FALL ON ROCK – MISJUDGED PENDULUM
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On June 28, Mario (42), Peter (30), and Gilbert (40), all from Austria, were in their second day on the Nose (34 pitches, VI 5.11 A2), and preparing to make the King Swing—the long pendulum left from Boot Flake (pitch 18). Peter led across, followed by Gilbert. Mario let out the haulbag, and then it was his turn to follow.
Mario’s pendulum rope led left to where Peter and Gilbert waited at the next belay. As he rappelled on his back rope down the left side of the Boot (a bootshaped flake roughly one half pitch in length), the pendulum rope began taking his weight and swinging him slowly to the left. When he thought he had swung far enough across, he released one end of his back rope, letting it pull through its anchor. No longer restrained by this rope, he expected to continue swinging gently left on his pendulum rope until he was directly below his partners.
Mario quickly found that he had underestimated the remaining distance and, therefore, the speed of his swing. Furthermore, the wall here is not flat, but dips into a shallow open book hiding a corner that he hadn’t expected. Striking the corner started him spinning. As his pendulum continued, he reached out to the wall with his left hand to stop the spin, but the impact on his arm broke both bones in his forearm near the wrist.
His partners lowered him several meters to a ledge. Then Peter came down, examined the wrist, wrapped it with an elastic bandage and gave him some pain medication.
Mario claimed that he had not hit his torso or his head and had not been unconscious. However, the distracting pain in his wrist had made him seem confused for a few minutes, so his friends were worried that he might not be aware of internal injuries. They felt they should not risk rappelling to die ground with him (about 1500 feet, with more than a dozen rappels and several hanging belays), so one partner rappelled alone with two of their three ropes, thinking that would be the quickest way to get help.
The reporting party contacted the NPS at approximately 12:30 p.m., stating his concern that Mario may have been briefly unconscious. Several rescue team members were flown to the summit in the NPS helicopter while others, using a loudspeaker and telescope from the Valley floor, confirmed that Mario was currently conscious and alert. Nevertheless, the NPS requested a hoist equipped UH 1N Huey helicopter from Lemoore Naval Air Station. If his partner’s concern proved true and Mario’s condition worsened, the Huey would be able to hoist him directly from the wall. (Because the helicopter’s rotor blades would have to be fairly close to the cliff at that location, NPS flight safety policies precluded a direct helicopter approach unless Mario began to show evidence of a more serious injury.)
The summit team lowered a Park Medic about 1500 feet to the scene. She confirmed that Mario’s injury appeared limited to his forearm and that he could be hoisted by his harness, without a litter. The Navy aircraft was released from the rescue. Rescuer and patient were hauled to the top and flown down to the Yosemite clinic just before dark, where Mario’s fractures were confirmed. (Nine months later, his wrist still lacked its normal range of motion and will probably require further surgery.)
Mario was very experienced and had dealt with pendulum traverses before. In this case he simply misjudged his speed. Whenever possible, let yourself across the traverse under complete control, until you are fully supported by the next anchor.
Mario’s party may not have realized that, with El Capitan’s excellent acoustics, yelling for help is often faster than rappelling.
In hindsight, Mario could probably have descended the wall with his partners. Since they were right on the Nose rappel route, this may have gotten him down faster than the NPS could have rescued him. However, his partners’ concerns about internal injuries were reasonable, and moving him themselves may have worsened a hidden injury. It can be a difficult decision to make; but the self rescue option may be mandatory in a more remote setting. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
(Editor’s Note: For more about pendulums, see CA incidents on May 29 and June 4 in this issue of ANAM, and also Coe, Half Dome, in ANAM 1998.)