accidents resulted in serious injury.

Following is a summary of all thirteen incidents, in chronological order:

September 11, 1962. Three people, including 20-year-old “B. Krumiak,” were descending the Trap Dike on Mount Colden. “As Krumiak lowered herself over a large egg-shaped boulder it pulled loose. Both fell about 40 ft.” She suffered scrapes, bruises, and a hairline fracture of the shoulderblade.

August 13, 1978. William Mollett, 29, of Rochester was leading a route on Wallface known as Wiessner Direct. Toward the top, he got off route and into more difficult terrain. A block came loose when he tried to push himself onto it. He fell 60 feet, smashing into the rock, breaking his neck, severing his spinal column, breaking his ribs, puncturing a lung, and suffering internal injuries. Rescuers were unable to reach Mollett until the next day. By then, he was dead.

July 3, 1983. Lee Fowler, 32, and Andrew Metz, 22, were killed when Fowler fell while leading a climb on Wallface. He had placed no protection above the belay station. The force of the fall pulled Metz and the belay anchor off the cliff. The climbers fell about 270 feet.

January 29, 1984. Vic Benes suffered two cracked vertebrae, a broken nose, and contusions during a fall below the start of an ice climb on Lower Cascade Lake. “The fall occurred after he lost his balance while remounting a crampon which had twisted off. He quickly picked up speed on ice, then bounced over boulders that protruded through the snow on the talus slope, traveling about 30 meters altogether.”

March 21, 1987. Jean Grenon, 30, and Paul Junique, 30, were caught in an avalanche while ice climbing “in a couloir” on Mount Colden. “During the fall, Grenon’s crampons caught on the ice, probably causing fractures of both his legs.”

March 11, 1989. Linda Hepburn died in a fall while climbing the icy slide next to the Trap Dike. At the time, she did not have an ice ax. “She slid approximately 300 meters before being stopped by a small island of trees.” Others in her party found her unconscious, suffering from a broken leg, abdominal injuries, and a head wound. She died on the mountain.

February 20, 2000. Toma Vracarich, 27, died in an avalanche while skiing a slide on Wright Peak. Five other skiers were hurt, three of whom were hospitalized.

February 22, 2002. Kevin Bailey, 34, of Toronto died while climbing Positive Thinking, a popular ice route on Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain. He was 135 feet up when the ice he was on split from the cliff and crashed to the ground. He died at the scene.

October 7, 2007. Dennis Luther, an experienced Adirondack climber, died when he rappelled off the end of his rope at Poke-o-Moonshine. He failed to tie knots in the ends of the rope to prevent them from passing through his rappel device.

August 16, 2010. Dennis Murphy, 35, died when he fell off Upper Washbowl Cliff. He had just completed a climb and was preparing to rappel.

December 15, 2012. An inexperienced ice climber slipped on a slide on Nippletop and slid 200 feet before coming to rest against a frozen log. He suffered multiple skull fractures and other injuries. After an arduous rescue involving numerous rangers and volunteers, he was transported to a hospital.

December 18, 2013. An experienced ice climber rappelled off the end of his rope, fell 20 feet to a ledge, and tumbled or slid another 40 feet, breaking his pelvis. His rope ends were uneven when he began the rappel, and he failed to tie knots in the rope ends.

2014, date unspecified. A rock climber who wanted to give ice climbing a try slipped while practicing at an artificial ice wall. One of his ice axes became lodged in his helmet. “Interestingly, the tool hadn’t damaged the helmet at all, simply entered one of the air holes. The tip of the tool was less than an inch from the top of my head. Bottom line, I was completely fine – no injuries, just a little shaken up.”

It should be noted that these are not the only fatalities or serious climbing accidents that have occurred in the Adirondacks over the years, just the ones that made the AAC’s annual book.

The club has published the annual compilations since 1948. The title used to be Accidents in North American Mountaineering. This year the club changed Mountaineering in the title to Climbing, a recognition that many of the accidents it chronicles are rock-climbing accidents, not mountaineering accidents. The new title is meant to encompass both.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

One Response

  1. Phil Brown says:

    Fixed date of the Wright Peak avalanche.