American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock — Block Came Off, Fall on Rock — Inadequate Protection, Bad Luck/Good Luck, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

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


California, Yosemite Valley, EI Capitan

On August 24 in late afternoon, Kyung Bok Su (47) and three Korean partners finished pitch 19 of the Nose route (31 pitches, Grade VI) and Kyung began leading pitch 20 up to Camp IV. He climbed up and left to a large block, placed a cam near its base, then climbed up his aid ladder and made one or two layback moves with his hands in the crack on the right side of the block. Suddenly a large piece of the block broke off and Kyung fell with it.

The cam failed and he either had no other protection in place below him or it all failed, because Kyung swung to the right and slammed into the wall about 35 feet below the belay. This impact probably caused his injury, later diagnosed as a broken left femur (in two places).

As he hung there, he noticed that over two feet of the sheath of his lead rope was stripped from the core just in front of his harness and a few core strands were severed. (The cause is unknown but probably the falling rock.) One of the team’s other ropes happened to be hanging within reach, so he attached his ascenders to it and his partners managed to pull him up to the belay.

The party called on their FRS radio, “Rescue, El Capitan!” They heard other traffic but no one responded to their transmissions. They also yelled and waved jackets and finally someone in El Cap Meadow noticed them and contacted the NPS. The park helicopter, H551, was able to place a team on the summit just before dark to begin rigging for rescue. Meanwhile a ranger in the meadow communicated with Kyung’s party by telescope and loudspeaker. He learned that Kyung had not lost consciousness, had no difficulty breathing and no head/neck pain, and was moving his limbs purposefully, so the summit team decided to minimize risk by delaying the operation until daylight. The next morning, additional rescuers joined them, and two medics were lowered about 1000 feet to the scene. They packaged Kyung in a litter and short-hauled him directly from the ledge with H551. He was transferred to an air ambulance and flown to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto.


Kyung’s partners did not see exactly what happened and we’re not sure how he protected the pitch, although he may have placed only the single cam. His fall is a good example of the risks of swinging sideways—and thereby striking the really critical parts of your body. For more on swinging falls, see Tony Alegre’s accident—following this one—and keep this risk in mind when protecting.

One of the rescue rangers said both ends of rope were poorly anchored and the climbers did not back themselves up to the bolt anchor. They said the anchors were cams and that the rope was clipped to the bolts. A photo shows a sling clipped around the rope but not into it. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger)

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