A search dog team hot-loads into a National Guard Blackhawk. Photo David Pope Storming the white water on the Merced. NPS photo.

Climbing Safety

"Staying Alive" -by Ranger John Dill
[In General]     [Environmental Dangers]     [Big Wall Bivouacs]     [Descents]
[Loose Rock]     [Climbing Unroped]     [Leading]     [The Belay Chain]     [Helmets]
[States of Mind]     [Risk, Responsiblity, and the Limits to Climbing]     [Other Notes]

INTRODUCTION

Most climbers do a good job coping with the hazards of their sport, yet more than 100 climbing accidents occur in the park every year. What factors contribute to them? What, if anything, can climbers do to avoid them? And just how dangerous is climbing, anyway? With these questions in mind, the National Park Service (NPS) has examined most of the serious accidents that occurred in the park during the years from 1970 through 1990. The conclusions provide interesting reading for those wishing to stay alive.

IN GENERAL

Fifty-one climbers died in Yosemite from traumatic injuries between 1970 and 1990. A dozen more, critically hurt, would have died without rapid transport and medical treatment. In addition, there were many serious but survivable injuries, from fractured skulls to broken legs (at least 50 fractures per year), and a much larger number of cuts, bruises, and sprains.

Not surprisingly, most injuries occurred during leader falls and involved feet, ankles, or lower legs; for many, these are the accepted risks of climbing. However, leader falls accounted for only 25% of the fatal and near-fatal traumatic injuries; roughly 10% were from rockfall, 25% from being deliberately unroped, and 40% from simple mistakes with gear. Many cases are not clear cut; several factors may share the credit, and it is sometimes hard to quantify the weird adventures climbers have.

Not to be overlooked in the body count are environmental injuries. Inadequately equipped for the weather, four climbers died of hypothermia and perhaps 45 more would have died of the cold or heat if not rescued.

Fifteen to 25 parties require an NPS rescue each year. Sixty more climbers stagger into Yosemite’s medical clinic on their own, and an unknown number escape statistical immortality by seeking treatment outside the park (or at the Mountain Room Bar).

Most Yosemite victims are experienced climbers, 60% have been climbing for three years or more, lead at least 5.10, are in good condition, and climb frequently. Short climbs and big walls, easy routes and desperate ones – all get their share of the accidents.

The NPS keeps no statistics on how many climbers use the park, but 25,000 to 50,000 climber-days annually is a fair estimate. With this in mind, 2.5 deaths and a few serious injuries per year may seem a pretty low rate. It’s much too high, however, if your climbing career is cut short by a broken hip, or worse. It’s also too high when you consider that at least 80% of the fatalities and many injuries, were easily preventable. In case after case, ignorance, a casual attitude, and/or some form of distraction proved to be the most dangerous aspects of the sport.

As the saying goes, “good judgement comes from bad experience.” In the pages that follow are condensed 21 years of bad experience – the situations Yosemite climbers faced, the mistakes they made, and some recommendations for avoiding bad experiences of your own. This information comes in many cases from the victims’ own analysis or from those of their peers.

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ENVIRONMENTAL DANGERS

On October 11, 1983 a climber on El Cap collapsed from heat exhaustion.
On October 11, 1984, a party on Washington Column was immobilized by hypothermia.

You can expect this range of weather year round.

Heat

No Yosemite climber has died from heat, but a half-dozen parties have come close. Too exhausted to move, they survived only because death by drying-up is a relatively slow process, allowing rescuers time to get there.

Temperatures on the sunny walls often exceed 100° Fahrenheit, but even in cool weather, climbing all day requires lots of water. The generally accepted minimum, two quarts per person per day, is just that – a minimum. It may not replace what you use, so don’t let the desire for a light haul bag be your overriding concern, and take extra for unanticipated delays. Do not put all your water in a single container, and watch out for leaks.

If you find yourself rationing water, remember that dehydration will seriously sap your strength, slowing you even further. It’s not uncommon to go from mere thirst to a complete standstill in a single day. Continuing up my be the right choice but several climbers have said, “I should have gone down while I could.”

Storms

We still hear climbers say, “It never rains in Yosemite.” In fact, there are serious storms year-round. Six climbers have died of hypothermia and almost 50 have been rescued, most of whom would not have survived otherwise. Several were very experienced, with winter alpine routes, Yosemite walls, and stormy bivouacs to their credit – experts, by most measures. In many cases they took sub-standard gear, added another mistake or two, and couldn’t deal with the water.

