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Sierra Club leader and author R.J. Secor seriously injured during runaway glissade

The primary purpose of these reports and the Annual Report of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is to aid in the prevention of accidents.

Narrative Description of Accident:
On April 16, 2005, veteran Southern California mountaineer and author Robert (R.J.) Secor, lost control of his voluntary glissade and slid, hit rocks and tumbled down a steep hard snow slope about 1,200 vertical feet from near the summit of Mount Baldy to level snow near the Sierra Club's Baldy Hut where ski patrol trained volunteers stabilized the seriously injured Secor, 48, of Pasadena. A helicopter evacuation occurred four hours after the fall. R.J has had a long and difficult hospital stay and is continuing to improve and respond to visits from his many friends in the Southern California community of climbers.

An eye witness reported in “It was warm out there today. Until you get close the Ski Hut the trail is mostly clear of snow. From just below the Ski Hut and the rest of the way up there's lots of snow. It was soft snow on top of hard icy snow.

While starting down the bowl, a man started to glissade just above me in a really steep section. He lost control and tried to self-arrest but it failed. He hit rocks and then rolled all the way down to the bottom of the bowl. After he hit the rocks, he didn't appear to be trying to stop himself. They airlifted him out due to head injuries – “

Another eye witness reported: "He was unable to arrest. He tumbled all the way down to near the stream by the Hut. Fortunately, the Hut was being hosted by a member of the ski patrol and there were other patrollers there. I believe that they were alerted before he came to a stop. They were able to get to him immediately and treat for trauma. He had hit his head on rocks. They contacted SAR and carried him to the Hut in the litter. A helicopter arrived 4 hours later. He has a broken shoulder blade, ribs and skull fractures. His ice axe was lost in the fall."

Reported another: "It is likely that his axe was lost in the fall and that his crampons were ripped from beneath his pack where he keeps them, because they were not with his things or in his car."

Another commented: "Mount Baldy is familiar and convenient destination for a lot of us in So Cal that has the same objective dangers as other alpine peaks have - it's easy for us to think of it as a benign 'local mountain' and to forgo precautions we would take on more 'serious' mountains. R.J.'s a competent careful mountaineer and I wish him a full speedy recovery."

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
R.J. Secor has been hiking and skiing since he learned to walk. An enthusiastic peak-bagger, he has attained coveted List Completion status twice in the Sierra Peaks Section of the Sierra Club with more than 700 mountain ascents in the High Sierra, climbing as many as sixty peaks in a single year. He has also done extensive climbing in Baja California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, British Columbia, Alberta, and Alaska. Other mountain adventures have taken him as far as the Himalayas in Tibet and Nepal, the Karakoram in Pakistan, the Andes in Argentina, and the volcanoes of Mexico.

He is the author of The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails (1992, Second Edition 1999), Mexico's Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide (1981, Third Edition 2001), Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide (1994, Second Edition 1999) from The Mountaineers and Denali Climbing Guide (1998) from Stackpole Books. He is a member of the Sierra Club, the American Alpine Club, the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and the California Mountaineering Club.

Perhaps we should not second guess the decision of R.J. Secor to glissade that day in fast sliding clothing, however, we feel it is important to analyze what happened, according to eyewitnesses.

A witness had glissaded the same slope moments before: "He started down from the same spot as I did just behind me."

Another climber reported: "I didn't see him with one on (a helmet). I saw him putting on the yellow slickers and thought ‘well, he's going for a fast one’. He lost control very quickly and failed to self-arrest (he tried very hard to)".

He was not wearing a helmet, although few climbers had helmets according to the photographs at the summit. (Perhaps most snowboarders and skiers wore helmets.) His most serious injuries are skull fractures.

Despite his experience, R.J. was unable to arrest on the steep hard snow.

R.J.'s yellow slicker glissade pants may have contributed to this accident.

*Note: Perhaps R.J. will be willing to write his own Accident Report to the American Alpine Club, for the 2005 edition later this year.

Additional comments:
The arrest of a slip on steep hard snow (following the failure of a self belay), should be instantaneous, before speed can quickly build. However, an arrest to control a sitting glissade usually is initiated when the slide is already attaining a high speed.

