Near-Fatal Climbing Accident on Mt. Emerson

On Saturday, July 6, a 42-year-old female climber was seriously injured while descending the southeast face of Mt. Emerson, a peak in the Sierra Nevada above North Lake, west of Bishop. Sometime around 1 p.m., the climber fell approximately one hundred feet while she was rappelling off the route; likely due to an anchor failure. Falls of such a distance are usually fatal, so she was fortunate to survive the accident. She sustained serious injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, broken pelvis, severely broken ankle, and numerous deep lacerations. 

Hikers on the Piute Pass Trail heard screams coming from Mt. Emerson and reported the incident to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department. The victim’s climbing partner was unable to rescue her friend, and the fallen climber was unable to rappel any further due to her injuries. The uninjured partner made the difficult decision to leave her friend and seek help. The victim was left alone approximately 200 feet above the base of the mountain on a nearly vertical rock wall in a very disoriented state.
Due to the life-threatening nature of the accident, Inyo County Sheriff’s Department requested helicopter support from California Highway Patrol. The pilot spotted the victim at approximately 5 p.m. and determined the best way to rescue the woman would be to deliver Inyo County Search and Rescue (Inyo SAR) volunteers near the climber’s position. The vertical terrain prevented the helicopter from landing, so the victim would have to be raised from the rock wall using a long steel cable. Windy conditions and the steepness of the rock wall prevented the helicopter from accessing the victim’s position, so after numerous attempts, it was determined that the victim’s position was inaccessible from above.
Instead, the helicopter was able to deliver two Inyo SAR members near the base of the mountain. They climbed up to the victim, reaching her position near 11,000 ft. just before sunset. Her head injury made her extremely disoriented, uncooperative, and put her at risk of falling again due to the steep and precarious position she was in. She was safely anchored to the wall by the Inyo SAR team leader and given a medical evaluation. A determination was made that her condition was serious and potentially life threatening.

The Inyo SAR team of six volunteers decided to initiate a technical rescue, which would use ropes and rescue equipment to lower the patient on a backboard in a titanium litter down the steep rock face. Three SAR volunteers climbed to the patient while three remained on the ground. The technical lower of the patient was a very complex operation due to her precarious position combined with her sensitive medical condition. The SAR team accomplished the operation without further injury to the patient or any team members. The technical lower was accomplished with the absolute minimum number of SAR personnel possible (two belayers and one litter attendant descending with the victim), in extreme conditions that are difficult to train for. In addition to darkness, high elevation, loose rocks and vertical terrain, the victim’s mental state made it extremely challenging to facilitate a smooth rescue.
After the technical lower was accomplished at approximately 2:30 a.m., a SAR volunteer with EMT certification assessed the victim’s condition. She was given supplemental oxygen, her broken ankle was stabilized, and her lacerations were treated. The victim was safely packaged for transport down the remainder of the mountain. The terrain below involved 500 vertical feet of loose rocks and talus slopes, and five SAR team members carried the victim down the mountain while the sixth SAR member scouted the safest and most direct route downward. Once the Piute Pass Trail was encountered, a wheel was attached to the bottom of the litter and the victim was transported over 1.75 miles of steep, rocky trail. The carryout was a very difficult endeavor.

Two Inyo County Sheriff’s Deputies assisted the Inyo SAR team with the carryout, providing much needed relief for the exhausted team members and helping speed evacuation for the severely injured victim. She was lifted into an ambulance at sunrise, approximately 15 hours after the accident. 

For most of the Inyo SAR team members, this was the second rescue mission of the day (a victim with severe abdominal pains near Pine Creek Pass was attended to earlier in the day). The SAR team leader for the Mt. Emerson mission logged 21 continuous hours of search and rescue volunteer work. 

As of July 9, the victim was hospitalized in Reno, Nevada and is expected to eventually make a complete recovery.

Posted in 2013, Missions Reports.