FALL ON ROCK, FAILURE OF NUT AND PITON
Washington, Mount Garfield
On May 14, Frank Wells (33) and Craig Parsley (25) started an ascent of the South Face of the West Peak of Mount Garfield at 0700. At 1100, around the 1200-meter level, Wells fell, pulling his protection and belayer off. The following first-person account reveals the essence of the events and the will to survive.
I am a Rumanian and a climber with fifteen years of experience on rock and ice. I’ve climbed well over a hundred and fifty routes in Rumania and Russia. I have participated for ten ten years in Alpine Climbing Competition (not the top-rope Russian style), and I have been member of Mountain Rescue Team for seven years. Also, I’ve been an instructor in Rumanian Alpine School, climbing and skiing. In 1976 I was selected to go on a Himalayan Expedition Team. My top technical level is Grade V–VI, 5.8–5.9/A4–A5.
On May 14, Craig Parsley and I went out to climb West Peak of Mount Garfield by South Face Direct, first climb. The Classic Route goes through brush and windfalls to a ridge covered with heavy timber, avoiding the difficulties of lower third of the face. Higher up follows a ledge system connected by slabs which do not exceed 5.5. The Direct Route is to climb the lower third (exposed 5.7 +), intersect Classic Route at beginning of second third, and follow an exposed way up on right side of it. Estimated difficulties Grade IV, 5.8 (A2 maybe).
Craig is a very good rock climber with no experience on ice and snow. We’ve met one year before, and have climbed together a few times.
Was five o’clock in the morning when we got there, on Middle Fork Road. The day was cold and a light wind was bringing in heavy clouds. We couldn’t see the 8100-meter wall from the road, but we knew it was there, waiting dry and clear of snow for once. I thought, “Maybe is going to rain.” But one never knows here in North Cascades. “It might turn in good day too; let’s move!” I say. From 300-meter, road level is a steep approach through brush and windfalls, slippery rocks covered with dead leaves and dirt. One has to put up with “strenuous masochistic undertakings” and a lot of pain. Eventually, before the body runs out of energy, the mountain runs out of vegetation and opens up.
Some water was running down the lower face giving us the morning shower. We climbed unroped for 100 meters, trying to stay to the left of Classic Route. The angle changed to 70-75 degrees and we crowd together on a little ledge. Time to rope up. Craig went first for two leads with not much concern for protection. The climb was 5.7, exposed, involving a lot of friction movements, and not much protection. We changed leads, and I went first. I’ve made a 50-meter lead and when Craig arrived, I start the second lead. Was on smooth slab and very exposed. I’ve managed to put two nuts and a piton before I’ve run out of rope. It ended when I was on friction move under an overhang and arch. Now what? It was a difficult spot and the last protection was 15 meters below. “I need more rope to reach to top of the overhang!” I say. I was looking for a placement when first drops of rain came down on my face. Craig says, “Hurry up Frank, we have to turn back! I say, “I need to bring you higher and I can’t fix a placement; I need a piton!” Craig says, “Use a nut and pull up the ropes; I’m not going to fall now!”
I put a #2 wire nut in a shallow crack and say, “Craig be careful, this placement is no good! The nut is too small and is no way to have a better protection! Stop at the first nut!” Pulling up the ropes, I was looking for a better placement. The smallest nut I had left was a #4. Was clear in my mind that if I was going to climb over the arch on wet rock, I needed something better. I think, “Damm it!”
Craig in his eagerness came to the last piton, 15 meters below me, and nothing in between us.
Craig says, “You can climb now, Frank; I’ve got you!”
Maybe that little crack below my feet will take a nut, I thought, reaching down to it. The rope tightened up a bit under my weight, and POP, the wire nut came loose. I shout, “Look out!” I was falling backwards. I turned on my back, feet down, head away from the rock, no helmet! Suddenly I realized that was going to be a long fall and all we have in between is that bloody piton. ... I saw Craig’s face with a blink; but my eyes were searching for the piton. I got it in my sight, and I saw it getting farther and farther away. The rope got tight and I felt it stretching out a bit. But was not to be…POP, and the piton came loose with part of the rock it was pounded in. I saw Craig being pulled off his spot. He screamed! I turned and looked down to the bottom of the face. I thought, “When I’ll get there, I will die!” I heard rocks falling, but we were falling faster than them. I was scared to die, scared that it will hurt! I am thinking, “I do not want to die!” I looked desperately for something to grab on. I hit a little ledge. The shock threw me with head down. The carabiners on my sling made a terrible noise. I got back, with feet down again. The angle changed suddenly, from 70-75 degrees to vertical. That’s it! But within a split second, I saw a crack with a little corner ledge. I hit it with my right knee, I grabbed it and I stopped! I turned face to the rock, closed tight my eyes, and wait for Craig’s pulling shock. I knew I couldn’t stop him. There were few seconds of terror, and then I heard Craig’s voice higher up. By God he stopped, grabbing on something too! The miracle happened!
“Stay still, don’t move, I’ll put some protection!” I tell him.
“I can’t, my arm is broken! I’m going down!” he cried with terror.
