FALL ON ROCK, PROTECTION, INEXPERIENCE, INADEQUATE FOOD
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Mescalito
On September 24, on the sixth day out, Caroline Brugvin (24) took a lead fall on the 20th pitch of the Mescalito rock climbing route on El Capitan. She fell 40-50 feet, colliding with the rock multiple times. As she received several minor injuries and a painful injury to her left shoulder, Brugvin was unable to continue the climb, so her partners, David Jonglez (25) and Jeremie Ponson (22), signaled for a rescue. Visitors alerted the NPS at 1930 that evening.
Earlier in the climb, they all shared leads. Caroline made it sound like they swapped leads in a pattern, but later David said that it was not preset who would lead what. Usually whoever cleaned the last pitch would lead the next pitch.
Friday the 21st they spent five hours struggling with a portaledge they had borrowed from the French Alpine Club. It had been put together backwards, so they had to rebuild it on the wall. They ate normally on Friday evening but really didn’t eat much because they had spent so much time dealing with the portaledge.
On the evening of the 22nd, they discovered that they had left one of their two bags of food back at Camp Four. David said it was about two thirds of their food. This didn’t really concern them, and they didn’t see it as a reason to retreat. Caroline said, “You can work two days like that [without food] and a lot of people don’t have a lot of food.” David later said that it is common for them not to carry much food on a wall. They had food bars for breakfast at about 400 calories each. They also had 12 slices of bread and a fair amount of rice salad. Caroline estimated that they had one-and-a-half days of food per person left at normal consumption when they discovered the shortage. This left them no cushion if they were delayed, so they planned to ration what they had. They also had a bag of caramels. They had brought 40-45 liters of water, which proved to be plenty.
After discovering the food shortage, they decided they needed to climb faster than the four pitches per day they had managed, so on Sunday the 23 rd they started trying to do five pitches a day. Caroline said that they didn’t consider retreating, since they thought it was impossible.
Caroline said she was leading as fast as the others but was very slow cleaning. She didn’t know how or didn’t have the strength to clean the pitons and some of the boys (especially David) were mad it took so long. She said Jeremy was never mad. “David got mad but it wasn’t his fault, it was his way of being.
He puts pressure for everyone to be perfect.” They did have some arguments, and these started from the 21st, before the food shortage added pressure on them.
She also had to spend a lot of energy hauling since she’s so light. She weighs about 50 kg. They carried two haul bags and a double and a single portaledge. They would lead with a five-ml tag line and pull up the haul line at the top of the pitch. The haul line was 100 meters or more, allowing them to haul one bag, then the other, on the same long line.
Caroline cleaned pitch 19, and David was frustrated because she had to leave some pins behind and was slow in cleaning. But since she had cleaned, it was her turn to lead pitch 20. David said he was happy that she wanted to lead it. She said she didn’t look at the topo before the pitch. She had maybe looked at it the night before, but she had no idea of the difficulty of the pitch. It was just her turn to lead.
Pitch 20 is mostly aid. It ascends a right-facing corner which turns into a traverse to the right, past a bolt, then ascends another crack straight up to a second bolt. Using this bolt as a pendulum point, the leader swings five meters to the right, then climbs a short distance to a cluster of bolts. These bolts are considered a false, or alternate, belay, since the pitch continues, finishing up a right-facing, right-curving corner to the belay ledge. Rope drag can be a problem because of the traverses and the pendulum.
Caroline wanted to avoid rope drag, and she also needed all the gear, so she cleaned a lot of Friends early in the pitch. At the first bolt (per Super-Topo) she hauled up her free-climbing shoes and free-climbed four to five meters. At the pendulum bolt there were slings and ’biners. At this point she did not notice exceptional rope drag. She pendulumed over about five meters, which was fine. Then she climbed to the three-bolt false belay. She cleaned all her protection after the pendulum, in order to avoid rope drag that would be caused by the zig-zag path of the rope, although she stated that she was getting scared about the fall potential at this point.
She wanted to stop at this belay and called down, “I’m at the belay,” but her friends said, “No, no, continue [to the actual belay].” She also wanted to clip her rope to these bolts as protection, but her friends told her not to, that it would be too much rope drag. She thought that it would be okay with a long sling, but she had no slings with her, just lots of protection hardware. She was afraid to call down for a long sling because at this point they were trying to hurry, and because of the pressure she’d felt from David. She spent about five minutes at the false belay bolts.
She was very afraid at this point, because she thought that if she fell here she would die. She considered clipping the bolts for protection and removing it later, but she isn’t sure why she didn’t do this. Instead, she continued up, with her last protection the pendulum bolt. She found the C1 crack after this to be “special.” (Later she said it was expanding.) The rock was not good and the crack narrow and shallow.
