MFDJ 04/07/24: Dropping the Hammer on the East Face

Today’s Clumsy Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Before Doppler radar gave meteorologists the ability to create detailed forecasts of weather systems as they crossed the country, mountain climbers had to rely on predictions published in newspapers and their own instincts to keep from being caught in storms. These rudimentary tools usually provided enough information to keep climbers from venturing out into dangerous thunderstorms or early-season snows. Most mountaineers in the Rocky Mountains stayed off of fourteeners like Longs Peak when winter gales dominated the landscape, saving their enthusiasm for the late-spring and summer months. Even summer, however, can turn against a climber on Longs Peak, transforming a sunny day into a freezing torrent in the space of an hour.

The East Face of Longs Peak.  Doesn’t it look like fun?

Gerald Clark, 30, encountered just such a day on August 7, 1939. A commercial photographer from Denver, he had scaled Longs Peak’s East Face five times before this, bringing all the equipment necessary to do this as safely as possible. He began to scale the wall with his friends, Eddie Watson, 23, and Edmund Cooper, 32, but at about 2:20 p.m., he dropped the hammer he used to drive pitons into the rock. Without the ability to insert more pitons, he could not go up any farther. Worse, it had begun to rain—hard.

Watson and Cooper both had ample experience climbing mountains, including Longs Peak, which Cooper had ascended no less than eight times before this. Watson had made his first climb of the East Face the previous New Year’s Day. They knew enough to realize that while Clark had reached an overhanging rock before he dropped his hammer, they couldn’t make it to the same place with the sudden change in the weather.

“Cooper was in the lead when we started,” Watson told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “He tried for an overhanger, but couldn’t make it. He came back and he and I agreed it couldn’t be made in the rain that was falling then. Cooper and I wanted to turn back, but Clark wanted to try it. He took the lead and made it over the overhanger.”

Watson and Cooper called to Clark to come back. “He kept going up in the Chimney and kept calling back to us for more rope… He didn’t hear us, or pretended not to, and kept on going, calling for more rope until there was only a few feet left.”

By this time, they knew that their friend had gone too far, but they had a responsibility to make sure he was safe. “Cooper and I started then to try to get [to] another overhanging ledge to one side,” Watson said. “The ledge was nothing less than a waterfall then, with the rain pouring down. It was impossible to get a handhold.”

Then Clark dropped his hammer.

“We called up to Clark. He couldn’t go any further up and he couldn’t start back down because he couldn’t drive a petane [sic]. We decided Cooper and I should go back for help. All three of us started calling for help but got no answer. There were some people on the peak, but they must have thought we were fooling.”

By this time, snow and sleet had started to fall along with the rain. Watson and Cooper managed to get the attention of a guide on the East Face—none other than Walter Keiner, who completed a legendary climb of the East Face in winter with Agnes Vaille in 1925. Kiner was on the mountain with a party from the Colorado Mountain Club, but when the two men conveyed to him that Clark was truly in trouble, he took his party back down the mountain and called for help.

“Cooper and I climbed down,” Watson said. “Cooper took a rope and went up to Broadway, the trail above the Chimney.”

Taking the easier route up the East Face to connect with Clark seemed like a good idea, but once he reached Broadway Ledge, he knew that he could not get the additional rope Clark needed before dark. A recue party, including Ranger Ernest Field and two climbing experts from Denver, Bob Boyd and Bob Lewis, started up the north face at about the same time, hoping to reach Clark from above as well. Cooper moved quickly to join them. Chief ranger J. Barton Herschler took charge of the rescue operation, establishing a base camp at Chasm Lake.

“They told me to go to the Boulderfield,” said Watson. “I waited there for news.”

By this time, the wind had picked up as well, and Clark, clad only in a cotton flannel shirt and denim pants, remained trapped on a ledge as water poured down the mountain and directly over him. As hail mixed with the snow, conditions became too hazardous for Ranger Field and his part to begin to climb down the East Face to reach Clark. A long afternoon of bad weather and biting cold had given away to night, and darkness set in on the mountain. Clark had no choice but to spend the night on the exposed ledge.

Watson went back up the Longs Peak trail at first light and reached Chasm Lake. He found Ranger Field and his party, who had spent the night on a wide ledge, coming down the East Face of the mountain toward Clark as snow and sleet continued to swirl around them. He also met Ranger Paul Hauk at Chasm Lake, on his way to assist. Watson and Hauk started up the East Face from the base.

Where exactly Clark had spent the night, however, was a mystery to the rangers and climbers on their way to help him. “Clark was so much hidden by the storm and the rough that the rescuers could not find him after they started down after dawn,” the Associated Press reported. They called to Clark, telling him to throw out his pack to they could see where he was. “He tossed out his pack then,” said Cooper.  For the moment, at least, he was still alive and conscious.

Finally Field’s party reached Clark, and determined in minutes that he was suffering from hypothermia and could not use his muscles to assist in his own rescue. He lost consciousness as they began lowering him down with a rope to Kiener’s Route, where Watson and Hauk were waiting. It took a total of five hours to move Clark down 1,500 feet from the ledge to the rescue camp rangers had established at Chasm Lake, working in small increments. Rescuers on the ground had called park headquarters for blankets, stimulants, a stretcher, and an ambulance to wait at Longs Peak campground, and eighteen Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees made their way to the rescue camp to help carry Clark five miles on stretcher to the campground and ambulance.

In all, Clark had spent twenty hours on the ledge.

“Clark was still alive when we lifted him on down,” said Watson, “but he was gashed on the head. He must have been hit by a rock while Field and Boyd and Lewis were letting him down.”

By the time he reached Mills Glacier, however, Clark’s life had all but ebbed away. Artificial respiration could not save him.

Coroner Orville Miller in Larimer County completed the autopsy and determined that that the cause of death was exposure—what we now call hypothermia. The gash on his head was only a scalp wound.

Culled from: Death in Rocky Mountain National Park


Dissection Photo Du Jour!

My First “Stiff”
Unidentified medical school, circa 1910

Nine medical students proudly pose around their cadaver. The photograph was framed, indicating it hung on a medical student’s wall as a proud statement and visual record of his entering the medical profession.

Culled from: Stiffs, Skulls, and Skeletons


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 3d. Roll-call and wood rations were omitted “on account of the return of a large number of paroled sick,” though we don’t see the relation of cause and effect. I traded a map of the seat of war for a mess of sweet potatoes.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *