Appendix A: Memorial Day Accident on
Sunday, May 30, 1971
Monday, May 31, 1971
The worst accident in the modern history of Sierra mountaineering happened on
The accident occurred on a trip which was advertised by its organizer, the
Sierra Singles Section of the Loma Prieta Chapter, as a Memorial Day
weekend outing to Lake Ediza with an optional climb of
Not all of the party had the intention of climbing
The party arose at 0730 and the five climbers were underway 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 [in Fahrenheit degrees; This is about "-6" in Celsius degrees]. Shortly after leaving base camp, the party passed the campsite of two other climbers who were still in their tent and did not come out until sometime after the Welsh party passed their camp.
All members of the climbing party had ice axes although Dick Schroeder had limited experience in its use. All members with the exception of Bob Smith had crampons and apparently adequate foot gear. All climbers apparently wore adequate clothing for what was to be a late spring climb in the Sierras. All had down jackets of some kind, Bill Alves having only a down vest. Parkas or windbreakers were worn by all and Glenn Welsh reportedly was wearing long underwear. All except either Schroeder or Smith wore mittens. One of these two wore black leather gloves of the type worn for skiing. At least one member of the party wore tan jeans rather than mountaineering pants. All climbers had wool caps or Balaclava hats. At least one member of the party also had wind pants since one pair was found at the base of the chute where two bodies were later found. Howe and Alves shared a day pack while the others each had their own pack with food and additional clothing. One 7/16 inch 120-foot rope was carried by the party and later used. It had been intended to climb with two ropes but Howe neglected to bring the second rope.
The route selected by Welsh was Route No. 2, "The East Cliff and North
Face", class 3. The route proceeds from Lake Ediza to the saddle between
Mts. Banner and Ritter, then ascends a snow field to the right or west of
two chutes leading up the north wall of
All members of the party with the exception of Smith climbed directly up a
snow gully to the saddle between
In the meantime, some members of the outing group who had remained at the
Lake Ediza base camp decided to hike to Garnet and Thousand Island
Lakes. At about 1130 they noticed that the wind had increased
considerably, that it had become quite cloudy and snow was falling between
1200 and 1230. At the saddle between Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes they
decided to turn back because of the wind and reached camp about 1300. The
wind was quite strong (gusting to 30 mph) and it continued to snow that
afternoon. Occasionally, there were white-out conditions. Three other
members of the base camp party,
[Bob] Conn, [?] Todd, and [Ron] Stump, had decided to hike
out on Sunday via Devil's Postpile. They also noted that it clouded over
about 1030 to 1100 and that by noon, hail was falling. They thought that
the party on
The five climbers on
The other party of two climbers mentioned earlier passed the Sierra Singles party shortly before the Singles party turned around. The party of two was still ascending at this point. Five to ten minutes later, the other party again passed the Singles party while the latter was descending. They told the Singles party that they thought they had reached the summit but were not sure. They later reported difficulty in finding the correct route down in the storm which enveloped the mountain. They found it necessary to traverse the west side of Mt. Banner to descend back to Lake Ediza [probably making a long loop via the Banner/Ritter saddle, Lake Catherine, Glacier Pass, Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, and Nydiver Lakes]. They reached Lake Ediza Sunday night at 2100 to 2130 and reported that they had passed the Sierra Singles party at about 1400. They also reported that they had descended very quickly and passed the Sierra Singles party who were belaying down.
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. During descent of the gully, Alves reports that Smith slipped twice and that he, Alves, had to arrest him. Smith did not attempt to arrest himself. They descended an estimated 400 to 500 feet in the gully. At that point, Alves and Welsh 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. Although Alves believed that no one was in serious trouble, Welsh 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. Evidently Welsh thought that it was Iceberg Lake at the time. It later turned out to be Big Ritter Lake [Ritter Lake 3311 m on topo maps].
Because of the poor progress, Welsh decided to abandon the attempt to dig the snow caves. Because of the apparent steepness and danger of an unknown route, Welsh decided that the party should climb back up to the ridge and seek the proper gully for the descent. No one disagreed with this decision and the group started back up the gully. When they started to ascend, the weather again became quite severe and the visibility decreased. As the group was climbing, Alves noticed a crampon in the snow and stopped to pick it up. He returned the crampon to Schroeder who was apparently unaware that he had lost it. He had been climbing perhaps 50 feet of steep slope without noticing its loss. As Alves returned the crampon to Schroeder, there was a verbal exchange that indicated to Alves that Schroeder was not functioning properly. Schroeder said, "What are you doing with that crampon?" Alves replied, "You lost the crampon." To this Schroeder said, "I lost a crampon?" The manner in which he replied indicated that he was not completely coherent. Shortly thereafter, and without warning, Alves reports that two of the climbers, Schroeder and Smith, dropped to their knees.
