FALL ON WET ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION,INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT, INEXPERIENCE, EXPOSURE, NO HARD HAT
California, Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches
On March 7, Greg McFalls (28) and I, Joe Hardy (25), set out to climb Royal Arches (III 5.7). It would be the first traditional route we had attempted on our own.
I had been gym, sport, and traditional climbing pretty intensively for a couple of years and could lead 5.11 sport. However, I had led only one trad pitch so I was eager for more. Greg’s experience and ability were similar to mine, but he had not led any trad and I was a stronger climber at that point, so we planned that I would do all the leading.
Friends had recommended Royal Arches as a great route, well within our abilities, though with 15-16 pitches we would have to move right along. After doing lots of research about the climb, we picked the month of March because there would be no other parties to slow us down. We knew it would be wet in winter but were told that it wouldn’t be a problem. We drove up from the coast early that morning and parked at the Ahwahnee Hotel at 9 a.m. It was still really cold, so we took our time packing and hiked to the climb an hour later.
We had one 60-meter rope, plenty of hardware, lots of food and water, and two FRS (family band) radios for communicating with each other on the pitches. We didn’t want extra gear weighing us down and we planned to be down before dark, so we left lights and overnight clothing behind. We also decided not to bring helmets because we thought, “It’s a 5.7, it’s going to be easy, and there’s no one above to drop rocks on us.”
The first pitch wasn’t hard, but we got a little behind because we had to haul our pack up the chimney and the holds were wet and slimy. We figured the next 400 feet up the ramps would go fast, but a stream pouring down those pitches forced us to the right onto more difficult terrain. By the time we reached the top of the ramps we’d lost our only copy of the topo. I got off route twice trying to find pitch 5, climbing up and down cracks much harder than they were supposed to be until we finally found the right one. By then it was noon and we’d wasted a lot of time.
We knew it was late and we discussed retreating, but the next several pitches promised to be easy, so we decided to give it a shot. We flew up those pitches, finishing the pendulum on pitch 9 a little after 3 p.m. At that point we had three hours of daylight left for six pitches, 16 single-rope rappels, and some third-class down-climbing, all with no topo. But we were optimistic.
Pitch 10 was a 100-foot traverse. It should have been really easy, but the snow on the rim was melting fast in the sun, forcing us to climb across a 40- foot wide cascade. I had to place pro under water in cracks I couldn’t see, and by the time we finished the pitch, we were soaked. Pitch 11 was a layback up a big comer. It would be moderate climbing in dry conditions, but the rock was slimy. I was ten feet above my last protection—a sling around a one-inch diameter root when I fell. The root broke and I tumbled about 40 feet. I was shaken mentally, and I’m still surprised that I only suffered a few scrapes and bruises, but I was able to finish the pitch. At that point we felt retreat was out of the question because there was no bolt route down from this location, and with only one rope we would have to leave a lot of gear.
Just as I reached the top of the slimy pitch, two climbers caught up to Greg at the belay below me. They were simul-climbing [climbing simultaneously with protection between them but without an anchored belayer] and moving fast. They asked if they could pass and we agreed. They returned our topo, which they had found on pitch 2, but I had no idea where to go next and I asked them for directions. They offered advice; however, the next pitches were out of sight around a corner and difficult to describe, so I brought Greg up quickly and followed them. They directed me once or twice after that, but then I lost sight of them for just a minute. When I saw them again, they had finished traversing to the left across a slab above me.
Greg and I got to the traverse at about 5:30 p.m. Maybe 45 minutes of daylight remained and the sun was very low. The other party was still in sight and they pointed out the rap route to us. It was only 300 feet above us on easy terrain, so we figured we had it in the bag. Then they climbed out of view and we turned our attention to the traverse. It was supposed to be 5.4, but all I could see was a very smooth 30-foot wide slab a lot harder than that, with nothing for our hands and no protection. In retrospect I think we had climbed too high—we were in a hurry and just didn’t explore enough. The simul-climbers had probably assumed we’d have no problem with it, but instead it was the scariest part of the whole climb for me. My shoes were still wet, I was fatigued after so many pitches, and I was facing a long pendulum fall. I made it across after a few tense moments and anchored myself to a tree.
Now it was Greg’s turn. Whether it was his wet shoes or a matter of experience, the moves seemed too hard for him so he looked for alternatives. I was pressuring him: “Come on, Greg, you gotta find a way across because it’s getting dark and I don’t want to be on the cliff tonight.” It was dusk now and I probably suspected that a bivy was unavoidable, but we were rushing nevertheless.
