The July and August 2016 summer season in Tuolumne brought about a large number of climbing related injuries and rescues. Many of these have overlapping and important learning points. Below is summary and analysis for 5 accidents.
CATHEDRAL PEAK - CLIMBER FALL
July 17th at 9:00 am Yosemite Dispatch received a call from a distressed party at the base of Cathedral Peak. The call came from a climbing party whose 38 year old male leader had fallen while off route on the first pitch of the Southeast Buttress. The leader sustained substantial trauma to his right ankle which appeared to be broken.
Prior to the fall, the leader had began climbing up what he thought was the standard start to the route. While climbing he began to feel that the terrain he was on was not correct and traversed left 20 feet in an attempt to gain easier ground. When this did not provide more moderate climbing, the patient attempted to reverse the traverse and fell. Because of the location of his last piece of protection, the climber took not only a long fall, but also pendulumed across the face. The total length of the fall was estimated at 30-40 feet in low angle terrain.
Due to limited park resources at the time, and the open access at the base of the cliff, the rescue team decided to extract the patient via short haul with a helicopter as opposed to a long carry out in a litter.
Route finding on alpine rock climbs can be difficult. On the approach and from the base are good places to gain perspective on where a route travels. Anytime you are climbing into unknown terrain, ask yourself, “Can I safely reverse these moves?”
Be vigilant about where and how often you place gear. Pendulum falls often result in worse outcomes than a standard vertical drop because they expose fragile organs and the head to greater risk. On low angle terrain even a short fall can be dangerous due to the likelihood of impacting ledges.
MT CONNESS – STRANDED SOLOIST
July 17th at 8:00 am Yosemite Dispatch received a distress notification from an INREACH GPS unit. The distress call was from a late 30’s male free soloist attempting the West Ridge of Mt. Conness. The climber had started his day from Tuolumne Meadows and approached Conness via the Young Lakes trail head. His stated goal for the day was to solo the West Ridge of Conness, then travel on foot to Tenaya Lake, from which he would solo Tenaya Peak, Matthes Crest, and Cathedral Peak.
The climber began climbing up what he thought was the West Ridge early in the morning but had actually started on a ridge system far climber’s right of the standard route. As he climbed higher he felt that the climbing was more difficult than he expected, but hoped it would ease a bit higher up. Soon he came to a series of hard moves he could not safely reverse. He decided to make the moves and found himself stuck on a ledge system, unable to safely ascend or descend. At this point he realized the gravity of his situation and made the decision to call for help.
Upon receiving the notification and details of the situation from Yosemite Dispatch, Tuolumne SAR put together a small technical rescue team to send out to Mt. Conness. The team climbed to him and lowered him down the face to the ground where they then escorted him back to Tuolumne via the Young Lakes Trail.
Again, route-finding was the primary factor for this rescue. Free-soloing magnifies the consequences of getting off-route as retreat is limited to downclimbing. In this case, the fact that the climber had a GPS unit potentially saved his life. Had he attempted the rest of the climb or reversed the difficult moves, things could have ended much worse.
From all accounts, the climber was well experienced and had spent a lot of time climbing in Yosemite, including hard routes on formations such as El Capitan and Half Dome. While climbing experience is of utmost importance on committing climbs, it can also be a hindrance if it leads to complacency on “easier” climbs such as this. No matter who you are, it is important to view every situation objectively.
LEMBERT DOME – CLIMBER FALL
August 4th at 12:30 pm Yosemite Dispatch received a call from an injured climber on the Northwest Face of Lembert Dome. The call came in from a team of 3 who had been cragging close to the Northwest Books. The party had set out that day to climb a route called “Mega Bleam” (5.10a) which starts at a ledge about 200’ of fourth class off the ground.
Approaching Lembert Dome, the group saw three potential routes that could be Mega Bleam. The route furthest left and with rusty hardware was Mega Bleam. The middle and rightmost route were recognizably runout but had newer hardware. Unsure of which route was Mega Bleam, the team started up the furthest right route. The climbing seemed to be harder than 5.10 and the team lowered off the first bolt. They then tried the middle route. At the first bolt, the leader saw runout climbing ahead of him. Thinking it looked manageable he continued on. After getting through the runout section with one questionable piece of protection he arrived at the next bolt. Pausing on a stance to clip the bolt, his handhold broke off. The leader took a 30-40’ fall before being caught by the “questionable” piece. His partners reported that he stopped about 4’ above the belay ledge.
During the fall the climber sustained trauma to his right ankle resulting in a compound fracture. One of his partners was a paramedic and immediately realized a rescue would be required. They called 911 and his partner began providing basic first responder care.
