American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, Protection Pulled Out, No Hard Hat, California, Yosemite Valley, Cookie Cliff

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, PROTECTION PULLED

OUT, NO HARD HAT

California, Yosemite Valley, Cookie Cliff

On May 26, Stephen Ross (32) was mortally injured in a fall while leading Beverly’s Tower, a one-pitch 5.10a route at Cookie Cliff.

Beverly’s Tower is reached by scrambling up third-class ledges for about 100 feet. It follows a crack for about ten feet, then continues up a shallow (one to two feet deep) dihedral. There is a 5.10a crux low in the dihedral. Jason Hollinger (23), Ross’ partner, anchored himself to a fixed piton in a crack eight feet left of Beverly’s Tower and about one foot above his feet. He belayed with a Black Diamond ATC. Meanwhile two friends, Matthew Pearce and Nicola Woolfard, were 10 feet directly below the start of the route on the third class ledges, unroped, looking at other climbs.

Ross climbed 10 feet off the ledge and placed his only protection, a .75 Camalot with an attached 4-in. sling. He said he would move this piece higher as he climbed, then he began to move up into the dihedral. When the Camalot was at his waist he said, “F... me,” and fell. Hollinger felt almost no upward force as the Camalot pulled out.

Ross fell past the belay ledge, struck Pearce in the head and back, then struck a ledge with his head and was stopped by the rope after a total fall of 25-35 feet. He probably also struck the rock above Pearce, slowing himself enough that he did not knock Pearce off the wall.

Ross was unconscious and bleeding from head wounds. Hollinger lowered him three or four feet further to a large ledge, where Pearce and Woolfard could help him, then drove to the Arch Rock Entrance Station to notify the NPS. When the first rescuers reached Ross a few minutes after receiving the report, they found him unconscious and not breathing but with a strong pulse. As more rescuers arrived, paramedics stabilized him with an endotracheal tube, oxygen, IV, and spinal immobilization. He was lowered 300 feet down cliffs and scree, and flown by helicopter to Doctor’s Medical Center in Modesto. He died the next day from his head injuries.

No one saw the start of Ross’s fall (the sun was in Hollinger’s eyes), and he did not say anything to Hollinger about the quality of the Camalot placement. The crack at that point was slightly flared; if Ross had brushed the Camalot as he moved up it may have rotated upward and walked closer to the edge of the crack. When we inspected the Camalot, it showed no unusual wear and functioned perfectly. (Source: Mark Fincher, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

Analysis

According to Ross’s partner, Jason Hollinger, Ross was very experienced and led mid 5.11, A4, while Hollinger had been climbing three years and led 5.10c. They had climbed one route together previously. Recause this climb starts in steep terrain, the leader faces a serious fall almost immediately and the protection should take this into account. First, the belayer should insist on the leader placing a bombproof directional just off the ledge to establish a direction of pull. Second, the leader should attempt to place solid protection higher, not just a single piece that he/she will move, since it is the only insurance against striking the ledges below. Third, although it apparently did not play a role in this incident, trusting a single fixed piton for a belay, and one that’s only a foot off the ledge, is asking for trouble—even if it holds, the belayer may not be stable against a downward pull.

It seems obvious that wearing a helmet might have made all the difference in this situation. All these points may seem obvious after the fact, but all the shortcuts above are common. Maybe the key lesson to remember is that the mistakes were made by a climber with lots of experience - like many of us. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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