On Thursday June 16th at approx 12:30 pm Yosemite dispatch received a 911 call of a climber injury on El Capitan in the vicinity of the Heart Ledges rappels.
Pete, Mark, and Vlad had just finished climbing Little John Right, a 3-4 pitch route located at the base of the west wall of El Capitan. Mark lead up the 3rd (and final) pitch to the large ledge system at the top, built an anchor using traditional climbing gear, and belayed up Vlad second. Upon arriving at the ledge, Vlad attached himself to the anchor, and brought up Pete.
During this time, Mark unclipped from their built anchor, and walked across the ledge to the bolted rappel anchors on the left side of the pinnacle. He set their rope up for the single rappel to the base. Vlad and Pete broke down their anchor, and walked over to the rappel station.
Mark was the first one down, and upon reaching the ground yelled “OFF RAPPEL” to his partners. Very shortly after this, Vlad and Pete heard “HAUL BAG, HAUL BAG, HAUL BAG!!!” screamed from above. Vlad, who had already rigged for rappel laid flat against the wall. Pete (from his partner’s best memory) was sitting down and unable to move out of the way quickly enough, and was hit in his left arm by a fully loaded El Cap sized haul bag.
The haul bag came from a party above who were rappelling down from Heart Ledges after retreating from the Shield due to time constraints. This party consisted of climbers Jeff and Aaron. At the time of the incident, Aaron was on the last rappel, and getting close to equidistant from the level of Little John Pinnacle. Jeff, who the haul bag detached from, was one rappel above him and about 100 feet above Little John Pinnacle.
Upon seeing what happened, Aaron, who is a Wilderness First Responder, swung a hard right to reach the ledge and immediately began assisting Vlad with patient care. Jeff, who is an EMT, hastily rappelled down to the ledge, and began helping.
Both Mark and Aaron tried to get cell phone calls out for help. Mark could not get service at the base of El Cap and ran down to the road. When he still could not get service, he flagged down a passing car and asked them to drive the valley loop until he could get a call out. Simultaneously, Aaron eventually managed to get a call into 911, who patched him through to YOSAR.
On the ledge, the party’s main concern was to control bleeding on Pete’s left arm, which appeared to have suffered a severe, open fracture of the humerus. While initial attempts at applied pressure control failed, the team attempted to tourniquet Pete’s arm, first with a shirt and then with a sling. This was also unsuccessful, but eventually they managed to control the hemorrhaging using continuous applied pressure with clothing. Due to the unstable nature of the injury, and the fact that it was bleeding profusely, the team then decided to wait until YOSAR arrived on scene instead of attempting a self extrication. While on scene, Jeff did a patient assessment as an EMT, and had no other significant findings beyond extreme trauma to the patient's left arm. Jeff also did an infield spinal assessment which had no findings. While waiting on the ledge, the team continued to check CSM (Circulation, Sensation, Motion) every 5 minutes in Pete's left arm.
Little John Pinnacle can be seen in the center of the sunlit wall.
At approximately 12:55pm a hasty team assembled from nearby Park Rangers arrived at the base. They were able to make verbal contact with the injured party above. The hasty team informed the climbers that while a technical team and ALS (Advanced Life Support) care was en route, it would likely be at least an hour to complete a rescue lower to the ground. With this information, the group decided to stabilize Pete’s arm as best they could using shirts, hiking poles, and the equipment from Aaron’s first aid kit, and rappel with Pete to the ground to meet the Rescue team when they arrived.
After packaging Pete’s arm, Jeff rigged for a tandem rappel using a modified version of a rescue spider. This allowed Jeff to rappel down the line with Pete, but carry Pete’s weight on the rappelling device. Pictures of the set-up are shown below. It should also be noted that this is the exact same method Jeff had been using to rappel with the dropped haul bag, and that in many slightly different iterations, is a common way to rappel with a heavy load.
As Jeff and Pete reached the base, the full SAR team arrived. YOSAR Paramedic’s gave Pete an assessment at the base and repackaged his arm. After an initial attempt at an assisted walk out, it was decided to package Pete into a litter and carry him down the trail.
Upon reaching the ambulance waiting in El Capitan meadow, it was determined that Pete would need to be flown out in a medical helicopter to avoid long term complications with his arm.
HOW IT HAPPENED
￼ Jeff’s ATC was extended away from him on his 2 Purcell prusiks. These were both clipped to a locking carabiner (the masterpoint) that was holding his rappel device. His rappel was backed up by a prussik on the rope below his ATC.
Jeff clipped another locking carabiner to the masterpoint to attach a runner to the haul bag. He clipped a second runner directly to the masterpoint and attached it to the haul bag as well. Both runners were attached at the haul bag with individual nonlockers, opposite and opposed.
While some specific details were lost in the chaos and simply could not be recalled, what is known is that while rappelling, the haul bag caught on a small ledge. This caused the runners the bag was hanging from to go slack temporarily. When the bag released from the ledge, it somehow unclipped from the masterpoint and fell to the top of the Little John where it hit Pete.
Although no one in either team could be 100% sure, they are fairly certain that when the bag landed on Little John, both runners were attached to the haul bag. This would mean that the failure point was at the locking carabiner clipped into the masterpoint. Jeff was unable to recall whether or not that locking carabiner remained on the masterpoint after the incident due to the high level of stress and chaos.
When asked directly what Jeff believes happened, his best guess is that the locker which was holding the two runners going to his haul bag opened and simultaneously released the two attachment points. Whether he failed to lock it before leaving the ground, or it unlocked during the rappel due to vibration and improper orientation is unknown.
· Always check and lock your carabiners. They have a locking mechanism for a reason, and although it isn't very often they catastrophically fail, it only takes one incident to result in severe injury or death. It is extremely lucky Pete survived the incident.
· Self rescue and medical knowledge is important to have while climbing. The fact that multiple people involved with the incident had basic knowledge of these things may well have saved the patient's arm.
· Be constantly aware of your surroundings while climbing. Parties climbing and rappelling above you is always cause for concern. It is common for guiding companies to have a policy of not climbing below other teams.
· Although Jeff’s basic system for rappeling with the haul bag was properly configured, there are simpler ways to rig this rappel. The number of carabiners in Jeff's rigging may have contributed to a failure to recognize the unlocked carabiner. Simplicity is an element of building safe climbing systems and recognizing rigging errors.
Thank you to the Yosemite Climbing Rangers for providing this report. If you want to learn more about climbing in Yosemite, please visit their website at www.climbingyosemite.com