Tuolumne SAR sent two team members to the ledge to begin providing care and packaging the patient. The rest of the team made the decision to perform a top down lowering/pickoff operation as opposed to operating directly at the location of the injured climber. This decision was based highly on the lack of working room on the ledge. After picking off and lowering the climber to the ground, another group of SAR members performed a short carry out to the road where they were met by an ambulance.
Take the opportunity to place good protection. If this climber had not carried gear on this bolted route or looked for placements on the runout section his fall could have been much worse. The team reported that when he came to a stop 4’ above the ledge, he had been flipped upside down and was falling head first.
Guidebooks and apps are not always complete. Mountain Project includes a description for Mega Bleam but not for the surrounding routes. Just because one route is well protected there is no guarantee that the surrounding routes are also well protected.
Bolt replacement is an ongoing and irregular community effort in Yosemite. New hardware does not necessarily mean that a route is well traveled. Obscure routes are more likely to have loose rock such as the hold the climber broke.
Basic emergency medical knowledge can be quite valuable if you plan on climbing outdoors regularly. A member of this climbing group being a paramedic resulted in the patient receiving quality early care. A Wilderness First Responder course is a great place to start for medical training.
CATHEDRAL PEAK – CLIMBER FALL NUMBER 2
August 5th at 4:00 pm Yosemite Dispatch received a report of a mid-20’s female climber fall on Cathedral Peak. The call came in from a party of two who had been climbing the Southeast Buttress on a particularly busy day. At the ledge below the chimney of pitch 4, the team caught up with multiple parties. To bypass the other parties the leader decided to climb right of the normal route into terrain roughly 5.9 in difficulty.
Somewhere about 20’ up the pitch the leader fell. Her single piece of protection pulled, resulting in a fall onto the pitch 4 ledge. The climber sustained injuries to both ankles, breaking one.
The team had prior knowledge of Cathedral Peak and decided that rappelling off the side of the peak would be the best way to get off quickly. Although they had climbed 4 pitches, the team was able to reach the sloped ground to the side of the peak in 2 single rope rappels. Painfully, they worked down the descent trail to their gear. Back at the base, they decided that calling for a rescue was their best course of action.
Tuolumne SAR sent a hasty team to Cathedral peak. Assessing the situation, they felt that a helicopter short haul was the best course of action for extracting the patient.
Classic moderate routes in Yosemite can see large crowds on weekends and during the summer months. Being aware of who’s around you, what they are doing, and how it is affecting your decisions while on a climb is an important aspect of mountain safety.
Protect yourself early and often climbing off ledges and the ground. Gear failure low on a pitch is often more detrimental than higher when you have had the opportunity to place more space and protection between yourself and hazards.
Have knowledge of your environment. In this case, the climbers were experienced in the area and were able to come up with a quick plan for getting off of the climb. Inability to do this would have resulted in a longer more dangerous rescue operation.
DAFF DOME – CLIMBER FALL
August 12th at 11:30 am Yosemite Dispatch received a call from a climbing party on Crescent Arch of DAFF dome. The party’s 48 year old male leader had taken a 25’ fall and sustained a dislocated shoulder and what appeared to be a broken ankle. It was reported that the belayer was also pulled up while catching the fall and may have been slightly injured.
While climbing up the second pitch of the route, the leader got to a good stance. He placed a stopper, but was unhappy with it. While trying to remove it and place it better, he lost his balance and fell. He attempted to catch himself and dislocated his shoulder from the sudden jolt. About 10’ below he hit a ledge, resulting in the ankle injury, then fell about 15’ further before his rope arrested him.
A team climbing above saw what was happening, and fixed their ropes down past the injured climber. They then rappelled down, and assisted the leader as his partner lowered him to the first big ledge they could reach. They decided to wait there for SAR, who had already been contacted and was in route.
The Tuolumne SAR team advised the team assisting with the rescue to fix a rope down to the ground. After they did this, the SAR team ascended to the patient, provided care, packaged him and lowered him to the ground. The team carried the patient to the road where they transferred care to the ambulance.
Use protection when you get it. The leader was almost 10’ above his last piece when he was struggling to re-place the nut. One option could have been to clip the nut as it was, place an additional piece of protection and then remove or re-place the nut.
Be knowledgeable and ready to assist others while climbing. In this case, unlike our earlier reports, having other people on the route was actually beneficial to the overall outcome. Having basic knowledge of self rescue while climbing is essential, and being able to assist others in a situation like this can be a lifesaver.
As a belayer be aware of your surroundings and the forces of catching a large fall. Stay close to the wall to avoid being dragged forward, and ready to provide a soft catch for yourself, the leader, and your equipment.