FALL ON ROCK, PROTECTION PULLED, EXCEEDING ABILITIES
California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock
On October 10, Dan Goriesky (43) set out to lead Pee Pee Pillar (a one pitch,
5.10a) with his friends Josh Vendig and Randy Dewees. The rating was just above Dan’s comfort level, but the pitch was easily protected, and he had been solid on a couple of l0a’s the day before.
Dan climbed 40–50 feet up a series of cracks to the start of the thin layback that leads to the belay. He placed several pieces along the way, the last two being a #7 wired stopper near the base of the layback and a similar sized Wallnut a foot or two higher. He was concerned about the top piece but feeling good about the climb, so he continued up.
When his feet were 4–5 feet above the top piece Dan felt them start to slip, and before he could reposition them, he was off. At first he fell upright, but his feet struck something that turned him on his back, horizontal. He felt and heard gear pulling out, and, after falling 20 feet, he struck the top of a pedestal with his lower back and pelvis. He bounced off, fell another 15–20 feet and was finally stopped by the belay, three feet above a ledge and 10–12 feet above the ground. Josh and Randy said he was hanging in a horizontal, slightly head down position, at that point.
Dan was conscious but complained of pain in his back. Josh lowered him to the ground while Randy guided him down, and someone nearby called the NPS by cell phone. The SAR team arrived 20 minutes later, immobilized his spine, and carried him in a litter a short distance down to the road. The clinic staff found he had escaped with nothing more than a lower back contusion, and he has fully recovered.
The top piece had pulled out. The next one, a foot or so lower, was still in place, but the rope had unclipped from the carabiner, leaving a piece ten feet lower to stop Dan’s fall. He is pretty sure he didn’t grab the protection as he fell, so the most likely explanation for the rope unclipping is that it flipped over the carabiner’s gate as he went by; the rope can then press down on the gate, opening it and allowing the rope to slip out. This is easy to demonstrate if you hold a carabiner in your hand, although it implies that Dan’s carabiner may have been held in position against the rock somehow, despite being on a flexible quickdraw. Some leaders carry a couple of locking carabiners for such critical placements, although you can also use two regular carabiners—with gates properly reversed.
More surprising was the appearance of the carabiner after the fall: Instead of the gate swinging shut against the nose in the normal fashion, the tip of the gate had somehow swung past the nose and was now “outside” the carabiner. One possibility is that the force of the fall stretched the carabiner lengthwise; however, the body of the ’biner did not seem to be distorted. More likely, according to Chris Harmston, Black Diamond’s quality assurance engineer, is that the rope forced the gate sideways as it pulled out of the ’biner. This can slightly distort the hinge fork on the gate, allowing the gate to pass to one side of the nose as it swings shut. No stretching of the body of the carabiner is necessary, and the gate can appear almost normal afterward, but with a slightly looser hinge. (Dan’s carabiner was a Kong Bonaiti, bentgate with keylock, 22kN gate closed strength, 7 kN gate open strength.) Note that the “sprung” gate, while interesting, is more likely a result of the rope unclipping rather than the cause.
Dan was not wearing a helmet. He covered his head with his hands as he fell, and they took a pretty good blow. Helmets are more commonly worn on long climbs, but falls like this can happen anywhere. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)