American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, California, Yosemite, Half Dome

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


California, Yosemite, Half Dome

On July 5, Kibum Lee, Ken Park and I (Jaenam Coe - 35) started a two-day ascent of the Regular Northwest Face of Half-Dome (VI 5.9 A2). Lee, the leader and most experienced member, had climbed several routes on El Capitan and was going to lead all the pitches. I was the least experienced. I’d been climbing three years and had led 5.10 and some shorter aid routes but no big walls. Park and I intended to jumar most of the route and come back to climb it in the future.

We reached Big Sandy Ledge (top of pitch 17) after dark, and the next morning climbed three more pitches to Thank-God Ledge, an exposed 5.9 traverse to the left. Lee and Park belayed at the start of the traverse, but there wasn’t room for me so I waited in the comer 10-12 feet below, out of sight.

We knew traverses were tricky, so we had practiced them on short climbs and in a gym. Since I wouldn’t be able to watch my partners do this one, we talked about it before Lee started, and agreed that Park and I could follow on Jumars.

Lee led across, placing several pieces along the way. Park followed and anchored my rope, and then I climbed up to the traverse. Thank-God Ledge was about 30 feet long. At the far side the pitch turned straight up for several feet and then left again and out of sight. I couldn’t see the belay or my partners, though I could hear them.

At my end, the ledge was a couple of feet wide and looked pretty easy, but part way across it narrowed to a few inches and the main wall got steep. I felt I could make the moves, but Park had cleaned all the protection. The rope stretched across in about the 10 o’clock direction, until it disappeared around a bulge in the face 60 feet away, and I didn’t know how much farther it was to the belay. Whether I tried to crawl or walk, belayed by my Jumars, or even if Park belayed me, it seemed impossible to cross without risking a huge swinging fall. I thought Park or Lee should come part way back and place protection for me, but Park was already belaying Lee on the next pitch.

The ledge was separated from the main wall by a crack an inch or two wide, and I had a few camming units. I considered placing them ahead of me and removing them as I passed, but, in my inexperience, I thought they would break or twist out if the pull were sideways to the stem.

I was attached to my rope with my Jumars and with a knot to my harness. That left 10- 20 feet of extra rope, with which I thought I could lower myself from the anchor at the start of the traverse. The farther along the arc of the pendulum I could get before I cut loose, the more slowly I would swing, and a ledge, 12-15 feet down and left and about eight inches wide, looked like a better starting point. The wall did not seem overhanging so I thought friction would add some control; however, it curved away, preventing me from seeing what obstacles might lie further left.

I secured a small sling at the fixed anchor, ran the free end of the rope through it and through the figure-eight on my harness, and slowly rappelled with my right hand. My left foot was about three feet away from the lower ledge when I ran out of rope. I thought that if I let go and dropped a bit my foot would touch the lip of the ledge. I hollered at Park and Lee to tell me if it looked O.K., but neither could see me.

I let go. As the rope pulled through the sling, my body swung away from the rock. I missed the ledge and began flying down and left, accelerating as I approached the bottom of the swing. The wall was much steeper than I had thought and there was almost no friction.

I was facing the direction of travel and suddenly realized I was headed for a right- facing corner that I hadn’t been able to see from the anchor, fast enough to be hurt if I hit it. I extended both legs horizontally as if to land on it sideways. My feet hit together and I bounced out and around the corner to the end of my swing.

After a few oscillations and trying to slow myself with my feet and hands on the wall, I stopped, 150 feet below the belay. When I looked down, it seemed nothing lay between me and the base of the cliff. I hoped the rope hadn’t been damaged on some edge above me.

My ankles were numb, but I did not know I was hurt until I stepped into my etriers to begin jumarring and felt the pain. I managed to get up to Park’s anchor, where I wrapped an elastic bandage tightly on the right ankle. I jumarred mostly with my left leg for the next two pitches and my partners essentially hauled me up the last one. By the time I reached the summit I couldn’t stand any more and clearly wasn’t going anywhere without help.

Earlier, Lee had yelled up to a tourist on the summit to call 911 on his cell phone. Soon the NPS helicopter arrived and I was flown down to the Yosemite clinic. Surprisingly, my left ankle was fractured, not the right one, which was just badly sprained. During the next six months I moved from wheel chair to crutches to various hi-tech splints. Ten months after the accident, I’m walking fine but not yet allowed to climb.


Coe was right to be afraid of a pendulum. It's one of the most dangerous falls you can take. If you start, for example, 20 feet horizontally from your pivot point, and strike a corner at the bottom of your swing, you will hit with the same energy you’d have in a vertical fall 20 feet to the ground. The difference is your body’s orientation. When you swing, you’re more likely to strike your head, chest, and pelvis. Coe was extremely lucky that he saw the corner coming and got his feet up in time. I’ll guess that we sometimes fool ourselves because horizontal distance (to a pivot) is not as scary as vertical, to the human eye.

Here are some ways to solve traverse problems. (The best solution will depend on the geometry of the pitch, the security of the protection, the gear available, and, sometimes, whether the moves are aid or free.)

Followers: 1) Let yourself out on a cordalette or a backrope long enough for the job. (You may need the same friction control and safety backups you’d use on a vertical rappel.) 2) Place pro (bombproof!) ahead of you, cleaning it as you go. 3) If you don’t have the backrope or the pro, ask the leader to send it down. (Coe could have pulled over the end of a second line tied to his belay line, then used his original line as the backrope.)

Leaders: 1) Think about your partners as you lead. Place protection specifically for them if necessary, and make sure the critical pieces are left in place for the last climber. 2) Shorten the pitch so the angle of swing and/or the radius is acceptable. 3) Rig a second line as a top-rope, direct to the follower instead of through the protection. 4) You have as much responsibility to the follower as your belayer does to you. Don’t charge up the next pitch, leaving an inexperienced partner alone to deal with a nasty situation. Be willing to go back to fix it. (Source: Jaenam Coe and John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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