Lightning Strike and Rockfall Incident

Original Post
patto · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 25

I figured I might as well throw this accident report up for peoples perusal. This wasn't me or my report.

Original report here:

Tre Cime trip and accident report 22.07.15

Tre Cime trip and accident report 22.07.15

For the past month, my partner Suzie and I had been enjoying a long-overdue climbing holiday. We’d started with two weeks in southern Norway, working our way through the amazing slabs of the Setesdal region – routes which gave us a whole new appreciation for the terms ‘run out’, ‘exciting’, and ‘sandbagged’ – before relocating to the Dolomites to spend our remaining two weeks experiencing the majesty of the Italian alps. Eventually, we found ourselves at Tre Cime, on our last dedicated ‘climbing day’ before heading home to Sydney. On the cards was the megaclassic ‘Cassin’: 10 (or 12 if you plan on summiting) pitches of moderate climbing launching (for the most part) directly up the centre of the striking face of Cima Piccolissima; a proud line with what appeared to be a relatively straightforward (by Dolomites standards) descent. It seemed the perfect way to end our trip.

Image: Cima Piccolissima as seen from behind Rifugio Lavaredo. Piccolissima is the tower on the right, with the slightly taller Punta Frida to the left. Cassin tackles Piccolissima’s obvious face.

The climb itself is clearly visible from Rifugio Lavaredo (our ‘home base’ for the past few days). To reach it you can either follow the tourist path that heads rightways alongside the mountain before cutting back and traversing along the cliff face, or you can launch directly up the unstable scree field. While the direct approach is undoubtedly quicker, it’s both insecure and unforgiving on the knees (moreso when you’re carrying double ropes and a full rack). As both of us were by now feeling the full effects of a month’s worth of hiking and climbing, we opted for the easier (but longer) approach, arriving at the base of the climb just before 8:30am. Here we encountered another party beginning up the first pitch. Knowing the temperamental nature of Dolomite rock – which has an alarming tendency to detach and plummet toward the ground below – we let them get well ahead before starting up ourselves.

The climbing itself was excellent from the outset. The first two pitches (which we combined into a single 55m megapitch) followed a nice crack through a few small roofs to arrive at a ledge you could park a truck on. Here we reencountered the same party, and again waited for them to move ahead so as to give them space (not only because of the obvious risk posed by dislodged rocks, but also due to the fact that there were a number of semi-hanging belays ahead).

The following three pitches (the ‘crux’ of the route) involved fantastic face climbing coupled with some great overhanging sections with fun big moves off even bigger holds. It was here, however, that we encountered our second problem. While the gear had been consistently great, Suz found herself unable to extract one of the pieces (a 00 Master Cam). Unfortunately, this happened while I was at a particularly uncomfortable and somewhat precarious belay, positioned at such an angle that it effectively ruled out my abseiling down to try to retrieve it myself. Meanwhile, the team in front of us moved further ahead. Soon they’d disappeared from view completely, having traversed to the other side of the mountain. Finally admitting failure, we abandoned the piece and moved on.

Image: Suz tops out of pitch 4

The following pitch (6) was a stunning 20m traverse along a break on good holds with great gear. Suz ordinarily hates traverses but enjoyed this one so much she even paused to take photos. The pitch ends at a corner crack that runs up a nice dihedral, allowing for some funky stemming up to the top of a pillar jutting out of the far lefthand side of the cliff face. As I was setting up the belay I felt a few drops of rain, but was relieved to see the clouds quickly disappear to reveal blue skies once again. Things were still looking good.

Image: Suz on the exposed pitch 6 traverse

The following two pitches involved some difficult route finding, thanks in no small part to the directions in our guidebook. “Step down left then climb a crack following the line of the arete”. After numerous useless downclimbing excursions, I realised you simply needed to traverse a metre to the left then climb directly up the face. Ditto for the next pitch.

Pitch 10 – a 30m leftward traverse on easy ground – was supposed to be the final pitch. The guide recommends: “given the poorer quality of the rock in the route’s upper tier, the summit is usually avoided and it is more common to step up into the chimney then exit left on a ledge to join the descent”. Well, for the life of me I couldn’t find the abseil point. Not up and to the left (quite the adventure), nor directly to the left (a more obvious, easy ledge that extends for about 25m. There was some tat on this ledge, but nothing I felt comfortable abseiling off. Anyway, we were looking for a “cemented abseil ring”. Nope, nothing.

