American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Falling Rock

California, Yosemite Valley

  • Accident Reports
  • Author: John Dill
  • Accident Year: 1984
  • Publication Year: 1985

At 0030 on August 9, 1984, Todd Mazzola (22) and Michael Dougherty (22) reported that they, their climbing partner, Craig Thomas (26) and a separate climbing party, Paul Augustine (40) and Eric Hutchinson (20), were sleeping on Dinner Ledge on the South Face route of Washington Column when rockfall landed on them.

During the afternoon the climbers had observed other persons climbing the South Face above them, apparently attempting to reach the summit that day After retiring, Dougherty noticed small quantities of gravel falling on Dinner Ledge from above, possibly dislodged by the climbers above.

The climbers lay down to sleep about 2045. At 2215 Dougherty heard a “thud noise” followed by a shower of gravel. He and the other climbers scrambled to the wall side of Dinner Ledge to reduce their exposure to the rockfall. After a time period, described by the involved parties variously as 20 seconds to five minutes, it was noticed that Hutchinson had not moved from his sleeping position. Dougherty and Augustine examined Hutchinson, who was lying in a prone position on top of his sleeping bag. A wound described as an abrasion with surrounding “stretched skin” was noticed on the left side of Hutchinson’s lower back. Hutchinson was unresponsive and, it became quickly apparent, not breathing. Dougherty, trained as an EMT, also determined that the victim did not have a radial pulse. No signs of animation were displayed by the victim. Their efforts at CPR were in vain, so they rappelled off to inform the Park Service, who effected a rescue and recovery by 0930. (Source: J. R. Tomasovic, Ranger, Yosemite National Park.)

Analysis

The party above was, as an interview with them indicated, trying to be careful. They were climbing at night on rotten stuff. While the possibility of being hit was a longshot, it underscores the seriousness of rockfall and abolishes the myth of “solid Yosemite.” There were three other rockfall accidents this year, all of which could have been fatalities. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park.)

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