An opinion on beginners and safety
(On the Swiss Arjte and Mt Gayley)

4-6 Jul 2003 - by Rick Booth

Over the July 4th weekend Dee and I were in the Palisades area of the Sierras. It was a great weekend, however, we encountered two groups of people who either had an accident or were in position to have an accident. Both groups contained people new to mountaineering.

The first group consisted of six individuals who climbed the Swiss Arete. There was one leader who was familiar with both the route on Mt Sill and mountaineering. The other five were essentially rock climbers of varying levels of capability but with little to unknown mountaineering experience. This group had climbed the Swiss Arete but ended up bivouacking at the top of Glacier Pass after being benighted. Their story is approximately as follows. They were to climb the route in three teams of two. The first group was lead by the experienced leader and the second and third groups were to be lead by an experienced rock climber but not a mountaineer. They got a super early alpine start and headed down from Gayley Camp to the tarn where they left a rope behind by accident. This meant the groups had to be reconfigured into two groups of three. It took them four hours to get to the base of the route. They carried less than one ice axe or crampons per person which no doubt slowed them down on the way to Glacier Pass since approximately half of them had to deal with the icy snow without either ice axe or crampons. Even with the warm temperatures the snow was hard and somewhat icy early in the morning. They successfully climbed the Swiss Arete and somehow dealt with the missing rope, however, this made the ascent extremely time consuming. They headed down to the West Face traverse and the top of the L shaped snowfield. By the time they got to the top of the snowfield the day was late and the snowfield had begun to get hard and icy again. Since they had neither ice axe nor crampons for some of the members of the group they decided to rappel down the L shaped snowfield. This was complicated by the fact they had now encountered some single digit IQ nimrod wearing blue jeans and sneakers who had soloed the Swiss Arete and now was stuck above the icing snowfield without any gear at all. Since they are nice people they offered to take the nimrod down with them. This meant seven people were now rappelling. By the time they were down to Glacier Pass it was dark and they decided to bivouac on the lee side of the pass and wait until the morning before dealing with the scree clogged descent from Glacier Pass and heading back to camp. This they did and survived without further incident other than being tired and cold. The weather was about perfect, day and night, and they were lucky.

The second incident occurred the second day while we were descending Glacier Pass after ascending Gayley. We encountered two pleasant men from Bishop who were climbing Gayley. One fellow had considerable experience and he was accompanied by another fellow who was just new to mountaineering and had climbed a few peaks. They headed down the north descent of the two descents from Glacier Pass. This is a narrow slot and is loose like everything else up there. The experienced fellow went down the slot first and was followed by the new mountaineer. Within seconds we heard a bunch of yelling and crashing and out of the corner of my eye I saw a rock about the size of a man hole cover come flying out of the slot and head down towards the glacier. This had apparently been dislodged by the second fellow and the rock whizzed by the head of the first fellow and struck him in some fashion on the right hand leaving a huge gash. Fortunately the rock did not clock him on the head and the wound was such that the bleeding stopped in a reasonably short time. Dee provided them with some Neosporin, gauze bandages, and tape and they headed for their camp at Third Lake and presumably headed out to Bishop to the emergency room. They were lucky.

In both cases beginners to mountaineering were involved. These incidents may or may not have been avoidable but it is possible that certain procedures could have been used that would have eliminated one or both of these incidents.

Lets take the second incident first. The first person down any loose or scree filled area is the person most likely to be bombarded by stuff kicked loose by those behind him. It is my observation that experienced mountaineers have a far better idea of what is loose and what is not loose and tend to avoid the stuff that can potentially be a problem. This means the most experienced person should have been going second, not first. This may not have eliminated kicking loose the big rock but it would have made it more likely that the rock would have been knocked loose by the first person and consequently would not have been a problem since it would have sailed off without hitting anyone below. With the more experienced person coming down second he likely would have recognized the problem with the loose rock and would have been able to warn the first person. With more than two people this recommendation doesn't work quite as well but I think the concept of sending the least experienced down first is reasonable.

Now lets consider the first case. The goal of this trip was to introduce several reasonably capable rock climbers to a technical alpine climbing experience. This is a laudable goal. The biggest problem with this is the choice of location or possibly the choice of experience levels of the individuals who participated in this climb. Alpine rock climbing is not even remotely the same as cragging or climbing at some area devoted exclusively to rock climbing. The problems of alpine rock climbing add the following complications: a. a considerable amount of hiking, usually up hill, is needed to get to the climb or perhaps a lower camping spot, b. the hike requires hauling more than just ropes and hardware, since food, sleeping bag, stove, tent, and possibly ice axe and crampons will be needed, c. the climb must be accomplished quickly and after dark epics are to be avoided due to the possibility of serious weather changes, and d. in some instances an ice axe and crampons and the ability to move quickly while using them is needed. Items a. and b. contribute to an extra level of exhaustion that is not normally encountered. This extra level of tiredness contributes to errors. Item c. is not normally encountered in many cragging areas (think Joshua Tree) so the importance of moving quickly has not yet been learned. Moving quickly in an alpine arena includes many long route practices such as efficiently racking the gear, handling the rope, and rappelling. This level of urgency is rarely needed in a cragging environment. And finally, item d. contributes to a slow moving group since most new mountaineers are not comfortable on icy snow and tend to move slowly.

The biggest problem is the choice of route. While it is pretty clear in hindsight that the Swiss Arete is a modest climb that is mostly fourth class it is located at the Palisades Glacier which almost always involves moving a fairly long distance over snow and ice. This demands ice axe and crampon skills. If the choice must be a route such as the Swiss Arete then it would be a good idea if all members of the group carried at least an ice axe and probably crampons. It is also probably a good idea if the individuals participating in the climb had some familiarity with these tools. The downside is that these tools are heavy and must be hauled up to the glacier, a not inconsequential problem. In any case, I have never understood the concept of trying a climb with some of the group equipped with the correct equipment and some not equipped. It would seem logical to go all the way one way or the other. If the equipment is needed it is still extremely complicated for the equipped members to move the unequipped climbers along. Therefore, if the choice must be a climb involving mixed alpine skills such as ice and snow then the group must be all prepared for this. This also must include some experience with ice and snow in order for the group to move quickly and safely.

The easiest solution is to choose a route which does not require such a wide bandwidth of skills. This means less equipment would need to be hauled in to base camp which would result in a better rested group of climbers. Without the additional ice and snow problems the safety of the group is improved. There are many possibilities for nice alpine climbs that would be considerably less complicated. The North Arete on Bear Creek Spire is a straightforward project that does not involve the complications of the Palisades Glacier. There are many others such as the Fish Hook Arete on Mt Russell, the East Buttress of Mount Whitney and the moderate East Face of Mt Whitney. Any of these routes would certainly be outstanding challenges to the new alpine technical climber and the problems and the hazards associated with the Palisades Glacier (or any other glacier or snow field) would be avoided.

The individuals involved were all nice people. They are fortunate and I am thankful that there were no serious problems. What is distressing about these two incidents is the possible effect on the experienced individuals. These sorts of incidences can sour an interest in introducing people to mountaineering. Outings such as these mean there is one less weekend to pursue ones own interests. And less face it, it can be dangerous. It is hoped that these notes will be of use to anyone interested in introducing ones friends to mountaineering. And I will buy the people who do so a beer.

Michael Gordon adds:

Rick, you've clearly spent some time analyzing this. I appreciate the ANAM treatment you've given the situation, but IMO, fools will continue to be fools and 'experienced' people will continue to foolishly take groups of newbies into serious arenas like the Palisades.

I don't know what prompts people, but I've seen people bumble around local hills like San Gorgonio and Mt. Baldy (LA area) and crags such as Tahquitz, and then they somehow feel that they're qualified to go for the big stuff. Being around people like that in the mountains really scares me. I don't want to see blood, and I don't want to be involved in rescues.

There are scores of books, materials, and websites warning people about dangers (objective and created) in the mountains, but certain people will never heed these warnings.

Booker C. Bense adds:

I don't think this situation is as black and white as you've painted it. Even in the most obvious chute there is an element of route finding. Putting the most inexperienced person in the route finding lead can have it's problems as well. While there's a lot of truth in what you say, I don't think it's quite that black and white. I'd focus more on keeping a good distance between people and making sure that everyone knows how important yelling "Rock" is.

Arun Mahajan adds:

Wearing a helmet and staying close to each other on loose chutes would be some of the other things to do, to reduce the effect of rockfall.

Chris Jain adds:

I think that only taking some gear can be a valid compromise. Obviously if you know that ice axes and crampons are definitely needed for any significant distance, everyone should have their own. But if its only a possiblity that ice axes and crampons are needed then we somtimes take just enough gear to "scrape by" if necessary. More often then not when we've done this, the gear wasn't even needed. But for example, if there is only one set of crampons & ice axe in the team, there is the option for the most skilled person can lower the others the full length of the rope(s)and then just down-climb. It can be useful to be able to do this in addition to just having everyone rap.

When Michelle and I did the Sill-Thunderbolt traverse this same weekend, we did take 2 ice axes but only one pair of crampons. We ended up not using the crampons at all. But if we had run into something where crampons were needed, one pair would have been better then no pairs...

> I'd focus more on keeping a good distance between people ...

One way I've handled this is to go first, but only after giving the newbie strict instructions to move only when I give the word. Then at intervals I step out of the fall line and have him come down to me. Works well but is slow because only one person is moving at at time.

Jim Ramaker adds:

"Good distance" implies that people should spread out vertically, which I think is exactly the wrong thing to do, because then a falling rock has time to build up dangerous speed and knock down secondary rocks. Also, with distance you become less aware of where your partners are and whether they're descending an especially ugly spot. Better to stay very close together.

If the gully is not too narrow and you have only a few people, the best thing of all is to stay exactly parallel, at the same level as you ascend or descend. Then everyone is always protected from rockfall. But it takes great discipline to do this, because it means that only one person in the group can go up or down the easiest way, and the others must force themselves to go harder ways or climb on looser crap in order to stay parallel. Hard to do when you're tired. I've tried to do this several times when the gully was wide enough to allow it, but only succeeded once or twice. But what a relief when it did work -- no matter what anyone kicked loose, it did not matter (assuming of course, no other party was in the gully).

Michael Gordon adds:

I know it runs contrary to the Sierra Club 'style' of outings, but IMO, groups on technical outings are a big NO way. One partner, maybe two at most is fine, but a group of people slogging up a chossy gully is an accident waiting to happen (helmet or no). There's also nothing worse than getting behind a group of people on a semi- or technical rock route where options for passing don't exist.

Rick Booth adds:

> ... making sure that everyone knows how important yelling "Rock" is.

Maybe. In the example quoted the slot was about five feet wide so route finding was clearly not an issue, however, finding a place to jump to if a rock had been launched at you would have been difficult and was an issue. In any case if the less experienced person is sent down first and the most experienced person is fairly close behind then route finding is simplified. I have done this, but it isn't optimum. I doubt if there is an optimum answer but I think the problem needs to be considered on a case by case basis.

Steve Eckert adds:

Leaders who require people to spread out can expect me to insist on being at the back of the group since that's the only safe place to be.

This is also a problem going UP, where the faster and often less careful people get way out front and all the bottom people hear are cannonballs instead of shouted warnings.

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