FALL ON ROCK
California, Yosemite Valley, Manure Pile Buttress
On May 23, Irene Appelbaum (41) and Ricardo Lagos (28) climbed the Nutcracker (five pitches, 5.8) on Manure Pile Buttress, with Ricardo taking all the leads. On the final pitch, he placed a small cam just above the crux 5.8 mantle and did the move. He then finished the remaining 80–100 foot slab, setting one more cam along the way.
At the top, Ricardo rigged his anchor ten feet back from the edge but sat at the lip so that he could talk with Irene. He belayed her through a Reverso (in autolock mode) clipped to the anchor. He kept a fairly tight rope, with just a little slack. He felt Irene come quickly up the short slab at the start of the pitch, then slow down at the corner leading to the mantle. When he felt her move up again, he lifted the rope a foot or two to pull in the slack, and just as he started to pull the slack through the Reverso, she fell. There was no significant slippage through the belay.
The corner is steep and perhaps eight or ten feet high, with the mantle as its exit move. Except for a narrow ledge a couple of feet above the slab, footholds are scarce until one passes the mantle. Although Irene had climbed it successfully in the past, this time she was having trouble with the crux. She went up and down a few times and finally decided to grab the sling on the small cam. She was hanging on to the cam when her feet slipped.
She remembers her left foot hitting something on the wall almost immediately and then hearing several “pops” as she fell slowly for a short distance—no tumbling, just a straightforward, feet-first, top-rope fall. She remained where she was, supported by the rope, with her right foot on a tiny nubbin and holding her left foot out in front of her, until she was rescued.
Despite his position at the edge, Ricardo could not communicate with her. After several minutes with no action on the rope, he realized something must be wrong and that he needed to rappel to within earshot. Since Irene was roughly 100 feet below the anchor, he assumed the other half of his 200-foot rope would be able to get him close. He left the Reverso locked off at the anchor and tied the rope off to the anchor on the belayer’s side of the Reverso. This would back up Irene’s belay and also anchor his rappel.
Since his Reverso was in the belay system, he rappelled with a carabiner wrap—trying this for the first time. (He had brought a spare belay/descent device on the climb but, assuming the climb was over, had left it and several other items with Irene when he led the final pitch.) He remained tied to his end of the rope, but had no prusik for a safety. As he descended, twists built up in the rope from the carabiner wrap. Since the end of the rope was tied to him, there was nowhere for the twists to go and they finally stopped his progress just above the mantle. He did not think to tie in short and drop the end to get the twists out, but at least he was now within talking distance.
After discussing and then discarding the possibility of getting Irene to the top, he decided to climb out and go for help. The summit slabs are fairly easy, so he was able to hand-over-hand—again without prusik safety—back up the rope to his anchor. He then hiked down to the base of the wall, where he asked someone with a cell phone to call 911. The rescue team got a medic to Irene within an hour and lowered her in a litter 600 feet to the ground with the medic attending. Two hours elapsed from the time the 911 call was received until Irene was in the ambulance. She was diagnosed with a bi-malleolar fracture dislocation of her left ankle that required surgery, lots of hardware, and a bone graft to repair.
Following a pitch is usually pretty safe, but after a long lead the inherent stretch and slack in the system can sometimes result in a risky fall. Irene probably fell five or six feet, nearly back to the slab—not much, and not fast, but enough for the right kind of blow to do the damage. (In fact we see many sprained and broken ankles even from simple stumbles on the trail.) So don’t hesitate to ask for a snug belay when you are challenged by the move.
Ricardo had been climbing six months and he admits that he lacked some of the knowledge and gear for safely getting down to Irene and then back to the summit. This is not a self-rescue text, but here are a few suggestions:
If you need your belay device and it’s tied up in the system, first anchor the belay line with a prusik in front of the device, then tie the rope off behind it, allowing enough slack to remove the device. If your rappel is stopped by kinks in the rope, tie off the descender or tie in short, then untie your end of the rope and shake out the twists. Know how to use several rappel rigs—Munter, carabiner brake, etc. Know the uses and limitations of prusiks when rappelling and ascending the line, and how to tie in short. Finally, know how to assist your partner to the summit or to lower her to the base—if the injury and terrain allow. These skills may get you out of trouble in a more remote and more serious environment. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park.)