The speed of a slide on steep hard snow can accelerate very quickly to near the speed of a free fall off a cliff. The speed of a slide is slowed only by the friction of the climber's clothing and gear and any self arrest efforts. Self arrest efforts from hands or ice axe are often impossible at the high speed of a slide on steep hard snow. The climber may become airborne. Efforts to stop by using booted feet may result in broken bones and dislocations as the leg is violently compressed to the chest. Catching a boot or a crampon can result in the climber becoming injured, airborne and tumbling "like a Raggedy Ann doll".

Clearly, hitting rock or ice obstructions during a slide at sixty or seventy miles per hour is very damaging.

“Beyond Risk, Conversations with Climbers”, edited by Nicholas O'Connell, makes the case that Risk is an integral part of mountaineering.

Report submitted by Robert Speik to the American Alpine Club on June 8, 2005 and published on pages 35 and 36 of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2006.

Note: In the mid 1980s, Robert Speik was Chair for three years of the Mountaineering Training Committee (MTC) of the Sierra Club's large Angeles Chapter in Southern California. The Committee was responsible for the training up to 1,000 people per year in Basic and Advanced Mountaineering Training with more than 250 volunteer Leaders in five geographical areas, qualified in several levels of technical competence and responsibility. Bob Speik edited a new MTC Staff Handbook in 1985, writing the chapter on technical Snow Climbing. Recently, he has conducted class room and field classes in several mountaineering subjects for Central Oregon Community College in Bend Oregon. He is the author of the non-profit website   --Margaret Thompson Speik


The rest of the story!

Mountaineer on the mend
Southern Sierran
R.J. Secor is hiking again after Mt. Baldy accident
By Ginny Heringer
January 2006

Mountain climber and author R.J. Secor is famous for his classic guide book, The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails; his climbing guides for Aconcagua, Denali, and the volcanoes of Mexico; and internationally for his mountaineering exploits around the world.

Now he can add another remarkable achievement: his recovery from an uncontrolled slide 1,200 feet down Baldy Bowl on April 16, 2005.

Secor doesn’t remember much about that day. He knows that he drove to Mt. Baldy and hiked up to the Sierra Club’s Ski Hut and then hiked up the bowl toward the summit. He spoke to people who remember him there, but he has no memory of leaving the summit. Skiers, snowboarders, and other mountaineers were at the bowl that day, taking advantage of a favorite local slope to practice their skills.

Witnesses saw Secor don glissading pants, start down the slope in the classic sitting glissade position, and then lose control of his speed. He was not wearing a helmet. Using his ice ax, he tried to self-arrest but was unable to slow down. He hit some rocks and rolled to the bottom, ending his slide close to the ski hut where he was treated immediately by ski patrollers and a trauma nurse who luckily were on site.

He was still conscious and speaking on the helicopter ride to a local hospital and then ambulance ride to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hollywood. He was found to have a broken shoulder blade, broken ribs, and skull fractures, and spent months in the intensive care unit, fighting episodes of low blood pressure and pneumonia.

Friends who visited Secor in those first weeks were shocked to see him weak and thin, heavily sedated, on a ventilator to reduce the pressure on his brain, and unable to speak or recognize them.

But he remained in stable condition and needed no operations. Slowly he began to recover. Friends put up posters of his favorite mountains on the walls—Mt. Whitney, Aconcagua. He remembers “waking up” in Kaiser’s Northridge hospital in the summer, spending a few weeks in a nursing facility for physical rehabilitation, and finally returning to his home in Pasadena at the end of August.

Secor, 49, began his first walks around the block, but kept looking from his house up toward the Mt. Wilson Toll Road to Henninger Flats in the Angeles National Forest, a hike he has done more than 2,000 times. Now he is hiking the road again, four miles round-trip with a 1,200 foot elevation gain.

Secor has his driver’s license again, and is working on the third edition of his High Sierra guidebook. He plans to return to the Mt. Baldy Ski Hut this winter, where he expects to be the hut host the first weekend of March. He welcomes visitors to hike up to see him there




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