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Early Mountaineering Accidents


It is important to remember that mountaineering, despite its many attractions as a sport, is not without its dangers. Throughout the club's history, there have been a series of accidents with falls, broken bones, and other injuries. Several mountain climbing accidents have resulted in fatalities. In addition to the personal tragedies involved, these events received a lot of publicity and affected the club in many ways. Larry Campbell, Len Margolin, and Bob Cowan remember that these accidents helped shift the club into a more conservative direction, with new safety guidelines for club trips.

In the 1950's, Los Alamos resident Herb Martin was killed while climbing the step east side of Mt. Wilson. Charles Mader believes that he was killed by a falling boulder knocked off by another climber. Ken Ewing also remembers this event, but thinks that it was probably not a club trip. Early in the club's history, around 1960, two club members (a Neil Campbell and his partner) were killed in a climbing accident near Blanca Peak. Then in 1965, the club lost three members in an accident in a snow couloir in the Maroon Bells. This party consisted of Frank Pretzel, Herbert Ungnade (author of the book, "Guide to the New Mexico Mountains"), Bob Day, and a young member of the club. The party was eager to do their trip in fewer days than usual. To save time, three members of the party were climbing simultaneously in the couloir, with one belaying. When one member of the party slipped, all four fell. The younger member was wearing a construction hardhat, but the other three were not wearing head protection and were killed. After this accident, the club strongly encouraged the wearing of helmets on trips. The accident itself was widely reported and cast a pall across the club and its reputation for many years. Club member Arvid Lundy said that he first learned of the Mountaineers from a newscast on the Maroon Bells accident while he was living in New York City! John John Ramsay believes that "at one point in time, more people in Los Alamos had died in mountain climbing accidents than by industrial accidents or even auto accidents!"

Fig. 1. Herbert Ungnade, Stan Landeen, and Bill Wood
 on a climb of Capitol Peak (John Ramsay photo, Spring 1960).

In May 1972 there was also an accident on the North Face of Blanca Peak. George Bell, Larry Campbell, Ross Harder, Bill Hendry, Karl Horak, and David Michael set off a wet-snow avalanche while descending a snow face on the north side of the east ridge of Blanca Peak. The slide caught Larry Campbell, who was a short way below the others, and carried him about 50 feet over rock ledges and then down another 100 feet of snow. 

Larry wrote down his account of the fall: "I began traversing left below the others when several shouts of warning activated my adrenalin glands. Above, the snow had become alive and was crawling towards me. It was a surface slide of wet snow which I didn't take very seriously, supposing I could hold my ground and let it flow around me. No way. In 5 seconds it was carrying me with it and after a few futile jabs with the axe I turned my attention to staying on top. As we picked up speed, the hissing became very loud, and in my field of vision there was nothing but a uniform pale brown light. (It was old and dirty snow.) Then the whacks and smacks began, separated by the empty sensation of falling free. I resigned myself to await the fatal blow but it never came. Instead I was artfully deposited 50 feet from the rocky cliff I had been swept over . . . . drops of blood from a trivial scratch slowly grew on my nose and dropped off into the snow . . . . I could wiggle and feel everything and was nowhere numb. I was overwhelmed with joy and relief. The rocky rib 70 feet to my right looked more comfortable than my present cold, wet snow perch but I didn't dare move without a belay. The angle of the snow slope was sufficiently steep that if I blacked out trying to stand up I might rejoin the avalanche debris 1200 feet below." 

Larry sustained a broken knee cap, a cracked pelvis bone, a fractured finger, two deep cuts, and a bruised kidney. His hard hat was cracked in the accident, but probably saved him from serious head injuries or death. George Bell and Bill Hendry hiked out to request a rescue, and the others stayed with Larry through a very cold night. In the morning the team used ropes and ice axes for belay to lower Larry to the base of the cliff, where a military rescue helicopter was waiting to take him to Fort Carson. 

