FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, POOR COMMUNICATION, INADEQUATE MEDICAL TRAINING
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
At 0330 on May 15, Matt Christensen (26) and Tony McClane (20) climbed fixed lines to Sickle Ledge on El Capitan and started up pitch 5 of the Nose (31 pitches, VI 5.9 Cl per Super Topo). They traveled light, with one 60-m rope, hoping to summit that night. The climb went smoothly and they were happy with their progress. After completing pitch 24, Tony belayed just below Camp V, at the spot marked “OK bivy for 1” on Super Topo. It was now about 2030, a little after dark.
Matt led pitch 25. To avoid rope drag, he placed no protection on the easier section up to the ledge just above Camp V (marked “OK bivy for 2” on the topo). Then he continued up a thin aid crack toward the Glowering Spot. Tony could not see Matt by this time because of darkness and the shape of the wall. After the rope had paid out for a while Matt seemed to slow or stop for a few minutes. Then Tony heard, “Oh shit! Oh shit!” and the sounds of falling. Just as Matt hit the ledge, Tony felt tension come on the rope, which he thinks cushioned the impact.
Tony started shouting Matt’s name and became alarmed when he got no answer, so he anchored the rope and jugged up it using Matt’s body as a counter-weight. When he reached the ledge, about five minutes after the fall, Matt was just lying there. The ledge sloped and Matt was head down, so Tony helped him sit up. His eyes were open and he seemed conscious, but when Tony asked, “Are you OK? What’s my name?” Matt didn’t say anything. He didn’t seem to know what had happened, and Tony thought maybe he couldn’t hear. He wasn’t fighting, but he resembled a drunk person—moving, but not purposefully or effectively.
Despite his helmet, Matt had a laceration on the back of his head and patches of blood the size of a dinner plate were scattered everywhere, maybe half a liter altogether. When Tony saw all the blood, he thought Matt might die. They had left Matt’s cell phone in camp, so Tony started signaling for help by flashing his light down toward the Valley.
A Polish team of two was at Camp VI, two pitches higher, so Tony shouted up to them but got no response. Someone on the ground heard him, however, and contacted the NPS by cell phone at 2100. About 30 minutes later, park rangers in El Cap Meadow broadcast toward the cliff with a loudspeaker, “If you need a rescue flash your light.” Tony answered with a flash. The rangers replied, “To answer ‘Yes’, flash three times, to answer ‘No’ flash once,” and then they began asking “Yes/No” questions. The night was calm and clear—excellent conditions for communicating with parties on the wall. Tony was gradually able to describe the situation.
When asked, Tony signaled that he had no medical training. The rangers took that into account in guiding him through a medical exam, which extracted more information: The patient had suffered a head laceration with heavy bleeding and a loss of consciousness of two to five minutes. He currently had no trouble breathing, no uncontrolled bleeding, had a pulse at the wrist, no apparent chest injury, no bones visible, normal feeling and movement in hands and feet, and was seated on a ledge.
When communicating like this, however, misunderstandings always occur. In this case, when determining which member of the party was answering the questions, the rangers came to believe they were talking directly with the injured climber himself. Since Tony had been excellent at responding clearly, they had the impression the patient was fully alert and oriented, when, in fact, Matt was curled into a ball, making no sense, and hardly able to respond to Tony, let alone to a loudspeaker a half mile away in the dark.
Tony wanted immediate assistance. The rangers agreed but told him that they would not be able to reach him until after daybreak. After advising Matt to try to not move his head because of the risk of a neck injury, they left to prepare the team, still with the impression that he was fully alert.
Though not a great bivy, the ledge was ample for both of them to sit, and Tony had been able to build a secure anchor for the night. They had enough water, but having packed for a speed ascent, they had very little clothing, and the night was chilly. Per the rangers’ instructions, Tony huddled next to Matt to keep him as quiet and still as possible.