“Keep tight, don’t let go! You wanna die again?” My hands were shaking, but I tried to protect myself as best I could. I put two nuts, but were not very reassuring, so I pounded them with my hammer.
“Don’t let go, Craig! Wait one more minute or we will die!” I couldn’t hide my terror, the terror of falling again.
But that was to be our lucky day. We were not bound to die. He caught a foothold, grabbed something with the other hand, released the broken one. We were saved! I tried to climb on my little lege, but I felt terrible pain in my right leg. I looked down to it and I saw it deformed. A stream of blood was running down from my knee. I couldn’t feel or move my leg. I tried to rest on my ledge as best I could; my kneecap was way up from its natural place and it hurt badly. I opened the pants cuff and I saw blooded bones. I had a knee compound fracture. The ankle looked broken too, or maybe worse. Then I looked up to my hands; they were covered with blood and dirt. I touched my body looking for more wounds, but I couldn’t find more. I heard Craig pounding a piton, and then saw him coming down to me. When he got closer I saw his right leg; the bones protruded through his socks covered with blood and dirt. His face was white and his eyes were wide open.
I think “Am I looking as he does?” How was I expecting to look after 70-meter fall!? I turned back to my ankle …
“If only I could put it back, I might be able to use my leg!” I tried that, but it didn’t work. The pain was unbearable. (Later in the hospital, I was to find that talus was broken in three pieces and the nerves were severed.)
Was clear that we were in trouble—badly injured, cold rain, and nobody knew where we were. Craig started to call for help. Hopeless! Who could hear us? Who would be wandering up here on weather like this?
“Craig, one of us has to go down!” We both agreed; no argument!
“I will go down, Craig! I must get some help! After you lower me down with the rope, you untie from the red one. I untie from blue. I will be on my own then! You should try to get to a better place, maybe to that ridge to the left. You will be more protected there, and if I make it…they might send a helicopter after you.”
“We mustn’t lose time anymore, what time is it?” asked Craig.
I looked at my watch: 1120.
I started descending! I didn’t think that we had more than 10 percent chance to get out of there alive. There were so many things which could work against us; some unknown internal injuries, difficulties of descent, hypothermia, loss of blood, lack of energy, time …“But what the hell,” I think; “It’s worth a try! At least we will die moving!”
It was to be 600 meters of struggle, 4 kilometers of torture. He lowered me down 50 meters and nothing to use for a runner. Twelve meters to my right was a little tree. “If only I could get one of its branch,” I think.
I tried many times, but it didn’t work. The ropes were one meter too short. I yelled back to Craig to untie from the red rope, and I installed my figure-eight descender on the blue rope. I tried again and I grabbed a handhold. Hanging on there, I let loose of the rope and jumped … Definitely that was to be my day. My leg was hurting bad, but I didn’t care. I made four more rappels, pushing to the right till I got on the ridge. From there down was much easier; short rappels and safe free climbing. Two hands, one leg and a lot of pain. Oh that pain! Each time the pain took my breath away, no mercy, no relief in screaming. Was cold and raining, but I was sweating. Finally I reached the base of the main wall. The running water from the face formed a little pool. I let myself fall into it, to kill my thirst. I heard Craig calling me; I hardly got what he was saying. He wanted to know what time it was. It was 1425.
“Only!? We still have chances!” Craig said.
“From here down is going to be easier,” I think.
I was wrong. I couldn’t use my hands as much as I wanted, and I couldn t grab. I tried to find a stick, but everything was rotten. There was no time to lose, so I started jumping. Oh all those sharp slippery rocks, hidden holes, windfalls, dead trees ... I fell many times, most of the time on the left side as I wanted, some of the time on the right side. And then the terrible pain ... I was tired and I wanted to sleep. Blood was still running from my knee, I couldn’t stop it. I remember all those dead climbers I had to carry down the mountains … What kept me going!? Maybe a survival instinct, a sheer will. Craig’s calls for help were fainting in the rain, farther and farther away. The night was falling fast and the road was still far
Then I heard an engine; it was like a shock. I run on one leg, I fell few times, but I didn’t feel pain. I cried for help, but the truck went by 15 meters away. I stood there powerless. With no warning another truck went by. I screamed, but no luck. I was despaired. But was still to be our day. Ten minutes later I heard another engine roaring down the road. I jumped up again and run like hell. That was a miracle. Three cars one after another on that lost road and on that kind of weather by night fall. I was not going to miss that one. In no time I was at the edge of the road, screaming. The car stopped. I saw two men and two women coming out. I saw their eyes the way I looked, but I didn’t care. I was saved!
Craig was found by search and rescue on the same night. One hundred fifty meters from the road, he was building a fire. (Source: Personal letter from Frank Wells)
(Editor’s Note: The wording in the letter is essentially unchanged except for spelling and indicating which climber said or thought the various quotes.)
Each year there are a few situations where climbers survive through strength of will that exceeds the bounds of physical capabilities. Frank Wells made two other statements worth quoting. One was to a newspaper reporter, to whom he said, “I thought I’m not going to die in the United States, now that I’ve made it there.” Another was at the end of his letter, written nine months after the accident: “My love for climbing is stronger than ever now.” (Source: J. Williamson)