George Bell's analysis of this accident concluded that "The avalanche hazard wasn't recognized by a party with over 50 years of combined climbing experience, including much on snow. Others should be warned by our mistakes. In retrospect, it seems clear that the slope we were descending became increasingly dangerous as it became gentler, with increasing depths of wet snow unbonded to a hard snow slope beneath." 

On the same day, also on Blanca Peak, Ken Ewing was leading another party up a snow route. When he stabbed his ice axe all the way into the snow, he noticed that there was a slab layer underneath the surface. He realized, based on the snow training they had received from Gene Tate, that this unstable layer could avalanche. So he took his party down another way, even though this required tying off their Goldline nylon rope, rappelling down, and then abandoning it. Just as they came back to the base of their snow slope, they saw it avalanche. George Bell and Larry Campbell's climbing party, who had gone up a more difficult route, had triggered the avalanche when they used that slope to descend. 

Only one month later, a member of the Mountaineers, Bill Hendry, was killed by rockfall dislodged by a haul line on the East Buttress of El Capitan in Yosemite, while climbing that route with Len Margolin, Bev Johnson, and Ray Phillips. Bill Hendry was struck in the side of the head by a rock that had bounced in from the side, and he was killed even though he was wearing a helmet. The National Park Service concluded that Bill's helmet was too small for him, and that it therefore did not provide adequate protection. Bill was a strong, aggressive, but safe climber who was already becoming well-known for pioneering first ascents on the Brazos Wedge and other areas. Larry Campbell remembers an enjoyable climb of Shiprock with both of the club's strong young climbers, Bill Hendry and Len Margolin. 

The two side-by-side accidents shocked the club and led to a lot of soul searching. Many of the senior mountaineers wrote down their thoughts to share with each other. Even though they admitted to having had many accidents or near-accidents themselves, they were searching for some useful lessons to draw from their experience. Don Liska observed that the club was becoming more proficient technically, but was doing fewer trips that provided members with the total mountaineering experience, so that the risk level was becoming higher. He was also concerned that this was being exacerbated by the club's climbing school and by the easy availability of technical climbing equipment. Eiichi Fukushima pointed out that -- in climbing versus mountaineering -- a person's technical ability can far outstrip his judgment for many years. He also noted that Northern New Mexico is not an ideal area to gain snow and ice climbing experience, and that summer snow in Colorado did not become hard and firm like the snow in the Pacific Northwest, so that it was actually inherently more dangerous. Larry Campbell pointed out that the people who had climbed the most had the most accidents. And he also observed that the Mountaineers themselves often served as the inspiration for more people to take up risky mountaineering activities. Dave Brown's maxim is that, "Whenever climbers go up a dubious snow slope, and get away with it, it reinforces a dangerous behavior. The next time, they are more confident and may go on an even more dangerous slope." So experience can also have a negative aspect.

To help reduce the risk of future accidents, these senior club members recommended that the club consider adopting a set of regulations for club outings. The club's bylaws already provided some of these, and it became traditional to read the "Articles of War" from the Mountaineer's Constitution annually at one of the meetings, and also the latest edition of "Accidents in North American Mountaineering." This helped to increase the members' awareness of some of the dangers inherent in mountaineering. In 1972 the club also began requiring each trip participant to sign a waiver of liability. 

Around 1985, Norbert and Lynn Ensslin also experienced a fall in a snow couloir on North Maroon Peak while climbing that peak with Bob Jones, Linda Fazio, and Mike Fazio. The party had ascended the couloir successfully in the morning, but through inexperience made the mistake of descending by the same route in the afternoon, when the snow was soft and rotten. Norbert said that he "tried several times to self-arrest after falling, but the snow was too soft for the ice axe to hold. As I accelerated, sliding head-first on my back, I had the sensation of withdrawing into myself and losing all sense of motion, as rocks seemed to come up from below and bump into me. I lost consciousness for a brief period and, when I came to, found that I had landed very comfortably -- on top of Lynn!" Fortunately Lynn was not hurt, and Norbert recovered from his injuries fairly soon. However, the situation might have been much worse if they had not been wearing helmets. 