Mountain thunderstorms are common in spring, summer and fall. They may appear suddenly out of a clear blue sky and rapidly shift position, their approach concealed by the route you are on. A few minutes warning may be all that you get. Thunderstorms may last only a couple of hours, but they are very intense, with huge amounts of near-freezing water often mixed with hail, strong winds, and lightning. The runoff can be a foot deep and fast enough to cause rockfall. A common result is a panicky retreat, a jammed rope, and cries for help. (The standard joke is that someone will drown on a Tuolumne climb one of these days. It’s actually possible.)

No climber has died in such a storm yet because rescuers were able to respond. No climbers have died from lightning either, but there have been several near misses, and hikers on Half Dome and elsewhere have been killed. Get out of the way of a thunderstorm as fast as you can, and avoid summits and projections.

YOSAR attempts to rescue hypothermic climbers on El Capitan, October 20, 2004. Two climbers died of exposure during the storm. Photo by N. Knight.

The big Pacific storm systems have proven more dangerous. They sweep through the Sierra at any time of year, most frequently from September through May. They are unpredictable, often appearing back-to-back after several weeks of gorgeous, mind-numbing weather. It may rain on Half Dome in January and snow there in July. These storms are dangerous because they are usually warm enough to be wet, even in winter, yet always cold enough to kill an unprotected climber. They last from one to several days, offering little respite if you can’t escape.

With no soil to absorb it, rain on the walls quickly collects into streams and waterfalls, pouring off overhangs and down the corner you’re trying to climb up or sleep in. Wind blows the water in all directions, including straight up. It may rip apart a plastic tube tent or blow a portaledge up and down until the tubing breaks or the fly rips. Overhanging faces and other “sheltered” spots are not always immune – rain and waterfalls several yards away may be blown directly into your bivy, and runoff will wick down your anchor rope. Even a slow but steady leak into your shelter can defeat you. Temperatures may drop, freezing solid the next pitch, your ropes, and your wet sleeping bag.

Once cold and wet, you are in real trouble and your options run out. If you leave your shelter to climb or rappel, you deteriorate more rapidly from the wind and water. Even with good gear, water runs down your sleeve every time you reach up. As your body temperature drops, you begin making dumb mistakes, such as clipping in wrong and dropping your rack. You are seriously hypothermic, and soon you will just hang there, no longer caring. It happens quickly. In three separate incidents, climbers on the last pitch of The Nose left what protection they had to make a run for the top. They all died on that pitch. (Read about one of these incidents: Analysis of the Fatalities on The Nose, October 2004.)

Staying put may be no better. If you need help, no one may see you or hear you, and reaching you may take days longer than in good weather. Survivors say they had no idea how helpless they’d be until it happened to them. To find out for yourself, stand in the spray of a garden hose on a cold, windy night. How long will you last?

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BIG WALL BIVOUACS

Despite the grim scenario above, reasonable precautions will turn stormy big-wall bivouacs into mere annoyances:

All such hints and tricks aside, the bottom line is your ability to sit out the storm. Your first priority is to keep the wind and outside water away. Second is to be insulated enough to stay warm, even though you are wet from your own condensation.

For more information on bad weather, including a description of the waterproof anchor, see “Surviving Big Walls,” by Brian Bennett, Climbing, Feb. Mar. 1990.

Unplanned Bivouacs

Getting caught by darkness is common, especially on the longer one-day climbs and descent routes, e.g., Royal Arches and Cathedral Rocks. It happens easily – a late start, a slow partner, off route, a jammed or dropped rope, or a sprained ankle. Usually it’s nothing to get upset about, but if you are unprepared, even a cold wind or a mild storm becomes serious. One death and several close calls occurred this way. To avoid becoming a statistic:

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DESCENTS

Consult the guidebook and your friends, but be wary of advice that the way down is obvious; look the route over ahead of time. If you carry a topo of the way up, consider one for the way down, or a photograph. Your ultimate protection is route-finding ability, and that takes experience. Some trouble spots: North Dome Gully, the Kat Walk, Michael’s Ledge.

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LOOSE ROCK

There’s plenty of it in Yosemite. Ten percent of all injuries are associated with rockfall, including six deaths and one permanent disability. In several other deaths, loose rock was implicated but not confirmed, e.g., possible broken handholds and failed placements. Spontaneous rockfall is not the problem – all the fatal and serious accidents were triggered by the victim, the rope, or by the climbers above.

