American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rockfall, Fall on Rock, Belayer Lost Control When Struck by Rock, Arizona, Prescott National Forest, Granite Mountain

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2011

ROCKFALL, FALL ON ROCK, BELAYER LOST CONTROL WHEN STRUCK BY ROCK

Arizona, Prescott National Forest, Granite Mountain

On December 12, Elise Anderson (21), Jeff Rome (21), and Chris Shanehof- fer (26), went to climb at Granite Mountain. Their route for the day was Granite Jungle—two pitches of 5.6 leading into the third pitch of Chieu Hoi—5.9. They started their hour and a half hike to the base of the cliff at 0730. They left their packs at an open ledge called the “Front Porch” and scrambled the 300-meter climber trail to the base of the route.

Elise chose to lead the first pitch, as she had previously followed it. She protected the bottom of the pitch with two evenly spaced pieces of gear. About 40 feet above the base, she assessed a large block wedged in the crack and chose to sling it as natural pro for her third protection point. (Local climbers attest to testing, pulling, and standing on this block in the past. It is a prominent route feature known as The Horn.)

As she moved up, the block, about 80 pounds, dislodged, striking her laterally on her upper left leg and caused her to fall. The rock then struck a ledge at the base, broke into two parts and struck Jeff, the belayer, who sustained minor injuries to his arm and hip. At this point, Jeff lost control of the belay (a belay plate) and Elise continued falling for a total of 35 feet, stopping just above a sharp block at the base of the route. She was caught by her top gear placement, the second piece.

The rope was de-sheathed between Elise and her belay. Most likely the rock that dislodged also struck her rope and partially cut it. It is likely that the de-sheathed rope somehow jammed in a carabiner because Jeff remembers Elise hanging from her harness a few feet above the ground and he did not have his hands on the brake strand of the rope.

Chris assisted Elise to the base as Jeff ran back to get his cell phone from the packs. He called 911 at 0935 and teams from Central Yavapai Fire and Prescott City Fire were deployed. Three climbing parties, which included a surgeon, a WFR/climbing instructor, another WFR, and me (a WEMT/ climbing instructor), were spread out on the approach trail at the time of the accident. All three teams ran into Jeff running down to the trailhead to lead rescue teams up the complex approach trail.

I arrived on scene at 1030 and assessed that Elise had not lost consciousness and did not have head, neck or spinal trauma/pain or signs of neural deficit. Her vitals were normal, and she was not exhibiting signs and symptoms of shock an hour after the fall. She had abrasions on her hands, rope burn on her left shoulder, and a swollen and deformed left ankle. She complained of severe pain in her upper left leg and when I exposed the leg, an obvious deformity indicated a mid-shaft femur fracture. No other injuries were identified.

Since the leg injury was closed with no bruising or signs of distal blood loss, I removed a tourniquet that had been placed by the first party on scene and began removing Elise’s gear to prepare her for a litter carry to an appropriate extrication point. We were waiting for a traction splint and a litter to arrive with the SAR teams and we determined that the Front Porch would be the most obvious extrication point for air evacuation, as loose blocks above the accident site were identified as a hazard for the patient and rescuers.

At 1130 Chief Cougan Carothers (Central Yavapai Fire) was the first of the rescue personnel to arrive and took over as field commander for this operation. We cleared a trail through thick brush for the litter carry to the Front Porch, and set anchors for belays and lowers through technical steps. By 1400 Elise was short-hauled in a Bauman Bag (a single-point suspension for hoisting a patient), then transferred to an air ambulance and flown to Flagstaff Medical Center. She had sustained a broken femur and a broken ankle. She has had two successful surgeries and is expected to have a full recovery.

Analysis

All three had previously climbed together and had done this route and other Granite Mountain routes. They were all competent at basic rock climbing skills and had all received formal training in rock climbing.

Climbing at any area puts us at risk of rockfall. The climbing party involved did many things correctly. Elise and Jeff were both wearing helmets, which is, unfortunately, not the norm at this climbing area. While belaying, Jeff was positioned to the side of the direct rockfall zone (which may have saved his life), and the team had a cell phone. By positioning the belay to the side and not anchoring himself, however, he was pulled upward from his stance, and this pull in combination with being struck by the rock caused him to let go of the belay. A ground anchor and appropriate belay stance in this case would have mitigated these hazards.

Though it is not common for climbers to use auto-locking devices on multi-pitch routes, a belay device such as a GriGri or Cinch would have shortened Elise’s fall.

Emergency response teams would have responded differently and brought different tools (traction splint) had they known the injury was a broken femur. Jeff informed the 911 dispatcher that Elise had broken the tibia and fibula rather than the femur. A good lesson from this incident is to take the time to gather accurate and detailed information and to report it carefully to the dispatcher. It was helpful that most of the people on scene were trained in wilderness medicine, as this facilitated a smooth and calm rescue operation. Climbers on scene integrated well with rescue teams as a result of these skills.

If a rescue litter had been cached at this popular climbing area, it is likely that with the resources and people on scene, an immobilization and carry of the patient to the Front Porch (300 meters) would have been feasible one hour after the accident took place. This may have allowed a helicopter evacuation to be initiated upon the arrival of rescue personnel and cut the total rescue time by more than half. (The litter that was hiked up did not arrive on scene until three and a half hours after the accident).

We learned during the rescue that a litter had been cached at the Front Porch for an event such as this. (Chief Carothers had stopped to look for it, since he thought it was still cached.) The litter was cached several years ago in response to another accident and prior to the designation of Granite Mountain as a wilderness area. It was removed by Prescott College in 2009 after discussions with the Prescott National Forest Wilderness Manager, as it was thought to be old and unsafe and not in compliance with the U.S. Forest Service wilderness management policy. A review of this policy or replacement of the cached litter with a modern litter was not deemed necessary at that time. Had Elise’s femur fracture involved major arteries, or if her injuries had been more serious, a cached litter could have served as the difference between life and death. In light of this accident, local rescue and climber groups are appealing to the Prescott N.F. wilderness managers to replace the cached litter. This raises the issue of reviewing management policy regarding life safety at wilderness climbing areas across the country. (Sources: Climbers involved in the accident and rescue efforts, Chief Cou- gan Carothers, Central Yavapai Fire, Prescott National Forest, and David Lovejoy, Adventure Education Program, Prescott College. This report was compiled by Viren Perumal, WEMT, AMGA Rock Guide, Prescott College Instructor, and edited by John Dill and Jed Williamson)

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