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Important reasons to be prepared.... or why not to fall (my Yosemite accident)
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By JoannaH
May 19, 2010

On Thursday May 6 in Yosemite, I took a lead fall way bigger than I would have liked and got to have a couple fun helicopter rides because of it.... Just thought I'd share what happened and what we learned so that others might learn second-hand rather than first-hand. My apologies for it being a bit long....

For the super-condensed version with pics to describe, look here:
www.mymotherlode.com/news/local/992676/Climber-Rescued-In-Yo>>>
www.flickr.com/photos/ambitious_wench/sets/72157624009525552>>>



So Thursday afternoon, the reality of the day diverged greatly from the original agenda for the day. My climbing partner and I went to climb the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral in Yosemite, which is 11 pitches. There's one pitch of 5.10a (mixed) and the rest are 5.8 or easier trad.


Things had been going pretty well, and at about 3:00 we were at the top of the 8th pitch, which I was leading. I'd been feeling comfy and confident all day. Didn't feel in over my head or sketched out. I was up ~120 feet from where my partner was belaying me, and had stopped to look for a place to put in a piece of pro. The area was certainly protectable, but required a little looking around rather than a perfect crack to just jam cam after cam into. My previous piece was a Black Diamond 0.3 C4 cam about 10 or 12 feet below where I was looking, which seemed reasonable given the relatively easy terrain we were on. I never felt uneasy or precarious.

I don't remember slipping, and I don't remember falling the ~35 feet of (distance to pro, which happily held) x 2 + (a little lead slack) + rope stretch.
Apparently I smacked a little 8" - 12" ledge or some other part of the rock, because it knocked me out for what my climbing partner thinks was about 30 seconds.
I don't remember climbing back up to the little ledge.
I don't remember setting up an anchor and clipping in to it.
I have vague recollections of resting there to try to clear my head, checking the locked-ness of my biner several times, and belaying my partner up to me.


After taking a bit of time to evaluate the situation and me asking my partner to check my anchor (apparently a few times), we decided that my obvious but unknown head injuries and back injuries made it too dangerous for us to go either up or down. Conveniently, Yosemite has a very well-trained (and unfortunately often-used) Search and Rescue team very near. This is quite different from the normal alpine environment. My partner flipped through on one of our radios until she made contact with someone on the Nose who could get us help from below. I think that was around 4:00. We were put into direct radio contact with a guy from SAR, who checked on our whereabouts and condition, and arranged for two SAR guys to climb up to us to meet us for a helicopter pick. It was great to be able to have constant contact with him.

When the SAR guys showed up, they quickly checked me out, checked out our anchor & gear situations, and noted that we were generally well-prepared :). The helicopter showed up and dropped off the litter, they all got me loaded snugly into it, then got me clipped in to the haul-line when the helicopter returned, and off I flew down to the meadow below. I believe that was shortly after 7:00. All that took around three hours, which is ridiculously fast for getting a call out, a team organized, two guys up 8 pitches of trad climbing, rescue gear dropped, rescue gear set up, and me picked up. These guys were well-practiced and on their game. Most rescues would be lucky to take 3 times that long.

At the meadow I was transferred to a medic helicopter and taken to the hospital in Modesto, where told me that I had suffered a pretty decent concussion, a few fractured lumbar vertebrae, a few more bruised vertebrae in the upper back, some bruised ribs, and a whole bunch of general scrapes and bruises. Could have been way worse.

The SAR guys (Dave, etc. on the ground, and Skiy and Chris who came up to us and took my partner back down the route on rappel in the dark), all the pilots, all the medics, and everyone else involved were superb with both their skills and demeanor. That includes my partner, who stayed ridiculously level-headed, and whom I had no qualms with putting all my trust in when I knew I wasn't right in the head or body. I can't thank any of them enough.

Since that unplanned excitement, I've been making good progress. Bummer is that I have to take 6 weeks of not-going-to-smack-the-head time to recover both the brain and the back. Good thing is that nothing major needs to be done. My helmet was not so lucky. It's a goner.