Welsh and Alves were the only ones functioning normally at that point. Howe's eyes were still frozen shut and it was necessary to lead him by tugging on his rope. Alves reports that Howe was becoming incoherent at this point. Welsh and Alves approached both Schroeder and Smith and tried to explain to them that they had found a naturally formed hollow beneath a rock outcropping which could offer some shelter. Alves and Welsh had decided that they would try to get the other three climbers into the shelter of this snow cave and that they would then hike out for help. The snow cave was 200 feet above them in the gully and they attempted to guide the others to its shelter. Neither Schroeder nor Smith were responding or functioning in any way. It was impossible to get them to move. Welsh and Alves attempted to pull them up the slope but could not move them. The upward slope was estimated by Alves and members of the rescue team to be at least 45 degrees. Welsh and Alves decided that it was impossible to move either Schroeder or Smith and that they should concentrate on moving Howe immediately to shelter. They decided to cut the rope linking the five climbers together. This was accomplished and they proceeded up the chute with Howe to the rock shelter. Alves removed Howe's pack which contained both his and Howe's gear and food. He took out a can of nuts which he and Welsh ate. Howe was unable to eat. Alves then used the can as a scoop to enlarge the cave. He estimates that this process took approximately one hour. In the process, Alves asked Welsh to remain outside the cave while he dug it out. Welsh replied that he was losing his strength and couldn't remain outside. Alves then helped Welsh and Howe part way into the cave. The cave consisted of an enlarged wind pocket beneath an overhanging rock and proved to be drafty, lacking adequate protection from the continuing winds. When the process of enlarging the cave was completed, all three were able to get into the cave. Howe was on one side, Welsh on the other and Alves in the middle. Alves estimates that it was about 1600 to 1630 when they were finally established in the cave.
In the process of digging the snow cave, Alves remembers looking back down the slope and seeing either Smith or Schroeder sliding rapidly down the chute, bouncing from side to side off the rocks and disappearing below. At that time the other climber was still on the slope. Alves did not see him fall, but he was also found by the rescue party at the bottom of the chute.
Alves and Welsh had decided by that time to remain in the cave with Howe and thereby discarded their previous plan of hiking out for help. It was apparent that Howe could not survive alone in the cave. During the night, Alves reports that he got very little sleep, perhaps none at all. He believes that both Welsh and Howe did sleep. Alves tried to maintain his warmth by huddling close to Welsh. He had a day pack benath him for insulation. He chose not to remove his crampons for fear of not being able to put them on again in the morning. Sometime during the night Welsh became incoherent. Alves believes that he died shortly after midnight. Howe evidently died sometime later than Welsh because his trunk seemed warmer in the morning.
Word of the overdue climbers first reached authorities at 1530 on Monday, May 31 when the two, as yet unidentified, climbers reported to the U.S. Forest Service Mammoth Ranger Station. At 1705 other members of the Sierra Club party reached the ranger station and confirmed that the climbers had not returned. The Madera County Sheriff, who has legal responsibility for rescue in his county, was notified at 1800 Monday.
Early Tuesday morning, a light aircraft with two forest rangers plus pilot
made three passes over
Early Wednesday morning, the Forest Service team started up the same route the climbers had taken and the air search was resumed. At 0700 the first two bodies were located from the air. High avalanche hazard conditions prevailed on the ground. Around noon, a helicopter with rescuers from Yosemite arrived at the request of the Madera County Sheriff. Volunteer Mountain Rescue Association teams who had been on standby since Monday were taken off alert apparently because of the number of men already on the scene and the avalanche hazard indicating no more men than necessary should be in the area. The helicopter departed to refuel and was unable to resume operations on return because of deteriorating weather. The Forest Service team returned to Lake Ediza.
Early Thursday morning, the Yosemite climbers were flown to Big Ritter Lake where the bodies had been spotted. After some searching, the other two bodies were sighted and reached. Search in avalanche debris continued for the fifth climber until tracks were spotted leading west from the scene. About that time word arrived that the fifth climber had walked out. The bodies were retrieved and the operation concluded.
