American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Loose Rock Came Away-Fall on Rock, Failed to Follow Instincts, California, Sugar Loaf

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003


California, Sugar Loaf

On January 12, Jon Hanlon and I were enjoying a fabulous winter day of rock climbing at Sugar Loaf. We spent the morning on a couple of the area classics, and at lunch decided that we would ascend the east chimney, a 5.7 route that had been added to the list of recommended climbs in the last couple of guidebooks. Despite my 31 years of climbing at Sugar Loaf, this was a route I had never attempted. The climb is two pitches and is tucked away in an alcove below the world famous Grand Illusion. I led up about twenty-five feet of steep rock without placing protection. When the angle backed off, I climbed another fifteen feet or so to a flake where I placed my first cam.

The climbing proceeded easily along a low-angle ledge to the base of the chimney where I placed a #3 Camalot. I remember moving up the chimney and thinking, “This really requires 5.7 chimney moves.” About ten feet higher, I placed the second piece: a #3-1/2 Camalot. I moved up another ten to twelve feet to two large wedged chalkstones. As I moved past these, I placed my hands on top of them. Immediately the inside chalk stone rolled and forced my left shoulder back until there was a “pop.” The chalkstones, at this point, fell straight down the chimney and knocked me off the rock. I came to a stop about fifteen feet below the highest piece of protection. The chimney was clean, so I did not hit any other objects. The lower piece in the chimney pulled out, and, when the rocks were falling, I noticed them hitting the rope, and I had the fleeting fear that somehow they would sever the rope.

The impact of my weight falling on the rope, however, caused it to snap around the rocks, and while it was frayed, it did not break. After the rocks stopped on the low angle section 20 feet above the ground, I paused to take stock of my condition. I called to my belayer that other than my ankle, which had been hit by the rock and was bleeding profusely, I was okay. Jon lowered me to the ground. We managed to stop the bleeding by wrapping it with the sleeve of a shirt, and I was able to limp out to the car. We proceeded to the Marshall Hospital in Placerville, where I received ten stitches for the gash in my foot and was diagnosed with an avulsion fracture of my right fibula.


I felt very lucky that I was not under the rocks when they fell. I was also fortunate to be able to walk out to the car unaided. The accident, perhaps, could be chalked up to an error in judgment. After decades of looking at this chimney and concluding that there was no good reason to go up there,

I let the fact that it had been recommended in a couple of guidebooks cause me to ignore the fact that it is just an ugly old chimney climb. (Source: Bart O’Brian)

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