Monday, September 7, 2015

Wallface Rescue Underscores Peril Of Remote Climbs

Wallface MountainA complicated and difficult rescue last month on Wallface—the biggest cliff in the Adirondacks—reinforces the lesson that climbing in the backcountry is indeed a serious endeavor.

On August 17, a climber fell 60 to 80 feet on the second pitch of Diagonal, the most popular route on the 700-foot-tall cliff. A state police helicopter, 12 forest rangers, and two volunteer climbers responded to emergency—and they were assisted by two other climbers who happened to be on the same route.

The climber—a 23-year-old man from Carmel, in Putnam County—was airlifted from the base of the cliff and taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, where he arrived about five hours after his fall.

Forest Ranger Rob Mecus, who climbed the cliff to reach the victim, said the climber is fortunate that he didn’t have to spend the night at Wallface—injured and in pain.

The emergency call came into the state Department of Environmental Conservation a little after 3 p.m. There is no cell-phone signal on Wallface, Mecus said, but a friend of the climber had been watching him from Summit Rock in Indian Pass, where there is a signal. The friend saw the fall and called authorities.

“Wallface is not a cliff to be taken lightly,” Mecus said. “It’s truly backcountry. If you don’t have cell service, rescue is a day away.”

Located in the High Peaks Wilderness, Wallface is about five miles from the nearest trailhead at Upper Works in Tahawus. A large field of talus boulders at the base adds to the difficulty of getting to and from the cliff.

View from top of WallfaceThe police helicopter airlifted the victim at 8 p.m. as nightfall was closing in. Had darkness fallen, the airlift would have had to wait till the next morning. Mecus credits Adam Crofoot, a local climber who often takes part in rescue missions, with ensuring that they got the job done before daylight ran out.

Crofoot led Mecus up the first pitch of Diagonal to the victim—some 200 feet of climbing. “Adam is very strong, very fit,” Mecus said. “He was able to lead that pitch twice as fast as I would have. If Adam wasn’t there, we would have had to spend the night with the subject.”

Diagonal is so named because part of the route follows a conspicuous ramp that angles up the center of the cliff. It is usually climbed in seven stages, or pitches. The climb is rated 5.8 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which ranges from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.15 (hardest). Thus, it is considered moderate in difficulty. The first two pitches are somewhat easier, rated 5.5, but Mecus described them as “the two most serious pitches on the route,” in part because the rock is loose and in part because, if you fall, “there are a lot of ledges to hit on the way down.”

Mecus was told the victim had two or three years of climbing experience, but the ranger did not know how skilled he was. Nor did he know what caused the fall. The climber’s two highest pieces of protective gear—nuts or cams placed in cracks to arrest a fall—pulled out during the plunge. Fortunately, the next piece held.

When the call came in, DEC was told that the victim was suspended in air and unconscious. The helicopter transported Mecus and Crofoot to Wallface and lowered them to its base. They scrambled across the talus, roped up, and climbed the first pitch, arriving on the belay ledge at 5:20 p.m. Evidently, the victim’s partner had lowered him to the sloping ledge, which was about 2.5 feet wide and eight feet long. Two climbers who had been higher on the cliff had rendered basic first aid. The victim was now conscious but in pain. Mecus stanched the bleeding in his forehead, while Crofoot rigged ropes that would be used to lower the victim off the crowded ledge.

Given the terrain and the injuries, it’s assumed that the victim struck ledges on the way down. His injuries could have been worse had he not been wearing a helmet.

The helicopter returned with another ranger, Christopher Kostoss, and lowered him to the base of the cliff along with a titanium litter. Using another rope, Crofoot and Mecus pulled the litter up to the ledge. Once the victim was secured to the litter, it was lowered to the ground. Royce Van Evera, another volunteer climber, and forest rangers who hiked to the scene carried the litter over the talus, and the victim was then hoisted into the helicopter. He arrived at Adirondack Medical Center at 8:15 p.m.

“That’s a very short period of time for a rescue in that environment,” Mecus said. “Everything fell into place.”

Other rangers who took part in the rescue were Jacob Deslauriers, