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Accidents in North American Mountaineering

The Bulletin
Keith Ridler 
February 4, 2002

If there’s one guy in this town you don’t want writing a story about you, it’s Bob Speik.

If Speik is on your trail, it means you messed up. Big time.

In fact, you messed up so badly there’s a chance you won’t be around to read what he has to say about you.

“I try to follow good reportorial ethics,” says Speik, “and try to talk directly to the injured person, if I can.”

Speik writes accounts of climbing accidents that have happened in Oregon for the American Alpine Club’s annual publication “Accidents in North American Mountaineering.”

Central Oregon, as one might expect, turns out to be pretty fertile ground when it comes to climbing accidents. Four times Speik has conducted bedside interviews at Bend’s St. Charles Medical Center in his quest for the facts.

“You’re always very nervous talking with them, because if they’re in the hospital, they’re hurting,” says Speik.

“I explain to them that it’s for ‘Accidents in North American Mountaineering,’ and that talking about what happened to them will help others.” 

When he writes what he’s learned, he tries to be gentle and objective about exposing mistakes that are easy to see in retrospect.

“You have to tread a very fine line of being a hindsighter,” says Speik. “Somebody can always criticize what somebody else has done, but ... the purpose of the publication is for everyone to see what mistakes people have made.” 

Reading entries in the book is in some ways similar to watching NASCAR crashes. But the goal of the book is to make climbing safer by compiling accounts of mishaps so climbers can learn from other’s mistakes.

“The book serves as a very good educational tool for climbers,” says Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the Colorado-based American Alpine Club. “Most climbing accidents stem from similar causes. Every once in a while there are fluke accidents, but it’s our belief that you can break down a lot of accidents and distill out the most salient aspects and pass them on to other people so they can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.”

About 5,500 copies of the book are sent annually to American Alpine Club members. An additional 6,000 are sold at $10 apiece. “In terms of volume, it’s the largest selling book the club publishes,” says Athearn. “It is quite well read for a climbing book. It’s also one of those books that’s passed around a lot.” 

Speik, 73, is highly qualified for the job of writing climbing accident accounts. He is a former investigator, longtime mountaineer and past chairman of the Mountaineering Training Committee for the Sierra Club. He has used those skills to teach wilderness mountaineering at Central Oregon Community College and co-founded Cascades Mountaineers, a Bend-based alpine climbing club.

He said he doesn’t seek fame or money, but only to make climbers aware of safety.

So far, he’s written six stories that appeared beginning with the 1997 edition of the book. He’s working on seven more for submission to the 2002 edition. 

In the six accounts already published, Speik reports on the circumstances that led to the deaths of six climbers.

The reports follow a standard format, beginning with a description of what went wrong and the resulting injuries, followed by an analysis.

“A book like this is not designed to humiliate someone who has made a mistake,” says Athearn. “But you can really see how a minor mistake here or there, nothing huge, can lead to a situation where someone gets killed.

“That’s an important point to drive home — that climbers need to be aware of the decisions they’re making. I can think of many cases where my judgment might have been slightly compromised and you realize how little the margin can be between making a bad decision and getting away with it.” 

The common theme Speik sees in the accidents he’s written about is simply a lack of knowledge. An example he cites are slopes that look safe to cross but are actually quite dangerous. “Going across a steep snow slope or steep scree slope is like walking on the very edge of a 2,000-foot cliff, which people would never do,” says Speik, who is also writing a wilderness mountaineering handbook.

“Yet people routinely cross a steep, hardened snow slope or steep scree slope. They don’t realize that if you lose connection with the mountain you very quickly attain a terrific speed.” 

Speik can think of plenty of other accidents as well, all avoidable if a climber carried with him or her a little extra knowledge. 

“They don’t know that they don’t know about the objective and subjective dangers of the mountain ranges,” Speik says. “And they don’t know that there are ways to protect themselves.”

Quoted in The Bulletin by permission from Accidents in North American Mountaineering:
Narrative Description of Accident 1: 

At sunrise on Thursday, June 29, 2000, Eric Seyler and Kurt Smith left their bivouac high on the North Ridge of Mt. Washington to climb Central Pillar described by their guide book, “Oregon High” by Jeff Thomas, as “steep, exposed and a joy to climb”. Unable to positively identify the described route, they chose a line that looked promising.

At the top of the first 90-foot pitch of blocky straightforward rock, Eric arrived at rappel slings looped between a fixed piton and a large block. He replaced the slings with a single spectra sling stretched horizontally around the block between the fixed piton and a new passive nut placement. He belayed Kurt to a ledge below and clove hitched Kurt to the single nut at one side of the sling. Kurt set two small passive nuts and attached each of them to his harness. As Eric climbed on he clipped the rope to one side of the spectra sling as a first point of protection above his belayer. He set 3 more passive nuts for protection as he climbed on. 

Shortly after, Eric and Kurt fell more than 100 feet to hard sloping snow after breaking the spectra sling and tearing out each piece of gear they had set in the brittle volcanic rock. Both young men lay in agony with broken legs and other very serious injuries for three cold days in the wind and burning sun and two frigid nights high in the Mt. Washington Wilderness.

By luck alone, their whistle was heard by two Saturday hikers with radio and telephone contact to the Deschutes County SAR and soon after, by four members of the Eugene Mountain Rescue team on a personal outing, perhaps the only climbers on the mountain that weekend. ate in the day, they were airlifted out by USAF Reserve helicopter that was guided in by a cell phone patch.

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
The conversion of sport climbing skills to mountaineering is perceived by alpinists to be full of dangers. Wilderness mountaineering at 7,500 feet requires a significant investment of effort and experience to balance the risk. At guidebook rated 5.8, Eric believed this route was well within his capabilities. He had been sport climbing for several years but leading traditional for about two years at 5.9+ at Boughton’s Bluff, a local crag. This was essentially his first wilderness rock route. Guidebook generalities must be interpreted with cautious experience on less than perfect alpine rock.

Eric now realizes he made a grave error in not creating an equalized, narrow angled, no extension, redundant, bombproof belay anchor. As he fell, all of the force came on one nut at a time in sequence as his protection pulled from the rock. He then broke the single spectra sling stretched 120 degrees horizontally and clipped in “an American triangle” only on one side as it raked across the rough volcanic rock. As he pulled his belayer off the ledge, the single medium sized anchor nut and two small brass nuts exploded from the rock.

Kurt considers his mistake to be his silence. He felt that they should try an easier adjoining route but was silent; he thought the rock looked bad but did not say so and he did not insist on checking his belay anchor and the first placement protecting him above his belay ledge.

The novice alpinists made two additional mistakes. They had told friends where they were going but they did not say, “So, if we don’t make it back by then call the Search and Rescue right away”. And they left their cell phone in the car. (They did not know that the smallest cell phones work very well in the high Oregon Cascades.)

Additional Comments:
“At some point, I made a statement John Wayne would have been proud of: The only way we’ll get through this is Courage.” writes Eric Seyler. Medical personnel are amazed that Eric and Kurt did not die on the mountain from shock from their terrible injuries.

The most important thing that can be learned from this accident is how Companions can support each other and prevail over unimaginable hardship.

Eric and Kurt are continuing to recover from their serious injuries and infections.
--Robert Speik

Narrative Description of Accident 2:
Bonnie Lamb was ascending a volcanic talus and scree ridge along a climbers trace when she came to a short steep section of surface softened hard snow near the 9,175’ south summit. She slipped and rocketed about 300 yards down the slope coming to a stop in the rough scree below. Unconscious for 15 minutes and with a severely injured scalp and nose, she was aided by climber Vince Hudson, a former medic, who described her fall as follows: “Originally she was sliding just flat. Then she went over a rock ledge and started to tumble, head over heals, and started picking up speed. Then she went over another ledge and I could see her head hit it. I couldn’t believe how fast she was going. It was just like you throw a Raggedy Ann doll off a cliff - 60 to 70 mph easy.”

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
Surface softened hard snow slopes have claimed many innocent victims. An ice axe quickly used, could have stopped the initial slide. Modern ultra light ice axes are a 
good companion on spring hikes and climbs.

Additional Comments:
“Had somebody not witnessed her fall, she might not have survived. She might have lain there in the rocks until somebody looked for her,” according Wayne Inman who coordinated the two and a half hour SAR helicopter pick-up following Hudson’s lucky cell phone call. Climbing alone has serious risks, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
--Robert Speik

Narrative Description of Accident 3:
Carey and Tena Cardon were experienced mountaineers training for a proposed climb of Mt. McKinley. They worked very hard at their sport according to Tena’s mother. 

They started climbing the Cooper Spur Route on 11,240 Mt. Hood’s northeast side at about 4:30 AM on Sunday, May 23, 1999. They summited about 8 AM via the 2,000-foot 50-degree snow slope that caped the 4,500-foot route above their tent. A spring heat wave and the strong morning sun had dangerously softened the snow on the Cooper Spur Route.

Joren Bass and his partner had ascended the route at the same time as the Cardons; Bass decided to descend an alternate, safer route. “We were kind of surprised that they were going back down that way.” One of the Cardons slipped just below the summit and they tumbled roped together, more than 2,000 feet down the mountain to their deaths.

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
The Cooper Spur Route below the summit of Mt. Hood is notoriously dangerous having caused the deaths of at least 13 climbers preceding the Cardons. The Oregon Mountaineering Association’s route description states, “Particular caution should be taken on descent, and some climbers arrange a shuttle … so that they may descend the standard route. “Oregon High, a Climbing Guide” by Jeff Thomas states “Do not descend Cooper Spur … during periods of hot weather, as the snow becomes excessively soft …”. “The Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes” by Jeff Smoot states “It is quite steep and exposed. Falls from this route are common and often fatal - …”.

Very warm spring weather had made the snow dangerously soft and unstable. The climbers made a decision to descend a route known to be dangerous in warm spring conditions rather than descend an inconvenient safer route.

Additional Comments:
A slip in soft snow on a steep slope likely cannot be controlled before it becomes a tumbling fall.
--Robert Speik

The Bulletin



Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated!

Read more . . .
American Alpine Club
Oregon Section of the AAC
Accidents in North American Mountaineering

  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essentials         Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

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