FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE CLOTHING
North Carolina, Shortoff Mountain, Little Corner
On Saturday March 17, M. McNeely (age unknown) and her husband David, both experienced climbers, were attempting Little Corner (5.6) a rock climb located on Shortoff Mountain at the south end of North Carolina’s rugged Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. It was late in the afternoon when Ms. McNeely started the climb, getting solid gear placements as she led the first pitch. She was well into the climb when her hand unexpectedly slipped out of a hand crack. She fell backwards approximately 15 feet striking her back on the rock. Her gear held, limiting her fall. Luckily, her head didn’t make contact with the rock, as she wasn’t wearing a helmet, which could have compounded her injuries.
David lowered her to the ground. Upon reaching the ground, she had no complaints or concerns about injury. At this point, the couple made plans to climb out, with David taking the lead. However, as the adrenalin rush wore off, Ms. McNeely began to complain of back pain. (She was later diagnosed with four cracked vertebrae). She was also beginning to get uncomfortable and because of her injury and the steepness of the terrain, so she elected not to climb out. This caused the couple to rethink their plans. To compound the situation, the McNeely’s were not prepared to spend the night, as they did not have the appropriate gear.
Around 5:30 p.m., David used his cellphone to call Burke County EMS and three of his friends he knew to be climbing at Rumbling Bald, 2.5 hours west of Shortoff Mountain, and asked for their assistance. As late afternoon turned into evening, Marla began to experience back spasms and started to shiver. David started a fire, then huddled with Marla to keep her warm and waited for help to arrive.
Burke County EMS arrived cliff top shortly thereafter, followed by the three climber friends around 8:30 p.m. The climbers met rescue personnel at the top of the descent gully. Due to the limited technical expertise of rescue personnel, the climbers made an attempt to get them to the base of the cliff. However, because of wet and icy conditions in the descent gully, the rescuers felt uncomfortable with this maneuver. Instead, two of the three climbers rappelled to the ground with a sleeping bag and other essential gear and made contact with the McNeely’s.
When it was decided that due to the nature of the terrain and Ms. McNeely’s condition that it wouldn’t be possible to get her out on foot, a Blackhawk helicopter was requested. It arrived around 3:00 a.m., using the couple’s fire to guide them to their location. Medical personnel stabilized Marla, placed her on a backboard, then carried her to a site where she could be evacuated by helicopter.
Climbing in Linville Gorge is one of the few wilderness areas on the East Coast that offers high quality climbing experiences. Access is limited and demanding. For this reason climbers should be self-reliant and have the appropriate skills to initiate a self-rescue. In addition, climbers need to have suitable first aid and bivy gear with them and be prepared for the unexpected. Rescue teams should be familiar with the areas in which they are expected to respond to emergencies and have trained and experienced personnel. (Source: Les Duncan, Buddy Brasington, and Aram Attarian)