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Posted By Peter Bentley
My latest book The Undercover Scientist and its US version Why Sh*t Happens is still generating some of my most diverse interactions ever... Yesterday a Dutch journalist rang me up to ask on behalf of her readers why shoes fly off the victims of car accidents. I did my best to explain the effect of different forces generated by such an impact. Today a reader has sent an extraordinary story of continuous mishaps (which makes the "chain of accidents" narrative in my book seem positively mild). It's so long I need to put it into two parts, so this is the first part:

Dear Dr. Bentley,

I thought you might be amused by this episode that happened to a fellow with whom, in a group of about a dozen, I went on a climbing weekend in the Sierra Nevada of California in about 1954. About a dozen of us, mostly students from Berkeley, went to the Eastern Sierra to climb in a granitic ridge called the Sawtooth Ridge. Close to the cars we left the trail to travel cross-country in the open forest at this relatively high elevation (ca. 7,000'). We soon had to ford a substantial little river over a long downed tree. This fellow, very eager and gungho, volunteered to go over in his underwear and set a handline. Everybody crossed with their large packs successfully and he got dressed, put on his own pack, untied the rope, balanced halfway across and predictably fell into the deepest part, though holding on to the rope to get pulled out (accompanied by hearty guffaws).

Steaming halfway up the terrain to the ridge, we stopped at a clear, inviting mountain stream (just short of the first snowfields), into which he jumped without testing the temperature and virtually "levitated" out of with loud screams.

We arrived at a suitable camp site early in the afternoon and proceeded to practice self arrest and roped arrest on snow, something Californians at that time were sorely deficient in. Despite warnings about the lay of the rope around the planted ice ax, he managed to give it a double loop or crossed the rope on the shaft with the result that his "victim", sliding rapidly down the steep practice slope, was stopped jarringly, with the ice ax flying out of the snow in two pieces and the "weight" having some bruised ribs.

We returned to camp to make dinner. In front of my eyes he walked to the edge of the creek to get water, ignored the possible corniced edge of the snow cover and promptly fell through the cornice into the creek.

The next morning we set off to climb the "Doodad", a peak with a large rectangular block sitting on the summit ridge. I volunteered to run back to camp to retrieve somebody's left-behind rope and was coming up in the brilliant morning sun behind the group, now ascending a steep snow couloir toward a notch in the ridge adjacent to the Doodad. Said fellow had no ice ax and had been holding forth how his piton hammer with a long claw might do service instead. No sooner said, than he fell and descended the harsh neveé slope at a good clip, frantically digging in his ineffectual piton hammer. Having neglected to wear gloves, he stopped at the bottom with thoroughly abraded and bleeding hands.

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