It is the opinion of the Committee that the following factors contributed to the accident:
Lowell Smith was the Chair of Loma Prieta Chapter
at the time of the accident,
and he had the principal responsibility of devising and
coordinating the Sierra Club's response. The
LOWELL SMITH'S COMMENTARY
The Sierra Club is divided geographically into chapters. The Loma Prieta Chapter (LPC) includes the counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, and in 1971 had somewhat over 13,000 members. In addition to the many trips organized by the national Club's Outing Committee, most chapters run their own outings programs. Within the LPC, there were a number of outings sections, each focusing on a particular aspect of enjoying the natural world in the company of similarly minded individuals. While some of these sections published their own newsletter that listed all of their trips, the sections also submitted a selection of their trips each calendar quarter to the LPC outings calendar that was sent to each chapter member at the beginning of the quarter.
Some of the specialized activities included river touring, back packing, peak climbing, and rock climbing. Each section had its own training program and leadership qualification protocol, even though some of these may have been somewhat informal in nature. The officers of each section were expected to have the experience to determine that each section trip was adequately led, taking into account the trip objective, time of year, and other relevant factors. The section officers took seriously (and with a certain degree of pride) their responsibility of providing outings activities to section members and visitors in a manner that provided a rational balance between safety and freedom to enjoy.
Our Sierra Singles Section (SSS) and a section focusing on family trips were somewhat unique in that they were organized around specific social groups rather than around a specialized activity. The SSS was a very large and active section that ran a wide range of trips from beach parties to some entailing serious mountaineering. Its section leaders tended to also take part in the activities of the specialized activity sections, as did its trip leaders for its more specialized activity trips. My recollection was that while there may have been no formally written constraints on the type of trip it sponsored, it was understood that any trip leader for a SSS specialized activity trip should be recognized by the relevant activity section as being competent to lead such a trip.
As I recall, this particular trip was listed in the SSS newsletter, but not in the quarterly LPC activities schedule, and the leader of the Ritter climb was judged to be sufficiently qualified to serve in this role. When word of the tragedy of the SSS Memorial Day weekend 1971 trip came to me (I believe through the SSS chair), I and other serious mountaineers within the LPC immediately focused all our attention on two things: what could we do to aid in the search and rescue effort? what lessons could we learn from this tragedy? Several of us in the rock climbing and peak climbing sections were also members and leaders of the independent Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit (BAMRU). The search and rescue effort in this instance did not require BAMRU's services in the field, but we could certainly lend our expertise after the fact to uncovering what had occurred, why, and what lessons could be learned.
We rejoiced when Alves walked out on his own, for we had already learned from the searchers in the field of their finding the four bodies of his climbing companions, and we had grave fears for his safety. I drove over to pick Alves up as soon as he was to be released from the hospital, as there were indications that the Madera County sheriff was toying with the concept of bringing charges of homicide against him (after all, there was the cut rope, and the many contusions on Schroeder and Smith that they acquired as they each bounced down the couloir after they had become unconscious and their ice axe anchors failed, but yet were still alive during this final fall).
This was a major accident in the context of Sierra Nevada mountaineering. It was our responsibility to find out what had happened, determine in hindsight what of that that happened could have been prevented, and assess what new measures, if any, should be adopted by the LPC to forestall similar incidents in the future. As chapter chair, I appointed a committee of highly qualified LPC members to look into these matters, and charged them to bring back their written assessment to be reviewed and acted upon, as appropriate, by the LPC Executive Committee. The members of this ad hoc committee were collectively highly experienced in mountaineering, mountain rescue and mountain medicine. They fulfilled their charge with a thoroughness not often seen in similar circumstances.
Through this Report, published in the AAC's Accidents in North American Mountaineering, we learn of the unusually severe spring storm that overtook these unfortunate individuals. We also learn of judgments that were made during their climb that probably contributed to their deathscontinuing towards the summit with inadequate or missing equipment in the face of deteriorating weather, probable inattention to maintaining adequate caloric intake and hydration during this stressful experience, not sufficiently cognizant of the consequences to their deteriorating bodily functioning in major part due to their slow rate of progressare some of the more important of these. One might also speculate if there was not a group dynamic operating within this party that tended to diminish the objective risk they faced because no one wished to be labelled a "quitter" by his peers.
But let us not judge the dead, and the living, too harshly, however. I
certainly have pushed the envelope at times in my mountaineering
activities, and am still alive to tell the tales. Attempt little, and
accomplish little. Dream big dreams and reach to make them a reality.