Rocks lying on ledges and in steep gullies are obviously dangerous. Not so obvious is that old reliable mantle block, five times your weight, wedged in place, and worn smooth by previous climbers. Yet with distressing regularity, “bombproof” blocks, flakes, and even ledges collapse under body weight, split out cams, or fracture from the pressure of a piton. The forces placed on anchors and protection, even from rappelling, may be far higher than you generate in a test. Handholds may pass you scrutiny, then fail in mid-move. The rock you pull off can break your leg after falling only a couple of feet. Finally, watch out for rotten rock, responsible for at least two of these fatalities. It’s common on the last couple of pitches of climbs that go to the rim of the Valley, e.g., Yosemite Point Buttress and Washington Column.

The East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock is a well-known bowling alley, the site of many rockfall injuries. The Northwest Face of Half Dome is another, with the added excitement of tourist “firing squads” on the summit. But the most dangerous, surprisingly, may be El Cap; on rock so steep, loose blocks balance precariously and big flakes wait for an unlucky hand to trigger the final fracture.

Some rockfall accidents may not be preventable, short of staying home, but being alert to the hazard and following a few guidelines will cut the injury rate:

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CLIMBING UNROPED

Everybody does it, to some extent. There’s no reason to stop, but good reason to be cautious: fourteen climbers were killed and two critically injured while deliberately unroped. At least eight climbed 5.10 or better. Most, if not all, of those accidents were avoidable. You may find yourself unroped in several situations – on third-class terrain, spontaneously on fifth-class, and while deliberately free-soloing a route.

Third class terrain may be easy, but add a bit of sand, loose or wet rock, darkness, plus a moment of distraction, and the rating becomes meaningless. Four climbers have died this way, typically on approach and descent routes such as North Dome Gully, all in spots that did not demand a rope.

Sometimes you lose the way on the approach, or unrope at what you thought was the top of the climb, only to find a few feet of “easy” fifth-class blocking your way. Your rope is tucked away in your pack, and you’re in a hurry. Before you go on, remember that you didn’t plan to free-solo an unknown quantity today. Four died this way, falling from fifth-class terrain that they were climbing on the spur of the moment.

Seven of the 14 killed were rappelling or otherwise tied in. They unroped while still on fifth-class rock, for various reasons of convenience, without clipping into a nearby anchor. Three slipped off their stances, a ledge collapsed under another, one decided to down-climb the last few feet, and two tried to climb their rappel ropes hand-over-hand to attend to some problem. Like the previous group, they all went unroped onto fifth-class terrain on the spur of the moment. In addition, they all had a belay immediately available. Did its nearness give them a false sense of security?

No true free-soloer has been killed yet, although one, critically hurt, survived only by the speed of his rescue. A death will happen eventually, possibly the result of a loose hold. Is the free-soloer more alert to the task, having planned it in advance, than those who unroped on the spur of the moment? Were the unlucky fourteen still relaxed in their minds, not quite attuned to their new situation? We can only speculate.

Keep these cases and the hidden hazards in mind as you travel through any steep terrain. Be aware of what is under foot, and in hand, at each moment. Be patient enough to retrace your steps to find the easy way, and if there’s a belay hanging in front of you, think twice before rejecting it. Finally, remember that your climbing ability has probably been measured on clean, rated routes, not on unpredictable sand and wet moss. Being a 5.11 climber does not mean you can fly.

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LEADING

Nine climbers died and six were critically injured in leader- fall accidents involving inadequate protection. Most fell simply because the moves were hard, and several were victims of broken holds. They were all injured because they hit something before their protection stopped them. Either they did not place enough protection (one-third of the cases) or it failed under the force of the fall (the remaining two-thirds). In every case, their injuries were serious because they fell headfirst or on their sides – the head, neck, or trunk took a lethal blow. Half fell 50 feet or less, the climber falling the shortest distance (25 feet) died, and the longest (270 feet!) survived.

Were these catastrophes avoidable? It’s sometimes hard to tell, but the answer is often yes. Here are a few lessons frequently learned the hard way:

About Falling

There’s an art to falling safely – like a cat. Bouldering helps build the alertness required. Controlling your fall may be out of the question on those 200-foot screamers, but it will reduce the risk of injury from routine falls. Whenever possible, land on your feet – even if it breaks your leg, absorbing the shock this way may save your life. Laybacks and underclings hold special risk in this regard – you are already leaning back, and if you lose your grip the friction of your feet on the rock may rotate you into a headfirst – and backward – dive.

