FALL ON ROCK, WEATHER, INADEQUATE PROTECTION—RAPPEL ANCHOR CAME OFF, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT
California, High Sierra, Middle Palisade
At 4:15 a.m. on August 14, experienced climbers Alfred Fordiani (43) and Dave Brummund (42) left their Brainard Lake camp with a choice of climbs depending on the weather, which had been unsettled for the past several days. If excellent weather, they would attempt the Eagle Face of Norman Clyde Peak (5.4, approximately 1,000 feet of technical climbing, descent by 3rd/4th class NF/NNE ridge); or in the event of iffy weather, they would attempt the East Face of Middle Palisade (3rd class).
At 8:00 a.m. the weather looked excellent, and the pair traversed the knife- edged lowest section of Norman Clyde’s NNE ridge onto the Eagle Face, avoiding the first cliff band directly above the Middle Pal Glacier. They started up the face climbing with rock shoes and a single 60-meter rope, leaving boots, ice ax, and crampons by the big snowfield on the face of Norman Clyde.
By 1:00 p.m., the climbers were about 1.5 rope lengths from the top of the face, but dark clouds were building. They hurried to make it off of the face before the weather came in, but rain and hail started falling as they began the last short (½ rope length) pitch. Fordiani was leading about 15 feet from the top of the face and attempted to mantle over a large block. But the block was covered with hail and offered no purchase. Attempting instead to climb a slightly more difficult flake to the left, the flake broke off, and he took a leader fall of approximately 30 feet, wrenching his left knee and severely bruising his pelvis and left quadriceps. Brummond lowered him back to the belay stance, and it was agreed that given the conditions of both the face and Fordiani, there was no way to continue climbing to the top. They rappelled back down the face, using a combination of old anchors and new. The descent, while slow with a single rope, went without incident down to the snowfield where they gathered up their boots and snow gear.
Fordiani was mobile at this point, but slow and a bit unsteady due to his left leg injuries. The rain and hail had ended but the rock was still wet. It was decided to bypass the knife-edge on descent and instead rappel the last cliff band to the talus/glacier on the Middle Palisade—three single rope rappels. The first two rappels went without incident, and a 5’ by 5’ triangular block was slung for the final rappel to the talus. Brummund rapped down, and Frodiani followed. Darkness was just arriving. Fordiani reached the talus and was walking backwards down the talus still on rappel tension when the rappel block broke free from the cliff, initiating a significant rockfall. Fordiani tumbled backwards and attempted to roll out of the way, but the rappel block landed on his leg, breaking his right ankle.
It was clear that it was a rescue situation. Brummund made sure his partner was stable and comfortable with food, water, and warm clothes, and headed back to Brainard Lake camp, arriving at 11:30 p.m. After a few hours sleep, he headed down the trail, arriving at Glacier Lodge 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning. The sheriff was phoned, initiating rescue. Fordiani was rescued by Inyo County SAR by helicopter at 2:00 p.m. He had surgery on his ankle and should make a full recovery.
Alfred Fordiani wrote a lengthy analysis which is summarized below.
I was convinced that the moisture had blown out, and that all-day sun was in store for us. This was clearly an error, and I should have realized that the clouds in the valley were an indication of moisture that might rain on us... It is worth noting that we were probably off-route at the top of the face. The route description (Roper, Secor) seemed to make it clear that there was some careful route finding to be done at the top of the route; in our haste to get to the top we did not take the time to look around, but rather took the first line that seemed climbable... In hindsight, I wish that we had scouted a bit to be sure that we were on the easiest route.
The move on which I fell was well protected with a bomber #2 Camalot. I was only six or seven feet above my piece when I fell, and so should have fallen at most, 15-18 feet. In 18 years of climbing with D.B., I have tried to climb well within my abilities and have never taken a leader fall (outside of sport climbing), so D.B. was caught a bit by surprise by my fall and let a half a second or so of rope through the belay before checking my fall. While I knew that I was making a somewhat awkward move out of his line of sight, I did not warn D.B. to watch me. I was surprised when my hold broke, but it was a tricky enough situation that I certainly should have warned him to watch me.
I have found that as I have gotten older, I have progressively tried to go lighter and lighter, and being fresh at the end of the day is safety. But this I will say: given the stress of finding suitable rap anchors, I will never again venture onto an alpine face, even an easy one, without a few pitons and a hammer for use in emergency. As it goes, all of the factors leading to and including the leader fall and tedious rappel descent of the face are to me just part of climbing and in my opinion well within the realm of acceptable risk. I misread the weather a bit and paid a small price. If the leader fall and rap down the face was all there was to the story, I would have walked out, albeit slowly with my pelvis and left leg injuries, defeated on the climb and banged up a bit, but without a story to tell.
The rap anchor failure at the very bottom is something else entirely. We probably would have rapped that little cliff even if we had finished the face and descended the standard route without incident. Many years of reading Accidents in North America (sic) have taught me that rap anchor failure equals death, and I should be dead. I am beyond shocked that the anchor failed. We pushed on that block with our whole might and it didn’t budge. I watched D.B. rap down on that block and it didn’t budge a micrometer. Why it came down when it did I don’t know, but it scares me to think about it. Last year I climbed a couple of peaks in Canada that have maintained rap stations with big, fat double bolts and rings. I like those.
One final note: The space blanket that I have carried for many years finally came into use and worked very well. I strongly recommend that every climber carry one. (Source: From a report submitted by Dave German)