Fall on Rock — Rappel/Lowering Error, Poor Communication, Haste
California, Tuolumne Meadows, Low Profile Dome
On September 12, Jody (27) and Karen (24) spent the day climbing in Tuolumne Meadows with friends Dan and Sanjay. In the afternoon they all hiked up to Low Profile Dome, a few minutes from the road. Jody and Karen climbed the Golfer’s Route (5.7) while Dan led Family Affair (5.9) just to their left, and then Sanjay and Karen each followed Family Affair on a top-rope. (The two climbs share the same bolted anchor at the top of the routes about 180 feet above the ground and the top rope consisted of two climbing ropes tied together.) Finally, Jody top-roped Family Affair while Karen belayed from the ground. There were thunderstorms in the area and it was beginning to sprinkle; people were packing their gear and Jody recalls being in a hurry to finish the pitch and get down.
When she reached the top, Jody clipped to the anchor with a sling and called, “Off Belay.” Then she untied, fed the rope through the anchor, retied it to her harness, and cleaned the party’s gear from the anchor. Karen had been lowered from the climb previously, so Jody assumed she would also be lowered. She remembers calling, “I’m ready,” and hearing Karen reply, “Okay.”
At the base, Karen, Sanjay, and Dan heard Jody yell, “Off Belay.” Karen replied “Belay Off” and removed the climbing rope from her belay device. She assumed that Jody would rappel since they had done that earlier in the day. No one on the ground remembers hearing Jody call, “I’m ready,” or Karen responding “Okay.” According to Karen and Sanjay, a few minutes after Jody called, “Off Belay,” she yelled, “You got me?” Immediately after that— before Karen could say anything or put her back on belay—Jody screamed and fell. Somehow she stopped about 70 feet below the anchor, striking the back of her head on the rock.
No one is certain why Jody didn’t fall all the way to the ground, since she was not on belay, but it appears that the rope snagged somehow. Karen had immediately and instinctively grabbed the rope and found herself holding Jody’s weight, so she may have partially slowed the fall. Sanjay ran over and helped her hold on while she got Jody back on belay.
Jody was unresponsive and hanging horizontally in her harness. Several minutes later she regained consciousness and got herself upright, and Karen began to lower her. Meanwhile, a nearby group of climbers had seen the accident. Keith, a member of the group with a background in mountain rescue, climbed up the first pitch of the Golfer’s Route and clipped himself to Jody. He tried to stabilize her head and neck as they were each lowered on separate ropes to the ground.
By the time the NPS arrived it was raining heavily. Jody knew her name and where she was but she responded slowly to questions. She complained of pain in her head, neck, and back, and also numbness in her extremities. The back of her helmet was cracked and covered in blood from a large scalp laceration. After immobilizing her, the NPS team carried her to the road and flew her to the park heli-base where she was transferred to an air ambulance. At the trauma center in Modesto she was diagnosed with a skull fracture and a relatively minor subdural hematoma. She has made a full recovery.
Witnesses’ memories vary regarding what was said and done but everyone involved agrees that a failure to confirm the descent plan was the direct cause of the accident. Karen and Jody were both moderately experienced at outdoor climbing and considered competent belayers. They met that morning for the first time through a mutual friend and climbed together all day. They did not have a descent plan in place before Jody began climbing Family Affair, and Jody says, “A major lesson for me...is the need to practice communications with your partner before you climb, especially if you haven’t climbed together before.” Despite being separated by a full pitch, Jody and Karen could hear each other, but Jody distinctly remembers rushing because of the rain and recalls, “I didn’t communicate clearly that I was back on belay and ready to lower.” Karen said, “When Jody fell, I thought I’d killed someone. It was an awful miscommunication. Her helmet saved her life.” (Source: Jody and Karen; Alex Brun and John Dill, NPS Rangers)
(Editor’s Note: See Colorado, May 17.)