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Sierra Nevada, California: (3) Cathedral Spires, Yosemite Valley

Sierra Nevada, California: (3) Cathedral Spires, Yosemite Valley. On 13 July 1947 three members of the Stanford Alpine Club were climbing the “Rotten Chimney” on the higher spire. The rock of this chimney would ordinarily be considered safe; but, since this pitch is vertical and in parts overhanging, its somewhat unsound nature requires extreme caution, Al Baxter, 21 years old and weighing 205 pounds, was leading, belayed by the second man, Ulf Ramm-Ericson (weight about 140 pounds), who was nestled in a secure but unanchored position at the base of the chimney. The leader was also roped directly to the third man, Larry Taylor, who was shifting his position at the time of the fall, and therefore would almost certainly have been pulled off if the second man had failed to hold the fall or if the belaying rope had broken. It seems that Baxter attempted to climb an overhang of a very difficult (Class 6) pitch without using artificial aid. He attached his rope by carabiner to an old piton at the base of the chimney, without testing the piton. Thirty feet above the ledge, and about ten feet above the piton, he found the climbing so difficult that he “felt better continuing to climb with two hands than stopping to hold on with one and put a piton in with the other.” He hoped to reach another old piton a little higher. Without warning, even to himself, he fell and struck the rock with such force that both legs were broken. The belayer held the rope so securely that it did not run. Calculations show that a force of approximately 2000 pounds was developed. The piton then pulled out so suddenly that the belayer thought the rope had snapped. Although unanchored, the second man was in such an excellent position that he was able to hold the fall with a sitting hip belay, even though the direction of pull had changed 180 degrees. Baxter found himself dangling 30 feet below on a 700-foot overhanging cliff.

Excellent rescue technique, which employed a rappel controlled from below* as well as a belay from above, enabled the other men to let Baxter down to the talus, whence a party of Rangers and volunteers, summoned by the two other climbers, transported him to the valley.

Unfortunately, a large part of this operation was conducted in the dark, and two of the Rangers were injured while they were working on the talus, one of them sustaining a broken foot.

Source of information: Sierra Club Mountaineering Committee.

Analysis. Here is powerful evidence that a leader needs to protect himself adequately on difficult rock. Also, it is clear that pitons left by previous parties should never be trusted; they should be removed and driven in again. A leader is not justified in continuing if the difficulty is so great that he cannot place pitons for safety.

Again, the margin of safety had been dissipated. A leader must save sufficient energy to retreat if it becomes necessary to do so; certainly he should not, in fatigue, continue upward to a position he hopes will be better. The belayer was not anchored, and the third man was in no position to offer assistance in the event of a fall. That the accident did not have more tragic consequences was due to several factors: (1) Baxter struck the cliff feet-first, thus avoiding the fate of Hood on Devil’s Slide; (2) the belayer was in an exceptionally good position even though he was unanchored; (3) the resiliency and strength of the 7/16-inch nylon rope minimized and absorbed the force exerted on a belay that failed to let the rope run; (4) a bowline-on-a-coil with four coils around his waist, in addition to the resiliency of the nylon, saved Baxter injury by the rope.

*“The Carabiner-Protected Rappel,” Sierra Club Bulletin, XXX (1940), 96-98.