FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, NO HARD HAT
California, Tuolumne Meadows, Cathedral Peak
On July 1 Shannon (29) and Margie (28) climbed part of Matthes Crest and decided to finish the day with an ascent of the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak (five pitches of 5.6). This was their first day of climbing together, but both had climbed the route previously and knew it was well within their abilities (trad 5.10 and 5.9 respectively). Since it was four hours before dark and Shannon was the faster climber, they decided she would lead the whole climb. They wanted to bypass the 4th pitch chimney because neither of them liked chimneys, so Margie suggested staying left on an easy and protectable 5.4 variation that she had led previously. They carried the light alpine rack they had used that morning and simul-climbed 30 meters apart on a 60m x 8.1mm rope doubled to act as a twin (clipping both strands through all protection). Margie was wearing a helmet but Shannon was not.
Margie: Shannon climbed fast. We flew past the first belay station, and she belayed me to the top of the second pitch, where I returned the protection she had placed. We continued up until Shannon was out of sight above me, probably bypassing the chimney. The amount of slack between us was perfect, just a small smile in the rope. I was reaching out to clean the sling on a fixed piton when I heard, “Falling!” I grabbed the sling and braced myself with one hand and with the other I started jamming cams into a crack next to my head and clipped in my daisy. But the rope never came tight. The slack was gone but there was no force.
“Shannon!” I called. No response. I finished my anchor in case she fell further. Were her ropes intact? Would she start thrashing and roll off of whatever ledge had clearly stopped her fall? Was she even alive? I did not know how to safely get to her. I thought my only option was to climb while tied in to the rope — essentially soloing with her rope and her body as a backup, and with no idea what protection she had placed, but I was afraid that I might somehow pull her off the ledge. Otherwise I would have to wait where I was for help to come and not be able to care for her.
“Shannon!” I called two more times. No response. Then I heard “Shannon!” back, in an unfamiliar woman’s voice at the base of the chimney pitch about 60 feet above and right of me.
“Can you see my friend? Can you please help us?” I called. “She fell. Do you have a cellphone?” replied the other climber. I had already reached for the phone and was turning it on. “I’m calling 911. Please have your climber lower to you and go to my friend,” I said.
“I’m Ingrid. Max is climbing. I’ll get him down,” the voice answered. I was unable to see Shannon, Ingrid, or Max.
Ingrid had not known anyone else was on Cathedral, so she was surprised to see Shannon climb quickly by and out of sight. Then she heard, “Falling!” and briefly saw Shannon airborne; then she heard a “thud” on the ledges 30 feet to her left. She called out, “Are you OK?” but got no response, then she heard Margie calling. For about five minutes Shannon just moaned. Then she began screaming, “I’m going to die! Somebody help me!” but she never directly acknowledged Ingrid’s voice, and Ingrid couldn’t see her.
Margie: Shannon started screaming these high-pitched animal-like yelps. All I could think of was severe brain injury. She was alive, but I did not think she would survive. 911 connected me to Katie, a dispatcher in the park. “Is this an emergency?” she asked. “I have a fallen climber on Cathedral Peak, near the 4th pitch,” I said. “She fell far. She is not conscious, but she is screaming. Please help.” Katie immediately radioed my report to the park helicopter crew and the rangers in Tuolumne Meadows and then started asking me questions.
Meanwhile, Max was nearing the top of the chimney pitch. He and Ingrid could barely hear each other, so she was in a quandary As a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), she wanted to immediately self-belay over to Shannon to see how she could help, but she couldn’t take Max off belay until he was safe. She began tugging on the rope to get his attention. After a few minutes, they were able to talk and he fashioned an acceptable anchor. She decided to lower him so they could work as a team. This took two separate lowers with an intermediate anchor and much time, so when he finally reached Ingrid, she had him traverse straight to Shannon rather than take the time to re-rig and go over herself. Max got to Shannon 15-20 minutes after her fall and Ingrid kept him on belay thereafter.
Margie was also a WFR. Katie, the dispatcher, was an EMT, and Max had Basic First Aid. He could not see or hear Margie, 60 feet below, but Ingrid was able to hear both of them and to act as a relay. She said, later, “While Margie and Katie talked on the phone, I was able to give Max initial instructions, and when Margie or Katie had orders or questions, Max and I could provide the answers. We were able to work as a cohesive unit instead of being fragmented and emotional.”
Shannon was lying on a ledge with her rope running through protection 20 feet above her and then down to Margie. She had cuts and scrapes all over her body. Her head was covered in blood and she was bleeding from her nose and mouth. Katie reminded Kathy to check Shannon’s breathing. “Irregular,” Max reported, “Oh wait, she’s shivering, that’s why.” So he covered her with his own shirts and an emergency blanket he hauled up from Margie. “At one point she tried to sit up,” Max said. “She started screaming and reached for her back, so I assumed she had a neck or back injury. I got her down and tried to stabilize her between my arms so that she couldn’t move her neck or wiggle around and worsen her situation. I stabilized her the entire time, unless I was told to do something else. Katie asked us to set an anchor for the incoming rescuer, which I was able to do using gear from Shannon’s rack.”
