Staying Alive: Yosemite Rangers Extended Interview

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What are the three or four most common but avoidable factors that cause climbers to get into trouble on Yosemite big walls?

The YOSAR team analyzed most (42) of our big wall accidents that have been reported to us in the last 11 years (2001 through Sept. 2011). Not surprisingly, the majority involve a leader falling after a piece pulls while using direct aid or a fall over protection while free climbing. That said, in most of these falls there are other contributing factors that exacerbate the consequences of the fall. Climbers fall often, so what causes them to get injured or killed after a fall? What other factors lead to accidents and then rescues? Here is what we came up with.

Problem: Haste: 8 of the big wall accidents involved climbers attempting to climb quickly. These include big walls in a push, summit fever, or trying to make up lost time to stay on schedule.

Solution: A couple years ago, before I was about to do Lurking Fear in a push, my friend Ron Kauk told me something I now remember every time I go climbing: “Do it right the first time.” We didn’t break any records but managed to climb it under 12 hours. Cutting corners not only increases your risk of accident/death but it also doesn’t always save you time. We’ve all experienced moments where you get yourself in a bind because you tried to go too quickly. Have a deliberate plan with your partner of how you will remain safe while attempting walls in-a-push or in-a-day. Is it really worth risking your life to knock off 30 minutes on your Nose in a Day time?

Problem: Jugging without an adequate back-up: Three times we responded to calls for rescue after ascending devices detached from fixed lines while climbers were following pitches. Once this resulted in a fatality on Tangerine Trip when the climber apparently was not tied in at all. The other two times climbers fell 125 feet to 165 feet and somehow escaped with relatively minor injuries. Neither of these climbers was tied in short—they fell to the end of the rope they were tied to.

Last week a team was doing Mideast Crisis in a push, and one climber was jugging a fixed line while cleaning an aid pitch with two pitches left. He was not tied in short or backed up with a GriGri or other self-belay device. Somehow both of his ascenders came off. Luckily the entire pitch was so steep that he only hit the wall with his feet—though with enough force to knock both boots off—and only sustained a broken ankle. This relates to the first theme of haste. These guys would have had a much better time to the top if they just took 10 minutes during the climb to back themselves up while jugging

Solution:Why ascenders come off the rope is often a mystery, but it’s not the point here. It happens, so tie in short or use a self-belay device!!

Problem: Pendulum falls: Four accidents involved pendulum falls by followers. Pendulum falls can occur either for the leader or the follower, but the follower has more control over the consequences. It happens that all four of the pendulum falls we responded to were climbers following pitches, and three were very experienced. Instead of lowering themselves out sufficiently, they made deliberate decisions that a steeper swing was OK. Results? One had only an ankle fracture; one fractured his fibula, one had a compound wrist fracture, broke several ribs, and got knocked out (concussion); and the last one broke his femur, rib, and arm. At least one of these cases involved a wall-in-a-day attempt.

Solution: Every climber needs to qualitatively understand the physics of a pendulum fall. As always, your speed is determined by the vertical height of your fall, but in a pendulum it’s directed sideways. If you were standing on top of a tall boulder would you jump off and deliberately land on your side? Probably not, but a pendulum into a dihedral is essentially the same.

Be proficient at lowering yourself out. If it looks a bit risky it probably is, so re-rig to give yourself more rope before you continue. Once a climber gets confident at this technique, it doesn’t take that much time. The leader can help by making sure pendulum points are high compared to the follower.

Problem: Back-cleaning: In six of our rescues climbers took much larger falls than they should have because they had back-cleaned potentially good protection below pieces that failed. Some of these falls resulted in very serious injury and required a huge level of risk to rescuers to get these patients off the wall alive.

Solution: Both the leader and the belayer (the coach on the side-line) need to evaluate and anticipate the consequences of a fall at any time. Think about the worst case scenario if that shaky piece and the next one fail. What will you hit? How far will you fall? Will you pendulum head-first into that corner?

Get accurate (not sand-bagged) beta about the size of the rack you’ll need to safely climb your wall.

Problem: The elements: Storms in the mountains can happen any month of the year, and they aren’t always accurately predicted. Also, climbers sometimes underestimate the destructive force of dehydration in hot weather. In the last 11 years we’ve had three big wall hypothermia fatalities and three other big wall rescues after winter storms, and two big wall rescues due to dehydration, for a total of eight sure saves. Climbers often underestimate the supplies they need to weather storms or hot weather.

Solution: Bivy sacks are no insurance in a storm. Bring a portaledge and fly that you know will keep the wind and water out. Make a conservative estimate of how long a wall will take and then add at least a day (more in fall through spring) when deciding how much food and water to bring. Communicate with the outside world if possible to know how the weather forecast has changed while you are on the wall. If you are caught out with marginal gear and getting hammered, be extremely cautious about “making a run for it”. Though miserable, your best chance may be to wait for rescue.

• In the case of many traumatic injuries, even serious ones, the parties might be able to self-rescue if no rescue team is available. But if you are stranded by heat or storm—hypothermic and/or weak from hunger or thirst—your life may depend completely on an organized rescue even though you have no discernable injuries. You might jug our lines, thank us, and be cragging the next day, but you were essentially dead.What can climbers do to maximize their survival chances and help rescuers do their job if they do blow it and get in big trouble?

  1. Ask a reliable buddy to keep an eye on your progress if possible.

  2. Have a communication device and plan. Cell phones can be a crucial tool to get help fast with accurate information about your problem. If you know it is your emergency communication device, leave it off to save your battery… take another phone to talk to your boyfriend or girlfriend every night! Where there may be no cell service (even in a deep dihedral on El Cap), an FRS radio link to that buddy on the ground makes a good alternative or backup.

  3. Have some medical skills: At a minimum, any big-wall climber should have gone through the Wilderness First Responder Course. In Yosemite you may feel really close to civilization, but in reality you may have to give medical care through a long night or a couple of stormy days. Knowing medical language and how to give a patient assessment can also help rescue personnel know how urgent the response should be, and how big of a risk rescuers should take. (Though with good communications we can talk them through it.)

  4. When a rescue is launched, if possible get organized.

  5. This relates to overall wall preparations: have at least an extra day of food/water. If rescuers can’t get to you right away because of weather or other circumstances you need to have the ability to wait it out without having your situation deteriorate.

  6. Any other words of wisdom for big-wall climbers? Be organized, bring more water than beer, learn wall techniques closer to the ground before you decide to embark on a multi day wall or Nose-in-a-day, and Read Accidents in North American Mountaineering every year. The stories are presented with detail and analysis, and we can all learn from other climbers’ mistakes.