We (myself, my partner, and our friends that came with us) have done quite a bit of talking about what happened to figure out what we could have done better, what we did well, etc. The things I would have done differently include:


1) setting up an autoblock or some other back-up on my belay for my partner, given the situation.
2) calling for help more quickly. (It was important to take the time to make the right decision, but half an hour later may have put us after dark, which would have meant a cold night out on a tiny ledge.)
3) not falling. (I try to make a habit of not falling, especially on gear. My partner noted that the fall could have happened to anyone, and I apparently looked really solid up until that point. All it takes is just a second to take you off the rock. There's a fine line between being in your groove and being over-confident.)

We talked a lot about the spacing of gear, and all felt that the spacing seemed reasonable for the difficulty of the terrain and the limited amount of gear that anyone climbs with. I guess a few things to note are that 8" ledges can be dangerous just like 3' ledges, that those ledges get "closer than they appear" given all the rope stretch, and that maybe our definitions of "reasonable" need to be adjusted.


Things that we think we did well include:

1) both staying level-headed and rational the entire time

2) calling for help when help was available rather than putting ourselves further into harm's way. In an alpine environment or one in which help is a less reasonable alternative, we would have been forced to begin planning a self-rescue. We seriously considered that option.
3) carrying radios
4) my partner's attentive belaying
5) both carrying enough gear on our harnesses and in our follower-pack to deal with an unplanned emergency situation (even the SAR guys ended up borrowing a couple small things). As my partner pointed out, half an hour later or a bit windier would have put us there for the night. They even at one point asked if we were equipped to stay the night.
6) wearing our frickin' helmets (which we always do anyways)


We both think that it's incredibly important to thoroughly analyze and evaluate our accident so that we can learn from it as best possible. We count ourselves as very lucky, but also have endeavored to stack the odds in our favor. The hard work, efforts, and risks taken by those that assisted us can never be understated.

Any comments people have are more than welcome.

Be safe!


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By Keenan Waeschle
From Bozeman, MT
May 20, 2010
on top of the RNWF <br />June 2012

glad your okay, sounds like your recovering quite well!


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By Ish
May 20, 2010
me

I think posts like this are the most important ones on this site (and what makes it such a great resource). Thanks for the informative thoughts and I'm glad you are alright.


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By David Hodges
From Parker, Colorado
May 20, 2010
Rubicon J Tree CA

Good write up, thank you for sharing. Hope you enjoy a speedy recovery.


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By Buff Johnson
May 20, 2010
smiley face

Sounds like you did the best you could.

Also, I think you took a reasonable amount of time to figure out what was going on & decided correctly to call for help as opposed to trying to press your own self/buddy-rescue.

The heli made the evac go faster; think about what if it couldn't fly. The successive rescue lowers would indeed have made this quite an experience. It is certainly a service to be appreciated however the operation goes down.

One thing that can help rescuer access is fixing lines for jumaring; I don't know if your situation it was possible; but in general, fixing lines (in a solid anchors) helps.

As far as your climb, you assessed risk while climbing, you fell, shit happens. Don't beat yourself up too much on it.

Heal up, be well. You might have some PTSD on your mental approach further on down the line. It's important to recognize it and discuss it, maybe try not to press yourself too quickly to regain your climbing level you have had before the accident. But, this is unique for everyone, maybe the important thing is to be able to talk about it and figure out a way between partners to keep enjoying some climbs.


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By Evan1984
May 20, 2010

This is a good post. Thank you for sharing. I am very glad it turned out reasonably well; I think your team's strong head saved you guys.

Out of curiosity, do you know how you contacted the rock when you hit the head? Did you have a helmet on? What type of of helmet were you wearing? Do you think that helmet provided reasonable protection?

Thanks,
Evan


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By BirdDog
From Seattle, WA
May 20, 2010
Mt. Baker

That was an incredibly well written and well analyzed write up. Thank you for taking the time to pen it, we can all learn from it. Sounds like you did everything you could have done correctly. The times I shouted "watch me" have usually resulted in being able to hang on and not fall. The times I've peeled off have been like you said - woa, I just popped off. It happens.

