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Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, Complacency

On August 12th, my long time climbing partner (27) and I, Bud Miller (27), set off to climb the 1000-foot North Face of The Rostrum (8 pitches, IV 5.11c). The route was new to both of us and sure to push our limits, but it’s considered relatively safe due to its protectable cracks and steep, clean falls. Although we weren’t confident of on-sighting the route, at the worst we might take a few short falls.

To get to the route, you hike/rappel a steep gulley to the base, then after climbing to the top, it is a short hike up to the road. There seemed to be no reason to bring our approach shoes so we grabbed our gear and descended bare-foot.

Tommy took a short fall leading the 5.11 crux of Pitch 2, and I needed plenty of expletives to follow it. However, as self-proclaimed 5.10 climbers, this was no surprise, and we had forecasted a long day. At the belay we decided I would lead the next few pitches. Tommy passed me the rack and I took off.

Pitch 3 is long but not hard in relation to the rest of the climb. An initial 5.10 bulge is followed by a long 5.9 hand crack that starts thin and slowly widens. This grade and type of climbing had become comfortable for me after four months of climbing in Yosemite and to my stubborn mind it did not warrant throwing in much protection. So after the bulge I placed a green (.75) Camalot and climbed as fast as I could, never entertaining the idea of falling. As I got higher, I knew that I should add a piece but the pitch was so good that I just kept thinking, “Another move or two.” Then, suddenly, my hand slipped out and I was falling backwards with plenty of time to realize that the Camalot was at least 25 feet below me. The piece held, but my fall, including rope stretch, was about 60 feet.

When I stopped I was hanging next to the belay. Tommy looked at me in horror; I looked back at him, upside down, and said, “I’m ok. My right foot is broken but I’m okay.”

We stayed there half an hour, weighing options while I got my adrenaline under control. It was clear that my foot was 100% non-weight bearing, and whenever I bumped it the pain was excruciating. Prusiking the pitch after Tommy, negotiating the traverse, and scrambling onefooted up the gulley was to be avoided if we had another choice.

If we rapped the route, we faced crossing the Merced River to reach Highway 140 on the other shore. Although painful, the rappels went fairly smoothly. Scrambling down the forested scree slope from the climb to the river, perhaps 20 minutes on two good feet, took four hours. We made it with me sliding on my ass, Tommy holding me up on his shoulders, and fashioning a crutch with a stick, a shirt, and climbing tape.

The river was a mix of white water and deep, fast current and while Tommy could swim it, there was no way I could safely cross on my own. It was also out of the question to work our way up or down stream through huge boulders to a gentler crossing, so Tommy crossed with the climbing rope and some gear. He set up an anchor well upstream from where I was, fixed the rope, and then swam back with the loose end. We tightened the line with a Munter/Mule Hitch to give me a safe way to cross. I clipped a sling from my harness to the rope, hopped in the river, and pulled myself to the far shore. When we reached the road, we looked like characters out of Mad Max, but the first people we saw were kind enough to stop.

I had badly broken four metatarsals. After six months with a cast and physical therapy, I was back to climbing, hopefully a bit wiser.


The reason I fell was the same reason I had under-protected, complacency due to over-confidence. I had climbed many cracks of this difficulty without ever falling, so I had begun to think I never would. Climbers usually place less gear on easier terrain but I discovered the hard way a reason for caution. (Source: Bud Miller and John Dill, NPS Ranger)

(NPS comment: Here are two other reasons for protecting more often: First, ratings are subjective. You never know, especially in Yosemite, when the rater’s “5.9” pitch will surprise you. Second, placements fail, sometimes from user error and sometimes from an unnoticed fracture in the rock. The latter is true of handholds as well.)