FALLING ROCK–DISLODGED ROCK
Monterrey, El Potrero Chico, Space Boyz
On December 29, my climbing partner, Crockett Farnell, and I (Gordon Wright) were climbing the 11 -pitch route Space Boyz on the west side of El Potrero Chico, near Monterrey, Mexico. We had just completed the two hardest pitches (6 and 7). I was belaying at the bottom of the eighth pitch and Crockett had just arrived at the anchors above me. A Mexican father - and-son team of climbers had been following us up the route throughout the day. The son, in his mid-to-late twenties, was about two-thirds of the way up the seventh pitch, just below and to the right of me. He suddenly shouted a desperate warning in Spanish. I looked down and saw that he had knocked loose a large rock, at least one cubic foot (one-third a cubic meter) in size. I watched in horror as it fell directly toward the red-helmeted head of his father, who was belaying from a narrow ledge below. The man managed to dodge slightly into the corner and, with great relief, I saw that the rock narrowly missed his helmet. However, it crashed onto the ledge, broke into a number of large pieces and began raining down over the faces and slabs below. Both the son and I kept shouting, “Rock over Space Boyz!” in both Spanish and English, as the pieces bounced, broke, and ricocheted their way down the mountain. There were many climbers at different heights on various routes below and I was terribly afraid that the falling debris could injure numerous people. There was bedlam for a long, frightening moment.
Finally, the rock fall subsided and people stopped shouting. An eerie silence filled the canyon as everyone waited to learn who was hurt. Thankfully and miraculously, there were no immediate cries of pain or distress. Just as I shook my head in relief, however, a long, pitiful wail was broadcast out across the canyon. It came from the red-helmeted man on the ledge below me. The son anxiously called down to his father and received more cries of pain in response. He busily tied himself off to a bolted hanger, then looked up at me with frightened eyes and pleaded, “Please, my father, please help me!” As my stomach turned over and adrenaline hit my bloodstream, I answered, “Yes, we will come down.” And, although I meant it, I was suddenly afraid of what we might find down there and, being untrained in rescue procedures, afraid that we wouldn’t know what to do once we got there.
I called up to Crockett, told him the man below was hurt, and said we needed to go down to help. After lowering Crockett from the chains above, both of us rappelled down to the son and his father on the narrow, exposed ledge where the accident had occurred. Fortunately, there are numerous bolted anchors there and we were all able to adequately secure ourselves. I estimate we were 700 feet (212 meters) above the ground. The son, whose name, we learned, is Oscar, spoke a little English, and Crockett speaks a little Spanish. We determined that the rock had struck the father (later identified as Zenon Rosas Franco, 49) on his right leg and broken the femur. It was a closed fracture, but he was in tremendous pain. One of his hands also appeared to be injured. When Zenon began shouting in anguish, Oscar—who was terribly upset but resolutely in control of himself—reprimanded his father in Spanish, telling him to be strong and not to yell. There was nothing to splint the leg with, so Oscar used a sling to wrap and support his father’s thigh. He then had the good sense to check their single 60-meter rope for damage and found that the rock had punctured the core near the rope’s mid-point. He knotted off the damaged section. I was impressed by Oscar’s courage and presence of mind.
Crockett and I had two 60-meter ropes with us. While we sorted the loops and piles of nylon around us, we slowly worked out a plan for lowering the injured Zenon. I rappelled to the station below and, using a cordelette, built a sturdy anchor that would provide multiple tie-in points. Oscar and Crockett then lowered Zenon to me on a second rope. The first two lowers were tricky because the stations were not vertically aligned. We clipped Zenon to my rappel line with a quickdraw, so I was able to pull him laterally across the face (and, in the first instance, around a corner) while he was being lowered. I then did my best to anchor him in a position that offered his leg some stability. Oscar joined us next in order to remain close to his father, leaving Crockett to clean the previous anchor, rappel down, and pull the ropes.
Word of the accident had been communicated to the Mexican authorities and, after some time, police and emergency vehicles began arriving below. Many climbers lowered off their routes and gathered at the base of Space Boyz, seeking ways to lend assistance. Others, however, continued climbing their routes uninterrupted. After the two difficult lowers, we arrived at a sizable ledge where we recouped for a few minutes. It was then that a huge rescue helicopter from Monterrey arrived. It came whomping into the canyon and hovered near us. Not wishing to complicate matters further and feeling confident we could successfully lower Zenon down the remaining four pitches, we waved the helicopter off. The pilot found a landing site at the south end of the canyon.
Two other climbers then arrived at our ledge, one of them bearing a leg splint borrowed from an emergency vehicle. They told us they had fixed a single rope to the ground from the top of the second pitch below us. As I rappelled the fourth pitch and built another anchor, the others splinted Zenon’s leg and moved him into position for the next lower. The splint appeared to ease his suffering considerably, but he remained in much pain. His hand seemed to be bothering him at that time as well.