Despite Tony’s efforts, Matt became more active over time, playing with the anchor, and saying, “Tony, we’ve got to go down,” and, “You’re on belay.” As dawn was breaking, Matt got up, and Tony thought he was just taking a pee over the side. He asked Matt what he was doing and Matt replied, “I’m going to bed”. It turned out he wanted to go down to Camp V where there was a better bivy. By the time Tony realized what he was up to, Matt had untied and was out of reach, 10-15 feet down on another ledge. Then he took off his harness and down-climbed a 5.7 crack all the way to Camp V Tony shouted down, “What the #&%!! are you doing? Put on your harness!” Matt scrambled back up the crack and put on his harness.
Matt wasn’t completely alert but he was now looking Tony in the eye without getting distracted and was answering simple questions. Tony thought that Matt would have known by now if he were hurt. His apparently improved mental and physical condition—evidenced by his downclimb—convinced Tony that Matt could probably safely move around and even jumar, so maybe he didn’t need a rescue. He asked Matt, “Do you want to jumar or do you want a rescue?” Matt replied, “Jumar.”
The NPS “spotters” were back shortly after dawn with the loudspeaker and a telescope. For the first time they were able to see exactly where Matt and Tony were. They asked, “Wave your arms if you need a rescue.” Tony did not answer, thinking Matt would be able to make it to the summit. He decided to finish leading Matt’s pitch to the Glowering Spot and then see if Matt could competently jumar. If Matt made decent time, Tony reasoned, he’d be capable of summiting. Otherwise they would ask for a rescue.
About 0700, as Tony was leading the pitch, the NPS helicopter hovered nearby and asked, via loudspeaker, if they wanted a rescue. Tony waved them off. Tony recalls, “Matt was down at our bivy ledge. He had me on a Grigri so I wasn’t concerned that he was belaying competently, and if I asked for rope he responded right away. The helicopter left and it seemed like the NPS got the message. I made it to the anchor and Matt jugged in a reasonable amount of time. When he got up to me, he was rigged correctly for jugging. I asked, ‘Can you do this? Are you OK?’ and he said he thought he was capable.”
The spotters stayed in the meadow all day to monitor the party’s progress, and two other rescuers hiked to the summit to communicate directly with Tony and Matt as they neared the top.
The Polish team tossed a fixed line down from Camp VI, enabling Tony and Matt to join them. From that point on, the Poles climbed ahead and fixed Tony’s rope at each pitch. Now Tony could let Matt jumar first to be sure he rigged and climbed correctly. He was comfortable that Matt was performing well on the wall but was fairly sure that he wouldn’t be able to hike out on his own.
Tony recalled, “I asked him how he was feeling and he said, ‘Better’. He didn’t seem to be getting worse; otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted him to jug. But he wasn’t bright and cheery and sometimes he would go to sleep at the anchors and I would wake him when he was ready to go.
“I never tried to initiate a rescue during the climb out, but at one point, above Camp VI, Matt started jugging and wasn’t doing very well and said, ‘I’m done for the day’. He came back to the anchor, rested 10-15 minutes, and then jumared it decently. During that interval I thought he wasn’t capable of getting out on his own and I was pissed that I hadn’t asked for help first thing that morning. But he was effective, even on the overhanging sections, and I doubt the spotters in the meadow would have noticed any warning signs.”
However, by the time the Poles topped out at 1530-1600, they and Tony felt that Matt was deteriorating, so the rescuers at the summit radioed for reinforcements to be flown up. When Matt reached the top, he collapsed in exhaustion. He was met by a medical team that found him oriented to person, place, time, and events, but his responses were sluggish, occasionally confused, and he was having trouble staying awake. He also complained of pain and tenderness in his neck at the C-6 and C-7 vertebrae. He was immobilized, packaged in a litter, and short-hauled with a ranger-medic off the lip of El Cap to an EMS helicopter waiting in El Cap Meadow.
The final diagnosis was a subdural hematoma, a fractured skull, and the head laceration, but no serious injury to his neck. Matt spent several days under observation in the hospital ICU. He avoided surgery and has made a full recovery—except for a blank spot in his life. He said, “The last thing I remember of the climb was making the first few placements on that pitch. I woke up in the hospital four days later.”
