Accident Prevention: Communication is Key
It’s early August and your friends from the local gym are itching for the cooler temps of Send-tember. It’s decided you all should make the drive out to the National Park and go climb. A prominent rock face with an easy hike out on the backside. There’s only one issue
…it’s mostly trad climbing and you haven’t done any of that.
On the upside, your friends that you’re climbing with took the first lead and let you “pinkpoint” a 5.6 route as your first trad lead. Lucky for you, they also gave you a few pieces of gear to “play with” and practice. But you run into another problem. They’re much more confident than you, and even though it’s a 5.6 route, you get a little freaked stuck between two pieces of gear roughly 10 feet apart. You go to grab one of your “extra” cam pieces only to find it doesn’t fit in the crack you’re laying back on. Elvis’ leg starts up and your foot slips.
After smacking into the rock, you roll down the slab, hitting the end of the rope but you’re not in a good way. Your helmet lining cracked and you’re a little scared because your toes are tingling. Search and Rescue is already on the way. Lucky, there was some signal.
Lembert Dome, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue
Now that the adrenaline is wearing off you notice that your lower back feels like it went through a meat grinder, super tender. The rescue team opts for caution based on the tingling in your toes and your back hurting. They put you in a full-body splint and carry you out.
Turns out it was the right call. You’ve suffered a fracture in one of your lower vertebrae and had to be airlifted from the local hospital to a bigger hospital in the next state over since it’s the closest available that can conduct a special surgery.
This story is based on a real accident report from Yosemite National Park during a climb up Lembert Dome, a popular hiking and climbing spot visible from the Tuolumne Meadows Store parking lot. Originally published in the 2021 American Alpine Club Accident Report, Search and Rescue’s recommendations were pretty straightforward to avoid this kind of incident.
Big sighs of relief and a couple of tears as the neurosurgeon tells you how lucky you are. She lets you know that, from the imagery, it looks like the fracture is stable. You’ll only need to be in a brace for the next two to three months.
“Be honest with yourself (and your partners).”
It’s important to clearly communicate risk, but also emotions and sensations. The less experienced climber in this scenario had clearly communicated their skill level, wanting to progress and follow more experienced friends. What they hadn’t communicated was their level of apprehension. The experienced partners also failed to communicate. Assuming the unprotected section was 10 feet from piece to piece, it has the potential of a 20-foot fall on low-angle terrain. Knowing that fall potential might have caused our injured climber to make different decisions.
“Gym routes are not comparable to outdoor routes.”
Another area of communication lacking in detail. While our injured climber had spent time in the gym and on sport routes, they hadn’t done much trad climbing. A layback crack might be a cakewalk to some climbers, but many new climbers have no experience with them, especially climbers that are just venturing outdoors. It’s a hard scenario to replicate in a gym and the lack of “polished” footholds and the challenge of knowing what gear to place is nonexistent. Properly communicating not only your skill level, but also your experience with different environments and styles makes for not only more fun climbing, but safer climbing.