Very best of luck in your speedy recovery!


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By Mike Anderson
From Dayton, OH
May 20, 2010

Good, God! "a few fractured lumbar vertebrae", and you weren't screaming in pain? It may not seem like it now, but it sounds like you got off easy. When I think back to all the times I've run it out on "easy" terrain, I shudder. So many times a simple slipped foot or broken hold while running it out 50' could have killed me....

Thanks for sharing, I hope you recover well...don't worry too much about "soon".


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By Adam Paashaus
From Greensboro, North Carolina
May 20, 2010
After you get done climbing be sure to head up to the summit for sunset. Its only a 10 minute walk from the main wall. Don't forget your headlamp.

Small ledges can be bad. I was belaying a friend at the T-wall once who took a lead fall... top piece pulled and he hit a 6 inch ledge with his foot and it was enough to throw his weight back so he landed flat on his back hitting his head hard on a larger ledge below. You were lucky it was such a fast rescue b/c my friends rescue which was preformed very well took over 5 hours accident to ambulance.


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By Richard Fernandez
From Flagstaff, AZ
May 20, 2010
Crack Test Dummies EPC

Great post, thanks. I agree with the previous comment, "most important" types of posts on MP.

Hats off to YOSAR!

Kudos to your team for staying cool, the hardest part IMHO.

What type of radio were you using?

Richard


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By JoannaH
May 20, 2010

With respect to the radios, we just had simple Motorola GMRS/FRS 2-way radios. In a relatively populated area without too many obstructions they might find you somebody. Mostly they're for easy communication in high wind when you're 200 feet apart. Or for chatting with your friendly local SAR.... :)

With respect to the helmet, I had a CAMP Armour helmet, which is one of the types with a plastic shell with a suspension system. I think it worked pretty well. The structural parts of where the suspension attaches to the shell are still in tact, but the ancillary attachments within that busted. I imagine that's by design to dissipate a bit of energy. You can see the yield lines in the plastic where the helmet impacted the rock. I'm supremely happy that those yield lines are not on my skull. I've always worn my helmet, and always will.

I believe I pulled a similar stunt to Biscuits' partner. There was a second higher mini-ledge, and I think that flipped me over. My climbing partner said I was upside down at some point, and I definitely smacked the back of my head. I think the flip landed me low-back & hip-to-lower mini-ledge. Could have been a lot worse.

Just got my CD of CT scan images from the hospital today.... Yeehaw....

And they say women have a higher pain tolerance than men. ;)
Honestly, though, you just can't afford to freak out in a situation like that. Doesn't do anybody any good. Being rational is what gets ya through it.

And yes, YOSAR rocks.


Thanks to everybody for all your support!

One of my left transverse processes off partying by itself....
One of my left transverse processes off partying by itself....


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By Mike Anderson
From Dayton, OH
May 21, 2010

Aha, you broke the transverse process...my partner did that on Half Dome once...didn't look fun.


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By Pal Pocsi
From Budapest, Hungary
May 21, 2010
Scoping out the start of the route.

Thanks for the post. As others have said, it's a great reminder to always think about safety and keeping your head in a difficult situation. I wish you a speedy and complete recovery.


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By ShibbyShane
From Estes Park, CO
May 21, 2010
Dappled Mare

Great report, thanks. Those SAR guys must have been hauling ass up those pitches!

In regards to this point you mentioned:

JoannaH wrote:
5) both carrying enough gear on our harnesses and in our follower-pack to deal with an unplanned emergency situation (even the SAR guys ended up borrowing a couple small things). As my partner pointed out, half an hour later or a bit windier would have put us there for the night. They even at one point asked if we were equipped to stay the night.


What gear did you guys bring? What did the SAR guys borrow?

Thanks! Heal up and get back on the rock.


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By Sirius
From Oakland, CA
May 21, 2010
Moving through the crux lock - now that's micro beta for you, that is.

Glad everything worked out!

As a climber who gets to the Valley a lot, I always get a dark feeling when I hear the helo coming through. I hate to think that a fellow climber may have been injured, and I'm always aware of the risk that the members of the SAR team expose themselves to during operations.

