FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION – KNOT PULLED THROUGH BOLT HANGER
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On October 27, Jim Fisher (30) and I, Scott Earnest (27), set out to climb Lurking Fear (20 pitches, VI 5.10 A3), our first El Cap route. We reached Thanksgiving Ledge in the afternoon of the 27th, and I began leading pitch 18.
The pitch was 5.10a, near my free climbing limit, but it went smoothly; after 100 feet or so I got to a single hangerless bolt where I thought the end of the pitch should be. But then I looked around and saw obvious belay bolts 15– 20 feet to my left and 5–10 feet lower, and I realized that I was off route. I should have angled left during the pitch instead of climbing straight up.
I could have set up a good anchor and belayed right where I was, but I thought the hauling would be a pain because of the angle between Jim and me, so I decided to move over to those belay bolts. Free climbing across looked a little sketchy; instead, I opted to drop down and pendulum over to a crack where I could get in a piece and make a couple of easy moves up to the belay.
I yelled down to Jim to clip a bolt hanger on the haul line, and I pulled it up. It was a keyhole type that I could just slip over the nut and pull down to secure it for a downward pull. Instead of clipping a ’biner directly into the hanger, I rigged the hanger like a sky hook: I tied the tails of a piece of 5 mm cord together with an overhand knot, and stuffed the loop through the hanger from top to bottom so that the knot would keep the loop from pulling through. Then I clipped the rope to the loop under the hanger with a ’biner.
Jim lowered me. The route up had wandered, so I’d used some long slings to cut the rope drag, but I still had to push myself down the wall as Jim let out the line. I cleaned out a couple of pieces as I went, to reduce the drag. When I was down about 20 feet I made the swing—about 45 degrees; I missed the first try but ran harder the second time, got my fingers in the crack, my feet smeared on the wall, and leaned back against the rope to brace myself. I was pretty solid.
I was looking at the rack to see what cam I could pop in when I heard this “bink!” sound, and I looked up and saw big loops of the rope falling toward me. I’ve heard all kind of things rip out of the rock, but I’d never heard a sound like that, kind of like nylon breaking. In the half second before I started to fall, I thought “Oh my God, the rope broke.” I was sure of it at the time, but the rope was fine and we discovered later that the knot in the 5mm cord had simply pulled through the hole in the hanger.
Because I’d back cleaned some pieces, the next protection was a chockstone 25 feet or more below the bolt, so I had at least 45 feet of slack. I only remember the first couple of seconds as I was falling. Jim says I smashed my head into a sloping ledge and stopped 10 feet above the belay, unconscious and upside down. I’d fallen roughly 70 feet, and the sling on the chockstone had caught me.
Jim anchored me off, got out of the belay, and was able to stand on a boulder to reach me and get me upright; then he went back to the belay and lowered me to the ledge.
I still don’t remember any of that—after a couple of minutes I started waking up and the next thing I knew, I was sitting on Thanksgiving Ledge. Jim was standing over me, on the phone, and when I finally figured out who he was I said, “Hey Jim, what’s going on? Where are we?” And he said, “You had a bad fall, man. We’re on El Cap. You’re going to be all right.” And it started coming back. But then I saw my right arm, which was all deformed, and I started yelling, but Jim screamed back at me, “Calm down, it’s just sprained.” And I was still so out of it that I believed him.
This was the last steep pitch, so Jim briefly considered leading off, but abandoned that idea because I was still disoriented. He tried reaching the 911 operator and had no luck, but he finally got his own phone service carrier back in Denver, who patched him through to the NPS. It was a little after 4:30 p.m.
Two park rangers rappelled directly to us from their helicopter at 6:00 p.m. It was too close to dark to fly me off so the four of us bivouacked on Thanksgiving Ledge. By that time I was alert but had a mild headache, a big bruise on my forehead, and I was sore all over, with a lot of pain in my wrist. The rangers gave me little doses of morphine, which helped. It rained that night, but the weather cleared in the morning so the helicopter was able to short haul me straight off the ledge.
My helmet had absorbed part of the blow to my head, but I still wound up with twelve facial fractures, including my nose, cheeks, eye sockets, and forehead, and I had a minor amount of bleeding in my brain. I also fractured both bones in my forearm and was covered with lacerations. I’ve made almost a fall recovery, except that I’ve lost about 30% of my sense of taste and smell because of nerve damage.
Obviously, I should have had a bulkier knot or a thicker cord in the hanger, or just used a carabiner instead. We’d used the same hanger and cord rig all the way up the climb, but only for body weight, clipping directly to it for aid moves. With the rope running freely through the ’biner, and me hanging on the other side, I was putting closer to twice my weight on it (the pulley effect), and pushing myself down the wall and swinging around, in addition.
Furthermore, I should have backed up the bolt with something else. I was relying on the protection I’d placed before reaching the bolt, but I was too busy concentrating on the pendulum to realize that I had left myself open to a big fall by back cleaning those pieces. I wasn’t concerned enough, because I assumed the bolt was bombproof and wasn’t thinking about the hanger setup.
The helmet probably saved my life. It didn’t prevent all my head injuries, because I hit partly on my face, but it obviously took a good whack because the internal harness had ripped partially loose from the shell.
Finally, our cell phone got help fast, but that’s no reason to be careless. It’s better to climb as if you had left it at home. (Source: Scott Earnest and John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)