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The emergency pager screams to life, shattering the nonchalant atmosphere of the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) site behind Camp 4: “All available SAR-siters needed for a rescue down-canyon. Climber fall. Please report to the SAR cache; Victor 3 is your contact.”
It’s 1:15 p.m. in Yosemite Valley, May 2016, when the call comes. We YOSAR members cook lunch together at our site. Wood-framed canvas cabins line a mostly dry creekbed, in front of the fire pit and behind the community slacklines. During Yosemite’s busy season, May through October, the nine of us are responsible for all wilderness emergencies, on-call 24 hours per day.
In Yosemite, according to the nonprofit Friends of YOSAR, there are over 200 rescues each year, ranging from a hiker spraining his ankle on Half Dome, to climbers marooned at a stuck rope on Royal Arches, to a climber fall halfway up El Capitan. Although YOSAR is here for climbers, and your local climbing area likely has a SAR team at the ready, you should never rely on us as your first line of defense. Each rescue requires time and resources, and can put SAR members’ lives at risk. Instead, avoid being in an accident in the first place. We should all be asking ourselves: Could many of these accidents have been prevented? What are their most common causes? And how can we learn from them to become safer, more competent climbers?
From what we’ve seen as a climbing guide for four years (Miranda), and two seasons on YOSAR partaking in over 75 rescues (Alexa), climbers can avoid most rescues. First, be prepared. (See “The 10 Multipitch Essentials,” below) Practice and know simple self-rescue techniques and safe climbing habits. Be honest about your abilities. And read accident reports to learn from others’ mistakes and to strengthen your ability to detect threatening patterns—Accidents in North American Mountaineering and your local SAR website are great resources.
In this article, we discuss five accidents in Yosemite, analyzing their causes to understand how they could have been prevented.
Serenity Crack (5.10d), Royal Arches, Off-route Rappel, Stuck Rope, Stranded
A party of three climbed the classic link-up “Serenity and Sons”—the three-pitch Serenity Crack (5.10d) into Sons of Yesterday, a six-pitch 5.10b. After a successful ascent, the trio began to rap Sons with two 70-meter ropes. The climbers skipped an intermediate station, a bolted belay on the first pitch of Sons, to try to reach the final anchor atop Serenity Crack. This forces the climber, once near the ends of her rope, to tension hard right along a blank face to avoid a dangerous pendulum around a large corner out left. Two of the climbers tensioned right and reached the anchors atop Serenity Crack. However, once the second arrived, clipped in direct, and removed his device from the rope, he let go of the rope and it swung back in line with the top anchor—and more importantly, out of reach.
The third climber, also the least experienced of the three, began the rappel. Near the bottom, he lost his footing, succumbed to the pendulum, and swung around the massive corner. Multiple such incidences have occurred at this location, sometimes injuring the party. Fortunately, this climber was unhurt. Once he’d stopped swinging, he decided to continue rapping—straight down to the nearest ledges where there was another anchor, separating himself from his party out of sight around the corner. He then pulled the ropes; however, the cords got stuck. Unable to extricate themselves, the climbers first called friends for a rescue, but they were hesitant to come due to afternoon rain and impending darkness (nice friends!). Later that evening, the trio contacted YOSAR.
Via phone, YOSAR instructed the third climber to fix one end of the rope, prusik up the other end, unstick the rope, then rap back to the ledge, unfix the rope, and ascend both strands up and around the corner to reunite with his friends. Due to his inexperience, the dark, and the rain, he was unwilling to fix the situation: He ascended only a couple feet up the rope before giving up (see illustration). The following morning, YOSAR arrived and found the climbers safe on the ground (the party had not called with an update). In the end, their friends had come to help a few hours before YOSAR.
Analysis and Prevention
Never let the rope linger out of reach once you clip into an anchor and go off rappel. You can thread one strand—the side with the knot—through the next anchor to set up for the next rap or clove-hitch a rope end to yourself or the anchor. This will prevent you from getting stranded and guide the top climber to you if you’re rapping through traversing or overhanging terrain.
Gather information beforehand for best methods of descent. Understand when it might be safer to use an intermediate anchor even though the ropes can reach one lower down—more short rappels might be safer than fewer long ones. Also, look at the anchors you’re attempting to reach and assess the angle you’re about to create with the ropes: Is it safe? Is it worth the risk? What would happen to you or your ropes if you took the swing?
