Venusian Blind Rockfall Accident Report

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gost

climber
SF
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 28, 2009 - 06:11pm PT
I'm posting this because I think it may be of use to the climbing community, and as a way of thanking the many people who helped us get out safely. As a relatively inexperienced alpine trad climber, I'm also interested in hearing about anything we would have done differently, better or more effectively to handle the situation.


Venusian Blind Rockfall Accident Report
7/25/09

Jesse, Regina & I left camp at Third Lake around 6am and hiked to the base of the climb. We took our time across the initial 4th and 3rd class terrain and located the first 5th class pitch without trouble. From here we could not locate the features of the next pitches on the topo and went off-route up a loose gully, rejoining the route somewhere around the 6th pitch. (As an aside - it seems like everyone I've talked to has had the same trouble on this part of the climb. Topo update?)

Jesse and I swung leads for two pitches, and Jesse set up a belay on a small ledge midway up pitch 9 underneath the feature marked on the topo is "death diving board". Jesse belayed from the ledge with his back against the wall and Regina hung below the anchor to the left. I lead carefully around this rock and up the hand crack above. Above the hand crack a flake lead to a solid-looking ledge. I put my hand up on the ledge preparing to move up. There was no visual indication that there was anything loose or detached about the feature. As soon as I weighted the hand I felt movement. I threw my left hand out to another feature to keep myself from falling as I screamed. ROCK! ROCK! ROCK! The block was huge and as soon as it started to move there was nothing I could do to stop it.

In the longest second of my life, I watched as the block glanced off a bulge below and smashed into Jesse's outstretched leg. He screamed - we were later able to determine the time of the accident (2pm) from several people who heard the scream from Third Lake.

After a few seconds of initial panic, Regina had her shirt rapped around Jesse's ankle - which was pouring blood - and started taping it. None of us had any first aid training but Regina did the best she could with a shirt and some climbing tape. I lowered myself as soon as I could bring up enough rope to rappel and started setting up a rappel from the belay station as Regina finished taping. We were able to communicate the details of our situation to two parties on the routes to the right of us (one party was with our group), but we knew it would be many hours before either of them could get down and get word out to SAR.

I tried to set aside the sense of dread that had been growing since the moment I felt the rock move and focus on getting down. The first rap was the hardest, but we determined that Jesse was able to rap under his own power, using one leg on steep sections and sliding sideways or on his butt on lower angle terrain. Any sideways movement was difficult with only one leg but I was able to help him from below by pulling on the ropes.

After a single-rope rap down the route, we did a long double-rope rap off the left side of the arete into a wide, low-angle gully. This was ideal terrain for a stuck rope, and luck had not yet returned to our side. Rather than taking the risk and wasting the time of trying to climb up and free our blue rope, we cut it at the halfway mark. We now had one 60m rope with a badly damaged sheath about 15-20ft from one end (I believe it must have been impacted by the rock, as I hadn't noticed any damage before) and one 30m rope.

From here we did a number of raps (maybe 4?) down the gully to the relatively flat spot above the first 5th-class pitch. I rapped first, trying to make the most out of each rappel but also find rap stations where Jesse could rest with his leg elevated (we had been unable to completely stop the bleeding). Almost everything on our rap route was loose, and we ended up eating through a lot of our rack on this section.

From here I explored on rappel, hoping that we could exit via the steep wall on the left into the descent gully from contact pass. This would be shorter and much easier for Jesse than the long expanse of low-angle terrain below. When I found a slung rock and bail biner in the gully running down the steep wall, the decision was made. We were low on gear and following someone else's bail route put me somewhat at ease. I hoped that party had known where they were going.

The gully was a very uncomfortable place to be, being full of loose rock, but we couldn't pass up the free rap stations. Fortunately I was able to find good cover at each station, as it was all Jesse could do to control his rappel and could not avoid sending down a fair number of missiles. As we got further down we could not keep up with the existing bail route, as some of the anchors would have required hanging, and I was worried about passing over the damaged section of the rope (the sheath was now about 95% gone). By this time though we were low enough that we could make it the rest of the way on our own gear. The wall was 5 or 6 rappels in total, with the last done in the dark by headlamp.

