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Century Fall

20-Oct-2009
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On May 23, British climbers John Beckwidth and Rob Ellender woke up on Long Ledge, 31 pitches up El Capitan, to damp, whiteout conditions. The Brits had spent the last five days climbing the Salathe Wall (VI 5.9 C2) and were eager to summit, a mere three pitches away.

Beckwidth and Ellender spent the morning monitoring the weather, and decided to go for the top before the weather got even worse. At about 1 p.m., the clouds broke slightly and the two began climbing. Immediately off the belay Beckwidth clipped a bolt with a long runner and began aiding a steep crack, placing eight offset nuts and clipping them with shoulder-length slings to avoid rope drag.

Soon after, Beckwidth encountered a section of 5.8 slab. Unable to locate a crucial fixed pin, he placed a marginal cam in a pin scar and a good nut before committing to the wet face.

Beckwidth, a 5.12 slab climber, had climbed 15 or 20 feet above the nut when he attempted to match his feet on a wet foothold, and slipped. As he fell he had the sensation of my gear zippering from the bottom up®and then my top piece pulling.

With all 10 pieces of gear yanked from their placements, Beckwidth dropped as if he hadn't protected the pitch at all. I remember falling upside down with the rope whipping next to me, he says. After Beckwidth dove 80 to 100 feet, his fall was stopped only when his left ankle became tangled in the static haul line, which trailed from his harness and was tied off to the belay. I came to an abrupt halt 30 feet below the belay, he says, and I heard my ankle snap. Beckwidth was then forced to ascend the rope to the belay.

Concerned that his partner might go into shock, Ellender helped Beckwidth into a sleeping bag and bivy sack. The two were bag-bound for the next four days, as a week-long storm settled into Yosemite Valley. With dwindling food and water reserves, they waited for the weather to clear. On May 26, Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) established contact with the climbers by shouting through a megaphone. The climbers responded with hand signals. On May 27, YOSAR dropped a fixed line from the summit of El Capitan, and Ellender and Beckwidth jugged to the top. Beckwidth was taken by helicopter to Yosemite's medical clinic. Days later, he was hobbling around Camp 4 in good spirits.

 

ANALYSIS

Before leaving the belay, Beckwidth had clipped one of the bolts by the anchor. This common practice prevents factor-two falls and usually serves as a multi-directional first piece. However, in spite of the fact that Beckwidth had placed long runners on all of his gear, the pitch wanders, and the fall exerted multi-directional forces on the passive pro, causing it to zipper out of the crack.

While it is easy to say that Beckwidth should have placed more cams early in the pitch, climbers are limited by the available crack systems. Sometimes only uni-directional nut placements are available.

Jesse McGahey, Yosemite's lead climbing ranger, adds, This was a prime example of how useful a cell phone would be for emergency purposes. Even if you just have a little signal you can still send text messages. All we could establish with Ellender and Beckwidth was that they were hurt, needed a rescue, and could ascend fixed lines.

 

PREVENTION

In any trad-climbing setting you must anticipate the direction of pull on your gear. Most climbers are able to visualize what will happen while falling on a top piece, but it takes experience to predict how the belayer's end of the rope will pull on lower pieces. Whenever possible, position your belayer directly under your first piece and place cams early in the pitch. When using passive protection, like nuts, consider placing an oppositional piece. A nut slotted upside down and clipped to the piece above it might have prevented this accident. Finally, storms can roll in at any time®May 15 through June 15 can be very temperamental in Yosemite. No matter how pleasant the Valley floor is, pack warm clothes, bivy equipment, extra food and water, and a cell phone or two-way radio.

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