The number-one factor preventing many climbers from initiating a self-rescue is fear. Practicing and mastering skills before getting off the ground is vital. The climber had never prusiked and didn’t feel comfortable learning in the dark and in the rain. Although YOSAR instructed him, he instead chose to spend a miserable night out. Self-rescue skills to master before leaving the ground:
- Escape the belay
- Ascend a rope with prusiks
- Buddy rappel.
The Nose (VI 5.9 C2), El Capitan, 200-Foot Fall, Fatality
Greg, Bob, and Luke were on their third day on the Nose. They were on a big ledge atop pitch 26, called Camp VI, with another party of two. Bob led the next pitch, the Changing Corners, while the other party waited for them to pass. Greg had just arrived at Camp VI after ascending a fixed rope. As Bob led above the four climbers, he accidentally dropped a nut, which landed on a ledge 20 feet below Camp VI. Luke said he’d get it in a moment. Shortly thereafter, Greg, for reasons unknown, leaned back; unanchored, he fell 200 feet to the end of the rope he’d just ascended. With rope stretch, he hit a ledge at Camp V, resulting in fatality.
Bob lowered and then rappelled to Greg, whom he found hanging from the rope three feet above the ledge. He was tied in and had his Grigri on his belay loop, closed but not clipped to the rope. The climbers called 911, and YOSAR rescued all three that afternoon. They left a fixed line for the witnessing party to ascend to the top.
Analysis and Prevention
When faced with the complexities of big-wall climbing, there is seemingly endless potential for mistakes. As Bob would later blog, “ … it was a small oversight with enormous consequences.” Even the most experienced climbers are vulnerable to errors—leaning back on a ledge unanchored, forgetting to clip both ropes through the carabiner for rappels, clipping into the wrong anchor point. Recognizing our vulnerability to these mistakes, and how exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration play into them, is the first step in prevention. It’s important to stay vigilant around other parties. The extra ropes and haulbags can make it easier to overlook the details.
Maintain simple and clear communication among partners. Tell your partner what you’re doing without making it too complicated. Keep commands simple, straightforward, and short.
Bring ample food and water. Remember, short tempers and sluggishness can be signs of hunger and dehydration. Left untreated, these can lead to mistakes.
Build habits into your routine that include double-checks and backups. Snug the rap device against the anchor and weight the rope before unclipping from the anchor, always clip into at least one anchor point even on a big ledge, and force yourself to eat and drink regularly. If you’ve developed good habits, a red flag will appear if you stray.
Mideast Crisis (V 5.8 A2+), Washington Column, Ascender Failure, 170 foot-fall
September 2011: Yosemite Valley locals Joe and Mike started up Mideast Crisis on the east face of Washington Column. Considered good training for El Cap, this wildly overhanging 1,100-foot grade V takes most parties two to four days.
Joe had planned to solo the route. He’d climbed to the top of the fourth pitch and fixed two ropes (one static and one dynamic) to the ground. Feeling overwhelmed by the severity of the route, Joe invited Mike to join him, ascend his fixed lines, and climb nine pitches from there to the summit in one day. As the pair set out, they led the remaining pitches in blocks, with Joe leading the first block and Mike taking over halfway through the day. As the sun set, the climbers found themselves at pitch nine, three pitches from the summit.
Due to the extremely steep nature of the climb, following and cleaning require care: The second’s weight, as he jumars, pulls the rope taut against the gear, and he must unweight the rope to remove each piece. A self-taught big-wall climber, Joe said he knew about backing up ascenders (Mike had mentioned it that morning) but didn’t normally incorporate it into his practice. He didn’t have his ascenders top-clipped, in which the ascender is secured to the rope via a non-locking carabiner through the ascender’s top eye. And neither had Joe backed himself up with a Grigri or knots, though he had tied into the end of the rope. Joe arrived at the last piece on pitch nine, about 5 to 10 feet from the anchor; Mike was 20 feet above the anchor short-fixing on a self-belay. According to Joe’s trip report, he “reached for the top jumar—grabbed the trigger—and started falling.”
Joe took a 170-foot fall to the end of his rope. On the way down, he clipped his heels on a roof, exploding his high-top approach shoes off his feet, spraining one ankle and breaking the other. He grabbed desperately for the rope as he hurtled toward the ground. Finally, when he hit his tie-in knot, Joe came to a stop, bouncing around in space 25 to 30 feet from the wall with both ascenders still around the rope. (To this day, nobody knows why Joe’s ascenders failed.) Joe had a cell phone in his backpack. He dialed 911 and said he needed a rescue, and also called friends around the Valley for help. For whatever reason, SAR was unavailable (perhaps already out on a call).
