American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Protection Pulled Out—Fall on Rock, California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002

PROTECTION PULLED OUT-FALL ON ROCK

California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock

On July 12th at 1:00 p.m., a fisherman in Yosemite Valley reported seeing two climbers fall from high on Middle Cathedral Rock. After speaking with this witness, I hiked up to the base of the wall, where I found the bodies of Myra Eldridge of Boulder, CO, and Thomas Dunwiddie (ages unknown) of Denver, CO, just east of the Direct North Buttress route.

No one else witnessed the accident. Its exact cause will never be known, but certain things are clear from the condition of the climbers’ equipment at the time they were found.

The team was leading with two 9mm ropes, and both climbers were properly tied to both ropes. Dunwiddie was equipped as leader, with each of his two ropes passing through Eldridges’s belay device (an ATC). About 25 feet of each lead rope separated the two climbers; no lead protection was found on either rope.

Their anchor—which appears to have pulled in its entirety during the accident—consisted of the following. One ?-inch Alien and one #4 Black Diamond Stopper were clove-hitched together to one of the lead ropes approximately three feet from Eldridge’s tie-in point. Two double-stem Camalots, .5 and .75, were each independently clove-hitched about a foot and a half apart on the other lead rope with 15 inches separating the lower piece from Eldridge’s tie-in point. There was no evidence that bolts or other fixed protection were involved in the anchor.

All of the anchor pieces were severely damaged, though it is impossible to know whether that damage occurred when they were pulled out or during the fall and final impact. Nevertheless, the two Camalots were each bent in a similar way suggestive of a severe downward force after being placed in a vertical crack.

A loose quick-draw and a few carabiners were also found at the base. Their original purpose could not be determined, and they may have simply unclipped from the falling climbers—a common occurrence.

Analysis

Both Dunwiddie and Eldridge were skilled climbers, and in the days prior to their deaths they had completed a number of challenging free and aid routes in the Valley. Based on the location of the bodies, and on a topo of the Direct North Buttress found in their possession, they were probably on the DNB at the time of their accident. Rated at 5.10c and known for both its length and route finding difficulty, the DNB includes several sections of “run out” climbing and loose rock.

What can we learn? This accident hits close to home for most climbers because the party involved was very experienced with difficult climbing and familiar with Valley rock—as have been at least a third of Yosemite fatalities, historically. Other factors, such as rock fall from above, may have been involved, but the prime suspects are basic anchor and leading concepts that all of us are often tempted to ignore: avoiding anchors in suspect rock, sharing the load to an adequate degree, and stuffing in that first (and second) lead piece right off the belay. If you can’t meet these criteria, continue on with the realization that your survival may depend only on your climbing skill and on the quality of the next handhold. At least five other cases of complete anchor failure (protection pulling out—not breaking) have occurred in the Park in the last 30 years. (Source: Lincoln Else, Climbing Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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