Rescue on the Prow

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This tells the tale of my abortive attempt (May 2010) to climb the Prow on Washington Column (V 5.7 C2) with Aaron McMillan. I have wanted to climb this thing ever since I started aid climbing, but despite going up there twice, haven’t yet succeeded. The picture below is from the first try, in 2007, and shows me on the regular pitch 1. (Aaron used the 10b alternate start on Jo-jo, round the corner to the left.)

John heading up the Prow

This trip got started in January at the AMS meeting. I posted here to meet other mathematicians who are climbers, and as a result got together with Aaron. A few beers later we had a plan to climb the Prow in May.

I flew out to California last Monday. The Sierra landscape was socked in under cloud westward from Mono Lake, but the weather was forecast to brighten up. We sort gear in Berkeley on Monday and set out for the Valley early Tuesday morning. The rocks are beautiful under a fresh dusting of snow as we shoulder the pigs in the Ahwahnee parking lot and prepare to toil up to the base of the route.

When we get there it is early afternoon. One party is retreating from the Prow – they must have had a miserable night up there in the late-season snow. We fix pitches 1 and 2 and then head back to the base where we share the bivi spot with a party of three getting ready to head up to Dinner Ledge.

Next day we jug and haul and then Aaron leads pitch 3 to sloping Anchorage Ledge. We plan to climb a couple of pitches above and then spend the night on the portaledge here. After a break for energy bars and Gatorade I set off up pitch 4. This begins with a slightly overhanging bolt ladder (one bolt hangerless) and then continues up some C2 terrain to a rib and the belay. The first placement above the ladder seems to be a flared pod, with what looks like a bomber green alien placement about three feet out of reach. I place a #1 camalot in the pod – three lobes look good – and bounce test it gently, moderately, and then really jump up and down on the daisy chain. It holds. Damn. Better move up on it.

Transferring my weight to the #1 I try to “float smoothly up the aiders” as instructed by CMac. But not smoothly enough! I guess I must have leaned out on the piece a little, there is a soft pop and I am weightless. There’s no time to think – but if I’d had time I would have told myself that this is a short, clean fall, factor maybe 0.4, down slightly overhanging rock onto a bolt. Mathematically, nothing can go wrong. Right?

My right foot hits the wall and I scream. “BRING ME DOWN, AARON! I’VE BROKEN MY ANKLE!” A fast lower and I am lying on Anchorage Ledge again in an almost fetal position. The angle of the ledge, which seemed so inconvenient a few minutes ago, is now suddenly comforting as it folds me into the wall and away from the edge. I clip a daisy chain and another sling from my harness to the power point. My right foot is splayed out unnaturally and wedged against the haul bag. The ankle is grossly deformed and feels like jelly – it seems to have no stability and any movement causes me to cry out in pain. Aaron and I discuss what to do next. With one person unable to move, three pitches up the route and then a lot of fourth class terrain and talus slopes back to the trail, we are going to need some help. Aaron gets his cellphone and calls 911.

The response is instant. Within minutes Aaron is talking to Moose to plan the logistics of the rescue, and we’re told that a team is making speed up to the Column. Aaron fixes one of our lines, ties both together and throws them slightly into the wind. The double-length line sails free, falls cleanly and lands exactly at the base of the route. One of the blessings of the day.

An hour later we can see a team gathering at the base. Aaron is catechized by phone about his climbing experience and the methods he has used to fix and join the lines. I guess the answers must have been satisfactory because within minutes rescuers are jugging up to us. The first to arrive is Jesse McGahey, trailing a long static line, followed by Matt Stark bringing the medical kit and the blessed morphine. By now the initial adrenalin is wearing off, I’m shivering and in shock despite putting on every layer I can find, and the pain is getting worse. I need that stuff.

Matt sets up an IV and calls the clinic for morphine authorization. Given the OK, he injects 4mg via IV. At first I don’t notice anything and then, very suddenly, there’s a strong reaction – slow, deep, gasping breaths, weird feeling in the chest…apparently this is not supposed to happen. The faces around me look seriously alarmed. Matt injects an antiemetic. Slowly the reaction passes, to be succeeded by a pleasant wooziness. Time to realign and splint the leg, says Matt. I know we have to do this, though I’m not looking forward to it. Between them, Matt and Jesse pull a little traction, straighten my foot out, and secure it in a temporary splint. There’s a fair amount of screaming during this process but as soon as they have me stable in the splint, I can manage the pain.

We have two choices: either an assisted lower now, or bring up a litter. If we do the assisted lower, can I keep my right leg from swinging into the wall? I reckon that it’s worth trying. The lower is set up with Jesse lowering, Aaron belaying on a separate line, and me clipped in a few feet higher than Matt. I scoot around on my butt to try to get myself over the edge and we’re off.

The lower is easier than I’d feared. It’s important to forget the standard technique of leaning back against the wall. Instead, I swing sideways to the wall with my good foor on the inside, so that I’m always able to fend off any contact with the broken foot. This works pretty well and it is not long before we are at the base where Werner and it seems a dozen or more other rescuers have gathered. I wasn’t able to catch everyone’s name but I wish I had so that I could thank everyone personally here. The whole team was encouraging, professional, and just amazing. I am so grateful to all of you.

The high angle part of the journey was over, but maybe the wildest ride was yet to come. For the next hour or two I am lowered in a wheeled litter over a thousand feet of fourth class, talus slopes, and boulder-strewn forest. For the whole way there are two ropes belaying the litter and about six people maneuvering it down, with other teams running on ahead, setting up the next anchors, scouting the line as darkness falls, and switching with litter-bearers who need to rest for a spell. Down on the bike path we are met by an ambulance which takes me to the clinic, where X-rays confirm a bimalleolar fracture. The next day the ankle will be reset at the hospital in Modesto using a plate and 8 screws. Time to start the rehab process.

A lesson for me is how unpredictable aid falls are. There was nothing to indicate that this would be a bad one and I still can’t think what it can have been that my foot caught. Perhaps I swung out from the wall and slammed back in, or perhaps my foot caught on a little edge or even on a bolt. Anyhow, I didn’t switch quickly enough from the body tension needed to move up on aiders to the relaxation needed for a safe fall. With muscles relaxed I might just have shrugged it off.

Oh, and another lesson is that YOSAR are awesome. Of course I knew that in theory already, though I’d hoped never to experience it in practice. But I’m glad it’s true.

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