Learning to Lead

Four of the 15 killed or critically injured in leader falls were good climbers on well-defined routes, but the majority were intermediates, often off-route. There may be a couple of lessons in that.

A Leading Problem

The last pitch of The Nutcracker provides a subtle challenge for the fledgling 5.8 leader. Once over the mantle, you may relax as you contemplate the easy climb to the top. But if you forget about your protection, a slip in the next few moves may send you back over the side to crash into the slab below. This pitch has scored several broken ankles when the fall was longer than expected, and a more serious injury is possible. There are many such situations in the Valley, and one key to safety is to look below you while you plan ahead.

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THE BELAY CHAIN

Whether you are climbing, rappelling, or just sitting on a ledge, the belay chain is what connects you to the rock. There are many links, and mistakes with almost every one have killed 22 climbers, 40% of all Yosemite climbing fatalities. In every case the cause was human error. In every case the death was completely preventable, not by the subtle skills of placing protection on the lead, but by some simple precaution to keep the belay chain intact. Experienced climbers outnumbered the inexperienced in this category, two to one.

Mistakes with the belay chain occur at any time. Make one and you’ll fall to the end of the rope … or farther. Minor injuries are rare. Here are some key points to remember:

These cases illustrate one of the rules most commonly overlooked: BACK YOURSELF UP. No matter what initially pulled, broke, slipped, jammed, or cut, the incident became an accident because the climber did not carefully ask himself, “What if…?” By leaving yourself open, you are betting against a variety of unpredictable events. You don’t lose very often, but when you do, you may lose very big.

Beginners!

From your first day on the rock, you have the right to inspect, and ask questions about, any system to which you’ve committed your life. It’s a good way to learn, and a good way to stay alive. If your partner or instructor is offended, find someone else to climb with. Never change the system or the plan, however, without your partner’s knowledge.

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HELMETS

While we can never know for certain, helmets might have made a difference in roughly 25% of the fatal and critical trauma cases. They would have significantly increased – but not guaranteed – the survival chances for five of those fatalities. Furthermore, helmets would have offered excellent protection against less serious fractures, concussions, and lacerations.

Most deaths, however, involved impacts of overwhelming force or mortal wounds other than to the head, i.e., beyond the protection offered by a helmet. This is not an argument against helmets; the point is, a helmet doesn’t make you invincible. What goes on inside your head is more important than what you wear on it.

When to wear a helmet is a personal choice, but it is especially recommended for the following: beginners pushing their skills, roped solo climbing, a high risk of a bad fall or of ice fall (several El Cap routes in winter and spring), and for all approaches, descents, and climbing routes that are crowded and/or particularly loose. (See Loose Rock)

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STATES OF MIND

This is the key to safety. It’s impossible to know how many climbers were killed by haste or overconfidence, but many survivors will tell you that they somehow lost their good judgement long enough to get hurt. It’s a complex subject and sometimes a touchy one. Nevertheless, at least three states of mind frequently contribute to accidents: ignorance, casualness, and distraction.

Ignorance

There is always more to learn, and even the most conscientious climber can get into trouble if unaware of the danger (“I thought it never rained…”). Here are some ways to fight ignorance:

Casualness

“I just didn’t take it seriously,” is a common lament. It’s often correct, but it’s more a symptom than a cause – there may be deeper reasons for underestimating your risk. Ignorance is one, and here are some more:

Distraction

It is caused by whatever takes your mind off your work – anxiety, sore feet, skinny-dippers below – the list is endless. Being in a hurry is one of the most common causes. Here are two ways it has happened:

An adequate state of mind is like good physical conditioning: it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes constant practice, but the payoff in both safety and fun is well worth it. Stay aware of your mental state: Are you uneasy before this climb? Learn to recognize that, and ask yourself why, and deal with it. Are you taking shortcuts on this pitch? Could it be you’re distracted? Stop, get your act together, then go.

Rescuers load a fall victim into an air ambulance following a hoist operation from the Nose Route on El Capitan. Photo by David Pope.

Rescue

Despite the best of attitudes, an accident can happen to anyone. Self-rescue is often the fastest and safest way out, but whether it’s the wise course of action depends on the injury and how well prepared you are. Combining with a nearby party will often give you the margin of safety you need, but do not risk aggravating an injury or getting yourself into a more serious predicament – ask for help if you need it. (Sometimes a bit of advice, delivered by loudspeaker, is all that’s required.) In making your decision, keep an eye on weather and darkness – call for help early.