As a pilot (though not of helicopters), I also try to send good vibes to whoever is in the cockpit. See this pic, from 1975, for a reminder of the associated dangers of flying in terrain like that: www.yosemitestock.com/ee/photo.php?photo=3492&exhibition=58&>>>...

At the same time, the SAR guys get paid for rescues, and I know that they thrive on their work. They are the best outfit in this country at what they do, no doubt about it.

With the recent death on Serenity, I'm glad to read of something bad working out well!


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By Ron L Long
From Out yonder in Wisco.
May 21, 2010
City life

JoannaH wrote:
;) Honestly, though, you just can't afford to freak out in a situation like that. Doesn't do anybody any good. Being rational is what gets ya through it.


Words to live by, in more than just climbing!


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By doligo
May 21, 2010
Jose Cuervo Fruitcups dirtbag style

Glad you are ok and thanks for posting this.

Do you think a foam helmet would've dissipated some of the impact force? My understanding is, they are built like bike helmets and designed to protect from falls to the ground etc., while traditional suspension helmets are meant to primarily protect from falling objects from above...


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By Brigette
From Seattle, WA
May 21, 2010
At the anchors.

Bob Packwood wrote:
Helmets helmets helmets....HELMETS!!!


+23,000,001


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By JoannaH
May 21, 2010

wellle wrote:
Do you think a foam helmet would've dissipated some of the impact force? My understanding is, they are built like bike helmets and designed to protect from falls to the ground etc., while traditional suspension helmets are meant to primarily protect from falling objects from above...


I've wondered the same thing before but was pretty content with what I had. It was already paid for, and it did indeed do its job.

I've talked to a few people since, and am considering the foam helmet option. The general opinion seems to be that the suspension helmets do a little better for rock-fall, and foam a little better for human-fall....

There's a big, long discussion here: www.mountainproject.com/v/climbing_gear_discussion/helmets_s>>>

Still haven't decided, but am leaning towards foam for the new one.
I think the basic point, though, is that the helmet you actually wear is the best one.


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By Sirius
From Oakland, CA
May 21, 2010
Moving through the crux lock - now that's micro beta for you, that is.

An ominously relevant thread, on the recent death of a 19 yr old climber who slipped. Slipped on a 5.8 section, one nut popped, and was killed when his head hit a small ledge. This was in late April, 2010. Apparently he climbed 5.12.

www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread.php?topic_id=1158929&tn=20

Hearing of such things stops me in my tracks. How easily that could have been, or could be, any of us.


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By England
From ?
Jun 5, 2010
Alpine toothpick.

I'm glad your doing good. I was in the valley at that time, and remember the beefy YOSAR rescue. This is the first I've heard of the accident since it happened. The helicopters flew past me about four pitches into after-seven. Good Luck.


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By BrianH
From Santa Fe NM
Jun 5, 2010
Bob's Been to Joshua Tree!

Maybe it's always a crap shoot. Sometimes the best you can do is minimize the damage.

Thanks for posting your story.


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By Jed Williamson
Jun 6, 2010

These kinds of postings make our work so much easier and more relevant.

We encourage more of this kind of sharing.

So thanks, and good luck going forward.

Jed Williamson
Editor - Accidents in North American Mountaineering
Annual Report published by the American Alpine Club


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By Jed Williamson
Jun 6, 2010

These kinds of postings make our work so much easier and more relevant.

We encourage more of this kind of sharing.

So thanks, and good luck going forward.

Jed Williamson
Editor - Accidents in North American Mountaineering
Annual Report published by the American Alpine Club


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By Jed Williamson
Jun 6, 2010

These kinds of postings make our work so much easier and more relevant.

We encourage more of this kind of sharing.

So thanks, and good luck going forward.

Jed Williamson
Editor - Accidents in North American Mountaineering
Annual Report published by the American Alpine Club


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By minielle
From Holladay, Utah
Jun 6, 2010
minielle

Thank you for the well written post. It's a great reminder to always think about safety and not become complacent. Wishes for a speedy and complete recovery.


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