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Protection Came Out — Fall on Rock, California, Yosemite Valley, Cookie Cliff

PROTECTION CAME OUT—FALL ON ROCK

California, Yosemite Valley, Cookie Cliff

On July 14, Darko Dular (33), of Zagreb, Croatia, received fatal injuries in a fall on the Hardd climbing route at Cookie Cliff.

Hardd is a two-pitch free climb, rated 5.11b, that starts from a ledge approximately 10 feet above a rocky, steeply sloping hillside. The first pitch follows the right side of a narrow pillar, 20 feet high, then continues up a hand crack that splits a small roof 30-35 feet above the belay. The climbing is moderate to the roof, but passing the roof involves difficult moves.

With his partner, Elvir Sulich (25), belaying at the base of the route, and the third member of their group, Ivica Matkovich (34), watching, Dular led to the top of the pillar. He stood on the pillar and placed his first piece of protection, a camming device just above his head. This piece was a European four-cam model with a flexible stem and no sling, slightly larger than a #2 Camalot. He did not use a quick-draw with this piece, but clipped the rope directly to it with a carabiner.

Then he climbed higher, placed a #2 Black Diamond Camalot about three feet above the first piece, clipped the rope to it with a four-inch quick-draw, and climbed another three feet or so to the small roof. At that point he decided he did not have the correct protection for the climbing above, so he backed down to the Camalot, intending to hang there while he hauled up the equipment he needed.

He clipped a short sling directly from his harness to the Camalot and leaned back on it. Sulich was not supporting any of Dular's weight with the belay line. Ten to fifteen seconds later, both pieces suddenly pulled out and Dular fell backward. His foot struck the rock pillar as he fell past it, tipping him over. He fell head first through a small tree at the base of the route and into the rocks below the belay ledge, stopping about 20 feet down the slope. The total fall distance was about 50 feet.

While Sulich kept Dular in place with the rope, Matkovich and some nearby climbers ran down to him. He was breathing but unconscious, and bleeding heavily from head wounds. One climber ran ahead 200 yards to his vehicle and drove two miles to the Arch Rock entrance station for help while the rest carried Dular to the road.

NPS rangers, the AMR ambulance, and the AirMed helicopter got Dular to Doctor's Hospital in Modesto two and a half hours after the accident. He remained unconscious, with serious head injuries, for several days, and finally succumbed on July 23.

Analysis

Dular had been climbing regularly for 10-15 years and led 5.12a; he had extensive experience in rock climbing and mountaineering, mostly on European limestone, but also including the Nose on El Capitan, a route on Half Dome, and several other Yosemite routes. Both of his partners were competent climbers. We have no explanation for the Camalot failure, unless a) Dular was satisfied with a marginal placement, or b) he inadvertently grabbed its trigger and released it. This is possible even with all of his weight on the device, though more likely if his weight were partially supported by his feet on the rock.

A properly placed camming device should not fail under the circumstances described by Sulich. While we have no direct evidence, the most likely explanation is that Dular made two inadequate placements. This is hard to understand, however, because he was competent, he seemed cautious and aware of the need for adequate protection, solid placements were available, and he could visually inspect each one.

Should Dular have placed his first protection below the top of the pillar? Climbers say that the placements there are poor and the climbing easy and secure, so they wait to place good protection above the pillar. However, the fact that the landing spot is well below the belay means that the first protection must guard against a serious ground-fall.

Dular was not wearing a helmet. It might not have saved his life, but certainly would have increased his chances. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)