Bereft of a solid anchor, we decided the only thing for it was to head up the “poor quality rock” to the summit, where the guidebook assured us was an easily locatable cemented abseil ring. So up we went. Happily, these last two pitches weren’t nearly as dire as we’d been led to believe; true, the rock was sub-par, but we’d both climbed far worse. In any case, we were happy to have made the extra effort and reached the summit. Unfortunately, the combination of all these minor events – the longer approach; waiting for the first party; dealing with the stuck cam; problematic route finding; absent abseils resulting in extra pitches, etc. – meant that we didn’t reach the summit till 4pm. While the sun would still be up for four more hours, we knew from experience that the Dolomites often sees some rain in the evenings. True to form, while preparing to abseil we noticed a dark cloud approaching that had till then been obscured behind the neighbouring face of Punta Frida.

4. Summit

Image:Photo taken on summit of Cima Piccolissima immediately before descent. Note the ominous cloud appearing from behind Punta Frida (to the right).

As I rapped down to the first abseil point (which, for the record, turned out to be about 5 metres beneath and to the left of the aforementioned tat) a light rain began to fall. By the time Suz had rapped down to meet me this light rain had turned into a full-fledged hailstorm. The situation had changed dramatically and things were no longer looking good. We quickly rapped down to the next abseil point, figuring the faster we made it to the saddle between Punta Frida and Cima Piccolissimia (which marks the mid-point of the descent), the sooner we could find some shelter. However, halfway through pulling our now-soaked ropes, the tail rope suddenly refused to budge. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t free it. We quickly weighed up our options. The remaining abseils, we knew, were 25m each, and as we were rappelling with double 60m ropes, we made the drastic decision to cut the stuck rope, leaving us with one full rope and around 35m remaining on the other. So long as nothing else went wrong, we’d be fine.

Needless to say, on the next abseil, the rope caught again. So now we were stuck a couple hundred metres up a cliff, saturated and exhausted, in the middle of a hailstorm, with a caught, cut rope. Luckily for us, this time the rope had become stuck almost immediately, meaning we still had both ends in our hands. After a few useless attempts to release the rope, the decision was made that I would prusik up to free it. 25m of deeply unpleasant (and very wet) prusiking later, I managed to free the rope (the knot had become caught in a crevice only a metre below the abseil ring). We quickly pulled it and made the next abseil to reach the saddle between the mountains. Here the rain died down a little, for once our ropes actually pulled easily (!) and a wave of relief flooded over us. We’d definitely had an epic, but the worst was over and soon we’d be back in the warmth of the rifugo. Suzie could practically taste the Italian hot chocolate already.

The saddle essentially formed a narrow 5m wide corridor between the two faces, which was filled with deep and very unstable scree (the kind you sink to your ankles in) that sloped down at steep angle. Seeing some tat on the other side of the corridor, I waded across to fix a line, leaving Suzie to wait on the lefthand side. It was at this point that the fit really hit the shan. Before I could reach the tat a huge flash of light coupled with an eardrum-shattering bang and what felt like a sledgehammer to the back knocked me to the ground. Stunned and disorientated, I turned back to Suz, saying in disbelief ‘I’ve just been hit by lightning’. Suz was lying on the ground as well; she replied ‘I think I’ve been hit too’. As we took a moment to register all of this, an enormous roar sounded above. Quickly we realised the lightning had in fact exploded the cliff face directly above us, and we looked up to see a veritable meteor shower of rocks hurtling toward us. Stuck on opposite sides of a corridor with no possible shelter, we had no time to do anything but accept the inevitable and brace for impact.

The rockfall seemed to last forever. During lulls I took the chance to look up, only to see another dense field hurtling toward us. The noise was deafening, and as Suzie was behind me on the other side of the corridor, I couldn’t tell what her condition was – I knew she was repeatedly calling out to me but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. The experience of being repeatedly pummelled was strangely numbing, like being dragged under a series of enormous waves. One especially large blow to my helmet caused my knees to buckle. Later we found out the impact had opened up my helmet.

5. Hit

Image: a decent whack to the head

After 20 or 30 seconds, the rockfall subsided, and I could finally make out what Suzie was yelling at me: ‘I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay…’ I turned toward her to assess the situation. Neither of us were on belay, and we were standing knee-deep in a river of scree. Rocks were still falling haphazardly, and with no shelter we were clearly in a very dangerous position. Suzie’s right hand was bloody and mangled, and her index finger and thumb were standing out at odd angles. Her right leg was covered in deep gashes and bleeding profusely. She said: ‘I think my hand has exploded’. I lied, telling her it didn’t look that bad.

