American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, No Hard Hat, California, Yosemite Valley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1979


California, Yosemite Valley

On May 28, 1978, at 8 a.m., Phillip Bard (29) and Gary Gissendaner (21) began climbing Quarter Dome’s north face. The climb went well, with an average of a pitch an hour being climbed. During the climb Bard stated that Gissendaner may have seemed a bit impatient and wanted to climb faster. Prior to the beginning of the climb, “someone” had stated that “there are lots of free pitches” on the climb, meaning that some of the direct aid pitches could be free climbed.

At the sixth pitch, it was Gissendaner’s turn to lead. He looked at it and thought that he could “free” it, even though the pitch is rated 5.7, A-l in George Meyer’s Yosemite Climbs. Gissendaner said that he would come back down and pick up the pitons, if he thought that he could not free the pitch. Gissendaner started the pitch and was able to place three or four chocks along the way and then found a fixed pin. Above the pin, he placed two more nuts and then climbed about 15 feet above the last point of protection.

Once at the top of what appeared to be the end of the pitch, but was not, Gis- sendaner was standing on a small stance, but had to maintain hard holds. Bard said that he watched Gissendaner looking around, as if looking for an area for protection placement, for 15 or 20 seconds. Bard saw Gissendaner slip slightly and then Bard looked down and checked his own footing, anchors, and belay system for an instant. He then looked up to see Gissendaner falling.

Catching the fall pulled Bard vertically off of the stance about four feet and Gissendaner came to rest about ten feet above Bard and was hanging in a semi- prone position. Bard did not see where Gissendaner had hit the rock, but saw immediately that he was hurt.

Bard was able to lower Gissendaner down to his position and then onto a small three by eight-foot sloping alcove. Gissendaner was not conscious, but was moaning. His left eye was open and the right eye was closed with obvious injury to the right side of the head. He was also coughing and went into a seizure about 30 seconds after he was placed on the alcove. Gissendaner also stopped breathing, but Bard was able to start his breathing with mouth to mouth resuscitation. Gis- sendaner’s breathing was erratic and he stopped breathing at least two more times during the 45 minutes that it took to secure him so that Bard could go for help.

At 1:45 p.m., Bard began a solo, single rope rappel for help. He had to place in anchor points as he went. The rappel took about one hour. Once at the bottom, it took Bard about two hours to reach Mirror Lake, where he telephoned the Park dispatcher.

A rescue operation was immediately started, with Tom Griffiths as operation leader and Tim Setnicka as rescue leader. Through a telephone conversation, Park Technician John Dill was able to learn the details of the accident. The immediate plan called for a lowering operation from the top of Quarter Dome. The National Park Service contract helicopter was requested and Rangers Setnicka, Dill and Hargis were to fly on the first flight as a reconnaisance and then land at the summit and begin to set up the lowering system. Three more rangers were alerted and were to come up on the second flight. An additional request was put in for NAS LeMoore helicopter assistance. At 5:45 p.m., the first helicopter flight departed and located Gissendaner, who was alive and waving his arms, but appeared to be unconscious. After landing on the top of Quarter Dome at 5:55 p.m., a lowering system was set up. At this time, NAS LeMoore landed in the valley and reconed the rescue area with the help of Bard. Once at the site, NAS LeMoore decided that they could try a special rescue technique known as a cliff evolution. The helicopter flew back to the Valley to off-load Bard and some equipment. The helicopter returned to the rescue site 15 minutes later and was able to pick up Gissendaner and fly him and a Navy Crewman, Benny Revels, suspended 250 feet under the helicopter, back to Yosemite Valley where they landed at 7:15 p.m. at the Ahwahnee Meadow.

Gissendaner was rushed to the Yosemite Medical Group. After he was somewhat stabilized, he was flown to Valley Medical Center in Fresno. They arrived there at 8:40 p.m. Gissendaner remained in Valley Medical Center until June 3, 1978, when he was pronounced dead at 9:30 a.m., severe head injury being the cause. (Source: Tim Setnicka, Yosemite National Park)


Gissendaner decided to try to “free” an aid pitch which is not unusual these days. Not being able to protect the last half of the pitch resulted in a pendulum when he fell. Gissendaner was an experienced, excellent free climber who attempted to “go for it” according to his partner, but unfortunately fell after running the pitch out. (Source: Tim J. Setnicka, Yosemite National Park)

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