Reaching more ambitious mountaineering objectives should entail
identifying and assessing the risks, doing what is possible to mitigate
these risks, accepting those risks that cannot be mitigated, and then
sucking it up while pushing towards the objective. That should be
available to us to do, if we so choose. In this instance, however, I do
not get the sense that this is what was done. These men in their prime
of life continued onward into the face of death, not fully realizing the
risks they were assuming, and thus not making consciously their
individual decisions and group decision that standing on top of
To me, the take home lesson is: let us personally make every effort to understand the risks that we are assuming as we climb the mountains, and get their glad tidings. Let us with humility actively seek the counsel of those more experienced in the risks of the activities that we pursue, so that we learn from their wisdom, lest we are forced to learn from our mistakes. Then, surely, nature's peace will flow into (us) as sunshine flows into leaves.
January 19, 2005
Lowell Smith, past Chair
Loma Prieta Chapter
(Two quotations in the last paragraph are by John Muir)
A careful reader would remember that an unidentified pair
of climbers was mentioned in a few places in the Committee's Report.
Several weeks after this Web document was released, Ian Leslie contacted me
and said that he was one of the "other two climbers"
BOB AGAZZIIAN LESLIE'S RECOLLECTION
On Friday evening, May 28th, 1971, we left the
Bay Area on a trip to the eastern slopes of the Sierras to climb
The next morning, when we got up, a group of climbers were already on their way. This was the group that suffered the later tragedy. Ian recalls that one of the climbers seemed very strong in the way he moved, as if the altitude was no hindrance. The morning was clear and the reflected sun off the snow on the way up to the saddle was very bright. When we were above the saddle, the skies clouded over but did not seem threatening. It remained cloudy and the wind was about 10 to 15 knots with good visibility. We believe we were a short way from the summit when the cloud level dropped and the wind started gusting to about 30 knots. This is where we encountered the Sierra Club group. They were belaying as a group and were moving very slowly. We passed them, and by the time we reached their lead climber, the weather had seriously deteriorated. We remember crouching behind the blocks which we believe were just below the summit, but the visibility was very poor at this point. The wind was now gusting to greater than 40 knots and, with the wind chill factor, it was very cold. Bob recalls that it seemed to cut right through his clothing, even though he had on polypro long underwear, a good down jacket, and an overparka. We decided at that point that there was not a good enough reason to push the supposed short distance to the summit in such poor visibility, and with the rapidly changing weather we decided to go down. The lead climber of the Sierra Club group agreed and we assume he turned around at that point. As we descended past the rest of the Sierra Club group, we recall most of them were standing still in the rope line and seemed very cold. A couple of them did not respond as we passed them and told them we were heading down. Ian recalls asking one of them if he knew which shoot was the correct one to go down. Ian does not recall any response one way or the other. We were in a big hurry to get down and, as a two man team, were moving fast.
The weather continued to deteriorate and visibility was reduced to about 20 ft. As a result, we ended up going down the wrong chute. As we descended, visibility increased and we realized we were headed down the northwest side of Ritter. About half way down we encountered a steep section with ice under the snow, and Bob's crampons cut out and he took a fall. Thankfully he was arrested by Ian and, other than having the wind knocked out of him, he was OK. We were now below the clouds at the bottom of the chute and the winds had substantially decreased. We recall that from the time we turned around, until we were in much better weather (below where Bob fell) was less than an hour. We mention this because at the time we had one goal, and that was to get below the weather and out of the cold. At this point, the clouds briefly parted and we saw Banner off to our right, confirming that we were in the wrong chute. We decided we did not want to go back up to find the correct chute, but rather decided to hike out the long way in a clockwise loop around Banner. It was a very long, tiring hike and we got back to our base camp around 8:00 PM. We decided to hike down below tree level to spend the night. We recall feeling obligated to get back so that the other party would not be worrying about us. It was dark when we reached the campsite of the Sierra Club group and we were surprised to find their climbing party was not yet back. Their friends were very concerned after we told them where we last saw their climbers. We explained that we had to hike out the next day since Bob had to be back to work at the Phone Company on Tuesday, and that if their group had not returned by the morning we would report the situation to the rangers in Mammoth. We did that, and recall the woman ranger being very upset with us, even though we weren't the ones in possible trouble. In hindsight, we assume she was upset knowing the huge effort (and risk) a search and rescue entails, but given that, it is strange that she didn't ask us for details, like where we saw the climbers last, or even ask for our names and contact information.