Immediately I placed myself on belay while Suzie secured herself on a bite. In our minds, we each played out our options. We had a ResQLink PLB and two mobile phones, but the corridor we were in extended (through various roofs) to the bottom of the cliff, and as it acted as a funnel for the rockfall (not to mention the still-present threat of lightning) we were in very obvious danger so we could hardly stay put and wait for a rescue. Silently, we both recognised that we needed to get ourselves out of the situation, fast. We could see the rifugio from where we were but judged it was at least 4 or more abseils and a significant (given Suzie’s state) hike away. Still, we had no choice so we needed to make a move immediately.

6. Rifugio
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Image: Pre-accident photo of Rifugio Lavaredo in the distance - far away, so close...

From my vantage point I spied the next abseil point about 15 metres further down the couloir. Unable to walk, Suzie bum-scuttled her way down the scree while I held her on belay. Once she had secured herself, I quickly rapped down to the same point. From here we followed a familiar pattern till we reached the ground: we would ensure that Suzie’s ATC and prusik were properly attached to the rope, then I would abseil down first and wait for her to join me, providing a fireman’s belay if needed. In hindsight, that she managed all of this was nothing short of amazing: performing four abseils in terrible conditions with a busted hand and leg is no mean feat. As she later put it: ‘adrenalin is a powerful drug’.

Once we hit the ground we immediately abandoned the ropes and set out for the rifugio. Given Suzie’s condition (the right side of her body having rapidly deteriorated), the more direct descent straight down the scree was out of the question, so we had little option but to traverse along the face of the cliff (away from the rifugio) before re-joining the tourist trail that loops back to the rifugio. When we finally reached the path we managed to hail down some hikers who helped us back to the rifugio, where the proprietor Daniele and his staff administered first aid and radioed in a helicopter for Suzie and an ambulance for me. Suzie was finally airlifted just before 9pm.

7. Helicopter

Image: Suzie is airlifted from Rifugio Lavaredo to Cortina

Suzie spent the next three days in a hospital in Cortina. (I was released from a different hospital in Pieve di Cadore the following day.) She was treated for a shattered thumb and deeply lacerated index finger with a severed nerve, coupled with multiple deep lacerations to her right leg (into the muscle) as well as significant bruising all over her body. Through our travel insurance (insure4less) we were able to organise business class (necessary, given Suzie's condition) flights back to Sydney where Suzie could undergo further surgery.

9. Hospital

Image: Suzie enjoying the Italian hospital experience

All in all, our last day climbing had proven to be somewhat more than we’d bargained for. True, we’d had some extraordinarily bad luck, but, all things considered, we’d come out of it about as well as can be and consider ourselves incredibly lucky. (I received a stark reminder of this when I opened up the daypack the following day only to find it full of debris, even though it had been zipped up during the accident.)

8. Debris

Image: Debris from the daypack

After I was released from hospital I returned to Tre Cime to collect our hire car and pick up our ropes. Already on the hike up to the cliff I could see that they had vanished. At the base of the climb I met some French climbers who had just finished the same route; they told me that they had seen the ropes (together with a substantial amount of dried blood) when they started up the climb in the morning. They phoned a friend who had been watching them on the route from the comfort of the rifugio, who explained that he had seen a group of people approach the site before running off at a suspiciously speedy pace. I checked with all the rifugios, together with local search and rescue: no one had seen the ropes (or, for that matter, my climbing shoes, which I’d also left at the base of the route). So yes, after our ‘adventure’, some lowlife had pinched our ropes. Pezzi di merda.

It turned out that one of the hikers who helped us back to the rifugio was the American landscape photographer Ted Gore, who had been out capturing images of the lightning storm over Tre Cime. He’s written his own account of the accident, which appears to have had quite an effect on him. It’s on his blog, together with an amazing image of the storm itself (captured only moments after lightning struck the cliff):

Leify Guy · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 371

Holy Crap! That was an intense read, glad they're ok...

Billy Danger · · Asheville, NC · Joined Mar 2005 · Points: 233

That was an intense story. Glad to hear you made it out without more serious injuries.

patto · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 25
Be Esperanza wrote:That was an intense story. Glad to hear you made it out without more serious injuries.
Yes an intense story. It wasn't me though. I've amended the first line to make it more clear.
Chris Walden · · Soldotna, Alaska · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 640

Damn that was an intense read... a reminder that while alpine climbing an epic is always seconds away.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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