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Fall on Rock — Misjudged Pendulum, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

FALL ON ROCK - MISJUDGED PENDULUM

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On Sept. 18, Toni Alegre (42) and Jorge Lantero (43) started climbing the Nose of El Capitan (31 pitches, Grade VI). They led on double ropes (one red and one green) and moved quickly, practicing for a later attempt to climb the route in a day. From the anchor at the top of pitch 6, Lantero pendulumed into the left-facing corner about 30 feet to the right and began climbing the corner. As he placed protection, he clipped only his red rope through the pieces, but after several placements he began clipping both ropes. Using this method he protected all of pitch 7 for himself while also leaving a high pivot point for the green rope, so that when Alegre followed him on green, he would swing slowly across without risk of injury.

When Lantero reached the pitch 7 anchor and looked down, however, he realized that he might have clipped the green rope too low on the pitch. He warned Alegre that he might swing too fast into the corner because of the large pendulum angle. Alegre had looked at the corner and decided he could jump over it if necessary, so he replied that the move appeared to be safe and asked Lantero to pull up the excess rope. He let himself out partway with a sling in order to reduce the angle and then he let go. As he swung over, he found that a bulge in the wall had hidden the corner’s actual size. He was unable to leap over it and struck it sideways harder than expected.

Alegre knew right away that his right femur was broken. (He was lucky that it was a “closed” fracture, i.e., there was no open wound.) He called 911 with his cell phone while Lantero rappelled to assist him. With no ledge nearby to rest on, they hung from the ends of their ropes for two hours waiting for rescue.

The NPS helicopter was able to insert two rescuers directly to the scene by short-haul. They stabilized Alegre’s injuries and short-hauled him off the cliff to a med-evac helicopter waiting in El Capitan Meadow. He reached the hospital in Modesto about four hours after the accident. It turned out he had also cracked two ribs and his right forearm, but he expects to make a fall recovery.

Analysis

In hindsight, Alegre and Lantero agree that Alegre should have lowered himself across the gap with the unused portion of the green rope. There was plenty of rope to do so, but even with a short rope, getting halfway can sometimes be enough to safely complete the swing.

Underestimating pendulums is a fairly common cause of serious injuries and it often involves experienced climbers. (Alegre and Lantero are climbing guides. For another recent example, see Ruderman, El Capitan, ANAM 2009.)

Why are pendulums so dangerous? First, the kinetic energy you develop swinging from your high point to your low point is the same as if you had fallen straight down the same vertical distance. It’s simply redirected sideways by the rope. Second, if you strike a corner, the impact will likely be to your head, trunk, pelvis—all potentially life-threatening. You may be able to extend (and sacrifice) an arm or a leg to absorb the blow, but you also may be tumbling out of control. Third, it’s easy to underestimate the risk, because a dihedral 15 feet to the side just doesn’t look as dangerous as a ledge 15 feet below you. So before you cut loose, estimate your total vertical drop, and if you might hit an obstacle, ask yourself if you would like to fall that distance straight down onto concrete and land on your side. (You face a similar risk if a leader fall will send you swinging into the wall. See Kyung, El Capitan, Previous report in this issue.) (Source: Toni Alegre, Jorge Lantero, and John Dill, NPS Ranger)