“In the end, there was only one thing that was clear: Help wasn’t going to come on the wall. We had to get to the top,” Joe would later report on Supertopo. He had second-degree burns on his fingers, and even his “good” ankle was severely sprained, so ascending the rope was terribly painful. They climbed the remaining pitches in the dark. Mike led, rappelled, and then re-ascended and cleaned each pitch while Joe ascended the tag line with one foot. At this point, Joe started top-clipping his ascenders and using back-up knots.
As Mike climbed, he recalls, “Every piece I put in, I’d ask [Joe] how he was doing, how he felt, telling him, ‘Bomb piece! Moving up!’ just to keep him from passing out or going into shock.” Soon, they watched as their friends’ headlamps bobbed up the adjacent North Dome Gully. The pair topped out around midnight, exhausted and dehydrated. Here, their friends met them with food, water, and painkillers. They all waited on the summit until early morning when YOSAR picked Joe up via helicopter.
Analysis and Prevention
Nobody knows what caused Joe’s ascenders to fail, but top-clipping likely would have prevented it. In fact, any back-up would have done so.
Back up your ascenders! Some people do so by top-clipping. I (Miranda) like to have one ascender top-clipped plus clip backup knots—overhands on a bight—to my belay loop, usually around every 30 feet. If the pitch is overhanging or traversing, I’ll tie back-up knots more frequently. You can also back yourself up with a Grigri or progress-capture device.
Close the system
Joe closed his system by tying into the end of his rope, which ultimately saved a fatal plummet.
Joe and Mike gave themselves options by bringing a second rope and a cell phone. An extra rope gives you a retreat option. And though they didn’t use the tagline to bail, it would have been harder to summit without it. Cell phones are the ultimate first-aid kit: They weigh little and can mean the difference between a rescue or not.
South Face (V 5.8 C1), Washington Column, Fall, Gear Pulls, Hits Ledge
Michael and Tommy started up the South Face of Washington Column late one September morning. Michael was leading the second pitch, a C1 corner crack above a ledge, with small gear. Flaring pin scars littered the crack. About 35 feet above the belay, the piece Michael was standing on failed. He fell, ripping the next three pieces and landing on the ledge on his right side. Michael had severe pain and trouble breathing. The team decided they could not self-rescue, and called 911. They fixed a line down to the ground for rescuers. When YOSAR arrived, they decided to short-haul Michael off the climb with a helicopter.
Analysis and Prevention
Gear fails for a variety of reasons, and never discriminates between inexperienced and seasoned climbers. If you’re on a big climb in Yosemite, chances are you know exactly what a good placement looks like—if you can see it. However, gear buried in a small crack can look better than it actually is and may not hold a fall.
Beware pin-scarred and polished cracks. Placing gear in pin scars can be tricky; polished (or wet) cracks have less friction, which may prevent cam lobes from engaging. When placing cams in these cracks, consider the angle of force/pull. Ensure that the cam lobes have good surface area touching the rock. Always keep rock quality in mind, especially on softer rock like sandstone.
Climbing above ledges is far more dangerous than climbing on a sheer wall. Whether you’re free or aid climbing, always place extra gear above a ledge. Be aware that when the rope goes tight over a ledge, it may pull the gear more out than down, so place a multi-directional cam as your first piece above the ledge. Also, consider extending the first few pieces off the ledge with draws or slings to reduce the rope angle as well as any rope drag.
With their reduced surface area and minimal cam-lobe metal biting into the rock, micro-cams are weaker than their larger counterparts. When climbing at your limit above small cams, bury them, slotting them like a nut if possible. Also, overcamming the device will help it remain in place. It’s better to lose the piece then to have it rip out and cause an accident. In such cases, I (Miranda) will often place a “nest” of gear, equalizing the pieces with a sling. (And I’ll double up on gear even if it’s not small if I’m really going for it on a free climb.) Use offset cams for flared and pin-scarred cracks; doing so lets you place the cams directionally and still have all four lobes engaged.
Be wary of short falls. With less rope out, more force goes onto the gear and your body. Make sure your belayer knows how to give a soft, dynamic catch.
Aid vs. Free
When you’re free climbing, you’re primarily using your movement skills to stay on the rock. When aid climbing, you’re 100 percent relying on the gear, so bounce-test with feeling—you should be trying to rip your gear out. (Better to have it rip while you’re on your current piece than to have it fail later, when you’re high-stepping onto it in your etriers.) Consider, also, the safest option: In this accident, there was a 5.10 free variation to the left that would have avoided the pin-scarred crack. The ability to free climb around difficult or tenuous aid may make the overall experience much safer.
