American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: 2000
  • Publication Year: 2001

On April 24, Cam Lawson (30) was leading the sixth pitch of Iron Hawk, a Grade VI route on El Capitan. This pitch starts on the big ledge from which the El Cap Tree grows. Jason Kraus (29) was belaying from the ledge, using a GriGri clipped to his harness. He was clipped directly to the bolted anchor with his daisy chains.

After scrambling up a 4th class section, Cam made several hook moves on loose rock, then he placed some pieces to reach a crack system below a 15-foot roof. He placed a cam behind a big expanding flake, and when the piece shifted under his weight, he yelled to Jason to be “heads up” because of the unstable rock. A minute before, Jason had removed his helmet to adjust his headband and wipe the sweat from his forehead. When Cam yelled, Jason reached for the helmet but fumbled it, and it fell onto the ledge, out of reach.

Cam placed another piece behind the same flake; when he weighted it, a slab about 1 x 6 x 13 feet broke away from the flake, releasing Cam and his uppermost pieces. The falling slab hit a small ledge 20 feet above Jason and burst into fragments.

Jason saw everything coming his way and reached for the brake end of the rope, but he only had time to hunker down close to the anchor and cover his head with his free arm. He remembers being hit by at least three pieces, roughly the size of softballs, before he was knocked unconscious. When he awoke a moment later, he was hanging from his daisy chains, unable to move his arms or legs, but he recovered in less than 30 seconds.

One of their ropes was shredded by the rocks, another was cut in a few places, but the third was unscathed. The lead rope was severed five to ten feet behind the GriGri, but the device had done its job, engaging the rope automatically and stopping Cam after he had fallen 20 to 25 feet. He had only minor scrapes and contusions on his lower right leg where the loose flake had hit him while he and the flake were falling together.

Jason tied the good rope onto what was left of the belay rope and lowered Cam to the belay ledge using a Munter hitch. By rappelling on single lines and passing knots, they were able to get themselves and their gear to the ground.

The rocks had missed Jason’s head, but not his neck. X-rays at the Yosemite clinic and later at home showed that he had suffered a chipped spinous process on a cervical vertebra and a compression fracture of the T-7 vertebra. Nevertheless, he was back climbing within a couple of months.

Analysis

Thin exfoliation slabs are characteristic of granite. You can see the scars of similar rockfalls all around the Valley, and it is pretty difficult to climb walls without exposing yourself to this risk.

Jason: “The quality of granite in the vicinity of the NA Wall is relatively poor for El Cap. It’s no wonder the wall overhangs there more than anywhere else, and no wonder the roof above us was so big. I’ve heard stories of borderline epics on routes like the NA Wall, because even though the climbing is relatively straight forward, the darker dioritic rock is so loose in places that typically solid piton placements become suspect. You often have no way to judge how solid an expanding flake is. In fact, Dale Bard told me that when he did the first ascent of Iron Hawk 20 years ago, he thought Cam’s flake would fall off then. But, if you back off every time a piece shifts, you’ll never get up a wall and should probably choose a different hobby.

“A helmet definitely would have protected my head if I’d been hit there. I’m pretty damn lucky that the rocks missed my head and that they didn’t do more damage to my neck. Cam and I still ruminate over how lucky we both were...that the lead rope wasn’t cut above the GriGri, that the GriGri held, that neither of us was crushed by the rock, that we were able to get ourselves down. What a silly sport.” (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park.)

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