American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Protection Pulled Out When Weighted — Fall on Rock, Trying to Stick to a Schedule — California, Yosemite National Park, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000


California, Yosemite National Park, El Capitan

Craig (25) had several years of free climbing experience but little with aid. On May 29, he and his partners, Brent and Dave, decided to get some practice by climbing the first pitch (A3) of the Sea of Dreams, a Grade VI route on El Capitan.

Craig led 30–40 feet up a crack system a few feet right of a right facing corner, and placed a cam at his high point. The Sea of Dreams crack lay about 15 feet further right, with no way to climb across, so a pendulum was in order. He was able to place a small nut a couple of feet to his right, as a pivot point; then Brent lowered him from it until he could swing over to the route, where he clipped his etrier to a fixed copperhead and started up the crack.

Craig climbed two more fixed copperheads, putting him a little above the level of his pivot point, now 15 feet or so to his left. He didn’t trust the fixed pieces so he hadn’t clipped his rope through them, but the next placement looked solid. He top stepped his etrier and was about to place a piece when the copperhead supporting him blew out. He fell straight down and then pendulumed left, pulling out his pivot, the small nut. Brent and Dave watched as he continued swinging left, now supported by the cam. He smashed into the right facing corner with his right shoulder and then his helmet and went limp, but by the time Brent had lowered him 20 feet to the ground, he was beginning to regain consciousness. Dave ran down to the road to find someone with a cell phone.

The Park Service got the call at 7:15 p.m., and the first rescuers reached the scene 30 minutes later—about an hour after the accident. They immobilized Craig in a vacuum body splint and a litter, and carried him half a mile down the talus to the ambulance. It was well after dark now, but a med-evac helicopter was able to land at the park’s heli base and fly Craig to a Fresno hospital, where he was treated for torn shoulder ligaments, a scalp laceration, and a concussion. His shoulder will take several months to heal. He still doesn’t remember the copperhead failing or his collision with the wall, but he credits his helmet with preventing a serious head injury.


Craig was concerned about a swinging fall, but wasn’t able to place more protection across the traverse. At least he recognized the risk and made a conscious choice. Many climbers don’t understand how dangerous even a short pendulum can be, especially when you strike a corner. Craig’s case illustrates the problem: He hit the wall with approximately the same force as if he’d fallen an equal distance vertically to the ground, but instead of landing on his feet, he took the impact on his side.

Craig might have protected against the pendulum fall by adding a second belay line, as follows: He ties into their second rope. Dave (the third partner) belays him from a well anchored position, on the ground, to Craig’s right (or places a solid directional at that point and belays from any position). This rope would not run through any of the primary rope’s protection. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger)

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