FALL ON ROCK
California, Yosemite Valley, Lembert Dome
On July 5, John Hrizo (36) was injured in a lead fall of about thirty feet on the second pitch of Northwest Books on Lembert Dome (5.6, 3 pitches).
According to Hrizo, he did all the leading, followed by his partner, Stacy Waksmonski (29). After they climbed the first pitch, Hrizo climbed to an intermediate belay midway through the second pitch where he rigged a belay. Because Waksmonski was a relatively inexperienced climber, Hrizo wanted to break the pitch into smaller pieces for her.
After belaying Waksmonski up, Hrizo began to lead the second half of the pitch. He had with him a copy of the Supertopo Guide to Tuolumne Meadows, and from it he concluded that the right-curving crack above and to the left of the belay was 5.9, harder climbing than he intended to do. Hrizo placed a #3.5 Camalot just above the belay and began to climb the face to the right of the crack.
Initially, the face climbing was easy, around 5.6. But as he climbed higher, he began to suspect that he was off route. Ten feet above the Camalot, he decided he was definitely off route and that the crack to the left was where he wanted to be. He stopped and assessed his options.
Hrizo thought about down-climbing, but didn’t want to down-climb on slab. “The slab seemed to keep the same angle, then flatten out some and meet the crack,” said Hrizo. He decided to press on to the crack. Although the slab didn’t get steeper as he continued up, “it got pebbly” in texture, with small loose rocks that made foot placements uncertain.
About fifteen feet above the Camalot, Hrizo began concentrating on foot placements, but his climbing shoes kept picking up pebbles that made his feet slip. “I cleaned off my shoe and replaced it several times,” he said, but could not get a secure foothold. He started to down-climb and traverse left to meet the crack when his feet suddenly slipped.
Because of the angle of the slab, Hrizo slid down the wall instead of free-falling. His hands and forearms were badly cut and gouged in the process. Part way through the fall, Hrizo’s feet hit a small ledge. “I hit the ledge, jammed my ankles, and kept going,” he said. He was flung out with enough force to badly bruise his leg when he pendulumed back into the wall. Waksmonski’s belay stopped him after he had fallen about thirty feet.
Hrizo said he knew right away that one ankle was broken and the other was probably sprained. His arms and hands were bleeding. Waksmonski belayed him as he climbed fifteen feet back up to the belay station, where he tied in and pulled the rope. Together they splinted the obviously broken ankle with the Supertopo Guide and tape. Hrizo then re-rigged the belay into a rappel and, with an autoblock back-up, rappelled to a lower ledge with his knees against the wall. Once Waksmonski joined him, Hrizo repeated the process three more times (they had only one 60 meter rope) until they were on the ground.
Ranger Fred Koegler received a vague report of a fallen climber with injured ankles on Lembert Dome. From the Lembert parking lot, Ranger Koegler hiked to the northwest side of the dome to search for the patient. Koegler found Hrizo near the base of the route. Hrizo calmly reported what had happened while Koegler assessed his injuries and began initial treatment. The Tuolumne SAR Team and several of Hrizo’s friends carried him in a litter about a quarter mile to the parking lot. He declined further care from NPS and his friends drove him to Mammoth Hospital, where he was diagnosed with two badly broken ankles.
Hrizo showed uncommon grit, focus, and pain tolerance in getting himself and his partner safely off the wall. His initiative turned what would have been a high-angle rope rescue into a simple litter carryout, drastically reducing the danger for his rescuers.
More importantly, Hrizo self-rescued without compromising his safety; he carefully rigged his rappel anchors and remembered to use a backup on his rappel (the autoblock: very important with slippery, bloody hands.) Self-rescue is great, but for your sake and for the sake of your rescuers, don’t compromise your safety to do it. Better to be plucked off the wall with minimal injuries than rushed from the base with critical ones.
Being comfortable down-climbing will help you recognize and use the right time to retreat when you’re in this dilemma. You can practice down- climbing each time you top-out a route on top-rope; instead of being lowered to the ground, down-climb the route. First, though, be sure your belayer can belay you safely down the route.
Not all belays are equal. Waksmonski’s belay was effective because she was attentive to and had good communication with Hrizo, and because the belay was rigged so that the force of the fall was taken by the anchor, not by the belayer. Otherwise, Hrizo’s injuries could have been worse and Waksmonski could have been injured from the force of the fall as well. (Source: Lincoln Else, NPS Ranger, Yosemite national Park)