American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fall on Rock — Haste, Inadequate Protection, California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2010


California, Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Rock

On October 3, Jake Martin (29) and I (30) decided to climb Central Pillar of Frenzy (five pitches, 5.9) on Middle Cathedral Rock, something moderate and with a close approach that I had climbed a few times in the past. We climbed the first three pitches pretty quickly. I was leading the 4th pitch and remembered that you can rap from the top of the 5th (the typical end to the route) to the top of the 3rd, so I decided to lead the two pitches as one; I clipped the anchor at the top of 4 and continued up, placing gear periodically on easy terrain. I was pretty far above my last piece of gear and thought to place a piece in a good crack when I caught site of the anchors about 15 feet above. Since it was only 15 feet to the anchor, I kept climbing without placing gear, with the usual confidence that I would not fall. I was doing a few short, insecure, but relatively easy lie back moves with my eye on the anchor when my foot that was smeared on the smooth wall spontaneously blew.

I had a lot of time to think about my situation as I free-fell, and I realized that my last piece of gear was more than 50 feet below. I had time to yell, “Holy Shit!” take a breath, and resume yelling. Along the way I banged into the wall and began to slide down the near-vertical slab, and then I must have got caught up on something because I began to tumble over and over, wondering when the rope would catch.

At one point I was upside down and banging into the wall and then, when the rope started to catch, I flipped around and ultimately stopped, right-side up. I was wearing a helmet which, when later inspected, had multiple fresh dents and scratches and has thus been retired. Jake kept asking me whether I was OK, and I kept waving him off as I hung my head, trying to overcome the mental and physical shock and injuries of the fall. I was pretty delirious; my hands, elbows, and ankles were bleeding; I had ripped the pads off of a few fingers; and my ankle, wrist, and arm hurt.

After a few minutes, when I had regained enough sense to communicate,

I asked Jake to lower me ten feet to the anchor at the top of 4, not really knowing if there was enough rope. I had fallen from within ten feet of the top of five to ten feet above the top of 4, a total of 120 feet, according to the topo. As he lowered me, I was seeing stars and everything was swirling around me. At pitch 4,1 was able to slump onto a sloping ledge, clip in to the anchor, untie, and with Jake’s help from below, pull the rope through the gear above and back down to me, leaving three pieces of gear in pitch 5 above me. (No gear pulled when I fell.) Then Jake lowered me to his belay at the top of 3 and I cleaned the gear from pitch 4 on the way down. From 3 he was able to lower me down each pitch and then rappel himself, until we reached the ground.

I hobbled to the clinic and got all my wounds cleaned. We took bets on whether I had broken my arm, because there was a sub-dermal hematoma—a baseball-sized lump—on my forearm. It turned out I had no broken bones, but I had sprained my ankle and wrist and I needed stitches in my hand. As I write this, almost four weeks later, my ankle and the huge hematoma are still not healed, but I was extremely lucky. (Source: James Woods)


Helmet. Jake: “If James had not been wearing his helmet, he would have experienced SEVERE head trauma—at several points during his fall, he tumbled backwards heels-over-head with his head the first thing impacting the rock.”

James: “In the past I generally wore one for all aid climbs and most long trad lines, but not for sport climbing and cragging. At the base of the climb I asked Jake if he was going to wear a helmet and he replied, ‘Yes, I always wear a helmet.’ I said, ‘I usually don’t for cragging, but it’s Middle Cathedral, so I will,’ referring to the large amounts of rockfall we typically associate with Middle. After this experience I will not be leaving the ground without one!”

Haste. Jake: “We were climbing in the shade, and James had left his wind jacket at the base. The afternoon wind picked up and I had my jacket on at the top of pitch 3.I remember James saying something about getting the hell off this thing so we could lounge in the warm sun and drink beer in the meadow. In short, he was in a hurry to get off.”

James: “The best point Jake made, paraphrased, is that if you push your luck long enough something’s bound to happen eventually, but you never think it’s going to happen to you. I had recently climbed the Nose in a Day and the Rostrum, long and difficult routes, so I was in a mentality to climb fast and not place much protection on easier sections, with the confidence that I would not fall. The end result was absolutely the scariest and most humbling experience in my life.” (Source: James Woods, Jake Martin, and John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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