On September 5th at 8:30pm Yosemite Dispatch received a report of a climber fall on the East Ledges during a descent from El Capitan. Injuries were unknown. Yosemite Search and Rescue dispatched a hasty team up the trail to make contact with the party and determine the extent of the injuries. Upon arrival at the bottom of the last East ledges descent rappels, the SAR team found the patient showing no signs of life. After consultation with Park Medical Control, the climber was declared deceased.
Christopher Vale and his partner Luke* had started climbing the West Face of El Capitan around 7:30 am. The two had met a few days prior, and climbed the Steck-Salathe together as a warm up for the West Face. They finished the West Face at around 7:00pm that evening.
After topping out, Vale was in a hurry to get back down. He had plans to go back up on El Capitan the next day to work on the climbing route “Free Rider.” By 8:00pm, the two climbers had descended to the top of the “East Ledges Rappels”.
Vale reached the rappels first and began descending while Luke was still a little ways behind. At the time of their descent, other climbers had left ropes in place down the four rappels. When Luke reached the rappels, he could see Vale’s headlamp descending below.
A moment later, Luke heard Vale yell “OFF RAPPEL.” Approximately 8 seconds later, Luke heard crashing, and saw that Vale’s headlamp had disappeared. Luke recognized that his partner had taken a large fall and tried to establish communication with him. Unable to get a response, Luke called 911 to activate a rescue.
YOSAR responded with an Advanced Life Support provider and treated the call as an emergent patient. By the time the team reached Vale, Luke had descended the rappels. After confirming that Vale was deceased, the SAR team prepared for a helicopter long line extrication for the next morning.
The East Ledges Rappel route descends an approximately 500 foot section of vertical cliff. Most climbing teams complete this descent with rappels via bolted climbing anchors. Multiple trees exist on the cliff between the bolted anchors.
Based on post-accident conversations with climbers who had descended the East Ledges in the days prior to Vale’s fall, there were ropes “fixed” along the rappel route. These fixed ropes were of unknown origin, but were being used regularly by climbers to expedite their descent of El Cap. In the post-accident review, climber’s acknowledged a blue rope stuck in a flake and tree hanging adjacent to the standard rappel route.
When YOSAR arrived on scene, they observed a blue rope rigged through Vale’s ATC rappel device. While it is impossible to know the exact sequence of events that preceded Vale’s fall, it is likely that he arrived at a ledge between the first and second anchors, saw the blue rope in the tree to his right and considered it to be the next rappel. He then removed his ATC from the first line, called “off-rappel” to Luke and rigged his ATC onto the blue line. At some point while weighting the blue line, the rope dislodged and Vale fell to the base of the rappels.
- Avoid rappelling or ascending ropes unless the security, quality and history of the rope is known. Establishing what a rope is anchored to before trusting it with one’s life is critical. In the dark and in a hurry, it is reasonable to assume that Vale didn’t inspect what the blue line was attached to before committing his life to it.
- Always test a new critical connection before undoing your previous connection. For example, attach direct to a trusted anchor, load your rappel device and then test-weight the rope while still connected to the anchor. Slow down. In this case it was repeatedly stated that Vale was highly motivated to get down quickly so that he could go back on El Cap the next day. Check that your anchor is secure, your carabiners are locked, and that your device is loaded correctly – no amount of time saved is worth skipping this step.
- Don’t leave behind ropes or other trash. We are all responsible for maintaining Yosemite’s vertical wilderness. Carry a knife to remove old webbing or abandoned lines. Park regulations state: “Property left unattended in Yosemite for longer than 24 hours is considered abandoned and may be impounded.”
- The climb is not over until you’re on the ground. Of the 6 climbing related fatalities in Yosemite over the last 2 years, all have been related to rappelling and descending. At the end of a long day people are tired, feeling hurried, and it is often dark. The fact that you’re done with the technical climbing can lead to letting down your guard. Stay vigilant of what is going on around you until you are completely done with your adventure.