American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Equipment Failure — Homemade Rivet Hanger, Fall on Rock, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

EQUIPMENT FAILURE—HOMEMADE RIVET HANGER, FALL ON ROCK

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On May 29, at 1430, Canadian climber John Chilton (36) started leading the A1 rivet ladder on pitch 24 of the Shield, heading for Chickenhead Ledge. At about the fifth rivet, he placed a homemade rivet hanger (a swagged loop of cable), clipped his étrier to it, and stepped up, leaving his daisy chain attached to the previous rivet, between his knees and his feet. After he had shifted his weight onto the hanger, the cable swag failed. He fell about seven feet and was caught by his daisy.

He immediately felt pain in his lower left rib cage, so severe he had a hard time breathing. He rested in his etriers for an hour and a half, hoping he could climb on, but it hurt to move and he felt a distinct protrusion in his lower chest. His belayer, Rich Prohaska, lowered him to the belay and set up their portaledge to make him more comfortable. Prohaska took the lead, but Chilton’s pain was such that he was unable to belay, so they spent the night where they were.

The next day Chilton, though still in considerable pain, belayed Prohaska up to Chickenhead Ledge. He found jumarring too painful so they decided that Prohaska would solo off and go for help.

While Prohaska was fixing pitches another party arrived at the portaledge. They offered to complete the route and get help so Prohaska could care for his buddy, but that night Proshaska and Chilton decided to flash SOS signals to the Valley floor with their headlamps. Eventually they heard rangers calling them by loudspeaker. By blinking their lights in response to the rangers’ questions, they were able to describe their problem.

The next morning, the 31st, an NPS team flew to the top of El Cap, lowered two rescuers, and raised Chilton to the summit (leaving Prohaska to jug out with a rescuer). At the Yosemite Medical Clinic he was diagnosed with a fractured rib. They taped it in place and released him (at his request) with a prescription of pain killers and instructions to watch for blood in his urine. It was a couple of weeks before he could walk normally and six or seven weeks before he could climb.

Analysis

Chilton blames his broken rib on the buckle of his harness, a common design with the buckle just left of center. It was of high quality, fit him well, and was properly cinched up, he feels. He’d taken leader falls with it before with no problems. The difference this time was most likely the high stopping force of the daisy.

With his daisy chain still attached to the previous piece, he had set himself up for a fall factor of 1.5 to 2 (depending on slack in the daisy). That’s a hard fall that requires a stretchy climbing rope to keep the forces low. Nylon webbing (e.g., Chiltons daisy) is too stiff, and spectra is even worse. In either case you may break yourself or the daisy or rip out the piece.

Often you don’t need to clip in the daisy in the first place; it only serves as a keeper for the etriers, but they are already indirectly clipped to the rope. If you do clip the daisy, clip the rope through the piece as soon as your harness is level with it, and disconnect the daisy well before it will interfere with the rope’s stretch if you fall—usually before testing the next piece. (Don’t forget to allow for slack in the rope.) Some climbers leave the daisy clipped in but rig a Screamer in series with it as a shock absorber. If you do so, make sure the Screamer is designed for the job.

Chilton’s injury was relatively minor but could have been fatal. The spleen lies directly behind the lower left ribs; had it been ruptured by the blow or later by the fractured end of the rib, he could have bled to death rapidly. (See ANAM 95, Oliver, El Capitan.) (Source: Martin Ziebell and John Dill, NPS Rangers, Yosemite National Park)

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