Mideast Crisis A2 5.7
Trip ReportCrisis in Yosemite - My fall of a lifetime
In late September, 2011 I took a 170-footer off of the Washington Column in Yosemite. This is my account of the experience that went terribly wrong.
Fall climbing season was just getting underway. As I approached the base of the Washington Column I felt confident and committed but at the same time apprehensive. It had been a big year. Eleven big walls in six months. Hundreds of pitches, thousands of placements, untold paychecks spent at the Mountain shop. But this, I felt, would be my last wall. I would take off Rocktober and catch up with all the things climbing tends to take away from. Music, friends, reading, yoga, etc. One more...
I met Taylor at the base - a friend of mine but we had never climbed together. With his Beatles sunglasses and abundance of oval carabiners he reminded of a young Royal Robbins - I was stoked to climb with him. Our plan was to climb Mideast Crisis on the East Face of the Column. The line is rated V 5.8/C3/A2, has 13 pitches and sees relatively few ascents each year compared to more popular lines on the wall. I had fixed the first four pitches solo a few days prior. My original intention was to solo the wall - but after four dirty pitches with occasional rotten rock, non-obvious placements, and a solo 30-foot whipper when a cam hook blew, my psych-level for soloing was quickly diminished. I approached Taylor about it, he agreed, and the next morning we blasted.
It was a beautiful morning, not a cloud in the sky. Taylor lit some incense and said a prayer at the base. The incense were to bless us on the climb, to protect us from harm. I think it worked, but more on that later.
It was my plan to split the climb into two blocks of four pitches. Taylor had never climbed in blocks before, but it's my preferred method. I would take the first four pitches and Taylor would take the last four. We jugged to my previous high point and I began leading immediately - it was around 7:15Am. The fifth pitch was rotten, un-obvious C2 that took me longer than expected. I ended up using sketchy clean beak and hook placements, as well as moving through some loose/expanding flakes. "Hopefully the rest of the climbing won't be like this", I thought to myself. After some suffering I clipped the bolts at the anchor and we were underway.
I shortfixed the next two pitches; steep, easy, obvious C1 through beautiful overhanging roofs. The route was getting into splitter cracks that previous trip reports had promised. The placements were obvious and the granite was immaculate, just big cam after big cam in spectacular golden rock. Everything was going smooth. After a last tricky bit of C2 I arrived at the Hotel California Ledge, enjoying a sunny afternoon view of Half Dome. We took a short break, enjoying the chance to stretch our legs after being on the overhangs all morning. I only had one more pitch in my block, a rotten, grassy, head's up free pitch that goes at 5.8R/X. I took a few cams and set off - moving fast through the grassy placements and loose holds, wanting to be off lead. Clipping the anchor I was stoked; my hard work for the day was finished - or so I thought. Taylor jugged to my position just below an impressive though daunting overhanging roof system. I took a seat and began belaying while he set off climbing into a C2 seam. It was around 2PM.
The roof system on this route is crazy! Definitely some of the steepest terrain I’ve ever encountered. Taylor dawned on our massive rack - 30+ cams mainly in the #1-#4 BD size (you need so much gear so that the leader won’t have to back clean the roofs). He cruised his first pitch as I took a much needed rest. Once you get comfortable with the exposure, there’s no better place to contemplate your existence than free hanging on the side of a cliff. The ground and help are so far away. Why do we do this? Sometimes wall climbing ceases to be fun. Instead, the joy of climbing is replaced by the need to get yourself out of the ridiculous situation that you’ve gotten yourself into. And no one can help you but yourself.
Taylor reached his first anchor and began short fixing as I cleaned the pitch. In case you've never cleaned an overhanging/traversing aid pitch, Its strenuous and exhausting work. After several lower routes and other tricky maneuvers I arrived at the anchor and breathed a sigh of relief, only 3 pitches left to go. Taylor continued to lead as I got him on belay, once again cruising through the big cracks on the overhang. This pitch was both drastically traversing and overhanging, a very unique feature. He was moving quick and arrived at the anchor sooner than I expected him too. "Off belay" he shouted. I clipped my jumars onto the rope, and started cleaning. For the record I have never used a back-up system in my ascending - I'm mainly a self-taught wall climber and this made sense to me. Foolish. From now on I will ALWAYS back up my ascending. Always. Cleaning was highly traversing and tricky, it took me much longer than usual. Looking to the horizon I could see Half Dome beginning to glow gold; our daylight was fading. After more suffering I found myself just below a wild country #4 cam about 3 feet left and 5 five feet down from the anchor.
"Almost there" I thought. Just a routine move around the piece and then I could relax at the anchor. Taylor had short-fixed about 20 feet above the anchor, and I could see him watching me try to clear the cam. I’ve re-lived this moment thousands of time in my head, and I’m sure I’ll continue to re-live it the rest of my life. I reached for my top jumar - grabbed the trigger - and started falling. And then fell further, and further, and further. Immediately I knew something was terribly wrong. At first I thought maybe the #4 blew, but that would cause me to pendulum a little out, not start a free fall. Or maybe the anchor blew. Or maybe...
