American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Protection Failure — Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, California, Yosemite, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2011


California, Yosemite, EI Capitan

In May, Jean-Noel “Jano” Crouzat (48), an experienced French guide, was seriously injured while climbing the Salathe Wall (3 5 pitches, Grade VI) on El Capitan. The following account was written by his partner on the route, Thibaut “Tibo” Mauron, a member of the Swiss National Team. It has been translated from the original French and edited for ANAM, with bracketed text added by the editors for background. The story starts at Heart Ledges on their second day on the wall:

May 20: We woke up at day light around 6:30 a.m. I led the first pitches up to Hollow Flake Ledge. Jano led the 5.7 chimney, I led the next pitch and then Jano climbed smoothly to belay 19. It was 7:40 p.m. when we were done hauling pitch 19. It was a little late, but still plenty of time to make it to El Cap Spire, [the end of pitch 20], where we planned to sleep, and only one pitch left. We knew that two climbers were sleeping at the Alcove already [a bivy ledge 50 feet up pitch 20] and two were on El Cap Spire.

7:50 p.m: Jano started the lead and after 30 feet, I couldn’t see him anymore because he was inside the Alcove. The climbers in the Alcove, John [an American guiding in Tasmania] and Anna [from Germany], were already inside their sleeping bags and having dinner. Jano chatted with them a little and then kept moving up.

Between the Alcove and the Spire there is a 75-foot chimney that is not too hard but not too protectable. Jano placed three pieces on the main wall and later placed another piece. Jano was holding the last piece he placed with one hand and the ledge on top of the Spire with the other hand and was talking with Stefan and Gerta, the two Austrian climbers already there. According to Stefan, that piece—a blue #3 Camalot supporting Jano, was not well placed. It failed, and Jano fell into the chimney, held by his next piece. I didn’t hear anything, but felt the rope tighten. Anna and John didn’t see anything, but they heard a massive fall sound that they thought was a dropped haul-bag. I called Jano a few times but got no response. Then I heard John say, “Let him down!” I called Jano again, and then heard, “Let him down right now! Slow!” I did so until I heard, “Stop! Now call 911!” [NPS—Jano had fallen about 65 feet. When they saw him suspended there, John and Anna soloed up a 45° slab formed by a huge flat chockstone leaning into the chimney while Stefan rappelled to them from the Spire. John and Stefan turned Jano upright and tried to move him onto the slab, but Jano’s leg had become wedged behind the slab and he was too heavy for them to lift.]

8:15 p.m: I tried to call but had no cell service. Then Anna yelled that she had fixed the static line Jano was trailing. I fixed the lead line to the belay anchor and ascended the static line as fast as possible.

8:22 p.m: I still couldn’t see Jano, but John asked me to call 911 again and this time it worked. [Tibo had reached the Yosemite dispatcher.] I asked for a helicopter as soon as possible. I gave our location but couldn’t answer the questions I was asked about the victim. [Tibo was needed up in the chimney immediately to help John and Stefan move Jano, so he hung up on the dispatcher.]

I needed to untie to reach the tiny ledge where Stefan and John [also untied] were holding Jano, in a half-seated position. I helped them move Jano two feet higher in order to be able to rotate his body [and release his leg]. At that point Jano’s lead rope got tight [because I had tied it off earlier]. John asked Anna to cut it as low as possible, and while Stefan held the lead rope, we moved Jano to the bivy spot.

8:28 p.m: I called 911 once again to ask for a helicopter. They told me that it would be impossible because there was not enough light any more. When John heard this, he grabbed the phone and yelled that this is not a broken ankle issue but that the victim could die really soon and needed to be evacuated. He was told that there was really no way for the helicopter to fly at night. John understood, calmed down, and apologized. Like John, we all finally calmed down.

Jano was still seated, vomiting blood, and bleeding a lot from his skull. One eye was really swollen. We took off his helmet (which was broken in three places) and laid him down on his right side. All that time he was unconscious and unresponsive. He only mumbled a little, but at least he was still breathing. We placed him on two Thermarest pads and one sleeping bag and covered him with another sleeping bag (all John’s and Anna’s gear).

With one of my T-shirts I put pressure on what I thought was the wound on his head. Quickly the T-shirt became saturated with blood. I tried, unsuccessfully, to wash his head, and we then decided to put him on his other side. Jano finally showed signs of life and strongly resisted so we decided to leave him in the initial position.

Meanwhile it was getting cold and John went down to belay 19 to prepare our bag for hauling. The night was going to be cold and we were only wearing sweaters. Stefan went back up to the Spire and Anna started hauling our bag.

