FALLING ROCK, NO HARD HAT
California, Kings Canyon National Park, North Dome
In mid-June, we—Brandon Thau (23), Matthew Pollard (24), and Jennifer Pollard (25)—completed a new route up North Dome, topping out around 4:00 p.m. The climb had involved hanging bivouacs. After repacking the bags, we started our descent. We started heading in the direction of the descent gully, but it was slow going with Grade VI haul bags. We were forced to bivy. We didn’t have much food, but had plenty of water.
We started the next day by scouting for the best way to achieve the descent gully with minimal rappels and exposure. With the burden of large packs, we were forced to do a handful of short rappels. It was during one of these rappels that the accident occurred.
Before every rappel, we would clear the loose rocks and debris from the area around the rope and anchor to minimize the risk of falling rocks while we rappelled. After the third rappel, I dropped my pack and hiked up a little to reduce rope drag when I pulled them. I don’t remember how much—if any— of the rope I pulled before a rock whacked me in the head. I was on a little ledge and when the rock hit me, I went flying—and began yelling. A plethora of small bushes cushioned my landing. Brandon and Jennifer heard me. Brandon immediately started running to help me while Jennifer went for the first aid kit. While Brandon was scrambling up to me, he was asking me my name, his name, my birthday, where we were, if I could feel my fingers and toes, if I could see him clearly. Luck was on my side, because I could answer all those questions correctly.
There was a lot of blood, but direct pressure stopped the bleeding, and it was determined that I only had a flesh wound. I was able to scramble down to the packs by myself. After dressing the laceration, the bandage was held in place by my helmet. I descended without a pack, letting Brandon and Jennifer shuttle the gear. About an hour after the incident, I felt strong enough to carry my pack. We arrived at our cars about 4:00 p.m.
Be skeptical of descents that you do not have first-hand knowledge of. Take your time—even if it means putting down the packs and scouting.
Even though we took utmost care to clear away potentially dangerous rocks from the rappel anchors, we didn’t follow our own rule of wearing helmets. All three of us wore them on the ascent. Why not the descent? We assumed the descent was going to be safe and worry free. After all, we have been rappelling since the first day we climbed! The damage would surely have been less if my helmet had been on my head rather than in my pack.
The final take-home message is to be ready for accidents. Be familiar with first aid and always carry a first aid kit—or know how to improvise if the unfortunate situation arises whereby you are the one between your partner and the Grim Reaper. (Source: Edited from a report submitted by Matthew Pollard)