And then maybe didn't matter. I was in free fall. I started screaming. I've been told I have a high-pitch to my voice when I fall. The "I'm gonna Die!! I'm gonna Die!" must have sounded strangely boyish, but I wouldn't know - you'd have to ask Taylor. After a few moments I hit something - a roof that just barely jutted out beneath my free fall. It ricocheted me forward into the oblivion. My feet absorbed most of the impact. It felt like someone had put dynamite in my left boot. My shoes - new Sportiva hightops - were ejected from my feet like in a high speed car crash. They were later found at the base - still tied. The impact had no time to register; I was immediately in free fall again. I’ve taken my fair share of falls before, but nothing, not even skydiving was remotely comparable to this. To fall so far with no warning was utterly terrifying. Why was I falling? How the f*#k was I STILL falling? The slabs were getting closer. And closer. And closer. The "I'm going to die" turned into "I'm going to..die". There was a strange acceptance. I guess this is it, I always knew it would come, just not at 24...
And then I started slowing down. It was sudden, like bouncing down in a trampoline. Looking up - the lead rope held me. I had fallen 170+ feet to my tie-in point at the other end of the line. (For the record I was in free fall for somewhere between 3.5-5 seconds, depending on how much the roof slowed me down). Dangling in space I was wondering when the line was going to snap. Certainly I had survived by some fluke and death was merely toying with me. But it never came. Despite the rope having ascertained 5 core shots and 20-30 feet of a burnt sheath, it was holding. Thanks to the dramatic steepness of the route, the fall was almost completely clean. That moment was like a horrific rebirth - with screaming, tears, and a profound sense of joy and luck. The pain and adrenaline combined like a surreal drug cocktail. I wasn't dead! But I was badly injured and might need to be rescued.
I won’t get into details about what happened over the next 15-20 minutes, except there were panicked phone calls and confusion. My first thought was that I needed rescue from the cliff. After a panicked 911 call I managed to gather myself into coherency. I talked to Search and Rescue (SAR), talked to several of my monkey friends (aka serious climbers) around the valley, even talked to myself a bit. In the end there was only one thing was clear - help wasn't going to come on the wall - we had to get to the top. That meant I was going to have to climb my way out. I took a survey of my injuries. My left ankle was the size of a softball, throbbing severely, definitely broken, and utterly useless. My right ankle was sprained but still had movement and flexibility, it would be painful, but I could use it. The majority of my fingertips had 2nd degree burn blisters from trying to grab the rope when I started falling, and one had started bleeding. Luckily, however, I was wearing gloves so my hands were spared, just my tips were annihilated. In addition, I was virtually out of water, the light was dissipating, and I had nothing on my feet but socks. "Okay" I said out loud to myself, "this is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done".
I started to take long, deep breaths. The anchor was a long, long way away...and...somehow I had to get there. Looking up the rope my jumars were still attached (with distinct core-shots in the rope to prove it)- I don't know how. If they had come disengaged, then how were they still be on the rope? Wouldn’t the teeth have caught at some point? How did they fail in the first place? There's lots of possible explanations - the simplest being that I should have had my system backed up.
During this time Taylor and I had been in brief communication. Yelling to someone 200 feet away when you're almost passing out isn't exactly easy. I needed to let him know what I was going to do, so I yelled to him.
"You okay? What's up?!"
"My ankle is broken, my fingertips are burned, I think I'm gonna jug up to you!"
"...Okay man, just be safe..."
So I did. I grabbed up for my jumars, put my good foot into an aider attached to the lower one, and started ascending. A few painful, horrific feet at a time. Stopping every few feet to catch my breath or pick up a phone call, or laugh manically or cry hysterically. It was surreal and extraordinarily difficult. My fingertips and left foot were throbbing. I stopped wondering about what had gone wrong or why something like this had happened, all that was left was the moment. I just had to endure, what other choice was there? After an eternity I made it to the belay. I remember almost blacking out as I put Taylor on belay. I don't remember the interaction we had as he started leading the next pitch, except that he was concerned. If I were to pass out with him on belay, we could really be in trouble. While he led I was in contact with several friends around the valley. SAR was busy and couldn't help until the morning. Some guy on the Nose had lost a finger and there was another rescue underway at the base of the Higher Spire. Bummer. If help was going to come it would have to be from friends. Luckily, however, I have some incredible friends who agreed to grovel up the North Dome gully (a steep, loose, and strenuous hike that takes about 2 hours) that night to meet us with food, water, and pain killers. I owe these friends a debt I doubt I can ever repay.
Taylor climbed quick but safe. When he made it to the anchor he rappelled the tag line back to the lower anchor. That way he could lower me out into space, I could do a free hanging ascent of the tag line, and he would clean the pitch. He put a hand on my back as I switched from a fit of hysteric laughter to hysteric crying. "It's okay" he said, handing me the last few sips of his water. I clipped the Nalgene onto my harness, wanting to save the sips for the next pitch. I surprised myself by how fast I jugged to the next belay. It wasn't until I clipped into the next anchor that the pain and exhaustion came back.
