American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

California, Yosemite National Park, Lost Arrow

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1961

California, Yosemite National Park (1) Lost Arrow—On March 19, weather was excellent. Gerald Dixon (24) and Irving Smith (17) hiked to the Valley rim starting at 5:00 a.m. They were accompanied by Merle Alley (who had made the climb previously) who planned to stay on the valley rim to photograph the climb. George Sessions and George Whitmore, both very strong climbers, were in Yosemite Valley and available for support in case of accident.

Ascent of the final 200 feet of the Lost Arrow requires two long consecutive rappels to the notch where the spire breaks away from the valley wall, then about 200 feet of direct-aid climbing to the tiny summit. Return is made via the notch with a long prusik up the previously fixed rappel ropes to the valley rim. Dixon completed the first rappel, and was joined by Smith while he was setting up the second. The second rappel was about 135 feet, quite vertical, but straightforward. It ends at the notch, a broad, slightly irregular platform of rubble which provides good footing. No belay is considered necessary while on the notch. A few swinging steps to the right, easily made, are required to rappel directly on to the notch as the rappel point is not directly over it. The wall covered by the rappel is frighteningly exposed, but has little or no loose rock and is smooth and fairly regular.

As Dixon was tying in the bottom end of the first rappel rope, Smith started the second rappel into the notch. He was using a body rappel, with a leather rappel patch on his leg and extra clothing protecting his shoulder. He was not observed by Dixon during the rappel. Dixon stated that about the time he expected Smith to be off-rappel, the rope went slack. He assumed that Smith was off rappel, but at that moment he heard a cry from Smith, then sounds of a fall in the deep chimney which drops sharply about 1,400 feet to the west base of the Lost Arrow, and which was directly under the rappel point.

Dixon and Alley rappelled down the same rope to the notch, finding no sign of Smith. Dixon then rappelled about 150 feet down the chimney, at which point he found the coiled rope that Smith had been carrying caught on a ledge. He was able to see about 300 feet farther down, but there was no sign of Smith.

He and Alley returned to the Valley to report the accident. On the way down, they met Sessions and a companion, who spotted what they thought might be Smith’s body lodged in a narrowing of the chimney about 600 feet below the notch. Observation with a powerful spotting scope by a ranger rescue party the next day confirmed the location of Smith’s body. It may be safely assumed that death was instantaneous, due to a 600 foot fall onto rock.

While a ranger and volunteer rescue party was preparing to attempt the difficult and dangerous removal, Smith’s parents and Park authorities determined that no further life should be risked, and that the body should remain at rest where it lay. The Lost Arrow chimney climbing route will remain closed for approximately one year in respect to Smith’s memory.

Source: Elmer N. Fladmark, Chief Ranger, Yosemite National Park; William Siri.

Analysis: As the exact cause of the accident is unknown, it is impossible to point to any one factor. It seems likely that Smith was already at the notch, or very close to it when he fell. Falling out of rappel, injury by falling rock, fainting, and running off the end of the rope all seem highly unlikely considering the circumstances. An incautious movement or a shifting rock underfoot while going off rappel seems most likely. Although few experienced climbers in this area customarily belay this rappel, it seems almost certain that a belay would have prevented the accident.

Some of the most experienced Yosemite climbers routinely use a prusik knot around the rappel rope held loose by the upper hand and attached to a chest or waist loop, and it seems probable that this might also have prevented the incident.

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