Over the years there have been several rock climbing falls resulting in broken bones, sprained ankles, or more. On an August 1984 club trip to the Sandias, Rich Davidson broke his arm on a climb on the Muralla Grande. Jim Straight recalls that "We had a large group climbing on the wall, I would guess 15 to 20. Rich and I were on one rope team and were leap-frogging. About half way up, Rich took a lead fall of about 16 vertical feet. He was spooked so I went up -- stood up and relaxed -- and fell. So I had to go back up and do it again. Towards the top, Rich began to get his sea legs back and wanted to lead the last pitch. He got to within about 5 feet of the top and his legs turned to jello. He threw the entire lead rack up into a large crack hoping something would catch -- it did -- but for a few seconds and then popped. He fell about 8 feet and landed on his left arm -- broke it. Most everyone else was either done with their climb or nearly so. I worked my way up to him and splinted the arm -- everyone else came around to the top. It took quite an effort to get him up those last few feet without hurting him -- then we had to hike to the cars on top." 

In the early 1990's, John Meier experienced a rappelling accident near Ouray when he rappelled off a rope that was unevenly set, so that one end was well short of the ground. This fall required a major rescue effort, which was documented in a TV show. Also during the 1990's on a club trip to South Colony Lakes, Jan Studebaker slipped on a snowfield while retreating from a serious thunderstorm encountered on a rainy attempt of Kit Carson. After a long slide on the snow he miraculously stopped just before a drop-off that could have easily caused serious injuries. As it was, he broke both arms. His ice axe was safely stored in the tent. In the mid-1990's, club member Meg Walsh broke her pelvis bone in a leader fall in White Rock. And Ron Palmer, a Santa Fe climber who was a good friend to some of the Mountaineers, fell to his death on Capitol Peak while traversing the knife edge without a rope. 

The most serious recent accident involving a long-time member of the Mountaineers occurred in 1996, whenRich Davidson died while climbing Annapurna-IV. Rich said that he loved climbing uphill on snow more than any other pastime, and he led several long ski tours and ski mountaineering trips for the Mountaineers. In 1996, he joined a group from the Colorado Mountain Club that was attempting to climb Annapurna-IV by the Standard Route. The party was caught by a series of severe snow storms at their 5,300 meter-high Camp I. The second storm dropped an estimated 3 meters of snow in about 48 hours, catching the climbers off guard while they slept. The tent in which Rich and his tent mate Debbie Marshall were sleeping collapsed during the night, causing them to suffocate to death.

The Mountaineers were active in a 1979 effort to get a bill passed by the New Mexico State Legislature that would absolve landowners of responsibility for accidents that occurred on their property. As the issue became more thoroughly researched, it was discovered that a new bill was unnecessary. There is already an obscure clause in the State's Fish and Game regulations that absolves landowners from liability for hunters, fishermen, and others who use their lands for recreational purposes without paying a fee.

As a way to reduce the risk of accidents, the club's senior members in the 1970's had recommended that the club provide its members with a more balanced, less technical "total mountaineering experience." Instead, the advent of new sports like mountain biking, canyoneering, and sport climbing helped the club shift its interests away from more committing and more dangerous trips. Club activities began to move away from snow and ice mountaineering and to shift more towards rock climbing and mountain scrambling and hiking. 

In the past few years, several club members or trip participants have also been severely injured in auto accidents in Utah. Regretfully, long driving trips to climbing areas or hiking destinations also present another objective hazard in enjoying the outdoors. The annual reading of the club's safety rules and the use of waivers was discontinued in the mid-1980's. But some of the later accidents reported above prompted the club in 1987 to again require all participants in club trips to sign waivers. In 2006, this evolved into a requirement for all club members to sign a one-time blanket waiver covering all club trips that they might participate in.


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