At the belay I could only hang miserably limp in my harness. Taylor arrived at the anchor several minutes after me, looking thoroughly exhausted. I think the stress and the added time spent hanging in a harness had taken its toll. With the pace Taylor was setting before I fell, it appeared we would be top out around 7 PM. Because of my fall we ended up topping out at around midnight. That meant 5 more hours of dehydration and mental and physical exhaustion.
Looking at the last few sips of Taylor’s water, I handed him back the bottle. He was the one who was going on the sharp end, he would need the water more than me. The roof system had ended and now the route was almost over, just one more aid pitch and then some fourth class. Taylor took a break before starting to lead - there was no need to rush now. In the distance below I could see headlamps starting up the North dome gully - our makeshift rescue crew. Responding to their shouts and headlamp flashes brought a tremendous wave of relief. We just had to get to the top...
Taylor started to lead. To go right was supposedly an obscure A2 seam, or go left onto the last pitch of Astroman, which goes at C3/R. This was the way Taylor decided to go. A fall would have been devastating and was out of the question, so he didn't. It took him understandably longer than usual, and the lights of our rescue crew had disappeared. They would be at the top soon. After dangling in my harness pathetically for an surreal-dreamlike time, Taylor shouted to me that he was off belay. The original plan was that he would rappel back to the anchor and clean the pitch, but he yelled down to me that he was too exhausted, he simply couldn't rap down and then ascend the line. I certainly couldn't clean the pitch, having to pass pieces and potentially lower out was too painful to even think about, so I told him to fix the tag line and I would jug to him. F*#k the gear, I was willing to leave every piece of climbing gear I owned to just get off that wall.
Jugging a slabby pitch requires the use of both feet. I was forced to drag my severely broken ankle up 120 feet of slabby granite. Each time it banged against the rock was like breaking it all over again. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. It was desperate. It was excruciating. It took everything I had.
Finally, somehow, I made it to the top of the last aid pitch. Taylor was there, lying down and looking exhausted. In addition one of the rescuers, Isaac, a friend and co-worker had down climbed the fourth class to bring us some water. A sip of water when you're dehydrated is like drinking Ambrosia with a group of Graecen Gods. Its inexplicable. Isaac took the tag line and fixed it to the top of the climb. We were so, so close. Taylor dragged himself up the fourth class first. As I started climbing each step felt like a mile and the top never seemed to get closer. I was forced again to use my broken ankle as I literally crawled my way to the top. It was a nightmare. As I got near the top another friend, Mike, brought me down some water and encouragement. Just a few more feet. It took a long time, there was ample cursing and screaming, but I made it. As my friends dragged me over the edge I screamed in triumph. To add a comic twist, my pants, which were lacking a top button, had begun falling down as I crawled up the last slab. I topped out with my bare ass scraped and bruised hanging out of my harness. But hey, we topped out in less than 24 hours and both made it to the top under our own power, that’s a send!
Once on top things started making more sense. The two other rescuers, Moose (Thomas, a long-time friend of mine since middle school) and Marty (a friend from Yosemite), helped make me comfortable and built a fire. They pulled the sock from my broken ankle to reveal a purple, yellow glob of flesh that had more resemblance to a grapefruit than an ankle. Everyone agreed, it was f*#ked. Marty and Isaac both had some EMT training and quickly decided that there was no way of possibly hiking me out without risking further injury. Marty called SAR, and they agreed to pick me off the top with a helicopter the next morning.
That night was strange. The pain killers helped but I couldn’t sleep. I was hallucinating, talking to myself, seeing ephemeral figures dance like aboriginals around the outskirts of our fire. The night was clear and beautiful. It never seemed to end.
Dawn came. I was short-hauled by the SAR chopper and taken to the Yosemite clinic. I gotta say, dangling in space below a helicopter is a great way to see the valley. For the record the helicopter ride was free(thank you uncle-Sam!). I was released later that day with a broken and dislocated left talus bone and some bandaged fingers, but otherwise totally fine. I consider myself extremely lucky. That fall was no joke, in a thousand different realities it would have killed me. Had I fallen slightly more into the wall or slightly more out- well- who knows. This is the only reality we have.
It's been 30+ days since the accident and 23+ since surgery. I thought my suffering was over when I finished the climb, but it was just beginning. I spend most of my time lying down, as the throbbing/aching of my ankle is still unbearable if it gets below my heart. I'm on pain killers and won't be walking without crutches for 10 more weeks. After that I will probably have 3 more months getting the leg/ankle back to full strength. But I'm still here. For the past year I've been drawn to big walls for the beauty and the struggle of the process. On a wall you find a certain transparency within yourself - an innate understanding of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual boundaries. To climb a big wall is to suffer, and suffering is meditation. I think that's why I climb. You can find me back in Yosemite Valley next season, hopefully a safer and stronger climber than ever before.
Thanks for reading, much love, and Namaste,
Tommy Hardman Bairstow
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