The wall ended on a very steep pile of loose scree. I knew we would not be able to move Jesse much further on this terrain, and some exploration didn't yield any promising spots to set him up comfortably. I set up an anchor at the bottom of the wall so we could move him away from the wall a bit. At this point I saw a headlamp approaching across the snow field. A climber named Alexey had been camped at the base of the climb and was notified by our friends on their descent of our situation. This is when the miracles started happening. Alexey's timing was perfect, as I was ready to make a break for Third Lake to get help, and would have headed straight down the dangerous gully in the dark, at least wasting time if not getting hurt myself. We conversed quickly and agreed that Alexey would stay and help Regina get Jesse away from the wall a bit and try to dig out a spot for him to bivy, and I would head down to our camp site to get as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as I could carry.

Alexey gave me directions for the descent. I made it down to the lake sometime between 11 and 11:30 and found a group of wilderness rangers getting ready to come up and help. Luck was definitely back on our side. Things begin to blur for me at this point, but there were a lot of people around helping me load my pack, rehydrate and lift my spirits for the trek back up. Two rangers, Paul and Andrew, lead the way with heavy packs. We ran into Alexey again, returning from his second trip up to Jesse (he had donated his sleeping bag and stove). By the time we got there (around 12:30) two other climbers had passed through and given everything they had to keep Jesse warm (Brian and Ted, I gather, although I didn't really meet them).

Paul and Andrew took Jesse's vitals and determined that he was stable (we were very worried about the blood loss, having no way to guess how much he had lost over the last 10 hours). They were able to get out by radio indirectly to SAR. Having them there all night with us was an indescribable boost to our morale, and at some point I think we all even slept for a few minutes. At first light Jesse's pain began to worsen dramatically, and we had a really torturous hour and a half with no word on the radio about when we might see more help. Finally, we heard that a helicopter was on it's way, and it wasn't long before we heard it in the sky.

The helicopter circled a few times. I didn't think there was even a remote possibility of it landing somewhere near us. Eventually, it started to make a slow and careful approach up the gully, and too my great surprise began to lower into what appeared to be a steep boulder field. It hovered low for a long time, and eventually we heard the sound of the engine powering down - probably the greatest sound I've ever heard. Later we discovered that the pilots had found an unlikely flat, sandy spot in the midst of the boulders. As one pilot hovered, the other jumped out and stacked rocks under the back of the skids to create a flat surface to rest down on.

The two CHP pilots (one was named Scott, I've forgotten the other's name) professed not to be "mountain guys", but with their arrival and with Alexy and his climbing partner hiking up from their camp below we now had 8 bodies to help get Jesse down the scree field, across the snow and some big boulders and loaded into the chopper, which we were able to do in relatively short order.


Jesse is currently in the hospital in Bishop recovering. I'll leave out the medical details for his privacy, but he is alive and in good hands now, which is a huge relief. Jesse, Regina and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many kind folks who helped us out, especially Alexey, Paul, Alex and our CHP pilots, but including many who I didn't mention but who helped coordinate and organize help from Third Lake. I owe a huge debt to Jesse, who remained calm, collected and alert through the whole ordeal and made it possible for us to get him down from steep terrain to a place where help could be reached.


Sean

Edit: a few people have asked me offline, so I thought I'd add that the helicopter landing was at about 11,300 ft.
Also, it turns out that they had some trouble finding us (they had bad GPS coordinates initially). We probably could & should have done more to attract their attention when we first saw them.
cleo

Social climber
Berkeley, CA
Jul 28, 2009 - 06:26pm PT
sounds like you did a lot of things right, sean. best thoughts to jesse.
Ghost

climber
A long way from where I started
Jul 28, 2009 - 06:37pm PT
Best wishes to Jesse, and my congratulations to you and Regina for getting him down to safety.

I've also had a huge block come out from under my hand and hurtle toward partner and rope, so I know a bit of what you went through. Fortunately, the only one hurt in my incident was me, and that wasn't very serious.
philo

Trad climber
boulder, co.
Jul 28, 2009 - 06:37pm PT
Wow what a frightful story. Things certainly could have gone so much worse. I am very glad you got the help you needed. And I want to thank you for your willingness to share. Best hope and wishes for your friends recovery.
Now, DO NOT beat yourself up with guilt. Accidents happen in the mountains all the time. Your friend is still alive due to your efforts. I have a very simular rock fall injury story from years ago. Email me directly if you would like to talk.
NotIt

Trad climber
Malaga Cove
Jul 28, 2009 - 06:40pm PT
Sean -

Having been in a somewhat similar situation - my partner pulled a block on himself on a pretty remote formation in CO - I just want to express my support.

