American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Protection Came Off

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Muir Wall

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: 2011
  • Publication Year: 2012

Although I had climbed several walls in Zion, I had never climbed El Capitan; in fact, I had never even been to the Valley. Yosemite, and El Capitan in particular, had been built up in my mind, the ultimate destination and the ultimate goal.

Finally, on June 3, I arrived in Yosemite Valley with five weeks to climb. I carefully packed eight days worth of supplies, gear, ropes, and hardware into my haul bags, and within an hour of entering the Valley, I was humping loads to the base of The Captain.

After a day and a half climbing to the top of pitch eight, a gathering storm threatened several days of rain. I storm-proofed my gear and swung over to the fixed Heart Ledge rappels to head down to the valley floor. Three days of rest gave me time to decide if I was going to commit to the route. On June 8 I decided to head back up on the wall with two additional days of supplies.

After a couple more days of progress, I decided to take a rest day on a small sloping ledge below Pitch 24: the first crux. Now I was on to the upper pitches of the Muir and was starting to feel truly alone. There was a decent stance on a slab I used to set up and eat. I had enough supplies and the weather looked great for several more days. The past several days had been great, falling into the rhythm of solo climbing, sleeping well, and finding a peace I had been missing for quite a while.

On June 12 I went through the morning routine and got ready to lead Pitch 24, a classic thin nutting dihedral. I began the pitch with a #00 Black Diamond C3 and then placed two small DMM nuts. I then made a cam hook placement up to a yellow HB brass nut. Bouncing the nut resulted in some shift but I had confidence in the nuts body weight ability. Then I placed a green HB brass, more shifting, but it seemed fairly solid. I was getting close to a fixed Alien and I decided to place a cam hook to gain the fixed piece. As I tested the hook, several things went wrong in quick succession. The hook popped and I shifted onto the green HB with my fifi hook, shock loading the nut and pulling it out of the crack. As I fell, the next HB nut popped as well. My left foot hit the slab after I had fallen about 20 feet and I continued to fall about a body length as I crumpled onto the slab.

My left ankle hurt but nothing else. My head and spine seamed all right and I was able to move my neck with no pain. I stood up on the slab with my right foot and gingerly weighted my left foot. Instant blinding pain shot up my leg. I had fallen near the belay so I went to it and took off the gear rack. I dug out my day supplies bag and reached for the Ibuprofen and my cell phone. It was now 8:45 a.m.

I tried to call my oldest friend, climbing partner, and emergency contact, Jesse but the phone wouldn’t dial out. I tried five, ten, a dozen times. I screamed at it, I pleaded with it, I begged it, and finally it dialed out. I had to hold the phone in a specific position for it to work.

I said that I was in trouble and told him that I thought I’d broken my ankle.

How quickly I had given up on the self-reliance of a solo ascent once a real problem reared its head. I could try and rappel the Muir. With the last few pitches being overhanging, and then several traversing pitches to regain Grey Ledges, I would have had to down-aid quite a bit. I also wondered if I could rappel over to The Nose. Making the rappels happen with the use of only one leg would be difficult and painful. The last option was to call YOSAR for a rescue. At the time, I did not want to consider this option. I was in the mentality of being a self-reliant climber. Jesse suggested we at least call YOSAR and make them aware of the situation. To save my phone we decided that Jesse would call them.

After fifteen minutes I got a call from Jack at YOSAR. After a quick assessment with an EMT, we started discussing the situation. Down- aiding was definitely going to be necessary to bail.

I set up my portaledge and took a closer look at my foot and ankle by removing my shoes and socks and placing my feet next to each other. It was obvious that my left ankle had a significant deformity. However, I could move my toes and circulation looked good. I began to think more seriously about a YOSAR rescue. I was still feeling like I should attempt to self-rescue. But doubts started to seriously enter my mind for the first time.

I called Jack back and he told me if I felt confident that I could selfrescue, I should. If not, YOSAR would begin mounting a rescue from the summit of El Cap. He also pointed out to me that if I got in trouble lower down on the wall, a rescue would only become more complicated for them. “I’ll wait here for a rescue.” I had three days of food and water left, which was good, because a more effective rescue effort could be mounted the next day. It was 11:30 a.m.

As soon as I got off the phone my mind started swirling. I was going to have to wait at least another 24 hours for rescue. I looked at the pitch above me. I felt failure and embarrassment. I knew that if I stopped moving, I would have to confront the reality of everything that had happened that morning. I cursed myself, I cursed El Cap, and I cursed Yvon Chouinard, TM Herbert, and Royal Robbins. I cursed climbing, cam hooks, and small nuts. I cursed myself again. I ate and drank. I got out my bivy gear and set up for the long wait. I wrapped my power-stretch around my foot and ankle for compression and splinted it using my wall hammer and athletic tape. I did everything I could think of.

I woke to a woman’s voice saying “Matt....911.” I realized with a jolt that she was talking to me from the valley with a loudspeaker. “Matt Seymour, if you can hear me raise one hand to acknowledge.” The hand goes up. “If your phone still works dial 9-1-1.” Soon I was on the phone with Jack again. The rescue was mobilizing.

At some point, I was looking out at the valley and casually looked up to see someone about 50 feet above me being lowered to my position. I got up and broke down my ledge. Jesse got to my ledge. He took my hand and shook it.

Analysis

A few things came out of the initial analyses that are worth noting. First, a cell phone turned out to be the most important piece of gear I had. Without it I would have been down to S.O.S. with a headlamp until someone saw me, but YOSAR would have had difficulty determining exactly what my problem was.

Another point on this is that I have a SPOT, but it was safely in my car. When the time came, to make the cell call, I had fairly poor service. The SPOT would have provided the backup.

Second, my level of medical training was not up to snuff. My front country First Responder certification was four years expired. If I had current training, I probably would not have missed the minor trauma to my head. After the rescue I was told they probably would have extracted me sooner had they known about the head injury. I ended with a fractured calcaneus and talus (which was also dislocated) and severely sprained ankle.

We want to see ourselves—and others—in our best moments. However, it is our failures that often truly shape us. Warren Harding climbed The Nose in part because he missed out on the first accent of Half Dome. I failed to climb El Capitan this time. But I have learned more about my goals and what motivates me than I have in a long time. (Source: Edited from a report written by Jason Seymour - 26)

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