8:50 p.m: Anna, John, Jano, and I were all at the bivy spot in the Alcove. Anna tried to get some sleep in my sleeping bag. John stayed next to me under a thermal blanket we found in one of the first aid kits. All the bandages we found in the two kits did not last very long, and were quickly saturated. I had been next to Jano the whole time, trying to get his attention by talking to him all the time, but there was no response!

9 p.m.: I was getting scared that the bleeding was too much, and I tried to lift him up a little to check for a wound. There was a wound on the right side of his head, and I asked John for help to turn him onto his other side. It wasn’t easy as Jano was firmly resisting, but still unconscious and with his eyes closed. Once on his left side, he finally stopped resisting and for the first time I could clearly see the size of the wound. I instantly made a compression point with my T-shirt.

[NPS—The Alcove team was trying to keep the blood and vomit draining out of Jano’s mouth so it wouldn’t choke him, but they were also worried about moving him at all, in case he had a broken neck, which it turned out later he did. When they removed Jano’s helmet, they saw the blood pulsing out, as if from a scalp artery, and the signs of anerial bleeding coated the walls of the chimney where he had been hanging after the fall.]

10 p.m.: After one hour of seeing Jano unconscious, vomiting blood once again, I tried to release the compression point, afraid of hurting him more. But a thick flow was still leaking from his head. He had lost a lot of blood already and I returned the pressure to his wound. During this time John checked his ribs. I was worried that he had punctured his lungs because of all the blood he was spitting. John thought he could feel two broken ribs but his limbs seemed o.k.

May 21.1 a.m.: John and I were really cold. We turned on a little gas stove but it was pretty much unsuccessful. Then John remembered he had noticed a backpack hidden [in the chimney]. We looked and found a heavy jacket and a North Face sleeping bag—lucky for us. We hesitated at first to use it, but we felt it was a real emergency and welcomed the warmth.

3:00 a.m: I had spent all night talking to Jano and maintaining the pressure point. I was totally exhausted and not really effective any more, so I woke John up and asked him to substitute for me. He took my place and fought his own fatigue.

4:30 a.m: I couldn’t sleep and decided to give John a rest. I stayed next to Jano and talked to him continuously. I tried to get a response or a sign from him. We released the pressure point because the hemorrhage stopped. Once again we called 911. They asked us to measure his pulse and breathing rate. It was all good. John attempted to go back to sleep and I dozed off but set the alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. just in case.

5:30 a.m: The alarm clock rang, but I was already awake. The first light of the day brought along some hope.

6:00 a.m: Jano woke up. He didn’t speak but tried to roll. We maintained his position firmly. His breathing was really shallow and was a lot less strong than earlier in the night. His hands and feet were getting cold.

6:30 a.m: Two helicopters arrived at El cap Meadow. One flew around us for reconnaissance.

7:00 a.m: A small [Calif. Highway Patrol] helicopter lowered a ranger- medic onto El Cap Spire. He rappelled to the Alcove and immediately attended to Jano, testing all his vitals. A few minutes later another flight brought another ranger-medic with four massive haul bags and a stretcher. Anna, John, and I helped strap Jano onto the stretcher.

8:00 a.m: The CHP helicopter returned and hoisted Jano from the ledge. It was a big relief for us to see him finally medically taken care of [after 11 hours].

Jano ended up with a skull fracture, a fractured C7, (fortunately it hasn’t moved and won’t generate any paralysis), and two broken ribs. The lungs were not punctured. It was the blood from inside his skull that Jano was spitting. Jano had surgery and should fully recover. After four days in a coma, he woke up and was able to eat and walk by himself.

I’d like to give a huge thanks to all those who participated in the rescue. Analysis

Thibaut Mauron: Here are my conclusions about the accident: We all know the risks of the mountains and of climbing. We are aware of those, but accidents happen, and I have to confess I thought Jano wasn’t going to make it through the night. But if I have one piece of advice, it is never give up and keep doing what’s best for the victim.

NPS: As Tibo implies, this story is less about the accident itself than about the challenges you may face until the rescue agency arrives. It’s rarely just like the classroom. The Alcove team was lucky in several respects: they had a bit of level terrain instead of hanging on the wall, they had enough daylight to get organized, they spoke a common language (English), they had cell service, and a capable rescue team was close by. But the most important ingredient was contributed by the climbers themselves—an aggressive and tenacious approach to the problem.

There was only one cell phone among the three parties, which could have been a problem, and no one had medical training beyond basic first aid. Nevertheless, they did an outstanding job with what they knew, and there wasn’t much else they could have done in this case—get Jano off his rope, protect his airway and his neck, stop the bleeding, and hope for the best. (Source: Original article in French by Thibaut Mauron, translated to English by Laurent Cilia. Additional information from John and Anna. Edited for ANAM by John Dill and Jesse McGahey, NPS Rangers)

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