Lunatic Fringe (5.10c), Reed’s Pinnacle, Simul-rappelling Fatality, Serious Injury
Joe and Mark were climbing Lunatic Fringe, a classic single-pitch route at Reed’s Pinnacle. Joe led the route and remained at the bolted anchor on top, 140 feet off the ground, to belay Mark up. They then set up to rappel, using a single 80-meter rope and confirming that both sides just barely reached the ground.
The two men chose to simul-rappel, a technique in which both climbers descend simultaneously on each rope strand, counter-weighting each other. Mark used a Grigri and Joe used an ATC with no hands-free backup (e.g., a friction hitch). As they rappelled, Joe traveled more quickly down the rope and was soon about 50 feet lower than his friend; he waited for Mark 15 feet off the ground on a small, sloping ledge. Then, as per the accident report at the website climbingyosemite.com, Joe “felt a sudden change in the pull of the rope, the rope ‘going’ [through his belay device], and he started to fall.”
Joe fell 15 feet and Mark fell approximately 70 feet. After the fall, Joe briefly lost consciousness. Once awake, with a broken leg, he crawled down the short approach trail to get help. At the parking area, he flagged down visitors, who called 911. By the time YOSAR arrived, Mark was unconscious with no pulse.
Analysis and Prevention
Always use a hands-free backup when rappelling (see Rappelling Best Practices). This means creating a friction hitch with a prusik cord in conjunction with your belay device—the idea is that the prusik will “bite” down on the rope when you don’t actively manage it, arresting a fall. Here’s one method: To tie a prusik, girth-hitch your cord around the rope at least three times. Dress it so the wraps are sitting neatly next to each other and not crossed. To test, clip the prusik onto the leg loop on your harness and weight it while still clipped into the anchor. You can also use an autoblock hitch: Wrap your prussik cord four or five times around the rope and clip both ends into your leg loop.
Simul-rappelling is dangerous because you’re relying on your partner for your own safety, and vice versa. Only simul-rappel if necessary—say off the summit of an anchorless spire. With a Grigri, Mark could only rappel on a single strand. To avoid any unnecessary risk, fix the rope for that person to descend on a single strand, then unfix the rope and rappel both strands using an ATC. In rare situations where simul-rappelling might be useful, clip into each other with daisies or a sling to stay at the same level and easily maintain communication.
Tie back-up knots
Do so at both ends of the rope when rappelling. This would have stopped the rope from springing up through Joe’s ATC, preventing Mark’s fatal fall.
Alternatives to rappelling
By its nature of total reliance on the system, rappelling is inherently dangerous, mostly due to user error. If you can avoid it, do so. With an 80-meter rope, Mark could have lowered Joe back to the ground after Joe’s lead, and then Mark could have seconded the pitch on a slingshot toprope. To close the system and avoid lowering the climber off the end of the rope with this rope-stretching pitch, the belayer could have tied in ahead of time.
In Yosemite, we are fortunate to have one of the most skilled and competent SAR teams in the world. However, the first and most important step is to avoid having an accident. We all need to work toward educating ourselves about climbs, accident prevention, and self-rescue techniques. It is much easier and less painful to do things right in the first place. Finally, and most importantly, do not underestimate the dangers of rock climbing. Accidents can happen to anyone, including the most skilled and seasoned climbers. Maintain a healthy respect for the rock and the adventure so that you can live to climb another day.
The 10 Multi-Pitch Essentials
Food and water are a given, but what other items are crucial on long routes?
- Headlamp: A climb may take longer than you anticipate, or you may choose to sleep on top and find the descent in the morning.
- Prusiks: To rappel with a hands-free backup, or to ascend the rope when necessary.
- Knife: If the ropes get stuck, to cut away old tat on a rap anchor, or to cut slings to create an anchor.
- Athletic tape: Helps to cleanly cut a damaged rope (wrap the core shot in tape then cut) and tend to various injuries.
- Extra batteries: For your headlamp.
- Cell phone: To call a friend or SAR for help.
- Matches/lighter: If a climb takes longer than expected, you may find yourself on top and decide to wait until morning to descend. You can make a small fire with matches or a lighter to stay warm.
- Extra cordelette: For building and replacing anchors.
- Extra layers: When the sun goes down, will you still be warm in a T-shirt and shorts? Prepare for all circumstances.
- Aspirin/ibuprofen: Helpful to help ease the pain of minor injuries.
Miranda Oakley has been climbing in Yosemite since 2006.
Alexa Flower spends her summers on YOSAR and winters ski patrolling in Colorado.
Illustrations by Adam J. Temple.