OFF ROUTE–FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT AND PROTECTION
California, Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches
Welsh climbers Dan McDonald (20) and Peris Roberts (20) started climbing Royal Arches (17 pitches, 5.9) at 1130 on August 1. The route was well within their abilities, and they finished it with no problems, reaching the patch of woods at the end of the last regular pitch at about 1830.
While looking for the 3rd class exit to the rim—a scramble up and left, then a few easy moves through summit overhangs, their attention was drawn to an obvious path descending to the left. They followed it until it dead-ended on the cliff face at the base of a slab that appeared to lead to the top. They decided to try the slab, so Peris put Dan on belay. Dan was expecting 3rd class and this looked easy, so he did not bother taking protection along or changing back into his climbing shoes.
He climbed 10-15 feet of loose 5.6-5.7—harder than he had expected, then he fell when either a hold broke off or his feet slipped. He grabbed a two-inchdiameter bush that he had used climbing up, but it came out by the roots. He took a sliding fall of about 20 feet, stopping in some tree branches ten feet below Peris. He realized right away that he had dislocated his shoulder, but nothing else seemed to be injured. He was secure where he had landed, so Peris took him off belay, scrambled down to him, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get his shoulder back into place. It was now about 1930, and an hour of daylight remained.
Dan was able to belay, so Peris took over the lead. He climbed another ramp up and left, toward the falls from Royal Arches Creek, but this was also harder than 3rd class. He did not think Dan would be able to follow, so he turned back. They considered having Peris solo up the ramp he had just explored and go for help, but they were almost out of daylight. They chose, instead, to stick together, stay where they were, and signal for help.
They tried shouting and whistle blasts in groups of three, with no luck. Finally, after several hours, they managed to alert someone on the Valley floor by using their lone flashlight and the flash on their camera. At midnight, Rangers contacted them with a loudspeaker from the base of the cliff.
Two NPS rescue team members started up the Royal Arches route at 0045 on August 2 and reached Dan and Peris an hour and a half later. They helped Dan up the correct Class 3 route to the rim and made camp. In the morning he was flown out by the park helicopter, and his shoulder dislocation was reduced at the Yosemite clinic.
Dan feels he could have finished the pitch if he had taken his gear; instead, he was essentially climbing unroped—a pretty common scenario behind climbing accidents in the park. With the climb “over,” expecting 3rd class, and close to dark, the failure to recognize changing circumstances (known as “situational awareness”) can probably take credit for another victim. In addition, a little more exploration before committing to that slab would have uncovered the normal 3rd class exit indicated in the guidebook.
Dan and Peris had a spare rope, but no matches or extra clothes, and only one light. We strongly recommend one headlamp per person on any long route—it is hard to share a Mini-Mag at opposite ends of the rope. We also recommend training as a Wilderness First Responder. Among other skills, it will improve your ability to deal with dislocations, especially when no rescue team is waiting to bail you out. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)