American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock-Fall on Rock, California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock

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

FALLING ROCK—FALL ON ROCK

California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock

On June 2, John Kurth, 33, and Casey Shaw, 39, were climbing the Direct North Buttress (17 pitches) on Middle Cathedral Rock. Shaw led pitch 15 at about 6:00 p.m., following a chimney. Twenty to 30 feet before the belay, he came over a lip to find three rock slabs piled on top of each other on a small, sloping ledge. All were large—with the the top one at least three feet by six feet, and almost two feet thick—and they looked precarious. He snuck by them on the right, yelled to Kurth to be careful, and continued up the pitch to the belay. Kurth, almost a fall rope-length below, didn’t hear the warning.

As Kurth approached the ledge, his right side into the chimney, the angle of the pitch hid the upper two slabs from his view. He reached up and pulled on the bottom one, not realizing the danger. Instantly he and Shaw heard the grinding of rock on rock as the whole pile collapsed. The bottom piece shot by him on the left; the middle one literally landed in his lap, but it miraculously wedged itself into the chimney at the same time, so it only pushed him off his stance. The top slab slid out and over his head, smashing into his helmet and left shoulder as it passed. He fell five to ten feet down the pitch until stopped by Shaw’s belay. He immediately felt severe pain in his left arm and almost instinctively raised it to a more comfortable position over his head. Below him he could see the top slab still skating down the wall. A party behind them had retreated some time earlier and he realized that they might have died had they stayed on the route.

The rope had somehow survived the passage of all three rocks and now lay underneath the wedged piece. It was trapped but still running free. Kurth stayed where he had fallen, braced in the chimney, with his left arm over his head. He was afraid that if he lost consciousness he would weight the rope, bringing down the remaining slab.

Shaw tied off the belay and lowered a loop of the lead line over the top of the slab. Kurth tied in, then untied from the end so that Shaw could retrieve it. With tension from Shaw, Kurth was able to get to a safe resting position above the slab and about 20 feet below the belay. Shaw tied him off and rappelled to him. Kurth’s shoulder was swollen and extremely painful and he couldn’t lower his arm—they both had emergency medical training and worried that his shoulder was not only dislocated but completely pulverized. Potentially more serious, the back of his neck hurt as well.

They considered whether to rappel the route or continue up with Kurth prusiking, but both options seemed much too difficult, considering his pain, the possible neck injury, and the need to maintain traction on the arm. With considerable reluctance they yelled for help and soon received an answer from the Park Service over a loudspeaker. It was too close to dark to attempt a helicopter rescue, and a nighttime ground approach, intricate and loose, was equally risky. They would have to wait until tomorrow.

Shaw maintained traction on Kurth’s arm all night and well into the next day, shifting the angle of the arm every 15 minutes or so to deal withspasms in the injured muscles. Kurth was able to slip on a warm jacket and with the food and water they’d brought they were as comfortable as could be expected.

In the morning the NPS tried reaching them directly by helicopter. The wall was too steep to clear the rotor blades, so rescuers heli-rappelled to a ledge two pitches above. They reached Kurth at about 11:00 a.m. and raised him, supported by one rescuer and with his neck and back immobilized. Morphine made a little difference, but not much, and all the way up Kurth had to hold up his splinted arm while fighting the pain and the confines of the chimney.

Kurth was finally short-hauled under the helicopter down to the Valley at 4:00 p.m., then flown to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. He was found to have a fractured humerus and a dislocation of the left shoulder. The shoulder was not reduced until midnight, almost 36 hours after the accident. Despite being bashed by the rock, his head and neck turned out okay, but there is a very good chance he would have been killed without his helmet.

Analysis

Other than the obvious—Yosemite rock is often loose, and repeated warnings to the second are always a good idea—what can we say? Kurth is one very tough—and lucky—guy! (Source: John Dill—NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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