Back Cleaning Results in 150-foot FallTHE PERILS OF BACK-CLEANING
ON MAY 17, ALEXANDER SCOLA, 28, a German climber with 11 years of alpine and rock-climbing experience, was leading pitch 18 on the Nose (VI 5.9 C2) of El Capitan. He and his partner, Jörg Mund, also from Germany, were on their first trip to the U.S. This was their second day on the classic route, and they were enjoying their first big wall.
According to YOSAR, Scola carried triples of each cam. At the start of the pitch he clipped a quickdraw through a bolt at the anchor, and then climbed past a large detached flake (5.9 or C1), aiding and back-cleaning his pieces as he went. Back-cleaning, a common aid-climbing technique, allowed Scola to carry fewer cams, but exposed him to a potentially big fall.
About 35 feet above the bolt, Scola left his first piece, a medium-sized, rigid-stem cam, in place. He continued upward, aiding the crack above (5.10 or C1) on medium cams until he was above the rigid-stemmed unit. Approximately 75 feet above the belay, as Scola was back-cleaning his lower piece, the one he was weighting pulled, and he fell onto the rigid-stemmed unit. He heard a “pop” as the rope came taut. The cam had pulled.
Scola tumbled more than 150 feet before his partner caught him with a Grigri. He lost consciousness and when he came to, he was dangling 10 feet below Eagle Ledge, a feature in the middle of pitch 17. He couldn’t remember the fall, was in pain and bleeding from his leg and face. His left leg had an open femur fracture. His helmet, six months old and in good condition was severely damaged, its energy-absorbing liner ruptured in the back and crushed in front.
Climbers from another party called 911, and Scola’s partner rappelled to Eagle Ledge, and built a 2:1 raising system with the haul line to help Scola up to the Ledge.
Despite high winds, a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol dropped two YOSAR members and a rescue litter on Eagle Ledge. Scola was loaded in and delivered to a medivac helicopter in El Cap Meadow, and flown to the medical center in Modesto. He arrived at the emergency room approximately four hours after his fall. In addition to the femur fracture, Scola suffered fractured vertebrae, a fractured jaw and broken teeth, and lost one liter of blood. He is expected to recover fully.
Scola is lucky he survived. The speed of the rescue, and his wise use of a helmet, probably saved his life. He told YOSAR he usually leaves more pieces when free climbing, and his experience climbing granite was limited. He knew back-cleaning gear and leap-frogging cams were common practices, and thought that since he was putting only body weight on the placements, he wouldn’t need as much protection as if free climbing. Additionally, he was worried about running out of certain sizes.
Since Scola had climbed mostly in Europe and was unaccustomed to placing cams in granite, he trusted them perhaps more than he should have. He said that although the crack around the piece he was weighting was somewhat flared, he’s still not sure why the cams failed. He had thought both pieces were solid, and wonders if the rigid stem on the one unit made it more likely to walk to a less stable position in the crack, even though he used a sling to extend it.
Scola’s partner told YOSAR he thought Scola had been under-protecting the entire route.
“It’s obvious to Scola in retrospect that he under-protected the pitch,” YOSAR member John Dill stated in the accident report. The crack was varied enough that he could have left smaller cams on the pitch’s lower section, protecting himself without using all his mid-sized gear.
While clipping the rope through the directional at the belay didn’t shorten the fall significantly, it allowed the belayer to manage the force of the fall as an upward pull, instead of yanking him down and off his stance. It also prevented a very serious factor-2 fall.
“YOSAR has seen several cases of ‘solid’ cam placements failing, even under body weight, with serious injuries and deaths resulting,” Dill said in an interview. This accident was caused by user error, and is a reminder that cams can fail, especially if placed poorly.
Additionally, on slabby, relatively plum-line pitches such as this one, Scola could have left more pieces below and lowered down to retrieve them if necessary, enabling him always to have multiple pieces of pro in the rock nearby. “Having only one piece in 90 feet is hanging it out there,” responding YOSAR member Keith Lober said.
“This isn’t a case of a beginner misjudging his protection, nor is this strictly a big wall mistake—it can, and does, happen anywhere,” Dill concluded in his report. This accident could have been prevented had Scola simply backed himself up.
John Dill, Keith Lober,
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help with the medical costs.read more