Experience: Matt said, “I thought we were doing phenomenally well, really efficient. We’re not super-climbers by any means, but we have 3 -5 years of intensive climbing experience, including several multi-pitch routes and fast ascents, and we work well as a team. We were moving at a reasonable pace, no arguments, and not being rushed or cutting corners.”
Equipment: They did cut corners, however, by taking just one rope. This is common practice for fast ascents, but that does leave the party with little margin for self-rescue, e.g., to belay to an injured partner or make a quick retreat. It put Tony in the position of having to rely initially on brain-injured Matt to rig and ascend correctly, and then to rely on the Poles for help—a wise move but not a predictable option.
Tony said, “If we’d thought someone would get injured, we would definitely have taken more than one rope. We assumed we would not get hurt. We don’t fall off 5.9 and shouldn’t be falling off Cl either. We assumed wrong, but an accident seemed very unlikely. It was a surprise.” Other common surprises include broken holds, rockfall, damaged/stuck rope, dropped gear, and significantly under-rated pitches.
The Fall: The free-climbing on that pitch is hard, so Matt was probably aiding. He was caught by protection about 2 5 feet above the ledge, but we don’t know where the fall started or why. At least two failed pieces, possibly fixed, contributed to his striking the ledge. The take-home message is that falls can happen to anyone.
Getting to Matt: When Tony jugged the rope to reach Matt after the fall, both climbers were loading Matt’s highest remaining piece. Tony didn’t know the quality of the placement or whether it had been weakened by stopping the fall. He also did not know what remained to catch him if the top piece pulled, and in a hard fall, his ascenders could have damaged or severed his rope, but he’d never had to rescue someone before and didn’t know what else to do. He figured that if the top piece had held Matt’s fall, it should be good for jugging. It might have been better to self-belay up to Matt, and Tony had enough rope for the task. Several bivy and anchor bolts along the way offered protection and the climbing was fairly easy.
Communications: Playing “Twenty Questions” in the dark is fertile ground for misunderstandings. In this case it put Matt at risk in several ways. Had we realized the issues that night, we would have explained the situation to Tony or ignored his wave-off in the morning. Some advice: Carrying a cell phone or FRS radio can prevent such a problem. A phone must have service where you climb and it must have a battery fully charged for emergencies, not drained by calling your friends at every belay. You may need it for several calls with rescuers, not just a single 911 contact.
The NPS does not monitor FRS radios, so leave one with a reliable friend. Treat at least one set of radio batteries as emergency gear—no chit-chat. Unlike cell phones, FRS radios can talk directly to each other, but they do have range and terrain limitations.
Medical issues: Tony thought and acted reasonably, given his lack of emergency medical training, but he did not understand the risks that Matt faced. This is the most important lesson in this incident.
A blow to the head resulting in Matt’s altered behavior is likely to have caused bleeding inside the skull that presses on the brain. It may only become serious hours later and then prove fatal.
A patient like Matt, though seemingly aware, is capable of semi-intelligent but potentially disastrous actions, as evidenced by Matt’s incredible free- solo-in-the-dark down-climb. As he continued to the summit, Matt might have untied himself, mis-rigged his Jumars, or taken Tony off belay. Advice: If you have to leave a head-trauma patient to go for help, devise several secure tie-ins, restrain the arms if necessary, and confiscate knives and other articles that could cause harm.
Anyone with Matt’s mechanism of injury is at high risk for a broken neck. It can sometimes be ruled out if the patient is truly alert, but Matt did not qualify. Waiting quietly for a rescue and hoping Matt cooperated was medically safer than self-rescue.
Final Advice: A First Responder course, especially the Wilderness version, covers this material. No climber should be without this training. One trained person in the party is not enough, since he or she might be the patient.
Final Word: No one wants to be rescued, because of pride, self-reliance, or public perception. Tony left the decision up to Matt, but as he stated later, “When someone is that disoriented, their opinion doesn’t really matter, does it?” He’s right. The choice of self-rescue was not Matt’s to make. (Source: Matt Christianson, Tony McClane, and John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)