You're gonna replay the whole thing a million times, each time second guessing what you did in each instant before and after the accident. My best and only advice you _you_ is to believe myself and the others you will hear telling you that it certainly sounds like you made all the right decisions after the block cut loose. Questioning anything you did following that moment, in hindsight, is not worth the sleep you'll lose. Your friend is down and safe and that is truly all that matters now. It's binary.

After some time passes (probably a few/many months) and you are able to be objective about the situation, THEN do the self-analysis and debrief. Trust me.

And truly, the most important part to know now: sounds from here like ya did good on the self-rescue.

Best to your friend as he recovers.
Studly

Trad climber
WA
Jul 28, 2009 - 06:47pm PT
burly
msiddens

Trad climber
Mountain View, CA
Jul 28, 2009 - 06:54pm PT
oh man, so glad that ended well and thoughts go to a speedy recovery. I ran into the same problem with route finding on that one.....I got off easy though.
tom woods

Gym climber
Bishop, CA
Jul 28, 2009 - 07:37pm PT
Sounds like you guys did pretty well in that situation. You say you have no first aid training, get some. that being said, the first aid you did sounds right. T-shirt and a roll of tape? That's my first aid plan om a lot of climbs.

Your rescue plan sounded good. Getting down is good if possible. The helo landed, picking you from the arete would have been more involved.

Check out a Wilderness First Responder course. They're pretty good, and they do focus a bit on long term patient care. As you have now found out, it could be a while until help arrives in the mountains.

Good job and here's to a speedy recovery.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Jul 28, 2009 - 08:01pm PT
Good work on the self-rescue.
Alexey is a good guy.
Esparza

Trad climber
Westminster, CA
Jul 28, 2009 - 09:19pm PT
Wow, sounds pretty epic. Good to hear everyone is ok. Good work to the first responders and SAR team! Safe travels!
tom woods

Gym climber
Bishop, CA
Jul 28, 2009 - 11:55pm PT
Chief, I don't know what happened Friday. When I got home from work, I had a message that there was a recovery in the Horseshoe Meadows Area. I can't leave the house until the wife gets home to take the kid until 7:00 so I didn't respond to the call.

I hear it was done by helo, which would be somewhat normal. I'm really sorry there isn't more done for the living in these situations.

If I get the report from the Inyo SAR side and let you know what happened.

I went out on a few Sunday. SAR volunteers did not go to the Temple Crag rescue either. My understanding is that Team members were set to meet early Sunday for a recovery at old army pass, a fatal from Saturday when the call came in for the broken leg at Temple Crag. Both of these were resolved by helo, and I don't think SAR team members went on either. We were used for a couple of weak Whitney calls later sunday.

That's the info I have now. Again sorry you were left out there in sad and tough situation.


mtnyoung

Trad climber
Twain Harte, California
Jul 29, 2009 - 12:39am PT
Sean and Regina:

I am glad that it appears Jesse will be OK. I hope his injuries heal quickly and well.

While you are concerned for your friend, and rightfully so, do not neglect to look out for your own emotions too. Maybe its worth rereading what Notlt posted above; there's a lot of insight there.

I was in a similar situation on the route Wet Denim Daydream in 1992. I dislodged a rock that hit my partner. It split his helmet and his skull. It was a pretty serious injury. The situation turned into a major YOSAR rescue, overnight, helicopters and all (god they're good). My partner had brain surgery. He recovered quickly and well.

Five years later I was within a few hundred yards of a similar event; a helicopter was called. Five years later. As we heard the helicopter I lost control, which shocked me utterly. I started shaking and crying with no control. I was safe on the ground. I never saw it coming. Later I was told I had post traumatic stress disorder. I thought that was just something Vietnam vets got. I never really thought it was real. In 2002, ten years after, I was around a similar event again (helicopter rescue). The reaction happened again, but this time milder (time does heal).