From the beginning of our inexpert rescue effort, we had remained concerned about the confusion created by the number of people, number of ropes, and many slings and carabiners present at each set of anchors. We were very careful to ensure that everyone and everything was properly secured at all times. While on the large ledge, however, Crockett caught the arm of one of the recently-arrived climbers just as the fellow was about to back off the ledge. Apparently, he was about to lower off on a single rope he assumed was fixed but was, in fact, set up for rappel. Thanks to Crockett’s attention and quick action, a second accident may have been averted. Zenon was lowered to me at the top of pitch three, during which several strategically placed cactus plants added insult to his injury. Oscar then joined us, as was our established procedure. It was then that our day was brightened by the arrival of Patrick Delaney at the anchors immediately below. As it turned out, Patrick is a certified Canadian mountain guide and rescue specialist from Squamish, British Columbia. When the accident first occurred, he and his girlfriend were seven pitches up on a route across the canyon. They immediately began a two-hour descent in order to come to our assistance. (At one point, Patrick said, there were seven people lined up at a set of anchors waiting to go up or down!) After consulting with the emergency response people on the ground, Patrick ascended the fixed rope to the top of the second pitch. From there he called up and asked various questions about Zenon’s injuries and condition. He relayed this information to those on the ground.
Oscar and I then lowered Zenon to Patrick, who was pre-rigged to rappel with Zenon to the ambulance waiting below. Within several minutes, the injured climber was safely in the care of the Mexican emergency people.
I told Oscar to go down next in order to accompany his father to the hospital. By then, quite understandably, he was beginning to unravel emotionally and I encouraged him to remain careful throughout the remainder of his descent. He thoughtfully expressed his thanks and gratitude to Crockett and me before he safely rappelled the remaining three pitches to the ground. I went down next and then Crockett joined me after rappelling four pitches from the ledge. We pulled the last of the ropes, packed our gear, and went off in search of cold beer. (The other two climbers had continued up the route after helping with the splint.) In all, the rescue took just over four hours to complete. I credit both Oscar and Zenon for their courage and strength and wish them well.
El Potrero Chico has a reputation for rock fall. (Such was the cause of the most recent fatality there.) Crockett and I were aware of this hazard upon our arrival at the Potrero and, to the best of our ability, were cautious when climbing and rappelling. We were also reluctant to climb in exposed areas beneath other parties. Despite these efforts, however, Crockett narrowly missed getting whacked by a rock the size of my fist that I managed to knock loose several days after the accident.
Just ten or fifteen minutes before the accident on Space Boyz, Crockett and I had both climbed the same pitch from which Oscar unloaded the rock on his father. I do not remember noticing a piece that large that looked dangerous, although I did notice many other potential bombs all over the Potrero. It may well be that Oscar had been in complete control and that the rock-fall was just pure, unavoidable misfortune. Or, he may have been climbing with some desperation, as the pitch is not a particularly easy one, and made a mistake. I cannot say which was the case; however, I can say that the damage potential from such a large piece being turned loose from that height was tremendous. Given the number of people climbing on that side of the canyon, it is remarkable that others were not injured that day. Constant evaluation of rock quality, careful testing for hollowness and looseness, judicious selection of foot and hand holds, and caution when hauling and tossing ropes could all help minimize the risk of similar accidents. Another important suggestion might be to use good judgment in route selection. The Potrero can become a very busy place, with line-ups below the area classics. There are sometimes four or more parties on the same route at various stages of ascent. This may not bode well for the late starters!
The lowering system we worked out proved relatively safe and successful, since the victim was conscious and able to participate to some degree in his rescue. On the two pitches that required lateral movement to reach the next anchors, it was particularly useful for me to go down first and “reel in” the victim on the extra rope while Oscar and Crockett lowered him. (The extra rope on long routes is, obviously, a good idea.) We were also fortunate that there are numerous bolted hangers at most stations on Space Boyz, which provided “bomber” security for the four of us.
Patrick Delaney later told us that, although the local emergency people had lots of equipment at their disposal, including hundreds of meters of static rope, he wasn’t convinced that any of them knew what to do with it. He also felt the helicopter was too large to effect a safe evacuation from the air. Patrick was of the opinion that the victim would have spent the night up on the wall if we had not been in place to facilitate the rescue. I’m not sure how well Zenon would have dealt with that. The organization and training of a local rescue team (there are many capable climbers in Nuevo Leon) would be a great asset, since there are bound to be future accidents at the Potrero.
If the victim had been rendered unconscious, or had sustained more life- threatening injuries (such as a punctured artery in his broken leg), we’d have been in a serious pickle up there. Given the actual circumstances, I think we got off lucky. Knowledge and training are the obvious tools for dealing effectively with what might have been. More now than ever, I’m convinced that climbers should consider rescue techniques as important as pulling for that next grade of difficulty. We learned that a wonderful day at the crag can turn in your worst nightmare in an instant! And a final no-brainer: wear a helmet. (Source: Gordon Wright)
(Editor’s Note: We are pleased to have a thorough report from Mexico. There are many “hear-say” reports that get conveyed, usually as a result of accidents on one of the volcanoes.)