Climbing Accidents in the Rockies
Learning from the Past
Risk is an essential part of climbing and some of the most well-known accidents in the Canadian Rockies could not have been easily predicted or avoided, but we can still learn from them. Alpine historians and mountain guides reflect on how modern Rockies climbers might avoid the circumstances that led to tragedy in the past.
(Philip Stanley Abbot on Glacier Crest, BC, August 12, 1895)
STANLEY ABBOT- MOUNT LEFROY - SUMMER 1896
Philip Stanley Abbot had his sights set on the summit of Mount Lefroy. He teamed up with Charles Fay, Charles Thompson and George Little. They spent hours cutting steps and scrambling over loose rock without the aid of modern equipment. “As the foursome ascended the final 600 metres to the summit, the ice slopes became a concern,” says Zac Robinson, an alpine historian at the University of Alberta. Abbot’s climbing partners reported that he had unroped to climb ahead when he suddenly disappeared off one of the ledges. “Neither Fay, Thompson, nor Little actually saw Abbot come off, but loose rock was almost certainly the culprit,” says Robinson. Abbot was 29 years-old when he died.
“If Phillip Abbot had not unroped from his companions on Mount Lefroy he would have taken all of them into the abyss. At that time there was virtually no way to anchor yourself to the mountain so they would not have been able to hold Abbot’s fall,” says Chic Scott, who speaks from a lifetime climbing in the Rockies. “Unroping is usually done when it is impossible to put in pitons, nuts or other protection devices to anchor a section of climbing. This makes the climb less risky for the whole team. If one members slips, the rest could survive,” says Scott.
Although he was an experienced climber, there has been speculation that Abbot’s desire to reach the summit superseded his attention to conditions and safety. In both Thompson’s and Fay’s retelling of the accident, Abbot’s desire for the summit of Mount Lefroy is obvious. “This perhaps reveals a significant human dimension to the accident,” says Robinson.
Abbot’s fall is significant not only as the first recorded mountaineering fatality in North America but also because it illustrated a need for guides in the Rockies. The Abbot hut was built on the pass nearly 30 years later to help mountaineers safely climb the surrounding peaks.
DR. WINTHROP STONE- MOUNT EON - SUMMER 1921
Dr. Stone and his wife, Margaret, were a seasoned climbing team hoping to summit Mount Eon. Dr Stone, however, fell before the summit after unroping from his wife to find the route above. The rest is documented clearly in Kathy Calvert’s Guardian of the Peaks: “Without any warning, a large slab of rock tumbled off from above, passing over Mrs. Stone, and was closely followed by Dr. Stone, who spoke no words but held his ice axe firmly in his right hand. Horror-stricken at the sight, Mrs Stone braced herself to ake the jerk of the rope not realizing that her husband had taken it off to explore beyond its lengths. Mrs. Stone then attempted a solo down climb of the mountain. She lived off melted snow and unfounded hope that her husband was still alive. It took seven days for her to be rescued and 15 more before the Swiss guides found her husband’s body.
This tragedy marked the emergence of guideless mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. Before the incident, the Stones had been making many first ascents in the Purcell Range, always in the company of their guide, Conrad Kain. “In a somewhat cruel twist of irony, Winthrop Stone himself was a protagonist of that very movement,” says Robinson, citing that Stone had only just been published in the Canadian Alpine Journal for an article that praised the “virtues of guideless climbing.” Robinson describes the later ascent of Stone’s route, where guides took his ice axe to the summit only to be stopped at the final chimney just below where Stone had fallen. “A slight deflection was made to the westward. Sometimes the most micro of terrain decisions matter.” says Robinson.
MEXICAN WOMEN’S TEAM- MOUNT VICTORIA- SUMMER 1954
In the summer of 1954, a Mexican all-women’s climbing team arrived at Lake Louise to climb Mount Victoria. The team was refused the services of the local guides, who felt that their goal of South East Ridge, instead of the standard route, would be too difficult. “The high mountains are in bad shape this year. In all history we have never had such a hard winter, so much snow or so late a spring” said Ernest Feuz, a prominent guide who worked with the Canadian Pacific Railway in its early years.
Nonetheless, the enthusiastic team, accompanied by Mexican guide Eduardo San Vincente, started the South East Ridge in two roped teams. In soft snow and with no protection on the ridge, the front group, led by San Vincente, slipped from the ridge. “They slid down, and then they tangled up together and rolled down very fast. When I saw them fall I knew it was all over,” said the leader of the rear group, who survived the incident. Feuz conducted the difficult rescue and recovered the bodies of the fallen team.
“I almost never place protection on Mount Victoria,” says Larry Stanier, a UIAGM mountain guide who has been guiding in the Rockies for over 20 years. “I use terrain features, the odd fixed anchor or ice screws when I need to belay.” He does this because it allows the team to keep moving on exposed terrain and saves energy. The red flag for the team should have been the locals’ warnings. “Only very occasionally have I had people ignore well-intentioned advice and interestingly, it is almost always advice about snow conditions or avalanche hazard,” says Stanier. He notes that often people without direct experience underestimate the variability and potential risk of snow covered terrain. “I can easily imagine that this Mexican team had considerable experience on the snow of the Mexican volcanoes. The guide reportedly had experience on Denali and in the Cordillera Blanca, but that can be a very different animal than an early summer snow pack on the exposed and varied terrain of the South East Ridge of Mount Victoria,” says Stanier.
