American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fall on Slick Rock, Haste—Appointment at the Bar, "Failure to Recognize The..."

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Author: Tom McMillan
  • Accident Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1996

Tim Sell and I had just finished climbing Mescalito (VI 5.9 A4) on El Capitan. It was Halloween evening. Although it was getting late, we thought we could make it down the rappels to the bottom of the East Ledges before it got dark.

We repacked our loads frantically, inadvertently burying our headlamps inside the haul bags. We had an appointment in a bar for 7 p.m.! We wanted to have more than a few beers with two climbers who had been a day ahead of us on Mescalito. As it turned out, it got dark more quickly than we expected. Rain seemed to be coming from the west, and we were having difficulty following the cairns in the light of a half-moon behind thin clouds.

At one point, we were just to the side of the actual trail and had to descend a not very steep, but very slick, slab. As Tim slid down the slab, he had his hand on his haul bag, which was sliding down the slab just beside him. I slid down more to the left, with my haul bag still on my back. I was immediately going faster than I had anticipated I would, and a big crack and ledge in the slab was coming up quickly. I tried to use my feet and hands for friction to slow down, but as soon as I did that—snap!! I yelled, “Compound fracture,” even before I looked down at my twisted lower leg to see the huge bulging area about four inches above the ankle.

Tim did a great job splinting the leg with tubing from one of the portaledges. We had to stay put for the night. Since I was showing symptoms of shock he was afraid to leave me alone. Also, we decided it wasn’t a good idea for him to try to find his way down the descent in the dark since he’d never been down the East Ledges before. At first light, Tim finished the descent and got help. I was shorthauled (helicopter) down to El Cap meadow about 2:00 p.m., and eventually ended up being helicoptered to Modesto to get a piece of hardware implanted in my leg.

My heartfelt gratitude to the Yosemite SAR Team for their excellent work, in a time when I imagine they are really strapped financially. Also, thanks to the Medi-Flight folks who got me to Modesto for emergency surgery in poor weather conditions.

Chalk up another one for ANAM; never thought it could be me! I’m still trying to figure out how it will read: “Failure to recognize the…” (Source: Tom McMillan, 39)

(Editors Note: As we were going to press, we received four incident reports from Joshua Tree National Park, all of which are included in the data. Nina Burnell, NPS Ranger there, reported that one serious head injury was the result of mixing climbing with drinking, and that a high percentage of the rescues in JTNP are the result of inexperience and of not preparing for the descent.)

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