FALL ON ROCK, NO HARD HAT
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On August 16, about noon, Brian Biega (23) was leading the 6th pitch of the Salathe Wall, belayed by Andreas Zegers (24). Their goal was to make Mammoth Terrace in two hours. They had 40 minutes to go, and Biega, nearing the end of the slab section, was “French-freeing,” i.e. grabbing fixed pieces as handholds rather than free-climbing or using etriers.
Suddenly Biega called, “Watch me,” and fell. Zegers saw the rope catch behind his leg, flipping him over. Biega fell backwards, headfirst, struck his head and stopped. He was unconscious and bleeding from the back of his head. He had fallen about 20 feet and was now hanging 30 feet above and 15 feet to one side of the belay.
Zegers yelled for help, then lowered Biega on the belay line and pulled him to the anchor with the haul line. He bandaged Biega's head wound and checked his vital signs: he was still unconscious, his pulse was rapid and weak and his breathing was shallow, so Zegers worried that he might be in shock from blood loss.
They had passed a large team of Japanese climbers a couple of pitches below, and now several of them came up to help Zegers lower Biega five pitches to the ground. At about this time Biega regained consciousness, although he remained confused and vomited several times during the descent. They reached the ground at 1320.
Meanwhile one of the Japanese climbers had rappelled off the climb and notified the NPS. A ground team, the park helicopter, and a medical evacuation helicopter from Modesto all responded immediately. The ground team reached the base of the wall just after Biega did and found him conscious but disoriented. Given the likelihood of a serious head injury, he was given oxygen, immobilized, and shorthauled by the park aircraft to El Cap Meadow. About 1440 he was flown to Modesto by the Medi-Flite helicopter. Biega had suffered a skull fracture but he has recovered completely except for a large gap in his memory. He remembers grabbing a copperhead and clipping a piton driven upward, but little else until he woke up in the hospital.