Again, reread Notlt's post above. It sounds like this was nothing but an accident, the type of thing that happens in the mountains. Don't kick yourselves. Don't second guess your every move. Sounds like you did one heck of a lot of things right and Jesse has a lot to be thankful for. Maybe, if you have someone who is knowledgeable who you trust, talk to them in a few weeks or months about what happened. Talk too between yourselves. The emotions from this will be with you all for a while.

Thanks for sharing what happened.




Daphne

Trad climber
Mill Valley, CA
Jul 29, 2009 - 01:07am PT
NotIt has the words of wisdom to listen to. You hang in there and take excellent care of yourself right now. Thanks for posting- I'll be sending good energy to all concerned.

Dirka

Trad climber
SF
Jul 29, 2009 - 01:39am PT
Way to keep it cool. Speedy recovery.
BASE104

climber
An Oil Field
Jul 29, 2009 - 06:17am PT
I am sure you know that this ain't the first time this has happened at Temple Crag. You did good.

I don't consider the natural rockfall on Temple to be bad (depending on your definition of bad), but it is more or less a pile of loose stuff that can easily be knocked off by your rope or a climber. This has happened resulting in very serious consequences.

In those situations, the only real option is to belay in sheltered spots. I haven't done Venusian Blind in over twenty years, so I can't remember. The "hide the belay" technique comes from time in the mountains with really serious natural rockfall potential, and by god it works.

So, again, you did good. I know of a previous accident there that went down exactly the same way.
Les

Trad climber
Bahston
Jul 29, 2009 - 09:26am PT
gost, sorry to hear of this misfortune. kudos to you for your determined efforts. i hope your friend makes a full and speedy recovery, and that you'll be okay as well. your experience will certainly be in the back of my mind when I climb there next week.
paganmonkeyboy

climber
mars...it's near nevada...
Jul 29, 2009 - 09:48am PT
wow. scary. mad props for the rescue effort !
Fluoride

Trad climber
Hollywood, CA
Jul 29, 2009 - 10:23am PT
Holy cripes man. So sorry to hear about what happened but glad you all made it out okay.

WTF...Temple's been a rough place the past few weeks. I got clocked in the dome by falling rock on Sun Ribbon almost 2 weeks ago. Getting better by the day (finally back at work this week, concussion symptoms dying down a lot) but still going to see a neurologist later this week.

Be careful up there folks. There's some weird mojo up there. Oh yeah, and loose rock.

Good job on the rescue and taking care of your friend Sean. Best wishes for his speedy recovery.
regiroo

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jul 29, 2009 - 11:23am PT
Sean,

Regina here. Thanks so much for being such a solid and strong leader, this was essential in making sure that all three of us reached safety after such a terrible and frightening accident. I was worried from the start as Jesse was losing a lot of blood. But your calmness and resolve helped me maintain my cool despite my worries for Jesse. A regular part of accidents is other accidents following on the heels of the first, your solid anchors helped us navigate the loose and scary terrain below and your quick thinking made sure that you saved enough gear to cover every rap required with a few pieces to spare at the end.

I will never forget this and I am so thankful that you were there on Saturday to help save Jesse's life! Really a delay or a mistake of any sort could have resulted in the loss of Jesse and maybe the rest of the team too. Situations like the one on Saturday have little or no allowance for error.

Thanks again

Regina
beezee

climber
San Francisco
Jul 29, 2009 - 03:07pm PT
I was part of the group on this trip, with Jesse, Regina and Sean. I had just met those three for about 10 minutes before this trip, but my buddy and climbing partner for this trip, Joel, knows them a bit better.

At camp the night before they mentioned shooting for Venusian Blind so I decided Joel and I should do Moon Goddess Arete. Two years ago, I did Venusian Blind with another friend and pulled off a gigantic block myself....fortunately I was following that pitch and there was nobody below, but that left a huge mark in my mind. I think we all mentioned a few times that it would be a really bad idea to climb any Temple Crag route if there were other parties above us.

