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On the morning of April 11, Josh Ourada went out for a free solo of Nutcracker, a classic 500-foot 5.8 on the Manure Pile Buttress, Yosemite, a climb he had previously done ropeless without issue. He sailed up the first three pitches, but halfway up pitch four, disaster struck. Ourada “had a foot and/or hand slip and took the biggest whip of my life,” as he recalled in an Instagram post from April 17. Ourada free fell and careened off the wall, coming to a stop some 150 to 200 feet below.
Were it not for nearby climbers who witnessed the fall—and others who simply heard the sounds of the fall— that might have been the end of Ourada’s life.
In a thread on Mountainproject.com (MP), Janina Tamborski said that she and her partner were at a belay station on CS Concerto, another 5.8 on Manure Pile Buttress, when they heard “screams,” followed a number of seconds later by a “thud.” She then dialed 911.
Another climber, Cole Ramey, was far closer. “I was on the ledge at the top of pitch 2 [of Nutcracker],” Ramey wrote in the MP thread. “I had to dive out of the way for [Ourada] almost landed on me. Spent the next 4 hours holding him till he got lifted out of there. Definitely the craziest experience of my life, I’m still in disbelief that he lived.” Ramey stayed with Ourada until helicopters arrived to evacuate him.
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Responding himself on the MP thread, Ourada wrote, “Huge thanks to those who called 911, the first responders, YOSAR, and most especially Cole for holding me and keeping me out of shock for hours. Also, thanks for the well wishes from the other posters here.”
In recounting the fall itself, Ourada wrote on Instagram,“I was conscious the entire fall; clawing and scraping at anything to catch myself or slowdown. I came out of it with a compound open fracture of my left heel, large laceration of my left foot, fractured pelvis, an exploded L1, broken ribs, collapsed lung, and a broken thumb. I still can’t feel or move my toes and feet nor my groin/butt area.”
Doctors have told Ourada that he has only a 20% chance of regaining feeling and function in his feet. But that won’t be enough to keep him off the stone. Ourada completed Luking Fear, his first route on El Cap, just two days before his fall. “I don’t plan on this being the first and last time I climb the captain,” he wrote on Instagram a couple of days ago.
As miraculous as Ourada’s story is, he isn’t the first climber to cheat death in a massive free-solo tumble. James Lucas, a former editor at Climbing, wrote an article two years ago running through some of the most unlikely free-solo fall survival stories—not least of which was his own.
“In 2004, I pushed the height envelope by falling 100 feet off North Overhang (5.9) in Joshua Tree National Park, breaking my neck and back, suffering a compound fracture in my left elbow, and shattering my left ankle,” Lucas wrote.
Several weeks before Lucas’ article, a Colorado climber named Kyle Walker took a 60-foot cartwheeling free solo fall on the Second Flatiron, above Boulder. Despite significant injuries, he too survived and made a full recovery.