American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, California, Yosemite National Park, Middle Cathedral

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2011


California, Yosemite National Park, Middle Cathedral

On May 6, I took a lead fall way bigger than I would have liked and got to have a couple fun helicopter rides because of it. Just thought I’d share what happened so that others might learn second-hand rather than first-hand.

So Thursday afternoon, the reality of the day diverged greatly from the original agenda for the day. My climbing partner and I went to climb the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral in Yosemite, which is eleven pitches. There’s one pitch of 5.10a (mixed) and the rest are 5.8 or easier trad.

Things had been going pretty well and at about 3:00 p.m. we were at the top of the 8th pitch, which I was leading. I’d been feeling comfy and confident all day. Didn’t feel in over my head or sketched out. I was up about 120 feet from where my partner was belaying me and had stopped to look for a place to put in a piece of pro. The area was certainly protectable, but required a little looking around rather than a perfect crack to just jam cam after cam into. My previous piece was a Black Diamond 0.3 C4 cam about 10 or 12 feet below where I was looking, which seemed reasonable given the relatively easy terrain we were on. I never felt uneasy or precarious.

I don’t remember slipping, and I don’t remember falling the 35-foot distance to pro, which happily held, x 2 plus a little lead slack plus rope stretch. Apparently I smacked a little 8–12-inch ledge or some other part of the rock, because it knocked me out for what my climbing partner thinks was about 30 seconds.

I don’t remember climbing back up to the little ledge and I don’t remember setting up an anchor and clipping in to it. I have vague recollections of resting there to try to clear my head, checking the locked- ness of my ’biner several times and belaying my partner up to me.

After taking a bit of time to evaluate the situation and me asking my partner to check my anchor (apparently a few times), we decided that my obvious but unknown head injuries and back injuries made it too dangerous for us to go either up or down. Conveniently, Yosemite has a very well trained (and unfortunately often-used) Search and Rescue team very near. This is quite different from the normal alpine environment. My partner flipped through on one of our radios until she made contact with someone on the Nose who could get us help from below. We were put into direct radio contact with a guy from SAR, who checked on our whereabouts and condition and arranged for two SAR guys to climb up to us to meet us for a helicopter pick. It was great to be able to have constant contact with him.

When the SAR guys showed up, they quickly checked me out, checked out our anchor and gear situations, and noted that we were generally well prepared ;-). The helicopter showed up and dropped off the litter, they all got me loaded snugly into it, then got me clipped in to the haul- line when the helicopter returned, and off I flew down to the meadow below. All that took around three hours, which is ridiculously fast for getting a call out, a team organized, two guys up eight pitches of trad climbing, rescue gear dropped, rescue gear set up, and me picked up.

At the meadow I was transferred to a medic helicopter and taken to the hospital in Modesto, where they told me that I had suffered a pretty decent concussion, a few fractured lumbar vertebrae, a few more bruised vertebrae in the upper back, some bruised ribs, and a whole bunch of general scrapes and bruises. Could have been way worse.


We (myself, my partner, and our friends that came with us) have done quite a bit of talking about what happened to figure out what we could have done better, what we did well, etc. The things I would have done differently include setting up an autoblock or some other back-up on my belay for my partner—given the situation, calling for help more quickly, and not falling. I try to make a habit of not falling, especially on gear. My partner noted that the fall could have happened to anyone, and I apparently looked really solid up until that point. All it takes is just a second to take you off the rock. There’s a fine line between being in your groove and being over-confident

We talked a lot about the spacing of gear, and all felt that the spacing seemed reasonable for the difficulty of the terrain and the limited amount of gear that anyone climbs with. I guess a few things to note are that eight- inch ledges can be dangerous just like three-foot ledges, that those ledges get “closer than they appear” given all the rope stretch, and that maybe our definitions of “reasonable” need to be adjusted.

Things that we think we did well included a number of things. One, both staying levelheaded and rational the entire time. Two, calling for help when help was available rather than putting ourselves further into harm’s way. (In an alpine environment or one in which help is a less reasonable alternative, we would have been forced to begin planning a self-rescue. We seriously considered that option.) Three, carrying radios. Four, my partner’s attentive belaying. Five, both carrying enough gear on our harnesses and in our follower-pack to deal with an unplanned emergency situation. (Even the SAR guys ended up borrowing a couple small things.) As my partner pointed out, half an hour later or a bit windier would have put us there for the night. They even at one point asked if we were equipped to stay the night. Six, wearing our frickin’ helmets (which we always do anyway).

We both think that it’s incredibly important to thoroughly analyze and evaluate our accident so that we can learn from it as best possible. We count ourselves as very lucky, but also have endeavored to stack the odds in our favor. The hard work, efforts, and risks taken by those that assisted us can never be understated. (Source Johanna Hingle, 28, from a posting on

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