Protection Pulled When Weighted — Fall on Rock, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

Publication Year: 2012.


California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On September 26, Michael Schmoelzer (52) and Ritchie Edelsbacher (44), both experienced climbers from Austria, were in their third day of an ascent of The Nose (31 pitches, 5.9 C1). By 3:00 p.m. they had passed the Great Roof and Schmoelzer was leading Pitch 23 to Camp V.

Michael Schmoelzer: I was about 65 feet above Ritchie, aid climbing the main crack in the corner, when I had to switch to another crack on my left. That crack angled up and right until it joined the main crack several moves above me. My last piece in the main crack was a small cam. From there I reached out three or four feet to the left crack and placed a small stopper. I tested it, moved onto it, and clipped my rope to it with a long quickdraw. I stepped up in my aider and placed a second small stopper about three feet above the first. I attached an aider and tested the piece. It moved a little bit, but it seemed like it would hold body weight. I clipped my rope through it with a shorter quick draw and stepped up again, but when I did so, the rope tension pulled the nut out. As I fell, the angle of the rope from the cam pulled the lower nut out sideways. It had been solid for the move but not for the fall. The cam held, and Ritchie had no problem stopping me after I’d fallen about 15 feet. I was hanging maybe 40 to 50 feet above the belay.

I wasn’t surprised that the upper nut had pulled out, although I hadn’t expected the lower nut to fail as well. The fall was smooth and nothing to be concerned about. I didn’t hit anything, and the stop was gentle. As I fell, however, I felt something—a rope, or sling, or cord—dragging over and pulling on my right hand. It was a little painful in my fingers, and as I found later, it had deeply cut two-thirds of the way around my ring finger. Whatever had grabbed me quickly slid off my fingers and the pain had stopped. As I was hanging on the rope afterward I had no pain anywhere and appeared to have no serious injuries.

Then I saw blood on my face and my pants and I didn’t understand why. I looked down to see where it was coming from and found that my right thumb was missing. It was torn off between the two joints, with bone showing and blood shooting out of the end, like from an artery. I held my hand high, and the bleeding stopped within a minute, but I was amazed because I had not felt pain in my thumb. It must have happened very fast, for as I had fallen all I had noticed was the pain in my fingers.

I called to Ritchie, “Did you see my thumb?” He said, “Yes, it’s lying here next to my feet.” He had known before I did because he had seen it falling and recognized it immediately as a thumb. It had tumbled from near my high point and had landed within a foot or two of his feet. The funny thing is that when he saw the thumb he thought, “How shall I express this to Michael without frightening him too much?” So he said nothing until I called to him.

Ritchie lowered me to the ledge, and I clipped in. He put my thumb into a Ziploc bag and into his pocket. We pretty quickly decided to request a helicopter, although air access would be difficult because the cliff was very steep where we were. Our hope was to get my thumb and me to a surgeon soon enough to permit a successful reattachment. As I started to call the 112 international emergency number—good in the USA, as well—I found myself unable to remember it. I must have been a little bit in shock because I am a mountain rescuer and should know this number. Fortunately Ritchie, also a rescuer, recalled it.

I had to lean out of our corner to get cell access. The signal was weak but about one hour after the accident, I managed to reach a park dispatcher, who informed the rescue team. We asked if we should rappel or wait for the helicopter. We were advised to wait for an air rescue attempt. We decided that if this plan failed we would rappel, but we would not be able to complete the descent until morning because one of our headlamps had failed.

While we waited, we cut the sleeve off my jacket so I could put it on against the chill. I also took my thumb back from Ritchie, as I certainly didn’t want to leave it behind if I got rescued. We thought about bandaging my hand but decided not to. The bleeding had stopped, I was comfortable with it uncovered, and I was concerned about putting pressure on the bone. We didn’t know what to expect from the rescuers, so we organized our equipment and ropes to avoid problems from the helicopter’s rotor wash.

NPS: When we got word of Michael’s situation we made two plans. First, we would try to take him directly off the wall by helicopter. Second, if that turned out to be too difficult and risky, we would allow enough time before dark to fly rope rescuers to the summit. They would lower a medic to Michael and possibly continue lowering Michael and the medic to the ground.

After a recon flight, the air rescue team decided that conditions were satisfactory for the primary plan. The park helicopter hovered 30–40 feet to one side of their belay ledge and well above it, with two rescuers suspended on a short-haul line. The aircrew was able to throw a weighted tag line over to Ritchie. One rescuer, Dave, clipped Michael to the short-haul line, released him from the belay anchor, and signaled the helicopter. It flew Dave and Michael back to the meadow, where Michael and his thumb (now on ice) were transferred to a waiting air ambulance. Jeff stayed with Ritchie and they were raised to the summit by the rescue team the next morning.

Michael: (I)...was transported to the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco by midnight and was ready for surgery at 1:00 a.m. They reattached the thumb, and three days later the circulation was the same as in my undamaged fingers. Today, several months later, my thumb is completely healed, although I cannot bend the tip due to damage to the joint.


In the hospital the day after the accident, I sketched the scene to try to figure out what happened. Just before I fell, my right hand may have been somewhere on the quick draw or on the hand sling attached to the top of the aider. My aiders—with fifi hooks attached—were tied to my harness with long, 3mm keeper cords, so they fell with me. My lead rope crossed in front of me from the cam on the right to the first nut on the left and what I felt on my hand was similar to the rough texture of my rope. Some or all of those pieces of equipment may have tangled with other gear and then somehow surrounded and squeezed my hand as I fell. The 3mm cords, being narrow, would most easily have cut into my hand, but I really don’t know the answer.

I’m a climbing instructor for children six to 15 years old in my alpine climbing club, and I always say, “Hands off the rope when you fall!” This is so simple, and I thought I tried to get my hands off. I have a story to tell them now, and a thumb to show off.

My second piece of advice is for foreign climbers coming to the USA: Doublecheck that your accident insurance is the proper one, with lots of coverage. Very important. Look carefully at the clauses of the insurance contract.

Third, you may think this was a unique accident, but you should read John Robinson’s story in ANAM 2011. It involves the same route, the same injury from an aid fall, and the same amazing recovery and reattachment of his thumb. (Source: Michael Schmoelzer and John Dill, NPS ranger)

(NPS Note: Take Michael’s advice. The NPS does not charge for rescue costs, although there are typical charges for medical care in the field and at the park’s clinic. However, a commercial air ambulance fee from the park to Modesto can exceed $25,000 and at least two climbers seriously injured recently in Yosemite have incurred hospital bills of over $500,000.)