On September 26, Bill Morris and his cousin Max Fried roped up below Serenity Crack (5.10+), a three-pitch, 350-foot splitter in the Royal Arches area, Yosemite. The route is famous for its pin-scar finger locks. Despite the climb’s popularity, Morris and Fried were alone at the base that morning. Morris was a 5.10 Yosemite climber, and visits the Valley about 10 times a year. As many climbers do, they intended to link Serenity Crack and Sons of Yesterday (six pitches, 5.10-).
Morris took the first and third pitches, Fried the second. Nearly to the crux of the third pitch, which involves tips jamming that gives the route its 5.10+ rating, Morris had five cams in. Standing on a nub below the crux, he climbed a few moves, hesitated, then stepped back down.
His foot slipped. The cam at his waist was in a flared crack, and it pulled. He whipped to the next cam, which held for a fraction of a second, then pulled. A third cam popped as well.
Morris took a 60-footer, bouncing off the nearby tree and landing near the second-pitch anchors.
After determining he was in good enough shape to rap without a rescue, Morris and Fried headed down. Morris sprained his ankles and broke some ribs, but is now recovered.
Morris says things felt “off” before he fell. Since Serenity Crack is such a popular route, he was aware of a line forming below, with parties at each belay, and ropes stacked at the base. He “felt rushed,” and didn’t want to be the slow party, so he climbed faster than usual, which means he didn’t take as much time with gear. In addition, Morris thought he “was going to climb through the crux,” so didn’t ensure the cam protecting that section was bomber. That cam wasn’t “a piece you’d want to fall on,” he says. The two cams below the crux, however, seemed solid to him, even in retrospect.
Since the crux third pitch is a left-angling seam, when he fell he was left of the second and third cams that ripped. Morris thought his position might have contributed to the cams ripping. A leftward pull of the rope on the cams, however, if they were bomber, should not account for both pulling in granite, known for holding solid gear. Two scenarios seem logical—either the cams were not placed properly or they were placed in shallow, aka “bottomed-out,” pin scars. Bill believes the cams were placed properly.
If the cams were in shallow pin scars, the scenario for the majority of pro on Serenity Crack, then the cams could appear to be angled downward, due in part to the flexible stem (on the type of cam he was using), when in fact the axle was vertical.
I spoke with Black Diamond’s Category Director, and chief gear engineer, Kolin Powick, to help me better understand the physics. If a cam is placed in a pin scar or a crack that bottoms out, according to Powick, the cam lacks the freedom to rotate toward the direction of pull, as it might in a deeper or non-bottoming crack. When the cam does not rotate, but it really wants to because of the direction of pull, this results in non-symmetrical loading of the cam lobes and ultimately the lobes become taxed in a way that they cannot handle. We do not know for sure if this scenario occurred in Morris’ accident, but it is a possibility. Regardless, users beware of this type of placement.
As is often the case, an accident “begins” before it happens. Morris felt rushed. As a result, though aware of it, he didn’t take the required time to fiddle in bomber gear. The take away—if you’re going to place gear, make it good. An extra few seconds to refine the placement, to take it from “O.K.” to “solid,” adds next to nothing to your time on a pitch.
Second, beware of placing cams in bottoming cracks where the axle is perpendicular to the ground, and always anticipate how a cam will load in a fall. Offset cams help with pin scars and variable constrictions in cracks, but are largely ineffective in the scenario of a bottoming crack, due to not having the ability to rotate.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 256 (March 2019).