FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, NO HARD HAT
California, Yosemite Valley, Lower Cathedral Rock
On May 21, Chris Hampson (2 8) and Sibylle Hechtel (52) teamed up to climb Overhang Bypass on Lower Cathedral Rock. The route is approximately six pitches, originally rated 5.6 but considered more difficult since a large block fell from the crux a number of years ago, creating a mandatory 5.8/5.9 mantle. Their plan was to climb the route and top-rope Overhang Overpass, a 5.11 crack accessible from the upper section of Overhang Bypass.
Both Chris and Sibylle had climbed extensively in Yosemite, Chris having spent the last month climbing fall time in the Valley, and Sibylle having decades of Yosemite experience under her belt. This was their second route together, and it was well within their abilities.
Chris led the first pitch up easy climbing without placing any protection. Sibylle led the second pitch, to the base of the Hog Trough. The Trough is a system of ledges traversing up and left for just over 100 feet to where the route turns upward through the crux mantle. After this move, the pitch turns back right through moderate but loose terrain.
Chris headed up the Trough and clipped the rope through protection about 30 feet beyond the belay. After another 60 feet or so of easy climbing, he passed a tree, climbing between the tree and the wall so that his rope ran behind its trunk. Though he did not clip his rope to the tree, by climbing behind it he created a “natural” piece of protection. The crux mantle is 15-20 feet beyond this tree, and as Chris continued up the ledges toward the mantle, he climbed out of Sibylle’s view.
A few minutes later Sibylle heard Chris yell and felt the rope jerk tight under the force of a fall. She still could not see him from her belay, and her own yells brought no answer, but she could feel his weight on the rope. Within five minutes or so, while Sibylle was calling to Chris, Bob Jensen arrived, having soloed the lower section of the route. After learning what had happened, Bob continued up the Trough to the tree. From there he could just see Chris, hanging at least fifty feet below, his rope having caught around the tree’s trunk. When Bob called down to him, Chris answered in a disoriented manner and said that he could not see. Without any gear to reach him, Bob soloed back down the route and went for help while Sibylle escaped the anchor and climbed up to the tree to communicate with Chris. When Bob left it was about 11:30 a.m., roughly fifteen or twenty minutes after Chris’s accident. Over the next hour Chris’s condition deteriorated until Sibylle could only hear an occasional yell or moan from below.
Bob reached the rescue office in Yosemite Valley about forty five minutes later. After hearing the situation, Ranger Keith Lober and I immediately headed for the route while a larger group geared up to follow. We arrived at Lower Cathedral Rock about 12:45 and saw Chris through binoculars. He was hanging by his rope in a corner, about 70 feet below the tree, sitting upright and moving his arms. Keith and I reached Sibylle at the top of the Hog Trough by approximately 1:30 p.m. Unfortunately no quick, adequate protection was available where we needed it, and the tree that had caught Chris’s fall appeared far from solid, so we immediately began drilling bolt anchors.
Five minutes before we reached Sibylle, our spotter, watching through a telescope from across the Valley, radioed that Chris had stopped moving and was now slumped over backwards. By the time we reached him about twenty minutes later (but almost three hours after the fall) he was beyond resuscitation. We are not certain what injury killed him, but it was probably a combination of head and chest trauma, perhaps with additional physiological stress from hanging for so long in his harness.
Chris was familiar with Yosemite’s rock and comfortable leading well beyond the level of this route. We don’t know what caused his fall, but we do know a couple of things that made it longer and more damaging than it might have been.
Based on the amount of rope between Chris and the tree that caught him, he may have fallen over a hundred feet. Once he was out of Sibylle’s view, the time that passed and the rope she fed out suggest that he climbed beyond the crux mantle into the moderate terrain above. He may have been 50–60 feet beyond the tree when something went wrong.
The tree may have been Chris’s last piece of protection. We did find a single stopper clipped to the rope immediately above his harness, but details suggest that he clipped this piece to the rope after his fall in order to secure his backpack—which we found hanging from the same carabiner.
Protecting the mantle well is difficult though possible, and Chris either ignored or missed a fixed piton just past the tree. Gear options in the moderate terrain above are also sparse, though protection is available. Whether he fell at the crux or 40 feet beyond, the length of that fall clearly would have been less had he placed additional protection.
In addition to potentially “running it out” on terrain where he felt comfortable, Chris was also not wearing a helmet. The crux is steep, but the overall angle of the route is less than vertical, and Chris likely hit several ledges as he tumbled down the wall. Though a helmet might not have saved his life, it certainly would have improved the odds. (Source: Lincoln Else, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)