Joel and I started up a bit later, and I remember seeing Regina following one of the lower pitches as we soloed the 4th class lower section. Things were great really...it was warm, the weather was going to be solid, nobody above or below either of us. Joel is pretty inexperienced climber, and this was his first big alpine climb, so I was leading everything and doing my best to make sure that we stayed safe. Because of that loose block I experienced two years ago, I conveyed to Joel to be very careful and suspect of each and every hold.



About half way up we were able to see Sean, Jesse and Regina. We waved, talked a bit, I snapped some photos of them. According to the timestamp on my last photo of them that was 12:09 pm (may be an hour off due to PDT). Roughly 20 minutes later, I was heading up pitch 9 while Joel was down below anchored to some fixed slings. I'm not sure if I remember hearing rock fall or screaming first, but I looked over and saw an enormous block starting to pitch off. It looked awful, and that "oh sh*t" feeling came over me....the thing free-fell for a bit and literally exploded as it hit the mountain down below. After that there was a series of screams, some of which sounded like something really really bad had happened, and others of "HELP" which was Regina. The next 30 seconds are sort of a blur, but I stopped on a small ledge, and we eventually were able to shout over to Sean. Over the next minute or two Sean let us know that Jesse was hit in the leg and that it was bleeding pretty bad.

My immediate thought was "we gotta get down as fast as possible". I pulled out the topo and saw that it mentioned we could escape *up* the gully on the left side for 3-4 pitches of 4th class. From my perspective up there, it's looked really bad and dangerous. I had Joel take a look too and he didn't think it looked all that good. I agonized what to do for several minutes and but kept thinking, "Don't become another victim". So, I decided that the quickest and safest thing for us to do was finished the route and get back to camp as quickly as possible. I knew the descent and way back to camp very well from my other trip up there and am in pretty good shape right now, so I figured I could hike out to get help. This whole time we were talking with the guys on Sun Ribbon to figure out who could help out quicker...they were moving pretty slow but had a lot of calm and smart things to say, so it was reassuring to have them nearby. Over the next several minutes Sean confirmed that we were going to need SAR for Jesse.

I was trying to go as quickly as possible, but also be safe so nothing happened to us. We didn't hear anything from Sean and them, so I figured they had the situation under some sort of control. Along the way I noticed what looked like two campers way up near the base of the route in the large sandy and flat section. We eventually topped out and began the descent.

When we got near the base I shouted for Sean, but didn't hear anything. I little lower I heard some voices and looked up to see them rapping down. We talked a bit...Jesse sounded aware and cognizant, which was a huge relief. But, they said he had been bleeding the whole time. Regina asked that one of us stay behind to help get Jesse down and one of us go for help. Joel was completely out of gas and not having an easy time on the descent, and said that if he stayed he just didn't have anything to give. I didn't want him to get into trouble on the descent, so I made the choice that we both go down, I'd hike out for help and we could try to send someone up either from Third Lake or the two people I saw on the sandy spot (who turned out to be Alexy).

I got to Alexy first and he is just awesome....he says he heard the screams earlier and hiked up, but didn't see or hear anyone so came back down. He didn't have much to offer but said he'd go up and try to help.

When Joel and I eventually got back down to Third Lake some campers nearby told us that there were some rangers camping up near Fourth Lake, and that they'd go up to grab them. About the same time Sean makes it down, the Forest Service guys showed up with a few radios (hallelujah!). My girlfriend and I pumped a bunch of water for them while they kit up, Joel gets them some food and other supplies and they head up with Sean. Sean is amazing here....after all of that he didn't at all hesitate in packing his bag and heading back up with the two Forest Service guys. That's the kind of friend and climbing partner to have. It was humbling to watch, and I completely admire his drive.

I felt like a jerk for not staying behind to help them in any way, and for not going back up to help more. The rangers were heading up and seem to have things under control, so I told myself that we had done all we could do and that they were going to get the job done from here. We were also pretty dehydrated and exhausted at this point.


If you can't see the helicopter, go here.

Waking up at 6:30am to the sound of helicopter blades was great, but I'm sure it was even more euphoric for Jesse.

In 12 years of climbing, this is by far the worst accident I've ever witnessed or been involved in. I'm thankful that the Forest Service guys were nearby and that everyone else who could have helped didn't hesitate one bit.

Thanks again to everyone and speedy recovery to Jesse.

BZ
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