FALL ON ROCK, PLACED INADEQUATE PROTECTION
California, Yosemite Valley
On June 3, 1985, Joseph Palmer (23) was killed when he took a leader fall on Aftershock. Palmer had selected Aftershock (5.11b) because he was currently working on leading at that difficulty and he had heard that Aftershock was well protected. It was to be the first climb of the day, followed by one or more 5.10 pitches that his partner, Ruth Galler, would lead.
Belayed by Galler, who was anchored to three solid Friends, Palmer climbed about two meters up to a horizontal crack, where he placed a Friend. He then hand-traversed right and up to a small sloping pocket and placed a stopper nearby. At this point the route became a finger-tip undercling/layback in a small crack at the back of a left-facing corner that arched up, then left, almost forming a shallow ceiling, before it turned up again, to form a shallow letter “s.”
Palmer climbed along this corner, placing two more stoppers. Then, worried that the first two stoppers would cause rope drag by the time he reached the crux by constraining the rope to the “s” pattern, he downclimbed and removed them. He climbed one meter beyond his one remaining stopper and reached the crux section, where the corner turned up again. He placed another stopper here and moved a couple of feet beyond it. He was perhaps ten meters above the belay.
Up to now he had been climbing well and had not indicated any problem to Galler. However, the crux required a very strenuous, off-balance, finger-tip layback without much friction under foot, and she could see that he was having trouble keeping his left foot from slipping off the face. She knew it would be hard for him and that he might fall, so she had given him as little slack as possible; nevertheless, when he did fall she felt the two top pieces of protection (stoppers) pull. She hauled as much rope as possible through her Figure-of- Eight and held the fall without incident.
The fall had been caught by the Friend just above her (the only remaining piece of protection) and Palmer was hanging ten or more meters below her. He seemed to be hanging upside-down but, because of a bulge in the rock, she could only see his feet. He wasn’t moving.
Since Aftershock started from a ledge about 30 meters above the ground, Galler knew she had to lower Palmer ten meters, but she could not see what obstacles lay below, so she called to two climbers preparing for a route about 30 meters to the east. They arrived below Palmer about four minutes later. Galler lowered him down, then unroped and scrambled down the approach path. She called other climbers over, then drove to the Arch Rock entrance station to report the accident. Meanwhile the climbers on the scene checked Palmer; they found major damage to his head and no vital signs. It appeared he had died instantly from striking his head. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
Cause of the protection failure: It appears that both stoppers were marginal placements. There was no structural failure of the stoppers or their swaged cables, or of the carabiners or slings attaching them to the rope. All of these components were still on the rope, undamaged, after the fall. The fresh scratches on both stoppers are quite shallow, so it is likely that neither one required much force to pull it free, and the force exerted was probably low since Palmer was close to his last piece and since the fall factor was low. The position and length of the scratches suggest that the stoppers were not “pocketed” but rather were touching rock only at high points. Finally, some of the scratches indicate that the stoppers rotated. This could be especially true of the lower of the two, since the forces on it could come from two directions. It may, in fact, have pulled first. None of this rules out the possibility that the rock fractured; however, we do not know the exact places in the crack to look for this.
Cause of marginal placements: Because when laybacking the climber is leaning out, straining, and on tenuous footing, it is inherently difficult for him to examine the crack for good placements and to evaluate the ones he has made, especially when he is placing stoppers in a crack oriented as Aftershock is. The climber must not rely simply on a sharp tug, if he can even give one, and must realize that going on optimism is an invitation to disaster. I have heard that Aftershock can be protected by one or two small Friends in pockets; however, until and unless I can talk with people who have successfully protected the pitch, I hesitate to give specific advice. I do not know exactly where Palmer placed the stoppers or what he was thinking.
Removing the first two stoppers: Had Palmer left them in he might have had to provide them with long slings to reduce rope drag, but he would have significantly increased his chances of survival. I don’t have enough information to draw firm conclusions, however.
Causes of injury: Galler does not remember seeing the position in which Palmer fell nor when he hit the rock. Since he was leaning out and straining, if his hands slipped out it was likely he would have fallen over backwards and away from the face rather than slid down it. If he slid, there were still several protrusions to flip him over. The cliff is not vertical there and the ledge three meters below the belay is perhaps three meters farther out than the point of fall. It’s most likely that he was unable to clear that and struck it directly with his head. His sunglasses were found there, and marks suggesting an impact. A point for climbers to remember is that a face that seems steep when one is trying to climb it may not be so steep when one is falling, and any protrusion can do serious damage.
Would a chest harness have kept him upright? Although the brief force from a pulling stopper might right an upended climber, he is essentially uncontrollable until he is caught. It probably would not have helped in this case.
Would a helmet have helped? Hard to say. It might have prevented a fractured skull, but it could have caused massive c-spine fractures. This is not an argument against helmets but rather to re-emphasize the primary role of adequate protection in the rock. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger Yosemite National Park)