American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Protection Probably Pulled, California, Yosemite Valley, Higher Cathedral Rock

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994


California, Yosemite Valley, Higher Cathedral Rock

On September 29,1993, about 1100, Rui Ferreira walked into the Valley District office and reported his climbing partner, Gustavo Brillembourg (35) had fallen on Higher Cathedral Rock the previous evening and had died.

Ferreira told us that Brillembourg was leading the Northeast Buttress route (5.9, 12 pitches) about 1900. He was two pitches from the top when he took a leader fall. He fell a distance Ferreira estimated to be about 50 feet (later revised to 120 feet) before the belay caught him. Brillembourg was conscious and was able to help himself onto a ledge as Ferreira lowered him a short distance. The gear rack, which was slung over Brillembourg's shoulder, was dropped during the fall.

Ferreira climbed over to the ledge and found Brillembourg to have obvious deformity and bleeding to his left thigh and arm, and he complained of pain and deformity to the left side of his rib cage. He was having much difficulty breathing.

Ferreira anchored Brillembourg to the ledge and attempted to splint his injuries. He remained conscious, but breathing became increasingly difficult. His breathing eventually sounded wet and gurgling. Ferreira estimated that about two and a half hours after the fall Brillembourg stopped breathing. Ferreira performed CPR for about one hour, but then had to stop when he was too exhausted to continue. By this time it was well after dark. He had been yelling for help all this time but no one heard him.

Ferreira remained on the ledge with Brillembourg for the rest of the night. The next morning Ferreira collected as much gear as he could, freed their double rope, and about 0700 he started to rappel. Since the gear rack had been lost, it was fairly tricky setting anchors. He reached the base of the cliff about 1000. There he met another party arriving to climb Higher Rock. They walked to the road with Ferreira and gave him a ride to Yosemite Village where they reported the accident at the Valley District office. Recovery of Brillembourg's remains was completed on September 30. (Source: Daniel Homer, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)


Gustavo Brillembourg was a prominent and well-known figure, both in his work as a lawyer in New York City and as a climber. He was experienced in both realms. He was comfortable leading 5.10, and had led 5.11 several times. He had climbed in many places, had some first ascents to his credit, and was familiar with Yosemite's granite.

According to his partner, Rui Ferreira, and his former teacher, Ad Carter, Brillembourg was determined, ambitious, enthusiastic, and safe. He always placed ample protection. Neither of the two climbers had fallen on the previous ten pitches, and never “felt they had to run it out to get something in.” Brillembourg almost always clipped both ropes (Strato 9 mm) through each piece, and was able to do it, even on diagonal sections, without causing rope drag.

Ferreira did not believe that Brillembourg was in a hurry, or rushing to get off before dark, because he had been benighted before and knew the descent route. Ferreira heard him hit something out of sight above, then he fell into view and struck the wall about five feet above and ten feet left of the belay, then continued to fall another 40 feet and out of sight. The force when Ferreira caught Brillembourg was low, and little or no rope ran through the Sticht plate.

We are left with not knowing exactly where Brillembourg fell from, the cause of the fall, or the reason for the length of the fall other than the likely failure of two pieces of protection.

What we have is the lesson that severe and fatal accidents can happen quickly, to even the most experienced and careful climbers, and not necessarily on the most difficult part of the route. (Source: Jed Williamson and John Dill)

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