Photos by Cheyne Lempe
On September 19th, at approximately 5:30pm, YOSAR was notified about a climber who had taken a 15 meter fall, suffering serious injuries, including possible head trauma and a broken clavicle, on Lurking Fear of El Capitan.
The reporting party was another climbing team on Lurking Fear. Unreliable cell service let YOSAR know approximately where the climber was and vaguely what had happened but not many more details. With the use of a spotting scope, members of YOSAR were able to locate the injured party around pitch 14. Using a megaphone and hand signals, YOSAR was eventually able to make contact with the partner of the injured climber. From this initial size up, the partner confirmed the injured climber potentially had a broken clavicle and that the injured climber had not lost consciousness. Given the late hour in the day and the perception that the injured climber had not lost consciousness, it was decided that rescue operations would be postponed until the following morning.
On Sunday the 20th, at 7:00am YOSAR staged rescue operations out of El Cap meadow and the park’s Helicopter 551 was brought in to do a recon flight. After the flight, due to the nature of the upper slabs on Lurking Fear, it was determined that a top down rescue would be incredibly difficult and potentially more hazardous for rescue personal than a short-haul mission using 551.
551 took off with the first rescuer underneath and inserted them at the injured climber. A second rescuer was inserted with a litter and the two rescuers packaged the patient for a pick off. 551 came back in and retrieved the patient, the two rescuers, and a substantial amount of the climber’s gear. 551 landed in El Cap meadow and the injured climber was transferred to an ambulance. The partner of the injured climber was absorbed by another climbing team and continued to the top.
After speaking with the injured climber it was determined that direct aid climbing was being used at the time of the fall. The last thing the leader remembers is placing a red micro cam and stepping into their ladder to weight it. Speaking with other climbers on scene it appears that the climber blew their top piece and proceeded to pull at least two more pieces before being caught by a number four Camelot. The belayer was able to lower the climber to a ledge on pitch fourteen and then descend down to the injured leader to assist. Whereas megaphone communications had led YOSAR to believe the climber had not lost consciousness, follow up interviews with adjacent climbing groups revealed that they had believed the injured climber was going in and out of consciousness, that their helmet was severely deformed and they appeared to have a broken clavicle.
The injured climber and his partner were joined by two additional teams, one that was climbing wall-style and one that was climbing in-a-day. The fellow climbers reportedly monitored the injured climber through the night and stayed on scene until the completion of the short-haul mission the next day.
The placement of multiple questionable pieces of protection in a row was perhaps the main contributing factor to this accident. Perhaps most importantly we are reminded how helpful helmets can be in preventing serious head trauma. According to medical personal on scene, it is very likely that the patient’s injuries to their head would have been much more substantial had they not been wearing one.
While we don’t know for sure if the climber had been back cleaning, it’s good to remember to leave gear more often than not if you’re climbing in terrain you’re not entirely comfortable on. In addition, it is important to remember that climbing above ledges increases likelihood of a leader fall causing significant injuries. In this accident, the leader was starting off a large and tiered ledge system that they may have struck during their fall. Climbers, especially at the end of the day when they are tired and mentally exhausted are more prone to making mistakes and overlooking safety details. Being cognizant of your own fatigue as well as your partner’s is an important part of staying safe on the wall.