FALLING ROCK, FALL ON ROCK, SEVERED ROPE
California, Yosemite Valley
On May 20, 1988, around 1230, Robert Dietmar Kuhn (24) of West Germany was leading the Pancake Flake pitch just above the Great Roof on the Nose Route of El Capitan. He was being belayed by his climbing partner, Peter Cuthberston (34). According to Cuthbertson, Kuhn pulled a large block of grainte rock (pyramid shaped, about one meter in height) loose from near the top of the pitch, causing Kuhn to fall. The block of granite then apparently hit Kuhn’s belayed climbing rope and severed it. Kuhn then fell to the ground, a distance of approximately 600 meters, and was killed instantly. (Source: Robert Wilson, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
On May 22, I interviewed Peter Cuthbertson. Also present were Rangers John Dill and Kim Korthuis.
Cuthbertson said he had been in the U.S. since February 22, and he had been in Yosemite since May 6. Cuthbertson said he knew "Robbie” Kuhn from West Germany where he and Kuhn occasionally climbed together.
Cuthbertson and Kuhn had climbed the East Buttress of El Capitan together along with two other friends from West Germany.
On May 18, Cuthbertson and Kuhn fixed four pitches to the top of Sickle Ledge. They were also climbing with Manfred Koenninger up to this point. On May 19 Cuthbertson and Kuhn climbed through the first 21 pitches of the Nose Route and bivouacked at Camp 4 that night. Koenninger decided to rappel off the route because there were too many climbers above them on the same route.
On May 20 (the day of the accident), Cuthbertson led the first two pitches, including the Great Roof pitch. While Cuthbertson was belaying Kuhn through the Great Roof pitch (the 22nd pitch of the Nose Route), Cuthbertson received information from a party of German climbers who were two pitches above Cuthbertson. One of the climbers warned of a loose block of granite near the top of the Pancake Flake pitch. Cuthbertson said he suggested bypassing this loose block by using aid techniques rather than free climbing this section, which is usually done using as a lie- back. The climber told Cuthbertson that there were two loose blocks near the top of this pitch (#24 of the Nose Route).
Cuthbertson told Kuhn of the hazardous block and of the recommendation to aid climb around the blocks. As Kuhn began to lead this pitch, Cuthbertson was belaying him using a Sticht belay plate in front from his harness for better shock absorption in the event of a fall. The rear of Cuthbertson s harness was attached by carabiner and sling to the anchored bolt on the wall. Cuthbertson said Kuhn was climbing the pitch very confidently, safely and fast, but being caudous. Cuthbertson described Kuhn as being very physically fit. Kuhn climbed through the pitch aid climbing at times and free climbing at other times depending on the difficulty through each section of the pitch. When Kuhn reached the hazardous loose blocks (about one to two meters below the top of the pitch), he was free climbing rather than aid climbing as Cuthbertson recommended. Kuhn was belayed by an 11 mm purple rope that was three years old with a history of frequent weekend use. Kuhn was also attached to a yellow 9 mm rope being used as a haul rope for their additional equipment. This rope was attached to the carabiner that was attached to the same anchor as the haul bag and belay rope. The yellow 9 mm rope had a history of ice climbs and was four years old.
Cuthbertson was watching Kuhn as he placed a Friend for protection and then moved up and to the left in front of the loose block that they had been warned about. Cuthbertson said Kuhn was about “chest high” with this pyramidal shaped block. Kuhn appeared to be a litde nervous about this hazard and he started to move back down to the right to a resting place to analyze the problem.
Cuthbertson then remembers looking down toward an American party of two climbers on pitch #22. The next thing Cuthbertson remembers is hearing a noise and then getting hit “like a slap” on the shoulder by something. Cuthbertson thinks it may have been Kuhn as he fell by. Cuthbertson said he instinctively ducked into the wall at the belay station as rocks fell by and he was showered by granite dust. Cuthbertson also told us that he remembered what sounded like a rope sliding down the face of the rock about the time he felt the “slap” on the shoulder.
When the rock stopped falling, Cuthbertson looked up the pitch where Kuhn was before the rockfall. Kuhn was no longer on the face and the severed end of the purple climbing rope was directly across from him at the belay station. Cuthbertson said it was then he realized that Kuhn had fallen. He could not see Kuhn anywhere and could only assume that Kuhn had fallen to his death. He could no longer see the loose block of granite near the top of the Pancake Flake pitch.
After the accident the party below (American party) called up and asked if the falling climber was Cuthbertson’s partner and they asked if Cuthbertson was all right. Cuthbertson then yelled up to the German party above him and asked if they could lower a rope down to him so he could jumar up to their party to continue the climb so that he would not have to be rescued. Cuthbertson said one of them rappelled down to the top of the Pancake Flake pitch and lowered a rope. Cuthbertson then jumared up to Camp 5, joined the German party, and finished the climb with them. They bivouacked at Camp 6 that night. They topped out about 1400 on May 21, then hiked down the Upper Falls Trail and arrived at Sunnyside campground about 1730.
After further investigation and discussion, we were unable to determine which end of the yellow haul bag rope had been attached to Kuhn and which end had been attached to the anchor at the haul bag. One end of the rope had a carabiner that failed and the other end had a knot that failed for an unknown reason. We were able to determine that the purple haul rope was severed by the falling rock, since it had granitic dust embedded in it at the point where the rope was severed, but we were unable to determine why the yellow haul bag rope did not stop Kuhn from falling to the base of El Capitan. (Source: Robert Wilson, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)