AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Protection Pulled Out, Fall on Rock, Inadequate Self-Belay (Slack in Rope), California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan



California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On Tuesday, October 13, 1992, Mark Ousley (32) began a roped solo ascent of the Shield (VI 5.9 A3). That day he climbed another party’s fixed lines to Heart Ledge and then climbed the pitch to Mammoth Terrace, where he spent the night. He was belaying himself with the Solo Aid device (made by Rock Exotica). This device, intended primarily for aid climbing, requires that the rope be manually pulled through it.

Wednesday morning he started up the eleventh pitch of the Shield, a mostly low- angle, easy free pitch with a steeper 5.9 section near its top. Just below the 5.9 section Ousely gave himself ten to 15 feet of slack, so that he would not have to readjust the rope until he was past the hard moves. He also placed two secure Friends and distributed the load between them with a sling. He moved up a few feet and placed a #0.5 Lowe Tri-Cam in a piton pocket and yanked on it a couple of times, to set it. The piece looked marginal but he felt it would catch and hold if it shifted.

Although he had intended to continue free-climbing, the next moves looked harder than he wanted to do, so he decided to pull himself up on the Tri-Cam and then go free again. He looked down and saw that the two Friends were only about four feet below him; despite the low angle wall below, he felt his protection was adequate, so he put his weight on the Tri-Cam. As he did so, it pulled out. The fall should have been a short one, but he had neglected to reduce the slack in his rope before making the aid move; he fell about 25 feet, striking a small ledge with his left foot just before he stopped.

He knew immediately that his foot was injured. He removed his shoe and saw that the foot was severely deformed and bleeding— almost certainly he had an open fracture or dislocation. He could lie down where he was, so he did so and raised his leg to slow the bleeding.

Two climbers on the Salathe route witnessed the fall. They rappelled two pitches to Heart Ledge and climbed to Ousley. The three of them managed to splint his leg with an ace bandage and a piton hammer and lower him to Mammoth Terrace (about 35 feet). Meanwhile the NPS was notified by climbers at the base of the wall. Ranger Kelly McCloskey rappelled to Mammoth Terrace from the park helicopter, dressed and splinted Ousley's leg, and short hauled him to the Valley floor under the helicopter. At the medical clinic he was found to have suffered a severe, open, subtalar dislocation with some probable small fractures. Repairing it will require at least three operations, but he is expected to regain almost all function.


At the time of his accident, Ousley had nine or ten years of climbing experience, led 5.10 A3 or better, and had previously climbed six Grade VI routes on El Capitan, including a solo ascent of Tangerine Trip. Ousley feels that he was not being too hasty with his climbing but rather too confident (although the distinction may be a narrow one). He had not forgotten the slack in his rope when he checked his protection, but neglected to readjust it before weighting the marginal piece. He was experienced with the Solo Aid, having used it on two other Grade VIs and having had previous falls successfully arrested by it.

During his recovery Mike Ousley sent me additional information regarding his accident. I have transcribed it, with minor editing, below:

It is important to understand that, regardless of the system used, a much greater distinction exists between ‘free’ and ‘aid’ when roped-solo climbing than with the conventional two-person system. Because of the relatively slow and predictable movement of climbing on aid, belaying can be more easily managed by the soloing leader, especially considering the hands-free status that can be obtained at nearly every protection point along the pitch. Conversely, during free climbing, the leader moves much more quickly, one or both hands may be occupied through sections of the pitch, and slack may need to be taken in and let out. Simply put, it is much easier to solo climb at one’s limit on aid than free.

When big-wall climbing, the leader may switch between aid and free in a single pitch, or may employ the so-called ‘French-free’ technique—using free-climbing gear for resting in or ascending difficult sections without the usual ensemble of aid-specific gear. So there exists a point where the big-wall leader is neither exclusively free climbing or aid climbing, but going French-free because the terrain may be judged too difficult to free climb or can be more expediently ascended using this technique.

As a soloist I believe I could have reduced or eliminated my injury in one of the following ways: (1) By not employing French-free technique and by treating the pitch, or at least the difficult section, as Al. (This is not always possible, depending on available protection.) (2) By equipping myself more for a free pitch, and not (or less) specifically for aid climbing. For example, wearing free-climbing footwear, carrying a chalk bag, choosing the most modern and lightweight equipment to protect the next pitch, considering all other ways to lighten the leader's load such as leaving hammer and pitons in haulbag, using nine or ten mm haul line, etc. (3) By selecting an aid-climbing route that contains the least amount of free climbing (and the easiest). (Source: Kerry Maxwell, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)