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Falling Rock—California, Sierra Nevada

FALLING ROCK—California, Sierra Nevada, Mt. Abbot. Marilee Henry (31), and Joyce Krause (37) were on the last pitch leading to the top of the south ridge of Mt. Abbot on September 5 when this accident occurred. Ellis had led that pitch and found that at the ridge summit there was a sheer drop-off so that it could not be followed to the peak summit. Ellis decided to descend 80-90 feet via the same chute she had ascended to rejoin Henry and Krause. Henry was belaying Ellis, who shouted, “Off belay.” She also commented that it was “rotten up here” and that the others should not come up. Henry and Krause could not see her, but they surmised that, given the delay in time from her shouting off belay and her verbalized recognition of the potential danger of loose rocks in the chute, she could not be anchored. A short time later, Ellis asked Henry to untie her end of the rope. Henry reports that she later realized that Ellis’ intention was to rappel. She pulled it up about 10-20 feet. Now quoting directly from Marilee Henry:

“While waiting for her to descend, we looked up many times and could see Roberta searching about her at the top of the chute, presumably setting up her rappel. Neither of us were watching her at the moment when the rockfall began. Roberta’s position throughout this time was at the top of the chute just in front of a large block which we estimate was about 6 feet in height and 4 feet in width and depth. It certainly weighed tons, and almost completely filled the top of the chute.

“When I first heard the rumbling sound of falling rock, I immediately looked up and saw the huge rock tumbling down the chute, but I did not see Roberta, and assumed she was safe behind it. I reacted instinctively by throwing Joyce and myself up against the rock wall in front of us, and thus I did not see what immediately followed. Joyce was facing out and saw Roberta come flying out of the chute right beside the block, hit the rock right beside us, and continue down the steep cliffs below us and out of sight. She clearly saw Roberta’s face and was certain beyond any question of doubt that Roberta was beyond help, even at that time.” (Source: (1) Inyo County Sheriff’s Posse and (2) personal correspondence from Marilee Henry and Joyce Krause.)

Analysis: These were three experienced climbers who were aware of the objective dangers in the sport. The area they were in showed some evidence of rock fall. The rescue team gave no indication of a concern about this in their operation to recover the victim, however. One can only speculate as to whether the victim was anchored or had begun a rappel. It seems evident that even if the victim had been wearing a helmet, the rock fall would have resulted in the same outcome. (Source: J. Williamson)