SCHOOL BOYS- MOUNT TEMPLE- SUMMER 1955
In the summer of 1955, after a successful summit of Mount Rundle, a school group of over two-dozen boys from a wilderness camp in Philadelphia set their sights on Mount Temple. With the limited information provided at the Warden’s office, the group did not seek further education and instead allowed for an unsupervised group of 11 boys to climb Mount Temple. The leader of the boys did not accompany them. On the way up the route there were numerous avalanches and the most experienced boy convinced the team to turn back, but during the descent, an ice axe belay in soft snow failed and the team, which was roped together, was dragged down the mountain. Seven boys, aged 12 to 16 died and only three survived. The leader blamed the Park services for failing to provide information on the climb.
Larry Stanier says this accident should have never happened. “Where to begin? No experience, terrible equipment, poor conditions, an unsupervised group of boys heading up into the alpine while the group leader goes to town to buy groceries. The group leader then blaming Parks - appalling. The only wise note seems to be the one boy who convinced the others to turn back. Avalanches happen in the mountains in the summer. Pay attention, watch the weather, get decent gear, don’t send the boys out alone and don’t blame someone else if things go sideways”
An inquest followed the accident, calling into question the responsibility of individuals for their actions. This was a benchmark in the history of mountain rescue and the Parks Canada service.
JOHN LAUCHLAN- POLAR CIRCUS- WINTER 1982
By age 22, John Lauchlan had already made a name for himself as a leading climber. Through his 20s he put up bold first ascents including the first winter ascent of the Ramp Route on Mount Kitchener with Jim Elzinga and a successful summit of Mount Logan via the South-Southwest Buttress with Elzinga and Al and Adrian Burgess.
In the winter of 1982 however, his life was taken by a slope collapse. He was half-way up his solo attempt of the Polar Circus on Cirrus Mountain, just south of the Colombia Icefields. He was 27 years old. “Avalanche hazard was high and John should have known better” says Scott in his book, Pushing the Limits.
It is generally agreed that Lauchlan had poor timing and bad luck. In Lauchlan’s case there is no evidence that being roped to another climber would have saved him “I don’t see this accident so much as a soloing accident as I do an avalanche accident,” says Sarah Hueniken, an alpine guide who works out of Canmore. “I don’t often choose to go solo up something on my day off but if I did, I would be on guard for the realities of the activity and the hazard,” she says. “Something must have driven him to continue despite what his experienced mind must have been telling him,” she says. “Separating our ego from the decision making process is not easy. Being honest with our motivations is also not easy, but it is crucial when it comes to safety.”
BRIAN WALLACE- MOUNT LOUGHEED- SUMMER 1988
As climbing became more popular through the 80s, more young climbers set out to establish bold new routes.
Jeff Marshall, Steve De Maio and Brian Wallace were only about 150 metres from the top of the North Face of Mount Lougheed. Wallace was leading a difficult pitch when he fell more than 20 metres, stopped only by the belay. He hit his head during the fall and died within a few hours. His partners were forced to tie Wallace to the wall while they started a difficult descent.
“Only later, when they reached the ranger station and told their story did they collapse in sobs. The halcyon days of youth had ended for both of them. In fact, the whole climbing community had aged,” writes Scott. Wallace was a Calgary local who lived passionately for the mountains and made many bold first ascents. “Brian Wallace should have been wearing a helmet,” says Scott. “This may have saved his life as he fell and swung into a corner hitting the rock with his head. Falls like this are the risk one takes to do very difficult climbs.” says Scott.
KARL NAGY- MOUNT LITTLE- SUMMER 2000
For many of us, the dangers of climbing are manageable. We navigate the natural environment by reading signs and listening to our guts; we also learn invaluable skills in first aid and rope management. But what we often forget and forego are those variables that are beyond our anticipation and often beyond our control. While examining assistant alpine guides on Mount Little, the respected ACMG guide, Karl Nagy, was struck by a rock from well above his route. Karl died instantly despite his helmet and first aid from his rope partner. The route they were on, in the Valley of Ten Peaks above Moraine Lake, has characteristically loose rock but is also categorized as relatively safe. This accident devastated the Canadian Rockies climbing scene and the ACMG, but proves without a doubt that simple accidents can happen anywhere. “I never thought I’d have to try and rescue a friend, but there was always that possibility” said Gord Irwin, a park warden who was involved in the rescue mission.
The threat of rockfall is my almost constant comapanion in the summer guiding season,” says Stanier. Hueniken says “I consider it a lot. I climb differently because of it, always having three points of contact and very controlled. I avoid places in bad weather, and living in the Rockies, we all know that rock fall is a huge concern.” Acknowledging that rockfall is a risk that is unpredictable most of the time, Stanier suggests belaying from secure positions, always wearing a helmet and being attentive while climbing in couloirs, gullies and at the base of big walls. Pre-conditions for spontaneous rockfall are often a night with a freeze and then a melt during the day, sustained rainfall or a period of melting snow. The lesson that can be taken from Karl’s death is that “there are inherent risks in the mountains that we can’t control,” says Hueniken.
Conclusion: Staying Safe in the Mountains
We all know the standards: wearing a helmet, using redundant systems, telling friends where you are going and having a turnaround time on every trip out. “Basically every day you just need to make the choices that you feel good about at the time. So often we get positive feedback from poor decisions and sometimes bad luck can still hit you when you have seemingly done everything right,” says Hueniken
“There are plenty of old bold climbers and there are plenty of passed on conservative ones,” says Hueniken. Scott also says Walter Bonatti, Reinhold Messner and Anderl Heckmair were some of the pushiest climbers of the twentieth century and they lived to retire from climbing. “Any leading climber has experienced hundreds of times where he was only a hair’s breadth away from death. This is one of the great joys of climbing - to put yourself in a position where the only thing that is between yourself and death is your skill and your control. It can give immense satisfaction to confront situations like this and succeed,” says Scott. Despite protection, skill and safety measures accidents can still happen. We need to remind ourselves of how fragile the line between risk and tragedy can be.
Lauren Watson is a climber and former intern at Gripped.