At this point, we assumed that the other group had spent the night on the
mountain and would be back in camp sometime that morning. On the way home
we stopped at Lambert Dome in Yosemite to do some easy climbing, and then
drove home. Not knowing that the climbers had not shown up, we didn't
call home to our families to let them know we were OK. Bob recalls that
his mother was quite upset after watching news reports that evening about
climbers missing on
Approximately 4 to 6 weeks later, a bulletin was distributed throughout
Pacific Bell looking for any employee that was on
May 30, 2005
Bob Agazzi, Walnut Creek, California
Ian Leslie, Las Cruces, New Mexico
© 2005 Bob Agazzi & Ian Leslie
Thomas Hatfield, the membership coordinator for Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, recently got the following brief recollection from Bob Conn. Bob, who was one of participants in the Sierra Singles Section trip to the Ritter Range in May 1971, didn't have a feeling that the weather was particularly dangerous — mostly background concerns about getting wet or cold or having poor visibility. His letter is reproduced below, with permission.
BOB CONN'S RECOLLECTION
I was a pretty good back-packer and a member of the National Ski Patrol at the time. I didn't usually go out with large groups, and I don't remember what prompted me to go on that trip.
It seemed it was a late Spring that year. Preparations included the idea of sleeping on a snow pack. I had crampons and an ice axe, although on all the trips I carried them on I don't ever remember a need for them. Although as I write this I have a vague memory of using them on this trip because of the snow depth. But it was mostly easy trail walking, so maybe I was wearing them just to be cool.
I remember the weather as being marginal - not bad, but a good chance of getting wet with some possible showers. I kept checking my rain gear.
We made it to some camp area, but there was a small issue with it — maybe not exactly where we were supposed to be, or too much snow on the ground. Something small.
I had, for then, a quite fashionable tube tent, and there was no problem with sleeping on the snow. Not everyone was as prepared and I think some folks found some dryish ground to set up on.
Almost everyone was hoping to climb Mt. Ritter, but a lot of the folks (including me) would only do it if it were good weather - a nice sunny clear day. However, the next morning it was pretty gray and overcast and cool, so most of us just rolled over and went back to sleep. I remember getting up to talk about whether or not we should go up. When only 5 wanted to climb, the rest of us decided to sleep and lay around camp for the day. Maybe do some local day trip. There was some discussion about breaking up the group, and would they be safe traveling so lightly. But there was enough experience within the 5 that it seemed ok to go.
I do remember thinking they were traveling pretty lightly. If they kept moving and didn't get stuck somewhere they would probably be fine. After all, it was Spring time. But there wasn't much margin for surprises - broken legs, weather, getting lost, etc.
A few hours later (maybe mid-morning) the weather was deteriorating, and it looked like we were about to get little snow/rain flurries. Not quite the fun sunny Spring trip everyone had hoped for. So a bunch of folks started talking about heading back down early. But some of them wanted to wait for the 5 on the mountain. Keep the group together as much as possible.
I don't remember how many stayed at the camp to wait, but most of us packed up and were heading out earlier then we expected. And it did start to rain/snow. Then we started getting worried about the 5. "Oh, they'll be fine, they know what they're doing...blah blah..."
When it turned out to be a real storm we got really worried. And the news folks reported the rest of it.
Most of the rest of my memories are the more usual sights and smells of the Sierras. The hiking and trail sights. And, what a large group of people to be hiking with.
February 2, 2006
Bob Conn, Hawaii
POTENTIAL CAUSES OF ACCIDENTSMATRIX
Jed Williamson, the current editor of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, and Dan Meyer devised in 1979 a matrix to aid them in the analysis of mountaineering accidents. Prof. Williamson kindly applied the latest version of the matrix (revised in December 2004), to the Ritter 1971 accident. The following table shows a large number of potentially unsafe conditions (marked in red) which contributed to that accident:
POTENTIAL CAUSES OF ACCIDENTS IN OUTDOOR PURSUITS
Applied to Ritter 1971 Accident
Matrix © 1979-2004 Dan Meyer and Jed Williamson
|Potentially Unsafe Conditions
|Potentially Unsafe Acts
|Potential Errors in Judgment
Falling Objects (Rocks, etc)
Inadequate Area Security
Physical/Psychological Profile of Participants and/or Staff
Unsafe Speed (Fast/Slow)
Inadequate Food/Drink/ Medications
Unauthorized or Improper Procedure
Desire to Please Others
Trying to Adhere to a Schedule
New or Unexpected Situation (Includes Fear and Panic)
Jed Williamson adds: