FALL ON ROCK, SELF-BELAY ERROR, MISTAKE WITH ASCENDERS, "SUMMIT FEVER"
California, Yosemite Valley, EI Capitan
In late afternoon on June 3, Steve Gomez (37), Eric Sorenson (34), and Dave Goodwin (41), reached the last pitch ofMescalito (26 pitches, Grade VI) on El Capitan. Steve led the pitch but stopped briefly at the top of the bolt ladder, still on the steep headwall and four or five feet short of the final lip. To avoid rope drag, the guidebook advises hauling the bags to the top of the bolts first and then hauling the last few feet over the lip. Steve anchored the static haul line and the spare lead rope at the bolts and then climbed over the lip and 20 feet up the slab to the anchor tree at the top. Eric cleaned the whole pitch to the tree on Steve’s lead rope while Dave jugged up to the bolts on the spare lead rope and hauled the bags that far. Here is what happened next, from Dave’s perspective:
“I was left at the top of the bolt ladder to clean up the gear, release the bags for Steve and Eric to haul to the top, and get myself up. A section of Steve’s lead line hung down to me from the tree and I was going to jug on that line. When I was ready to go, I looked down to check that I was tied in short to it just under my ascenders (Petzl Ascensions) in case I fell, and then I started to jug. It was about 6:30–7:00 p.m.
“After a few short steps up the headwall with my ascenders, I poked my head over the lip, where it turned into a low angle slab that you could just walk up. The lead rope was clipped through a quick draw at a fixed piton a foot or so over the lip. At the piton the rope turned about 45 degrees to the right and headed for the anchor tree, so my weight on the rope put the quick draw under tension, preventing me from unclipping from it. To pass the quick draw, I put all my weight on my lower (left-hand) ascender and then removed my upper (right-hand) ascender from the rope and reached up to reattach it above the piton. Both ascenders were connected to my harness by daisy chains, but for some reason my right daisy was much shorter than I normally rigged it; I was clipped to only the second or third loop from my harness, which restricted my reach, so I had to lean in to get as close to the wall as I could in order to place the ascender back on the rope. I thought I should stop trying to force the ascender into place and take time to lengthen the daisy, but the walk-off was literally two steps away and my hips were sore from the harness, so I thought, ‘Forget it. I’ll be finished in ten seconds.’ So once I had reattached the ascender above the piton, I just hung onto it with my right hand for support and started bringing my right foot up above the lip, intending to make a high step and be done with the climb.
“I was halfway through the move, when the right ascender ripped off the rope. I don’t remember the left one coming off but it obviously did, because I got shot out backward and started falling. I remember my left butt slamming into the wall part way down—a really intense impact—then falling some more, cart-wheeling, hitting again, and finally flipping upside down and coming to a stop. Later we estimated that I’d fallen 120-150 feet, and maybe more from rope stretch. As I was falling I’d had enough time to think, ‘Why am I falling so far?’ I thought I had tied in short so I figured my rope had been severed and I was going 2,500 feet to the deck.
“As I righted myself, Eric and then Steve poked their heads over the edge and yelled, ‘Are you OK? What the #@%* happened?’ ‘Yeah, I’m not dead,’ I replied, ‘I believe I’m OK.’ But I was in nervous shock and my left hip and left chest were extremely painful. Steve asked, ‘Can you get yourself up or do we need to haul you? Can you move your arms and legs? Is your head OK?’ I said, ‘Steve, I have a serious shot of adrenaline and I think I have about ten minutes before my body shuts down, so I’m coming up!’
