American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, Exceeding Abilities, California, Yosemite Valley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991


California, Yosemite Valley

On August 2, about noon, Matthew Tomlinson (28) fell while lead climbing Keystone Corner (5.8) at Five and Dime Cliff. He was flown by Helicopter 51 from the scene to the Yosemite Medical Clinic where he was pronounced dead at 1600.

An interview with his climbing partner, Denise Brown (32), revealed the following.

Brown and Tomlinson both finished their shifts at The Loft restaurant on August 1 at 2330 and went together in Brown’s car to her residence. They discussed the climb they were to do the next day and worked on some new climbing hardware of Tomlinson’s (putting tape on carabiners and cord on a crack cleaner, etc.). Brown said that she drank about 2 1/2 beers that night, and that Tomlinson drank one wine cooler, which Brown said was “not much” for him.

He and Brown arose about 0900 on the second. They spent time around the trailer, and left for the Five and Dime Cliff at 1100 in Brown’s car. In the car, Brown and Tomlinson discussed the particulars of the climb, with which they were both familiar, having done it together, with Brown leading and Tomlinson following, the previous week. Brown told me that Tomlinson insisted on leading the climb on that day, and that it was his first lead. She said that she tried twice to talk him out of leading it, but that he strongly insisted. She said, “He was gung-ho on doing it.”

They parked their car and walked down to the climb. Brown set up a belay anchor, on the tree at the base of the climb, consisting of two runners and two carabiners. She said that she set up a textbook anchor, as she felt herself to be something of an instructor to Tomlinson.

At 1200, Tomlinson started up the climb, carrying gear that belonged primarily to Brown, with some of his own. Brown said that he was “practically running up” the climb, “looking casual, looking good.” She said that he looked “relaxed.” He placed his first piece of protection, a Friend, at the second chalkstone in the crack of Keystone Corner, as he and Brown had discussed previously. Brown told me that she told him to put in a second piece two meters above the first, by standing at the second chalkstone and placing the next piece at chest height or above, but that Tomlinson continued to climb, not placing that second piece.

Brown said that she called to him as he started to ascend, telling him again to put in a piece. She said to me, “He didn’t do it. I don’t understand why... he was feeling cocky, I guess.”

Tomlinson continued to climb, and put in his second piece of protection about five meters above the first, at the place where climbers usually put in their third piece. The location of that piece is at the third chalkstone in the crack, where one has to stem to the left. Tomlinson had done that stem, and called to Brown. that he had, in her words, a “bomber cam” at that location; in other words, that he was comfortable with that piece of protection. (The piece that he placed there was in fact a Friend, not a cam, or Camalot.)

When Tomlinson was about a meter above that second piece, he fell. Brown said that she did not actually see the fall, that, “Any time someone falls, ... I concentrate on the rope.” She said that she did not know exactly how or why Tomlinson fell, but that as soon as she felt him begin to fill, she began to pull the rope through her Sticht belay plate as quickly as she could. She said that she felt him pull out his first piece of protection, at which time she realized that she could not take up the slack in the rope fast enough, and she began to pull it in hand-over-hand in a body belay, sustaining at least one rope burn on her left bicep in the process.

Tomlinson landed on a ledge below her, about three meters directly below the tree at which she had been belaying. The fall distance she estimated around ten meters. Brown went immediately to Tomlinson, and in trying to turn him over on his back, Tomlinson slid into a large crack in the ledge, with his head upside down. Brown said that because of the bleeding from Tomlinson’s head, she wanted to move him, so she went around to the base of the ledge upon which he had landed and pulled him through the crack into which he had then gone, out onto a slope. It was here that she placed him head-up, on his back.

At that time, Tomlinson was apparently not breathing, and Brown cleared a large volume of blood out of his mouth by sucking it out, then gave him artificial respirations for five to 20 minutes. (She was unsure of the length of time.) He resumed breathing on his own, and Brown ran up to the road to get help. On the road she found Kurak, who with another male, a Sean, who apparently works at the Yosemite Village Store, and Brown, went back down to Tomlinson.

Brown, Kurak, and Sean were with Tomlinson when the Park Rangers arrived on the scene. (Source: John Christiansen, Park Ranger, Yosemite National Park)


It is apparent to me that the fact that Tomlinson’s uppermost piece of protection, a #1 1/2 Friend, pulling out was the major factor contributing to the severity of the injuries that he sustained. The exact cause and mechanism of the fall are impossible to determine, due to the fact that Brown did not actually see the fall. Her instinct was apparently to look away as soon as she realized that he was falling, and her experience is that belayers often get hit in the face by falling leaders, and that she focuses her attention on the rope and not the climber.

Brown apparently made every effort possible as a belayer to stop the fall, including pulling in slack on the rope hand-over-hand in a body belay when she realized that she could not take up the slack fast enough through her belay device.

Tomlinson apparently fell from approximately one meter above the piece of protection that failed; his feet were about the level of that piece. The reasons for the piece pulling out of the crack in which it had been placed, as evidenced by its presence on the rope but not in the crack when Tomlinson was found by rescuers, are difficult to determine. Possible causes include that it may have been improperly placed, either at an improper (too shallow) angle, or in a portion of the crack that was too wide, or that the angle of pull on the piece when Tomlinson fell may not have been in line with the piece. This fact is suggested by the short distance between Tomlinson at the time of the fall and the piece.

Furthermore, the piece of protection that remained in the crack, a #1/2 friend recovered by Frank Brown and given to me, shows some evidence of having borne a load: its cam-axis piece is bowed to the point where one cam rubs against the shaft of the piece. The #1 1/2 Friend that failed shows some evidence of scraping against the cams, and no other damage. The slings and carabiners attached to both of these Friends show no damage, nor do the slings and carabiners used as a belay anchor.

The Yates Swami belt worn by Tomlinson at the time of the fall shows no evidence of failure.

John Dill’s impression is that there was so much slack after the Friend pulled that the belayer was powerless to stop the fall. (Source: John Christiansen and John Dill, Rangers, Yosemite National Park)

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