About 45 minutes after her fall, the park helicopter located Shannon’s party. Flying conditions permitted a safe hover over the ledge, so they decided to insert Jason, a ranger/medic, by short-haul. They landed in a meadow below to prepare the helicopter.
Margie: Katie asked me if there was anyone under Shannon, since a helicopter close to rock is dangerous. “I am,” I said, “Is that OK?” Katie replied, “Anytime a helicopter flies in, there is risk of things getting blown around.” I called up to Ingrid, “I need to get out from under Shannon for the rescue. Have Max put me on belay.” But the helicopter was on its way and we suddenly felt really rushed. I climbed to Max and traversed to Ingrid. I could barely see Shannon under the silver blanket as I went by. The medic was coming in, hanging on the line under the helicopter. He motioned to Max to stay with Shannon.”
Jason landed on the ledge, clipped in, and the helicopter left. Shannon was scared, confused, combative, and crying over and over, “You’re killing me!” and “Am I going to die?” She fought the whole time, trying to rip off the cervical collar they applied, so Jason and Max packaged her quickly in the litter as best they could and called back the aircraft. At Jason’s signal, Max released the final sling anchoring the litter to the cliff. Jason and Shannon were lifted off and short-hauled to Tuolumne Meadows. Then Shannon was loaded aboard the helicopter and flown to the park heli-base where she was transferred to an air ambulance for the flight to Modesto.
Margie: When the helicopter left, it became completely silent. We were alone on the wall with ropes and gear everywhere and all of us were shaken up, wondering if we should try to lead out in our current mental state. With one good rope and three climbers, it would take forever, and dark was an hour away. But then a team of rescuers arrived at the base. They were Plan B, in case the helicopter hadn’t been able to rescue Shannon. They yelled to us, offering to come up and help us rappel. It was a much-appreciated offer and the wisest option.
Shannon reached the trauma center three hours after her fall. Her most severe injuries were a compression fracture of T12 and a burst fracture of LI, but she had escaped any damage to her spinal cord. She also somehow avoided a serious brain injury, but not by much. She still only remembers walking to the start of the route, then nothing until the ER. After several months in a full-torso brace, she is fully healed and climbing again.
It appears that Shannon was off route on a hard section that offered limited protection. This is surprising, considering that she indicated that she is a timid, though competent, leader. It is not known why she fell. No protection came out and all signs suggest she fell about 40 feet.
Protecting the pitch required tiny cams and nuts, but their light rack had nothing small. Simul-climbing may have played a part, since they weren’t meeting frequently to discuss the route and to replenish Shannon’s gear. Shannon now thinks that simul-climbing closer together would improve that situation, but it’s hard to pin the accident on simul-climbing itself, since everything seemed to be going well. She and Margie both felt some pressure to climb fast given the late hour. This may have influenced Shannon to run out her pro or spend less time route finding, but that doesn’t fit with her leading style and, in fact, they had plenty of time.
Shannon said, “This was the first day in my climbing experience that I hadn’t worn a helmet,” she recalled, “with the possible exception of a sport route. I remember, before the climb, wishing I had one.” Margie said, “If I’d been out with my longtime climbing partner and she didn’t have a helmet, I would have been very comfortable telling her, ‘You’re not a God. Wear your helmet!’ but I didn’t know Shannon that well, so I failed to raise the issue.”
“It seemed like a miracle that Margie had a phone,” Max said, and he was almost right. “I always climb with one,” said Margie, “but that morning, five of us left the car in a rush for Matthes Crest and I realized it was still in the car. I didn’t know everyone in the party well and was afraid they’d make fun of me, so I made some excuse about sunglasses and ran back for the phone. The helmet and the phone were good lessons. I should not be shy about raising safety concerns with new partners.”
Cell coverage in the backcountry is sparse, but several high points can “see” a tower in the distance and the upper part of this climb is one of those. (See Yosemite, Marmot Dome, in this issue.) Even if a climb has no coverage and you have to go for help, you may get cell service long before reaching the car, so bring your phone. Be sure to tell your partners where the phone is, as you may be the patient.
Given the circumstances and the unknowns facing them, Ingrid and Max effectively carried out their plan to work as a team and their presence was a great stroke of luck for Shannon, Margie, and the rescue team. The onscene help Margie, Ingrid, and Max were able to provide is also an example of why climbers should take some form of a wilderness first aid course. (Source: Shannon, Margie, Ingrid, and Max. Also Jason Ramsdell and John Dill, NPS Rangers, Yosemite National Park)
(Editor's Note: Shannon’s injuries are not unusual and sometimes they are not obvious. In late August, Colin (29) and three friends climbed Cathedral Peak and started down the back side. Colin tried a steep shortcut while unroped and fell/ tumbled 60 feet, losing consciousness briefly. With his partners’1 help, he limped out three miles with an obvious wrist fracture, a fractured foot, and a seven-inch scalp wound, but the CT scan at the hospital also found three fractured cervical vertebrae. Incredibly, the neck fractures were stable.)