FALLING ROCK—FALL ON ROCK
New Hampshire, Cannon Cliff, Whitney-Gilman
May 18 was a gorgeous day when two former students of mine and I headed up on the Whitney-Gilman ridge about 10:00 a.m. after waiting for one party of three to advance the first two pitches. I led the first pitch and brought J.W. and P.G. up simultaneously, as we were climbing with a double rope system. Our plan was to swing leads and enjoy the route and not worry about rushing the climb having committed to climbing below another party.
P.G. topped the second pitch out and discovered that two of the party of three were still on the small belay stance/ledge, so he anchored below and waited patiently for them to move upwards. After the belay station was clear, he constructed a new anchor and brought us up.
As we all gathered on the ledge, the first party of three had a problem with a piece of protection becoming stuck in the crack on the third pitch. After the followers gave up, the leader rappelled with three nut tools duct taped together to give it go in removing the camming unit. This whole process went on for almost two hours. Needless to say, we were getting a bit impatient with the whole process, so we decided to do the left hand variation. After identifying the route from the belay ledge, J.W. began the pitch. After ten meters he began to climb out and left. P.G. and I encouraged J.W. to stay right, on the route we identified. J.W. responded that the pins going left looked good, as did the climbing. I said, “All right, just let us know how it looks around the comer.” J.W. said, “ The climbing looks easy, no problem.”
Meanwhile another party of two were topping out on the first pitch. A few minutes latter we heard some rock fall. Shortly after that we heard a blood curdling “AAHHHHH!!” Almost simultaneously, we heard another rock fall. We hear J.W. moaning and yelling, having hit a ledge after about an eight to ten meter fall. While climbing on double ropes, the upper blue rope’s protection (small stopper) pulled out of the rock causing him to fall until the second green rope came taut just has he hit the ledge. The sheath of the blue rope was cut all the way through and there was visual damage on the core strands about three meters in from end.
I jumped into rescue mode and ascended the pitch using a friction wrap for running pro on the tight green rope. Being extra careful to assure not falling on this rope, I aided over the awkward move into the corner and ledge where J.W. was. After a fall patient assessment, I determined he possibly had broken ribs, a back injury, and a sprained ankle. Knowing we weren’t dealing with an airway, head injury, c-spine injury or any signs of internal bleeding, we decided it was best to facilitate the rescue ourselves.
I was able to climb a few meters above J.W. and established an anchor. Meantime P.G. was reworking the last belay anchor to facilitate a lower and a rappel. As J.W. was able to stand fairly balanced and ambulatory (but in intense pain), I was able to lower him to the belay stance where P.G. was able to anchor him and get him in position of comfort. I removed a couple of pieces from the anchor and rappelled down to a belay stance for farther assessment.
The next section I needed to lower P.G. on two ropes in order for him to set two directional anchors during his descent. When he arrived at the final ledge, he began constructing the next lower/rappel anchor. I then simul-rappelled with J.W., positioning him sitting on my thigh keeping him upright with a chest sling clipped into a rappel extension material utilizing a prusik for an auto-locking back up. I was able to pass my directional points with good stances providing enough security to clip uphill strand into directional carabiner and downhill strands out. Once I reached the new anchor and ledge, P.G. anchored and positioned J.W. while I jugged/Bat-manned up rappel strands on friction wrap to free one directional anchor and pull knot past top directional anchor and rapped back to ledge to pull the ropes.
Our last section I lowered P.G. to ensure the strands made it down clean and simul-rappelled into the Black Dike with J.W.. We touched down on the talus field three hours after the initial accident. It took another two hours for J.W. to move backwards (his only real position of comfort) while leaning his chest on a tight short rope supported by me uphill and had his feet being assisted and guided by P.G. on the downhill side. Half way down the scree/talus we witnessed a very large rockfall come down to the left, about 100-150 meters of the Whitney/Gilman and all the way down the talus field to our south. It was quite the exclamation point on our day.
Once on the paved walkway, I was able to fireman carry J.W to the truck where we transported him to the hospital. We never heard a word from either party, above or below. J.W. spent the next two nights in hospital. He had two vertebrae compression fractures and a strained ankle and was very happy there wasn’t anything worse! (Source: From a letter sent in by Mark Puleio, mountain guide.)
(Editor’s Note: Cannon Cliff is the rock formation where the New Hampshire State symbol USED to be. The famous stone profile known as the Old Man of the Mountains exfoliated last summer. Spontaneous rockfall is a common phenomenon and one of the inherent risks for climbers.)