ROCKFALL, UNFORTUNATE POSITION
Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, The Snaz
On July 24, after a successful climb, our party of three was on the last (sizeable but sloping) ledge and final rappel of the route. I (Scott McGee, 39) was struck on the front half of my helmet by a bread-loaf-sized rock traveling at high velocity. I lost sensation and movement in my hands and feet, fell to my knees, and began to tumble backwards. (I experienced no loss of consciousness.) The first partner, who had just clipped in to rappel, arrested me by the harness and leg.
The second partner, a ski patroller, and I assessed potential injuries, ruling out destabilizing neck fracture and head injury. Normal sensation returned to feet and legs, but burning sensation persisted in hands. We elected to self-evacuate, stabilizing my neck, rappelling two short sections, and short roping to trail. Three miles travel on foot returned us to the trailhead.
Although I was on a large ledge, I was not anchored. Anchoring until on rappel could have prevented the fall that my partner saved me from. The rockfall came with no warning or sound of tumbling from above. There was a party one pitch above, who reported neither hearing rockfall, nor knocking rocks off. The route is fairly steep (5.7-5.9 pitches), and the rock probably came from very high up.
CT and MRI revealed one bone spur chipped off of the front of C3 and no other damage to bone or soft tissue. Burning and tingling in arms diminished over two to three weeks and were caused in part by a pre-existing condition known as cervical stenosis, or bone spurring on the vertebrae, which narrows foramen, openings in the spinal column where nerve roots leave the spinal cord. These openings were likely pinched momentarily when the rock struck.
This rock could have easily missed me, hit elsewhere with a worse outcome, or struck me fatally had I been in a slighdy different position. Wearing a helmet doubtless saved my life. Anchoring, even on large ledges, is something I’ll consider more carefully in the future. In the meantime, I pursued surgery (fusion of C4-C7) as a preventative measure to keep major trauma to the neck from resulting in major disability. (Source: Scott McGee)