Accident Report: South Face, Washington Column

Names of climbers in this report have been changed.

SUMMARY

On October 7th 2016, Mike and Dylan started up the South Face (5.8 C1) of Washington Column. The two had done a little climbing together, but never in Yosemite Valley and mostly on single pitch climbs. Mike was the more experienced of the two, having done a number of Yosemite big wall climbs including routes on El Capitan. Dylan was newer to climbing, having started about 1 year before.

Mike had placed a piece but not yet clipped it when the cam he was standing on pulled.

Mike had placed a piece but not yet clipped it when the cam he was standing on pulled.

The team hiked their gear to the base of the route and started climbing in the late morning. At the top of pitch 1 is a large ledge. Mike started up pitch 2, a C1 pin scarred corner (the crack altered by many years of piton use).  Approximately 35’ up, the piece Mike was standing on pulled. Dylan and Mike believe he pulled an additional 3 pieces of gear during his fall before landing on the ledge on his right side.  

When he tried to move, Mike experienced excruciating pain on his side and was having trouble breathing. The two realized that moving Mike on their own was most likely impossible and they called 911.

Without knowing the full extent of Mike’s injuries, YOSAR responded emergent and sent a Paramedic to the climber while the rest of the team prepared for a rescue. Dylan fixed a rope down to the ground for the SAR team, and the Paramedic was able to ascend to the patient quickly. Initial assessment concluded that Mike was injured and in pain, but stable.

Although Mike was breathing regularly lying on the ledge, any movement dramatically increased his pain. Because of this, a helicopter short haul extrication was preferred over a traditional rope lower and litter carry-out through the talus beneath Washington Column. After a reconnaissance flight of the area, the pilot and short-hauler agreed that using the helicopter was an acceptable option. At about 5:00pm a ranger was inserted onto the ledge and extracted Mike in the litter. Dylan descended with the SAR team.   

REVIEW

  • 161007-005Established in 1964, the crack systems of the South Face are heavily pin-scarred. Placing protection in pin scars is a necessary skill for many Yosemite Valley big walls. The typically shallow and flaring nature of these features can make them less secure and harder to gauge than a normal crack placement. Seeing the inverted lobes on the first cam that pulled, our best guess is that the cam failed because it was either under-cammed (too small for the placement) or placed in a flare.
  • Place cams in the direction of pull. Although impossible to know, we also speculate that Mike placed the cam ‘straight-in’ as opposed to ‘downward-angled’ because only two lobes of the cam were damaged. A cam placed straight-in will distribute a disproportionate amount of force to the upper lobes, in this case potentially resulting in their failure.
  • Place gear early and often climbing above ledges. In overhanging terrain Mike’s fall may have ended up fine. While above ledges or in low-angle terrain, even a small fall can result in serious injury.

 

161015-001

A cam placed “straight-in” a pin scarred crack.

161015-002

An offset cam placed in line with the direction of pull.

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