A thin, horizontal crack ten feet above us offered Greg some holds. It disappeared halfway across the slab, leaving at least 15 feet of an even steeper face, but he decided to try it anyway. I moved my anchor another 10-15 feet up the cliff—as far as I could go, but as he left the crack, he was still 15-20 feet to the right and five feet above me. He knew he was risking a pendulum fall and he was looking a little uneasy.
There was no warning like, “Joe, I’m going to fall.” He just suddenly yelled and I saw him tumbling down the slab in a fetal position. As the rope came tight he swung across the face about 20 feet below me, moving fast. There was no protection between us to shorten the swing. He was facing right—away from me—and swinging left, and the back of his head slammed into a granite block.
He went limp immediately I thought he’d died. I sat there screaming at him for 30 seconds. Finally I lowered him a few feet until his body draped over a tree trunk. He was still not responding to my calls, so I tied him off and scrambled down some easy 4th-class to where he lay. Within about three minutes of the fall, he started to regain consciousness. Eventually he could answer simple questions, but he was very confused. He had a bloody laceration on his scalp and I was worried about a broken neck, but he was moving OK, he denied any broken bones, and it didn’t look like he’d bleed to death. With me pulling on the rope he managed to stumble onto a nearby ledge and lie down. He kept repeating the same comments every five minutes: “Where are we? What happened? I’m sorry, man!” His whole nervous system was affected. His eyes looked funny, his balance was off, and he was sick to his stomach.
It was dusk now. We were 1,300 feet up a 1,500-foot climb and I had to think about what to do. I could go for help, but we had no lights and now I had no belayer. I would just find myself stranded somewhere else. Even if I made it, Greg might become delirious and untie himself before help arrived. If I spent the night with him, we both might freeze to death, but I decided to stay. I never tried to yell for help, because the Valley seemed so far away.
It got chilly right away. I had my fleece pullover and Greg put on his sweatshirt. I laid my water bladder under his head, gave him my long-sleeve shirt for a hat, and as it got colder I took off my fleece and laid it over him. It was probably just above freezing, and we were still wet from traversing the cascade. Sitting there in a T-shirt and light pants and with nothing for my head, hands, or feet, I was the coldest I’ve ever been for such a long duration. Greg slept some, but I was awake all night. I alternated between lying half on top of him to keep both of us warmer and sitting up moving my arms and rubbing my legs. The wind was gentle and intermittent but felt really cold when it came.
I was desperate for more heat. The moon finally came up about 2 a.m., giving me enough light to find my knife. I cut my fleece down the side, making a small blanket that covered both our torsos. This helped considerably, and I alternated covering my torso and my head to stay sane. By now I couldn’t feel my calves and feet and my muscles were so sore from shivering that I was worried we wouldn’t be able to function in the morning. Greg occasionally woke up to ask me the same series of confused questions, but I think his head injury helped him sleep. I checked my watch every five minutes.
Dawn came at 6 a.m. At first I couldn’t stand up because my legs and feet didn’t respond, but I was able to exercise enough to warm up. I got Greg up when the sun finally hit us at 9 a.m. He immediately puked and felt much better after that, although he was still dizzy and a little off balance. It was hard for him to concentrate because his head was throbbing and ringing. Nevertheless, it seemed like he might be able to climb, and the sun was warming us up quickly.
The final pitch was easy, but out of concern for Greg I set an anchor every 30 feet. I watched him closely, keeping tension as he came up, then I climbed again. We made slow but secure progress that way and reached the rap station sometime before noon. Greg was still not totally coherent, but he retained a lot more information now. I had the option of leaving him there and rappelling for help, but he said, “We’ve been up here long enough. Let’s get down.” I went over the rigging steps with him several times, “First you get on the rope, then you unclip from the anchor...,”and made him repeat everything back to me. When I was satisfied, we started down. I went first so that if he slipped while rappelling I could pull on the rope to control his descent, and I called up to him with the FRS radio to verify that he was rigging the rappel safely.
Now, of course, we were sweating in the sun and we ran out of water halfway down. We didn’t get lost, but on one rappel we forgot to remove the knot from one end of the rope and it jammed in the anchor 100 feet above. We pulled and pulled. I was about to try climbing a really thin crack up to the anchor when Greg pulled one more time and got it. That was the last problem we encountered. Greg was much better now and rappelled competently. The descent took about three hours. We were down by 2 p.m.
Prior to the climb I had told my dad that I would call when we got down, but of course I hadn’t, so he contacted the park service. A ranger came up to Greg while we were at the hotel parking lot and said, “Are you Joe or Greg, the overdue climbers?” Greg confirmed our identities, but then he mentioned his fall and that he couldn’t remember much of the climb. That raised a red flag in the ranger’s mind, so he suggested Greg go to the Yosemite clinic. Greg was reluctant, but at that moment he got dizzy, sat down, and puked again. That did it. The ranger called the ambulance and Greg was helicoptered to Fresno for a CAT scan and overnight observation. There was some brain swelling but no fractures or intracranial bleeds, and after a few days of feeling a little groggy, he was fine. Today he remembers starting the climb and everything after he woke up on the ledge, but the accident and most of the pitches before it are simply not there.