“I put my ascenders back on the rope, lengthened the right daisy this time, and started jugging. I would take ten steps, stop and breath, then ten more. I managed to keep it up for at least 30 minutes, tying in short frequently, until I was standing on top. On the way up I had been thinking, ‘Oh my God, I gotta pass that pin, again,’ but when I topped out I was surprised to find that the rope continued straight up to the anchor, bypassing the piton. It turned out that I had initially jugged on Steve’s lead rope, as planned, but was only tied to the bottom end of the second lead rope. That rope, which I was now ascending, had caught me!” [NPS comment: Eric had attached himself with a sling and a Grigri to what he thought was an unoccupied line and had come down to the edge to get the haul bags. As he was wrestling the bags up the slab, Dave was six feet to his left, starting to pass thepiton. Eric wasn’t looking at Dave at that moment but suddenly he heard a usnap ” like a whip cracking and was surprised to see his own line go tight as it caught Dave ’s 150-footer! Eric decided it might be prudent to get off the rope they were sharing, so after initially calling down to Dave, he abandoned his Grigri—which was now jammed onto the line by Dave’s weight—and jugged up to the anchor. Dave must have passed or removed the Grigri on his way up, though he may not remember it.] “Eric helped me hobble along the hand line to safer ground, where Steve had prepared a place for me to lie down. Steve is a nurse, so he checked me over. I didn’t think I’d shattered my hip because I’d jugged all that way on both legs, but Steve was worried that the pain under my rib cage might be a damaged spleen. He called 911 and explained everything to the rangers. There wasn’t enough time to organize a helicopter rescue before dark and I seemed pretty stable, so they decided to wait. We stayed right there all night, with Steve having me pee in a cup periodically to check for blood. Early the next morning the NPS helicopter flew me to the park heli-base, where I was transferred to a med-evac helicopter for the flight to a hospital in Modesto. I got away with no broken bones and no spleen damage, but I had torn the muscles in my rib cage and severely bruised the bones in my hip. It took several months to recover and my lower back is still stiff, but I can get out and climb and ski again. I’m pretty lucky that the wall where I fell was so steep.”
“I didn’t see what happened when my ascenders popped off, because I had shifted my gaze to my right foot placement. But I fell so far because I’d completely missed the fact that I had not tied in short. I’ve jugged many pitches over the years but this is the first time I’ve been so careless. It was probably a classic case of summit fever—on the wall seven days, only a few feet from topping out, and too much in a hurry to sort through the tangle of gear at the belay. When you check your tie in, identify the correct rope and run your fingers down it to the knot, make sure the carabiner is locked, and then double-check everything. I must have skipped all that and just looked down. And at that last piton I just kept going, intent on one last move, instead of fixing my daisy. You have to treat the whole climb like you do the first pitch, until you’re all the way back down.”
When an ascender is placed on the rope, it must be rotated into alignment parallel to the rope, or there is a risk that the angled rope will prevent the cam from closing completely, allowing the device to be accidentally torqued off the rope. This situation can easily occur on a traverse, so the 45° angle of Dave’s rope and tension from his short daisy could have prevented proper alignment of his upper ascender after he thought he had reattached it to the rope. This possibility is not proven, but those pre-conditions have been found in a few previous ascender-related accidents in Yosemite, and we have been able to twist ascenders off the rope in simulated traverses in this manner. This is easily prevented by the user pushing the ascender parallel to the rope after attaching it and visually checking that the cam and safety catch have fully seated. Carabiners may also be clipped to the Petzl Ascension to keep the rope parallel. A second “failure” mechanism, of course, is when the user has simply forgotten to release the cam from the fully open position, and other mechanisms may exist.
We also do not know why the lower ascender came off. A web search for “ascender failure” leads to one claim of a Petzl releasing when the safety catch rubbed against the rock, but to properly relate this to Dave’s case we would have to recreate the events, with Dave’s rigging (and Dave), at the same location on Mescalito. Petzl’s own instructions cover risks and proper use of their ascenders in illustrated detail and should be understood by every user.
We could fill another page in this article speculating about how Dave wound up on two different ropes and why he fell, but in the end, Dave has the best advice: “Tie in short, double-check everything, and recognize the symptoms of summit fever.” (Source: Steve Gomez, Eric Sorenson, Dave Goodwin, and John Dill, NPS Ranger)