FALL ON ROCK – SHORT FIXING WITHOUT A SELF-BELAY, INADEQUATE PROTECTION – FAILURE TO TEST AID PLACEMENT
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan.
On June 26, Degan (38) and Beth (32) were attempting a one-day climb of the Nose of El Capitan (Grade VI 5.9 C2). They had both climbed the Nose before and had extensive experience on Yosemite’s big walls. They carried one 60-meter rope.
They approached the Nose via the Pine Line and started climbing the first pitch at 5:15 a.m. with Beth leading. The first pitch ends at a ledge and a two-bolt belay station. When she arrived, she pulled up all the slack rope, approximately 60 feet, and anchored the rope 60 feet from her end so that she could begin leading the next pitch with the slack while Degan cleaned the first pitch, thus saving time. When Degan reached the anchor he would start belaying her with the full rope.
Instead of rigging a self-belay, Beth proceeded to lead the second pitch tied only to her end of the rope with a 60-foot loop of slack stacked on the ledge. She free climbed the first 30 feet, a 5.7 left-facing corner that trended right, and then switched to aid climbing when the free climbing became 5.10. She was about 35 feet over the ledge when she placed her first piece on aid, a small offset Alien into a flared pin scar. She hand-tested the piece, then clipped in one of her aiders and stood up in it. As she fully weighted the piece, she heard it pop and she began falling down the slab.
Because of the slack in her system, Beth fell approximately 30 feet. A Camalot placed a few feet before she started aid climbing stopped her fall. She stopped approximately even with the top of pitch one, but on the slab to the right of the belay ledge. Based on her injuries, it appears that after initially falling on the slab above the belay anchor, she may have become caught in her rope, causing her to pendulum into the corner of the second pitch. Beth and Degan believe she sustained most of her injuries from the impact with this corner.
Degan could not see Beth fall and was not aware of the accident until he had almost arrived at the belay ledge and saw her hanging from the rope, upside down. He called to her but she did not respond. He heard her making gurgling noises. Degan continued ascending to the belay stance. He fixed himself to the anchor using his end of the rope with about ten feet of slack. Using this line, he was able to swing out to the right and reach Beth on the slab. He righted her, and she started to regain consciousness. He then tensioned back to the anchor with her, which provided some slack in her end of the lead line and allowed her to stand on the belay ledge (supported by Degan) without weighting the rope.
After securing Beth into the belay anchor, Degan, who is a Medic, assessed her injuries. She was not oriented to her location or what happened before the fall, but she seemed capable of following instructions and was sufficiently coordinated to assist in her own evacuation.
Degan could see a major avulsion injury of her right arm with some bone exposed, which she was guarding, and lacerations on her face including a laceration on her nose down to the bone, but the obvious concussion and her disorientation most concerned him. Degan called the park service about 6:00 a.m. and reported the accident and Beth’s condition. Worried that she could deteriorate quickly, he began a self-evacuation knowing that an NPS rescue team was mobilized and would arrive at the base soon.
The first pitch is approximately 140 feet long and Degan had only one 200-foot rope, so he decided to lower Beth to the large ledge at the bottom of the first pitch. She was alert enough that she was following his instructions. He pulled the lead line down from pitch two through the protection that Beth had left on the pitch and tied her back into the rope.
Next he lowered her to the large ledge and instructed her to sit down. Once she was sitting, he instructed her to untie. The ledge is 6' x 6' and has 30 feet of third class terrain below. He was confident that she would stay seated. He then pulled Beth’s end of the rope back up and made two rappels to reach her, using a single bolt in the middle of the pitch for the second rappel. Then he built an anchor, fixed the rope to it and was able rappel with Beth on a single line to reach ground level.
As he was completing these rappels around 6:20 a.m., Rangers Jack Hoeflich and Matt Stark arrived with medical gear and began stabilizing Beth for transport. The NPS litter team arrived soon after and carried Beth to an air ambulance at El Capitan Meadow. She was flown to Modesto and reached the emergency room approximately two hours after the fall.
In addition to suffering a concussion, Beth had a broken orbital floor in her skull, a lacerated and broken nose, other facial lacerations requiring stitches, de-gloving of the skin on the right arm, which after being repaired in surgery, resulted in a eight-inch scar on the forearm, two broken metatarsals in her right foot, a large rope burn on the right thigh, and significant bruising from the rope on the back of the right leg.
After the accident, Beth stated that she could have switched to aid sooner, before the pin scars, in order to be standing in aiders on a solid placement while she tested it.
Short fix with a self-belay: If Beth had rigged a self-belay, she would have eliminated the slack and fallen only a few feet with no serious repercussions. “It was my choice not to tie in short,” Beth said later. “I’d climbed the pitch so many times with out any problems that I didn’t even think about it. Normally I wouldn’t have pulled up so much slack rope but I thought I would be on belay by the time I finished the 5.7.I should have waited for Degan to belay me before starting the aid section.”
The self-rescue dilemma: As a Medic, Degan had to decide whether to move Beth immediately in case she developed life-threatening intracranial bleeding or to wait for the SAR team while stabilizing her neck in case of a cervical spine injury. This dilemma is typical of off-road medicine and must often be addressed with minimal information.
Two ropes instead of one: Although Degan and Beth were able to self- evacuate fairly easily, carrying only one rope was a potentially risky decision. With only one rope, it may be impossible to escape a belay and secure an injured party. In addition, a retreat from high on the route, injury or not, is much more difficult, including, time and gear consumption. The Nose, like many routes on El Capitan, can be descended with two 60-meter ropes using fixed anchors without leaving gear.
Helmet: The foam on the inside of Beth’s helmet was crushed and likely saved her from a more serious head injury. (Source: Degan and Beth, and Jesse McGahey, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)