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2004 Accidents in North American Mountaineering

 2004 Accidents in North American Mountaineering

by Sean Hudson

November 20, 2004

Climbing Accidents: Causes and Statistics for 2003

Climbing accidents—and dramatic rescues on high mountain peaks—generate headlines. What causes these accidents? Are they occurring more frequently? The answers are found in Accidents in North American Mountaineering. For more than fifty years, this report, published annually by the joint safety committees of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada, has served as an invaluable resource for climbers. One of the most instructive features of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is its summary of themes and trends of the previous year. As noted in the introduction to Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2004 by editors John E. Williamson and Edwina Podemski, analyzing accidents that occurred in 2003:

United States

  • “The number of accidents submitted for the year 2003 [118] was significantly lower when compared to the last two decades [there were 203 accidents reported in 1986]…This is important to consider when we know that climbing activity in the U.S. has increased. I [Williamson] stand by the estimate of about 300,000 climbers (people who rope up ten days or more a year), so when we look at the ratio of the number of accidents and fatalities to the number of climbers, it is hard to understand how the sport gets ranked by the National Safety Council as being in the top five in terms of risk level.”
  • “Under the category ‘falling rock, ice, or object,’ all eleven incidents this year were the result of rocks being dislodged, either by foot or by hand...The primary reason was being in areas known for loose rock.”
  • “For many years I [Williamson] have been saying that we seem to be past the problem of rappelling off the end of the rope. But there have been several of these in the past few years. I am told that with the use of longer ropes, some climbers are reluctant to tie the rope-ends together for fear the knot will get hung up when the ropes are thrown together. I guess it depends on which of the two situations you would prefer to be exposed to.”
  • “Most of the descending errors this year were the result of lowering climbers…These were primarily due to ropes being too short (and to no knot being tied in the end), speed build-up so the belayer could not hang on, and inadequate anchoring.”


  • “This was the year of the avalanche; in two incidents involving backcountry skiers, fourteen people died…Parks Canada is currently revising their rules to require ‘custodial’ groups…to hire professional guides to accompany them into the Park areas. This is a major change in philosophy….”
  • “It was also the year of the falling object. Spontaneous or climber-generated rock fall, ice fall, or hold failure accounted for a remarkably high number of incidents, resulting in a variety of injuries.”
  • “Also of note this year was the unusually difficult forest fire situation which forced the closure of many areas in the National and Provincial Parks in Alberta and British Columbia in late July and August. Despite this fact, an increased number of accidents [29] were reported this year.”

Other Statistics from Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2004:

  • In the period from 1951 to 2003, U.S., the highest number of accidents reported in the U.S. occurred in 1986 (203 accidents); in 2003, the total number of accidents reported was nearly half that (118).
  • In the U.S. in 2003, California saw the highest number of reported accidents (39), followed by the Atlantic-North region (29) and Alaska (14).
Adapted from Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2004, edited by John E. Williamson and Edwina Podemski (The American Alpine Club Press, distributed by The Mountaineers Books, $10.00 paperback)

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