Overall it seems that the NYT article has garbled the details: although the initial low-angle sunlight made Surveyor Crater look too steep, the estimated angle of about 11 degrees proved manageable by sidling down the rim. From the Apollo 12 Lunar Surface Journal transcripts and commentary by the astronauts (https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a12/a12.html):
Commentary on Conrad's first view of Surveyor 3:
[Bean - "But there's one thing we don't say here but we do later. I can remember the first time I looked at it and I thought it was on a slope of about 40 degrees (instead of the actual slope of about 10 degrees). And I remember us talking about it in the cabin, about having to use ropes. How are we going to get down there? How come they screwed up so badly (on the slope estimate)? And I think I was fooled because, on Earth, if something is sunny on one side and very dark on the other, it has to be a tremendous slope. We weren't getting (scattered) light in there like you do on Earth. So when light finally did strike, it was real..."]
[Conrad - "It turned out it was real flat."]
[Bean - "Yeah. But I can remember us talking about ropes and how were we going to get there and what can we do. And there it was, sitting there at 11 degrees like it should be."]
On the second EVA, 20 hours later:
131:51:50 Conrad: Okay. (Long Pause) Hey, look at that Surveyor, Al. That's not anywheres near as bad a slope (as it had seemed during EVA-1).
131:52:09 LM Crew: (Garbled) shade.
131:52:11 Bean: Hey, Houston, that Surveyor looks a lot better today.
131:52:13 Conrad: Yeah, now that the Sun's up on it.
When discussing the neighbouring Bench Crater angles of more than 20 degrees are described as perilously steep, with a further comment that the rope was never used:
[A contour map in the mission report indicates that Bench Crater is about the same depth as Surveyor Crater and, with half the diameter, would have an average slope of 25-30 degrees.]
[Conrad - (Chuckling) "I wasn't going to go down. It was really steep."]
[Bean - "Yeah, that wasn't a good crater to be inside. I mean, that would be real bad. Plus, your chances of going down in there and not falling over, head first, is zilch."]
[Conrad - "I don't think anybody went down anything that steep, ever."]
[Bean - "Uh-uh. They'd be crazy to do it."]
[Conrad - "Did anybody ever use the rope?"]
[Jones - "Nope. Nobody ever did."]
In the actual descent into Surveyor Crater Conrad confirms that the rope plan had proved unnecessary:
133:53:18 Gibson: Pete and Al, could you give us a comment on how far you're sinking in?
[By now, Houston has realized that Pete has already started into the crater. Plans for this part of the traverse, while not spelled out in the checklists, were cautious. Al is carrying a tether (30-foot safety line) in his saddlebag. Because no one has yet worked on a slope as steep as the inner wall of Surveyor Crater, the plan is for one of them to stay on the rim, paying out the tether while the other makes his way part way down the slope. If the surface proves to be too soft for a safe descent, they can use the tether to help him back up to the rim. An Ernie Reyes cartoon on page 15 of Al's cuff checklist playfully shows the tether being used. Clearly, Pete has decided that the surface on the upper wall looks good enough that the tether won't be necessary.]
133:53:24 Conrad: Not sinking in very far at all. This is fairly firm stuff. And I'm down in the crater about the same distance down that Surveyor is. I'm just going around it radially (means "circumferentially"). Wouldn't you say so, Al?
133:53:41 Bean: Yeah, I would say that...I think Houston is just as concerned about us getting down in this crater. We been thinking about it, too, Houston. (Garbled under Pete)
133:53:47 Conrad: Okay. Yeah, don't worry about it, Houston, because, really, it's no strain; I'm 200 feet away from it; I'm at the same level; the ground is firm; and I can go right back up the way I came down with no strain at all.
- they didn't balk, though the initial impressions were that it was
far steeper than the estimated angle
- (guessing) as well as shadows on Lunar Orbiter photos
https://www.nasa.gov/content/lunar-reconnaissance-orbiter-looks-at-apollo-12-surveyor-3-landing-sites) the photographs from Surveyor 3 were surely useful (e.g.
- it seems they were confident about the expected angle, but less confident
about how problematic it would prove.