FALL ON ROCK, HELMET NOT SECURED PROPERLY
Colorado, Boulder, First Flat Iron
It was June 8. We had been working hard the last few months, warming up for our annual trip to Chamonix. We had decided to have an easy day on the First Flatiron. The easiest route on the formation is Bakers Way. After a 40 foot section of steep 5.4, the route is basically a hike until it intersects with the other east face routes above Junction Knob. Since the first pitch was the only climbing on the route and since 5.4 is well below what Debbi has been leading, she took the lead. The first pitch is the only interesting part of the route until the North Arrete. We put on our helmets. Hardly anyone we see climbing on the Flatirons wears them. We do. Because it was going to be a hot day, Debbi put a bandanna visor under hers so that it was not completely snug. She’ll never do that again. Had it been snug, her head injuries would have been much less severe. She began the little 40-foot head wall. She got up to the first step and seemed a bit unsure but moved on up anyway. I considered calling her back and leading it myself, but decided to let her work it out. The first opportunity for protection was about 20 feet off the deck. She had made two steps and was standing on the edge of her right shoe (I had told her not to do this) when it let go. I saw nothing that looked like an attempt to catch herself with hands or feet. For an instant, she had rolled sideways and started down the rock and out of sight. My recollection is in slow motion with a feeling of disbelief both at the fall itself and at her not appearing to fight it. The angle of the fall and the lack of protection meant that there was a lot of rope out. So, I started immediately to reel in rope hand over hand. I heard rustling but no sounds from her as she fell. When the rope finally came taut, it burned through my hands for a few feet; then, silence.
Without untying, I ran down to where she was lying, about 30 feet below me. In all, it seemed that she fell about 50 feet. I began screaming for help and rescue. She was lying on her left side, head down. She was unconscious. The sound of her breathing indicated an obstruction. My first thought was that her orthodontic plate was in the air passage. Her face was a mass of blood and I could see a very large knot forming on the right side of her forehead and extending back under her helmet which had been pushed back. Without thinking about possible neck injuries (big mistake), I cradled her head and began trying to open her mouth to remove the orthodontic plate. She became so animated later on that it’s questionable whether I could have prevented her from moving if I had tried. Her jaw was clenched and it took me several minutes to open her mouth and get the plate out. I had visions of losing a finger in the process. By the time I got it out, she had started to come around. It turns out that the obstructed breathing was a result of nose and facial blows.
At this point, a medical student from Denver GH showed up along with two hikers. The hikers helped gather up the gear and the medical student and I worked with Debbi to get her out up to the trail. Her pupillary reflexes were uniform but she was essentially oblivious. There were no indentations in the skull and no blood in her ears. We got her out of her harness and left the gear for the hikers to collect. Between us, myself and the medical student, we got her to walk up the gully to the trail and down the trail to just below the rock steps, probably 100 yards in all. The fact that she could walk and actually negotiated the rock steps is absolutely amazing! I have no exact idea of the elapsed time for all this, but it probably took nearly half an hour, maybe longer.
An EMT crew arrived and started administering IV and oxygen. She fought the oxygen nostril feed and the mask. No doubt the nostril feed was ineffectual anyway since her nose was completely clogged with blood. It wasn’t until she was in the Stokes and immobilized that we could keep the oxygen on her. The Rocky Mountain Rescue team showed up with the Stokes and an inflatable immobilization bag. Debbi managed to stand up and walk over to the Stokes and lie down. But then, as she was strapped in, she became increasingly more combative. Since she was face up, sunshine was a nuisance, so I put her sun glasses on her. This seemed to help. Because it was a warm day, her combativeness increased every time she was in the direct sun. So, I got the crew to adopt the practice of making sure the rest stops were in the shade. Still, whenever we stopped, Debbi became restive. Good for her! She continued to tell me to JUST DO IT! I never found out what she wanted. I suppose it was her way of fighting the confusion and pain. This in itself was very encouraging.
The rescue team wanted to lower the Stokes down the rock spur that the rock steps go through. This meant hauling the Stokes back up the steps about fifty feet. We had actually walked Debbi too far down the trail. So, after attaching a goldline rope to the Stokes for belay purposes, we helped to raise it to the top of the rock spur and the rescue team took over. I gathered up our gear and started down the trail. At this point, the medical student pointed out that I had sustained a pretty severe rope burn on my right hand. He had a small first aid kit, so I put a piece of gauze on and went on, handling the rope on the back belay, etc. It wasn’t until late Sunday while in the ICU that one of the ICU staff noticed it and I actually got it dressed. By then it had gotten close to being a real problem. I guess the belay must have helped a bit after all if the severity of the wound is any indication of the force absorbed.
Because of the trail’s circuitous route, we arrived at the bottom of the rock spur (actually the gully east of it) where it crosses the switchbacks just as the team and the Stokes arrived. At this point, the lowering was over and the belayed carry stage commenced. Six people supported the Stokes and someone managed the IV. I took the rope at the front near Debbi’s head; numerous others assisted in providing a back belay for the Stokes. All the way down the hill, Debbi protested. She kept cursing, demanding that we let her stand up, and screaming. Actually, in order to keep some kind of link to her consciousness, I used this behavior. I instructed her to scream when I told her to. So, all the way to the ambulance, I’d say, “Scream,” and she would. I didn’t know she had that kind of volume! She also never indicated any nausea or dizziness... usually a good sign with a head injury. Once we had crossed the talus fields, a fat tire was attached to the bottom of the Stokes so that it could be rolled. From there, the trip to Blue Bell parking lot took fewer than five minutes.
The ambulance left and I was taken in one of the Ranger vehicles directly to Boulder Community Hospital, gear and all. About 1500, a Dr. Bowles, neurosurgeon, came out and said that the CT scan was negative: no subdural hematoma, the biggest worry. Bad news was that Debbi had a skull fracture and a broken clavicle (three pieces) and scapula.
We later found out she had broken her wrist and cracked her right orbit, too. One week later, she was home and looking forward to a near complete recovery, albeit a lengthy one.
The fall should never have occurred. When I saw uncertainty, I should have pulled Debbi off the pitch and led it myself. It probably would have been more effective if I had taken up the slack by running headlong up the hill from the belay and let the belay device catch the fall. The hand over hand technique didn’t help much.
Helmets are made to be worn snug to the cranium, not “sort of on top of the head.” Wearing a bandanna or other paraphernalia under a helmet just means that it can be knocked out of place when you most need it.
I should NEVER have moved Debbi without immobilizing her spinal column. We were lucky. The “shout line” down the mountain definitely works. People know how to pass along the alarm.
Rocky Mountain Rescue will be getting some more donations. (Source: G. N. Jones)
(Editor’s Note: The reporter of this incident gives us a good narrative description of the aftermath. However, he raises a question in the opening of his analysis. How many of us would “pull” our partner off if he/she seemed hesitant? What is a reasonable way to resolve such an issue ?)