On September 11th 2016, at approximately 8 pm, Tuolumne Meadows SAR was informed of a climber injury on Matthes Crest. The climber’s partner, Will, had run from Matthes Crest directly to the Tuolumne SAR site, approximately 5 miles. Will reported that his partner had been involved in a rappelling accident while hastily descending from the climb in unexpected storm. He believed both of his heels to be broken. As the injuries were not life threatening, it was decided that getting the patient out of the backcountry first thing the next morning was the best course of action. SAR sent out 3 personal to administer patient care and keep the climber warm for the night.
Will and James started climbing Matthes Crest in the late morning. Both are experienced climbers, and have spent decades climbing in the Sierras. The day started out with clear blue skies and both climbers felt that the weather report looked good enough to proceed with the climb.
After the initial steep pitches, the team began to simul-climb through the easier terrain on the ridge traverse. As they were climbing, clouds started to form. Quickly, the weather worsened to hail and lightning, prompting them to rappel from the ridge.
The first 3 rappels went well and the team found in-place anchors from previous teams. They backed up the rappels with extra gear when necessary. At the fourth rappel Will went first. He saw an anchor far to one side but felt that the slick rock would make it a difficult and risky rappel. Instead he rappelled down an angled corner to reach an easier stance and built his own rappel anchor. Will called “off-rappel” and James began to rappel. James rappelled straight down and then tried to tension over to the belay when he was even with Will. Before he could reach the anchor, James lost control of his footing and pendulumned “approximately 30 feet.” He sustained traumatic injuries to both legs while swinging horizontally across the low angle terrain.
The two were getting wet, and temperatures were dropping. James was unable to walk, and with no phone reception they decided to send Will out to the front country for help.
James threw the ends of his ropes to Will who then pulled him into the anchor. With James in extreme pain and unable to function at full capacity, Will lowered James to the ground, and then rappelled to the base himself.
The two were getting wet, and temperatures were dropping. James was unable to walk, and with no phone reception they decided to send Will out to the front country for help. Will left most of the clothing, food, and water with James to keep him as comfortable as possible; luckily this included a Gore-tex jacket. James cut the bottom out of a backpack and slipped it over his legs to create an extra layer of protection from the elements. Will then jogged out and went directly to the Tuolumne SAR site to initiate a rescue.
Using GPS coordinates from his phone, Will was able to give the SAR team a precise location on James. A helicopter rescue was determined to be the best way method of rescue considering James’ remote location. That night, YOSAR sent out a hasty team including an RN and a paramedic to take care of James until the helicopter arrived with first light the next morning.
- Weather in the High Sierras can change extremely quickly. Although James’ broken heels were the only injuries he sustained, the potential for hypothermia was very real. Temperatures that night were in the low 30’s. Had the SAR team not responded quickly, things could have gotten much worse.
- Reliable rain gear is essential for High Sierra climbing. While James only had a long sleeve fleece that day, Will’s Gore-tex may have prevented James from becoming hypothermic. The improvisation of turning their backpack into a bivy sack was also important for James’ condition.
- Don’t underestimate the force generated in a pendulum fall. Our Spring Accident Report includes a pendulum rappel accident that resulted in a broken femur. One way to avoid this accident would have been for Will to fix the rappel lines to the lower anchor after calling off-rappel. James could have then rappelled and pulled himself over to the belay. Fixing the ropes at the lower anchor also acts as a backup for the second rappeller and is good practice even on straight down rappels.
- James and Will were using hands-free back-ups while rappelling. If James had let go of the rope in the midst of his fall or hit his head and been knocked out, his prussik would have arrested a catastrophic fall. Rappelling without backups is a roll of the dice, and in a situation like this with so many objective hazard (haste, loose rock, rain) it is that much more important.