AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

California, Yosemite National Park, Washington Column (2)

California, Yosemite National Park, Washington Column (2). Unexpected fine weather prevailed on the morning of 9 November giving the prospect of a good day for climbing the piton traverse route on Washington Column in Yosemite Valley. David Coward (28), leader of the party, had been at least as far as Lunch Ledge several times before. Doug Loescher (23) followed on the first rope. At the base of the climb Marvin McEachern (28) proposed that he and George Oetzel (27) should alternate leads on the second rope, and that he should start. On the basis of conversations and observation of some third class approach climbing, it did not seem an unreasonable suggestion, so it was agreed.

At the beginning of the third pitch, Oetzel noticed that McEachern didn’t seem very comfortable with the prospect of leading the pitch. McEachern agreed with the suggestion that he should back off and let Oetzel lead the pitch, but then started up the pitch. On further questioning, he assured his belayer that it had been only one move that was a bother, and he had no further difficulty with the bottom part of the pitch, consisting of about 20 feet of steep cracks leading to a prominent Y- shaped tree. Passing through the low crotch of the Y, the route continues up a short shallow gully with a choice at the end of continuing up the steep end of the gully or a slightly easier traverse around a ridge. Coward led the traverse 4th class. It appears that McEachern stayed in the gully, where he was out of sight of his belayer. He gave no indication that he

was having climbing difficulty, but his feet apparently slipped, and he hollered that he was falling.

As judged from the belay position, it seems that he must have fallen initially into the gully and nearly stopped, as the sounds of falling stopped for a time, and the fall took a very long time. After a hasty debate about the loose rope developing near the belay stance, Oetzel decided there was time to take in a little, and hauled in perhaps 5 feet during the fall. McEachern’s fall was stopped about 5 feet above a level ledge beside the belayer (supported at the Y tree), after something over 50 feet of scraping and bouncing down the slope. It appears that the time available for taking in a little rope may have saved further injury from striking the level ledge. It is doubtful that this action would be possible in a fall on steeper rock.

McEachern’s face was badly lacerated, and his hard hat had two deep scratches in it. Elsewhere on his body he had only minor scratches and bruises. The hard hat apparently left him very near the end of the fall, as it rolled to a stop in a bush quite close to his landing place. His glasses landed with him, in spite of all the scraping his face had received. He never lost consciousness, and was able to rappel off the rock. Examination in Yosemite Hospital 2½ hours later showed that he had also suffered a mild concussion. He was hospitalized for 24 hours and released.

Source: David W. Huson, Park Ranger, Y.N.P., and George N. Oetzel.

Analysis: (Huson and Oetzel) The people in the party had not climbed together before, making the designation of leading responsibilities heavily dependent on the statements of the individuals involved. Coward and Oetzel had discussed this beforehand and agreed that this particular climb would be within Oetzel's leading capability. Oetzel is not an experienced leader, but had been to Lunch Ledge before and had shared leads on some other climbs in Yosemite. The guide book calls Lunch Ledge class 4, probably under-rating it a bit. Still, it is not a hard climb. Conversations had given the impression that McEachern’s experience was not greatly different from Oetzel’s except that he had climbed mostly in Colorado and had not made the climb to Lunch Ledge previously.

Coward says that he was more impressed than he should have been by the fact that McEachern was to lead a Sierra Club practice climb in a few weeks. In any case, since so little was actually known about McEachern’s ability, Coward and Oetzel should have insisted that he defer leading for a few pitches until he could be observed.

However, McEachern himself seems to be the one most responsible for the accident. Although he agreed that he should not continue leading the pitch while still in a location from which he could return, he went on anyway. He had pitons with him, but did not place one before the fall. He may have been influenced in this by the fact that Coward had not used any iron, and perhaps the gully below looked deceptively safe. Each leader, and especially the less experienced, should make his own decisions about his need for protection without being influenced by others who have gone before.