Leader Fall injury - Monolith

(9/25/1998)

FALL ON ROCK, FATIGUE -- UNABLE TO CLIP CARIBINER -- California, Pinnacles National Monument.

The accident happened on September 25 at the Pinnacles National Monument at around noon. My climbing partner, Jamey Stowell and I were on our fourth climb of the day, and climbing well. We were on "Cantaloupe Death" on the Monolith, a sport climb that has a tricky start (5.10c) and then moves rightward around a slight bulge, easing into a more mellow (5.9) climb to the top. The climb itself starts not at the base of the rock, but rather from the top of a rock ledge about 4 feet across from the climb, about 10-12 feet above the ground. The belayer stands at ground level. To start the climb, you lean across this gap onto the face of the rock, grab some large holds, and jump onto the face and start climbing. Jamey led this climb first. When it came to my turn, I successfully struggled through the first move and was relieved that it was not as tough as I had anticipated. Now, I thought, I just had the more enjoyable section of the climb.

The next bolt for protection was up right toward the more mellow section of the climb, a point probably about 35 feet from the ground, and 20 feet from the ledge. My mind was relaxed, but I think that my hands were a bit tired from the first set of moves. When I got to the bolt, I had a difficult time finding a comfortable position from which to put the rope through the bolt. My right foothold was on a somewhat overhanging part of the rock, and my left hand was on a small knob, but I went to make the clip with my right hand anyway, confident that my hand would hold. When I went to make the clip, I found that the gate of the caribiner was pointing in the opposite direction than optimum, and after a couple of awkward attempts at making the clip, I decided to switch hands and clip with my left hand, repositioning my feet as well. This did not work either, and the possibility of falling flashed across my mind as I felt the strength in my hand draining. I think I had just pulled the rope up for slack to try and clip when I fell. The next thing I knew, I felt a thud on my tail end and left buttock, my entire waist down zinging, a full body version of when one strikes the funny bone in the elbow. I had fallen about 20 feet and hit the ledge. As Jamey and I both remember, the rope began to stretch (and therefore absorb some of the fall) just as I hit the rock, so perhaps the fall was the equivalent of a 15-footer. Most definitely without an alert belayer, the fall and injury would have been considerably worse.

I bounced off the ledge, and Jamey lowered me the rest of the way down to the ground. I looked at my feet through the pain and was relieved to see that I could move them, albeit not very easily. Jamey summoned help from a pair of climbers who were nearby (they had, in fact, recommended Cantaloupe Death to us) and immediately came to our help. Jamey coiled up the rope to sling over his shoulders, and piggy-backed me sitting in this sling about a mile and a half to the parking lot, where we were fortunate to find a pair of very helpful park employees who radioed for help. The park EMT arrived shortly, and we proceeded to make a decision about whether to call an ambulance or to drive on our own to the hospital in Hollister, about 40 miles away. We opted to stabilize my spine (a lovely experience being strapped onto a stiff board) and await paramedics, a decision that was well-advised since the extent of spinal damage was unknown.

X-rays of my back at the hospital in Hollister showed a fractured coccyx, but no evidence of spinal damage. That allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief, and gave me the courage to call my wife to tell her that there had been a little accident.

The following Monday, I went to my own HMO and the doctor there suspected that there might be something more than a broken tailbone going on, because of continued pain in both of my feet. An MRI of my back showed indeed that I had sustained a fracture on the first lumbar (L1). The vertebra was compressed to about half its normal length (yes, I am now that much shorter), and the impact caused a contusion of the spinal cord, which explained my painful feet because the swelling puts pressure on the nerves. All of this will get better with time as the swelling subsides in 3 weeks or so. There is enough room in the spinal cavity for the recovery to be back to normal. But the vivid picture that remains is how close I had come - millimeters -- to severely damaging my spinal cord at L1 which, as the neurologist pointed out, would have resulted in "wheelchair and loss of bowel control". Sobering words indeed. Again, I am thankful that Jamey was able to absorb some of the fall with his alert belaying!

Analysis

As for what I have learned about climbing safety, I offer the following observations. I think that the accident was the combination of mental and physical factors. As I think back, I had no fear on this climb, but that was because I had not calculated the ledge as a potential place where I might fall. My mind thought that I was about 35 feet above the ground, where indeed I was only 20 feet from the ledge. I certainly did not think I would hit the ground if I fell. Had I been aware of this danger, I might have avoided pushing off the face as I fell, or acted differently, maybe even be more determined not to fall. Had the climb been rated "R" (for "runout"), I might have paid attention to potential dangers, so I now know to approach any climb as a potential R or X. I also think that the "phew" factor of having made it through the first section of the climb was significant in letting down my guard. I was then surprised by how difficult the supposedly mellow section felt. If I had continued to be vigilant, I could have thought about alternative positions for clipping. In fact, I think that if I had gone up a little higher, my foot would have been in a less bulgy section and I would have been in a better position. Had I been higher up with respect to the bolt, I would also not have had to pull up as much slack in the rope as I made my clip.

Another observation made by Jamey was the importance of wearing a helmet. That day, we had brought a helmet with us, but neither of us chose to wear it. If my foot position had been wrong when I fell, the rope could have flipped me over in midair, and it is entirely possible that I could have landed on the ledge not on my behind, but on my head, a thought that makes me happy to have only a painful rear end! Alternatively, I could have fallen not on the ledge but in between the face and the ledge, and because that is a narrow space, I could have bounced around and hit my head on either wall. In any event, a helmet would have prevented serious head trauma. I have tended to think of helmets mostly as a precaution against falling rocks, but I now think that even in sport climbing, it is imperative much as it is in bicycling. (Source: Kenji Hakuta)


Published in Jed Williamson (ed.), Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 1999 (pp. 42-44). Golden, CO: The American Alpine Club.


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