Who Pays for Rescues?

The taxpayer does; the NPS does not charge for the cost of rescues, except for any ambulance services required. This is true even if you are fined by the courts for negligence, which is a separate charge altogether (see below). But rescues can be expensive and what the future holds is anybody’s guess. The NPS is examining the possibility of charging all victims for the full cost of their rescues, and partial costs are charged in some parks now. This issue is complex, but it is clear that responsible behavior by those who use the park will minimize the threat.

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RISK, RESPONSIBILITY, and the LIMITS to CLIMBING

The NPS has no regulations specifying how you must climb. There is one regulation, however, requiring that all park users act responsibly. This applies to climbers, in that the consequences of your actions put rescuers and other climbers at risk. One rescuer has been killed in the park, so far. Thus, if your own negligence got you in trouble, you may be charged with “creating a hazardous condition” for others. As an example, a climber was fined because he became stranded by a hailstorm while attempting to free-solo the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel Rock. Storms had been predicted, and his rescue should not have been necessary.

Even avoidable accidents are understandable, thus legal charges are not frequently filed. Of all park users, however, climbers should be particularly aware – they know that their sport is dangerous, that safety lies in education and training, and that there is an information network available.

So take what you’ll need with you on the climb, or have competent friends ready to back you up. The climber stranded on Sentinel, for example, could have been rescued by friends without NPS participation or knowledge – the way it must often be done on expeditions. Freedom of expression and responsibility need not be incompatible.

Climbing will always be risky. It should be clear, however, that a reduced accident rate is possible without seriously restricting the sport. The party in its fifth day on The Nose and the party passing them in its fifth hour may each be climbing safely or be blindly out of control. You have a right to choose your own climbing style and level of risk, but you owe it to yourself and everyone else to make that choice with your eyes wide open.

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OTHER NOTES

To Report An Emergency

From a public phone, dial 911. No money is needed to make the call. Stay at the phone until a ranger arrives, unless you are specifically given other instructions.

Accident/Hazard Reporting

If you know of dangerous route conditions such as loose rock or bad anchors, consider posting the information on the bulletin board at Camp Four. Your information will help other climbers.

Fixed Gear Warning

The park is a Wilderness Area, not an urban climbing wall – the NPS does not inspect or maintain climbing or descent routes, including fixed anchors, loose rock or any other feature. You are strictly on your own. Recently, there have been those involved in upgrading the quality of the fixed anchors (some of which are 30 years old) that are found on many climbs. A selfless act and an incredible amount of work and expense, the result benefits all climbers. In addition, the removal of old gear has demonstrated just how unreliable fixed anchors can be. Some examples: fixed slings on Half Dome (clearly having seen repeated use as rappel anchors) were found to be simply jammed in a crack, not actually attached to anything! Relatively new 3/8-inch bolts on Middle Cathedral were found to be placed in a hole drilled too big, and held in place merely with latex caulk! Not specifically mentioned are the many old ¼-inch bolts that failed with a simple pull. If you do replace old bolts, use the same hole, and be certain of your ability to place lasting anchors.

Fixed pins should be replaced or removed before the eyes are broken.

Many single old ¼-inch bolts have been placed off-route as emergency rappel anchors over the years. They may falsely entice the novice off route and/or provide the false presumption that they provide a safe way down. These bolts should not be trusted for anything!

A great habit is to carry spare slings to replace old ones at rappel stations to help amortize route maintenance throughout the climbing community.

Tossing Haul Bags

Do not throw your haul bag off a wall. You cannot always be sure the coast is clear, and the bag will drift in the wind. No one has been hurt yet, but it will happen – there have been a few close calls. Bag-tossing also creates a carnival atmosphere, a big mess (of your gear), and lots of false alarms for rescuers. (Tourists usually think it’s a body.)

Sources of Information

Try the local climbers, found in the parking lot at Camp Four, the bulletin board at the Camp Four kiosk, the Mountain Shop, the Visitor Center at Yosemite Village, any ranger, or the NPS library (next to the Visitor Center). The library is the home of the American Alpine Club’s Sierra Nevada Branch Library. It carries magazines, journals, and books on all aspects of climbing, mountaineering, and natural history.

Visit the links section for online information sources on safety, conditions, and weather.

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