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From the Archive: When a Climber is Pinned by Two-ton Boulder, Friends Launch Remarkable Rescue

On December 5, 2011, in Pinnacles National Park, California, Lars Johnson found his legs crushed by a 2-ton boulder. His fast-acting partners saved his life.

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Climbers: Lars Johnson, Josh Mucci, Brad Young
Location: Pinnacles National Park, California
Date: December 5, 2011

The Scene

Three men had met because of a common interest in new routes in the obscure back corners of Pinnacles National Park, southeast of San Francisco. Before the day ended, each would help save another in extraordinary ways.

Lars Johnson, then 62, was a painter and illustrator who had done many new routes on the park’s rhyolite breccia, a well-featured but sometimes loose stone made from volcanic mudflows. Two decades earlier, Johnson had fallen 70 feet from an attempt at a new route, breaking his leg in two places. His drill bit still projected from the rock. Now he wanted to show this line and others to two younger climbers: Brad Young, then 49, author of the Pinnacles climbing guidebook, and Josh Mucci, then 30, a California climber passionate about adventurous new routes.

In late morning they reached a steep, narrow gully leading to a belay ledge below the line where Johnson had fallen. They started scrambling up the gully. Near the top, a boulder choked the path. Mucci led the way up a slot on the right side, balancing with his left hand against the boulder.

The teardrop-shaped block, about three feet in diameter, suddenly shifted and tumbled into the six-foot-wide gully, threatening to crush Mucci’s left arm and chest. Instantly, Johnson reached up with his right arm and pushed Mucci hard to the right and out of the way. Young dove to the left. Johnson had nowhere to go. The boulder rolled directly onto him.

Pinnacles National Park California Rock Climbing
Pinnacles National Park. Photo: Stanislav Sedov/Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

The Response

Mucci and Young wrapped their rope around the boulder and tied it off to a tree, hoping to prevent further rolling. Throwing their weight against the rock, estimated to weigh two tons, they were able to move it an inch or two, freeing Johnson’s twisted left leg. But his right leg was trapped up to the hip.

Young, who knew the area best, ran for help. He reached the normally desolate West Side parking area after a half-mile bushwack and a mile of trail to find, quite luckily, park rangers and a trail crew. They radioed for more help and a helicopter, and ranger Mark LaShell and two trail crew left for the accident scene almost immediately, with Young leading the way.

Back at the boulder, Mucci dug at the stony ground for about 45 minutes, despite a badly injured wrist. Finally, Johnson was able to squirm out with Mucci’s help. Johnson had a compound fracture in his right leg and many other injuries. “I got him seated, splinted his broken leg using the rope and a leash from a hammer, and elevated his leg,” Mucci says. More than two hours after the accident, a helicopter dropped a nurse and paramedic on a nearby ridge, while other rescuers cleared a path down which they could lower Johnson in a litter. In fading sunlight, the chopper came in “right off the deck,” Mucci says, and then short-hauled Johnson to the parking area for a transfer to an air ambulance.

As the professionals took over, both Young and Mucci ended up making their way to the parking lot alone, very conscious of how close the margin had been.

“Had it just been me there with him, Lars would have been dead,” Mucci said. “Had Brad stayed and I went down for help, Lars would have been dead. If the ranger team hadn’t been there, he’d be dead. It all had to come together. And it came down to 15 minutes.”

Even though time was critical, Mucci and Young took crucial steps that professional rescuers recommend: They secured the scene to prevent further injuries and prepare the way for a rescue; they made a plan and effectively used the tools they had; and they assigned the right people to each job—Mucci, who had wilderness EMT training, tended to Johnson, and Young, the guidebook author, went for help and led rescuers to the victim.

Johnson mostly recovered from his injuries and returned to painting ( and exploring California’s mountains. Josh Mucci says he experienced PTSD that affected him for several years. “In gullies, with loose rock, I’d just burst into tears,” he explains. Mucci now lives in San Diego, and Brad Young lives in the northern Sierra foothills. Both still develop new routes. But not on that obscure backcountry wall in Pinnacles. All three men have sworn they’re never going back.

Survival Tip: Take Care of Yourself

“Making certain that you and your partner are safe and secure is always rescue step number one,” Simon says. This includes a good anchor and adequate protection against rockfall, foul weather, or falling temperatures. “You are no good to your partner if you get hurt or incapacitated.”