FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE BELAY – ROPE TOO SHORT, INATTENTION
California, Yosemite Valley, Manure Pile Buttress
I’d like to say it was a cold, blustery, winter day and our heads were foggy and our brains numb from the bitter temperatures. And I’d like to blame that on our accident, but I can’t. It was, in fact, May 25, a beautiful, warm and sunny day, and we had finished climbing After Six to the top of Manure Pile Buttress, quite pleased with ourselves.
We had enjoyed a shower and dinner and were headed to camp to meet friends when Marcus suggested we go back to Manure Pile for “one more climb” on the first pitch of After Seven (5.7). We had been eyeing the route for awhile, and were feeling heady after our day. I had reservations, because it was late and I was relaxed, but Marcus was feeling strong and I was easily swayed, being a bit feverish about the challenge, myself. What doubts I had I kept to myself as we drove to the climb.
Once at the base, he asked to go first. I positioned myself as belayer and watched as he skillfully and confidently led the pitch. The daylight was waning, and I really wanted my turn—I intended to practice placing pro with a top rope, so I told him, “Hurry up and come down so I can climb, too.” I had no idea how quickly he would be heeding my words.
At the top of the climb, he set up a rappel and threw the rope down. I told him the rope ends didn’t touch the ground. He said, “You’ll have to belay me, then.” Neither of us caught the ridiculous notion that our single 50-meter rope would somehow grow longer with me belaying rather than him rappelling.
I lowered him slowly, stopping him at each piece and watching intently as he cleaned his pro. When he was about 75 feet above me, he said, “Lower me faster,” so I pulled the lever on the Gri-Gri. The end of the rope shot out of my hand, through the device, and flew up the wall. I shouted to Marcus to grab the pro, the rope, anything, but as he heard me, he began to fall, and there was no way to grab anything but air at that point.
I will never forget him falling as long as I live. It was like watching a slow motion movie: every nuance, every direction he turned, every spin of his footwork, I saw with infinite clarity. I ran over to where he was falling and stood there with my arms stretched out. I have no idea what I was thinking. I’m sure it was simply a subconscious reaction. He began to pitch head first toward the ground and I just knew he was going to die. If my guts had sunk any lower, they would have been buried in the dirt.
I don’t remember Marcus hitting the ground. I don’t remember him hitting me, but I wound up on the ground, crawling over to him, and a deep bone bruise appeared on my arm two days later where he hit it. In fact my entire body was wracked, as if I had been torqued suddenly, in one big twisting motion, by his impact.
I made sure Marcus had no problems breathing, then I ran out to the parking lot and got someone to call for help with a cell phone. The rescue team had Marcus out quickly and down to his own hospital in Modesto (where we both worked in the ER). Marcus was extremely lucky. He had fractured his right heel (a horrible fracture), two vertebrae, and his right elbow, and the skin had literally shredded off of his hands as he tried to grab at anything while coming down. Thank God he never hit his head, because he was not wearing a helmet. He has recovered remarkably well, armed with a healthy body and a will of iron. He is ready to climb again, and can’t wait to get back on the rock. I’m more spooked than he is, and amazingly enough, he wants to climb with me again!
Marcus (33) and I (35) have been climbing for several years, although we have both been leading for only one season, at the 5.6–5.7 level. We are extremely safety conscious and always double check everything as we’re setting up anchors, before we rappel, etc., but we lacked experience retreating from longer single pitches. Ironically, we were going to take an intermediate rock course in the Valley the next day because we felt our ability to physically climb had outstripped our knowledge of safety techniques.
Despite our careful attitude, a really horrible accident happened that could have easily been prevented. Had either of us recognized that the rope wasn’t long enough, Marcus could have walked off the top. Had I tied a knot in the end of the rope, or tied myself to it, it wouldn’t have gone through the Gri- Gri. Finally, I think that, on some level, our brains had turned off when we had eaten and showered, and then, racing against dark, tried to cram in one more pitch. If there is one lesson learned the hard way that applies to any sport, it’s “When you’re done, you’re done.”
I still feel foolish in telling this story. I thank God that Marcus is alive and well, although it was a long and painful recovery for him. His injury will undoubtedly plague him on some level forever. I’m still quite skittish on the rock, and have had a rather prolonged mental recovery myself. It has changed both of us forever. If I could turn back time, I would in a heartbeat. (Source: Suzanne Johnson, MD)
(Editor’s Note: Lest the reader think, “This will never happen to me, ” mistakes like this occur with climbers of all skills levels.)