California, Yosemite National Park, Washington Column
On 19 June Jim Baldwin (26) was climbing with John Evans on the East Face of Washington Column. Jim was leading a climb two pitches above a large ledge 200 feet off the talus when it got dark. Baldwin led the last pitch in the dark of moderately hard nailing. Baldwin then decided to rappel to the large ledge below. Apparently the rope did not quite reach the ledge and Baldwin either rappelled off the end or decided to drop the last few feet to the ledge in the dark. Baldwin also had a large duffle bag tied to his swamy belt which may have pulled him off the ledge after he reached it. John Evans, who was above, suddenly heard a noise like a falling pack. Evans hollered, “Jim, are you alright?” When he got no answer he rappelled down part way. He could not tell if the rope reached the ledge so he climbed up hand over hand and tied the rappel rope and several hauling ropes together and rappelled to the ground (talus) where he found Baldwin’s body and determined that he was dead. Two boys sitting in the talus below where Baldwin fell thought they heard a car wreck, but when they heard Evans call out they realized that someone had fallen. Evans told the boys to go get help from the Rangers. Source: David Huson; John Evans.
(Huson) Analysis of this accident is very difficult because we will never know for sure just what went wrong. Baldwin should have had a prussic loop around his rappel rope when rappelling at night, but even more important is why the climb was being done at night. Could it be that the growing competition in the valley to do climbs in
less and less time be a large factor in why this accident happened. If this party had set a little slower pace and decided that the next day would have been soon enough to put up the next pitch (even though this might have been the difference in a new record on the East face of Washington Column) the accident would not have happened.
(John Evans) We started up the talus in mid-afternoon since the only bivouac ledge on the lower portion of the face is only 3 pitches from the start of the roped climbing. On the 3rd pitch, a long overhanging dihedral, Baldwin's remarks indicated that he was “psyched out” by the climb; he led very slowly and overdrove his pins, finishing his lead about 50 feet below the bivouac ledge just as darkness fell.
Above him an easy looking chimney led to the ledge, but after a short discussion we decided that it would be safer to descend than continue in the dark. Baldwin rappelled down the pitch on a second rope, leaving the climbing rope in place through the carabiners so that the second man would be able to remove the iron from the overhanging pitch on prussic the following morning. Thus, with 2 ropes fixed above, the plan was to descend another 70 feet to a steeply sloping bivouac ledge by rappelling from the hauling line — a 140 foot length of ¼? goldline. Although this rappel rope was to be left in place for a prussic the following morning I doubled it around the anchor so as to increase the friction of the small diameter rope since we both were rappelling with friction brakes.
Since my wrist had been injured slightly by rockfall a few hours before, Baldwin volunteered to carry the 35 lb. hauling bag on his rappel. He suspended it on a sling from his waist loop in such a manner that it hung just below his feet. The first 30 feet of the rappel was down a sloping slab; the remaining 40 feet to the bivouac ledge was vertical to somewhat overhanging. This ledge was grass-covered and sloped steeply to the left. Baldwin rappelled in the darkness, but before getting situated on the ledge he came off the end of the rope and fell approximately 200 feet to his death.
The precise details of the accident are uncertain. Perhaps he was too far left for the rappel rope to reach the ledge at all; or perhaps his feet landed on the hauling bag and flipped him over backwards. Possibly he reached the ledge but was jerked off balance by the heavy bag rolling over the side.
I started rappelling down the same line, but at the top of the vertical section I found that in the darkness I couldn’t be sure whether or not the ends of the rope actually reached the ledge. I went back up the rope hand over hand and rigged the rappel to a different anchor, gaining some 20 feet of rope. I then rappelled to the sloping ledge with perhaps 20 feet of rope to spare. With another 140 foot rappel I was able to reach easier ground and climb down to the talus. Baldwin was dead when I found him about 45 minutes after the fall occurred. Among the many contributing factors in this accident, a few tragic divergences from standard technique stand out: the hauling bag should not be suspended below the climber when rappelling, nor should the bag be taken by the first man down. The lessons exemplified here are timeless and obvious: caution must not be forgotten, even on the most routine of maneuvers; rappels in such questionable circumstances should be belayed. In this case the rope also could quite easily have been fixed at the top for a single-line rappel, which could have prevented the accident.