She put in one piece, a 0.2 DMM cam, and clipped the rope to it temporarily, but knew the piece would probably only hold her body-weight, not a fall. She moved up on aid and placed a second small DMM cam, which she knew was also not very good. (She later said that she was not sure if she had this second piece. If the second piece was there, she must have clipped it to the rope, because she did not leave or lose anything in the fall.) She had an aider on this piece. Her habit was to climb with one aider for each foot, without a sub-aider. The aiders were free, not clipped to daisies.
The third piece was a #.5 Camalot (purple). She remembers feeling relieved that this seemed to be good enough for a fall. She clipped an aider to it and weighted with her right foot. As she shifted her weight, perhaps to lean down and unclip the aider from the last piece, the Camalot pulled out and she fell. She remembers feeling a momentary tug, as one of the lower pieces resisted and then failed, but she did not notice any resistance from the other lower piece. She remembers falling upside-down and seeing the Merced River. Jeremie, her belayer, said there was not a lot of slack in the line. He saw her falling sideways. He belayed with a GriGri and didn’t feel much force during the arrest. She remembers hitting everywhere—head, back, shoulder etc. She also remembers screaming, but said she doesn’t usually scream when she falls.
After falling vertically, the pendulum bolt took over, swinging her to the left. She hit three times on the swing and finally stopped at almost the same height as the belay and just a bit to the right. She estimates the fall as approximately 45-50 feet vertically.
When she hit the end of the rope she “collapsed” or lost consciousness and was leaning over backwards. They yelled at her, but she just wanted to be left in peace. She felt it was an emotional collapse, fainting, and not a physical loss of consciousness from injury. In fact she could hear and understand what people were saying to her but didn’t care. This has occurred to her before, though not when rock climbing. They yelled at her to get her to clip the tag line into her power point, which she did. Then they hauled her over to the belay ledge.
Her left shoulder hurt, but she thought it was just a cam sticking into her because the gear was all over her. David said he could see right away that her shoulder was lower and the shoulder blade was sticking out. She didn’t feel well and collapsed again, and David slapped her to get her to respond. She knew right away, though, that she was not seriously injured.
She wanted to stay and thought maybe she could still jumar out or that they should just climb and leave her on the ledge. But she finally realized that she couldn’t even sit up. David said he knew that they would need to find assistance as a first plan, so they started yelling for help immediately.
Caroline said she checked her watch at the pendulum and it was 3:00 p.m. Her estimate is that the fall occurred around 3:30 p.m. David thought the accident occurred between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m. and they were yelling for help around 5:00 p.m.
They yelled the words “help” and “SOS.” There was no response from climbers on the wall and no response from people they could see along the road below. A group on the bridge at El Cap Crossover stopped when they yelled and they shouted, but it was unclear if it was in response to their cries. They yelled from 5:00 p.m. to dark (about two hours) and they continued to signal after dark with headlamps and camera flash.
A rescue was effected in the morning, after communications that night.
Mescalito was their first climb after arriving in Yosemite, since they wanted to start “strongly.” Mescalito is rated VI 5.8 A3 and is a 26-pitch climb on very steep rock.
Caroline Brugvin, from Switzerland, had two years climbing experience, leads 5.11a/b trad and A2+. Prior to Mescalito, she had aid-climbed only three single-pitch practice climbs in “school.” She thought the aid climbing on Mescalito was easier in terms of the actual pitches but the climbing was longer. It was her first time in Yosemite and her first big wall. She had never done hauling before and knew nothing at all about it. She had climbed on granite before, in Chamonix. She had climbed with David since Spring 2001 as a friend, not as a client. She had not climbed with Jeremie before.
David Jonglez had been climbing for 10-12 years and leads 5.11b trad, A3- 4. He had lots of aid experience. He climbed in Yosemite in 1994 (Nose, Half Dome) and 1996 (PO, Zodiac, Salathe). He works as a mountain guide at home. He has also climbed in Greenland, Peru etc. David was the boss on Mescalito. He and Jeremie had climbed together before.
This was was Jeremie’s first time in Yosemite. He has only climbed in France. He felt the climbing here was less technical than at home. He felt it was easier to read the routes here. (Donna Sisson, Lincoln Else, John Dill—Rangers, Yosemite National Park)
(Editor’s Note: There were a few other accidents in Yosemite that do not appear in the narratives. These include four “rappel failure/error” situations on Royal Arches. In each case, the climbers became stranded, usually after dark, because either they were off route or did not understand how to use their equipment. One team rappelled to a point where, after they had shouted for help, the rangers instructed them, “You can walk down from there. ”)