Memorial Day Accident on Mt. Ritter in 1971
(Old Lessons Should Not be Forgotten)

29-31 May 1971 - by Harv Galic

A trip to Mt. Ritter during the Memorial Day weekend in 1971 went terribly wrong. It resulted in the worst single-accident loss of lives in the modern history of Sierra mountaineering. The official report on that accident is a sobering reminder to all of us, and precious lessons can be learned from that tragedy.

The accident occurred on a trip which was advertised by its organizers as a Memorial Day weekend outing to Lake Ediza with an optional climb of Mt. Ritter for those who wished to participate. Not all in the party had the intention of climbing, but five party members decided to accept the challenge. They rose at 0730 on Sunday, May 30, 1971, and were under way somewhat after 0800. The weather at the time of departure from Lake Ediza was mostly clear with some early morning cloud formations in the area. The temperature was in the low 20's. All climbers apparently wore adequate clothing for what was to be a late spring climb in the Sierra. They all had ice axes and apparently adequate foot gear, and all members but one had crampons. The route selected was the "East Cliff and North Face". This class-3 route proceeds from Lake Ediza to the saddle between Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, then ascends a snow field to the pair of chutes leading up the north wall of Mt. Ritter. From the top of the west chute, the route follows the ridge to a wide ledge leading diagonally up to the summit.

The ascent to Banner/Ritter col was uneventful, and the climbers slowly continued up the gully towards the summit ridge. However, along the way, and before the party reached the summit, weather conditions deteriorated. The decision was made to turn back.

What happened next is described in the accident report, published in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 1973 Edition, American Alpine Club, New York, pp. 5-11. Here are two paragraphs from that report:

The climbing party continued to descend the summit ridge. Within 10 minutes of turning back it thundered near them and immediately thereafter the wind increased substantially. It began snowing and sleeting. The wind was gusting over 60 mph and was blowing continuously with a velocity of at least 50 mph. The visibility was reduced at times to 100 feet. Snow was striking their faces with stinging force. The members of the party who were wearing glasses or goggles found that they became completely obscured by snow in a matter of seconds and that it became necessary to remove the glasses. The snow continued to strike the face and stuck to the eyelids and eyebrows, freezing them shut. It became necessary to remove a mitten to clear the snow and ice away from the eyes. One member in particular was bothered by snow and ice collecting on his eyes. Lumps the size of refrigerator ice cubes formed over his eyes. Later, as the party began descending a gully, this person could no longer open his eyes.

The party continued to descend the ridge, belaying where necessary and then started down what appeared to be the gully which they had climbed earlier. Because of very limited visibility under white-out conditions, the party was unsure of directions. Winds were swirling in gusts. They soon concluded that they had chosen the wrong gully and traversed across a rib into what they believed was the correct gully. Weather continued extremely bad. Still roped, they descended the gully. The wind was blowing directly up the gully into their faces. Snow continued to fall and visibility was quite bad. They descended an estimated 400 to 500 feet in the gully. At that point, two members of the party consulted on a course of action and concluded that if they had to go much further, the other people would start to lose muscular coordination. The leader of the party decided that they should stop at that point and dig snow caves. No one disagreed with this decision, although responses were minimal. It was decided that each person would start his own snow cave at 20 foot intervals and that they would pick the two most promising caves, enlarge those and the party would then bivouac. The digging of the caves went very poorly since it was snowing hard and there was no consolidation of the falling snow. The snow would slide down into the caves from above, wiping out what work had been done. They had been working for 15 to 20 minutes when it cleared somewhat below and they could see that the gully was very steep and that there was a lake at the bottom. They concluded that they were in the wrong gully since the correct gully had no lake at the base. There was confusion in the party regarding the identity of the lake. The leader thought that it was Iceberg Lake at the time. It later turned out to be Big Ritter Lake.

If you'd like to read more, and have access to the hard copy of the journal, find the full report in Accidents. Alternatively, since the publisher has kindly allowed a reposting of the report to my Web page, you can also read it online at:

http://www.stanford.edu/~galic/rettenbacher/ritter1971.html

Lowell Smith, one of the report's principal authors, wrote a commentary specifically for this online version, and Jed Williamson, the current editor of Accidents, added a note. We hope that you will take the report's message seriously.

Harv Galic - oluja995 AT yahoo DOT com


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