FALLING ROCK, POOR POSITION
Montana, Beartooth Wilderness, Silver Run Peak
On August 24, around 0600, my wife, Rebecca Hodgkin, and I left camp —located just off the West Fork of Rock Creek Trail near Quinnebaugh Meadows—to climb Pensive Tower (III 5.8) on Silver Run Peak. At approximately 1100 we started the fifth pitch of the 9-10 pitch route. Rebecca was leading. Soon she was about thirty-five feet above me and out of sight. She took out a couple more feet of rope and declared, “I’m a little sketched out here!” There was a large loose boulder just laying in the granite seam above her. She said it was lying so precariously that if she did not knock it loose when she climbed above it, the rope surely would. I quickly evaluated my belay stance and determined, based on the small rocks clearing my head when I was standing erect and the fact that Rebecca had moved beyond an overhang, that hunkering down in a small alcove would undoubtedly be a good refuge from raining rocks. I assumed the position and called out, “Let her fly!”
From above I heard, “Here it comes!” I waited for the all too familiar clicking and clacking of falling rock but I heard nothing. Just as I was about to ask if she let it loose, the granite basketball hit me square in my back. The impact knocked me off the ledge and I swung like a pendulum due to my anchor being off to the side. In severe pain, I managed to get back on the ledge and lower Rebecca. She then put me on belay, and I down-climbed four feet to the left where there was a better ledge.
We are both Wilderness First Responders and took all of the necessary precautions for a spinal injury. We did a spine injury evaluation. I had proper motor function in both lower and upper extremities, as well as adequate sensation. I was alert and had no abnormal tingling sensation.
Upon palpation of the spine, however, I had ten or more vertebrae that were severely tender. It was clear that I needed to be fully immobilized and evacuated. In addition, I had severe pain in my right kidney area and I feared internal injuries. Rebecca gave me her jacket and she rappelled the route to initiate a rescue.
Around 1900, a helicopter, later identified to me as the Mammoth crew from Yellowstone National Park, made several passes but none near my area. I watched in desperation as they made an extensive search of the Castle and Medicine Mountain area, two to four miles away from my location. They searched our tent site area on the valley floor and what I believe to be the top of the ridge of Silver Run Peak. The closest they came was a single pass approximately 500 feet below me. I waved a red jacket in vain, and around 2000 they disappeared southeast near Mount Lockhart. As the night went on, I fluctuated from mild to severe hypothermia. I shivered uncontrollably, and when the shivering disappeared I ate something to make it come back.
Around 0500, my friend, Thaddeus Josephson, and Rebecca reached me with warm clothes and a down sleeping bag. They had no communications with the official rescue party so Thaddeus rappelled the route to meet them at the bottom of the climb. Rebecca stayed on the ledge with me. At 0900, two rescuers from the Grand Teton National Park, Scott and Dave, got short hauled to my ledge. They secured me to a backboard and short hauled me to the valley floor. Rebecca was also taken off the ledge via the short haul. I was then flown to Red Lodge where a connecting helicopter took me to Billings Hospital. My diagnosis: several bruised vertebrae in the thoracic and lumbar area, one of which had a compressed disc and was possibly fractured. I also had a fracture in a floating rib and a severely bruised kidney.
Was it a poor decision to let the rock loose? We had several other options: First, we could have backed off the climb. We would have had to leave gear and risk more rock fall by pulling ropes over very loose terrain. Second, we could have chosen a different line. The rock, however, was blank granite and would have been unprotected and almost certainly above our climbing abilities. Third, I could have moved my belay stance. Knowing now the rock’s trajectory, this probably would have been the best option. Over the years of climbing I, like most climbers I believe, have a short-term memory when it comes to potentially fatal near misses. I had grown too accustomed to having rocks whiz by at high speed and never fully registered their danger.
Why did the first rescue helicopter never find me? Rebecca gave a detailed description of my location using a topographic map. The Sheriff’s department translated Rebecca’s description to numbers using a computer program and came up with a position nearly two miles away. GPS units are cheap and should be considered on remote trips. (Source: Mr. Hodgkin)