You may have been chuckling as you read Joe’s account, but did you recognize yourself somewhere along the way? Epics due to inexperience are common on easy and moderate multi-pitch routes—see any issue of ANAM (including Tenaya Peak in this issue). When you recommend routes to your neophyte friends, please consider more than just their climbing skill. And give them this article to study. Most of the lessons are obvious, but here is a summary of the key points.
Climbing, protecting, route finding, retreating, forced bivouacs, and dealing with medical emergencies are related but separate skills. Sport climbing won’t teach you what you need to know. A new leader and a non-leader make a weak team, especially if the leader becomes incapacitated, so gain experience on shorter traditional climbs where problems can be handled more easily.
Look over the route and the descent before you climb and take a topo for each person. Start a long, unfamiliar route early and allow time for route- finding and descending.
Cold bivouacks are serious business. One underdressed climber died of hypothermia in the park several years ago, in a bivy similar to Joe’s and Greg’s. Minimum clothing includes balaclavas, warm gloves, and wind/rain shells, in addition to warm tops and bottoms appropriate to the season. If you don’t want to sit on a ledge all night, take lights with enough range and staying power to assist with climbing and rappelling.
Don’t depend on finding a bolted descent everywhere (or anywhere) on a route. Joe and Greg felt they had passed the point of no retreat at pitch 11, but they could have rappelled from any pitch on the route. Having only one rope, however, would slow them down considerably and force them to leave more gear. On some routes the only anchor options may be a full rope-length apart unless you bring a bolt kit. If you don’t trust your injured partner to rappel independently as Greg did, then rappel together. There are several ways to do this.
Learn to recognize when your mental state and/or a string of seemingly minor events are setting you up for an accident. This is one aspect of Situational Awareness—taught to emergency workers, pilots, the military, etc., and it can be a lifesaver. Haste is a common example: Joe and Greg were rushing at the end, psychologically dependent on the other party, and stressed by the lack of time to find the 5.4 traverse. This biased their decisions. They were also in a new and unexpected situation, so an element of panic entered in.
Pendulum falls are often more risky than vertical falls of the same distance. The energy of the fall is similar but there is a higher chance of injuring head, trunk, or pelvis instead of an ankle. Protection skill, not climbing skill, was more important to Greg’s accident—always protect a traverse for both the leader and the second. Joe was smart to move his anchor higher, but it wasn’t enough. Greg may have been able to set solid pro in that crack partway across the traverse, leave the rope clipped through it until he was safely across, then pull the rope and leave the pro behind. Where possible,
a less expensive option is to climb down well below Joe and then tension across. There are other simple solutions too numerous to describe here.
Regarding helmets, Joe said, “The thought of falling never entered our heads,” yet both took serious falls on this moderate route. They also assumed that being the only party on the climb avoided the risk of rockfall, but Greg was below another climber (Joe) on every pitch and both were exposed to debris every time they pulled their rappel rope.
Ideally, Greg should have been immobilized right where he landed, in case of spinal injury. However, draped over a tree trunk 14 pitches up the climb with night falling is not an ideal setting. Would you know how to handle this situation? Wilderness First Responder training will help. [See also Bishops Terrace in this issue of ANAM.] Another serious risk from head trauma is intracranial bleeding, which may develop over several hours. The only treatment is fast transport to the neurosurgeon. Even if a rescue in the dark were not possible, and it often is, rescuers could at least have gotten basic medical care to Greg that night. They could have flown him off the route soon after dawn, shaving several hours off his time to the hospital.
But how to get help? Joe didn’t realize his voice would be heard in the Valley, but it probably would have been. Making lots of noise is the best action in a situation like this. Second, he could have tried his FRS radio “in the blind” (to no one in particular). The NPS does not monitor these channels but many private users do. Third, he could have flashed an SOS if he had had a light. Fourth, something that in fact was done, is telling someone where he and Greg were going and when to begin to worry. In fact, the NPS was looking for them. (Source: Joe Hardy, Greg McFalls, John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park, and Jed Williamson.) (Editor’s Note: In September.; two climbers—inexperienced—repeated this accident. They became stranded because they forgot to untie the safety knot in one end of the rappel rope, so it got stuck and they were stranded and benighted. They yelled for help. NPS personnel rescued them because it was a cold night.)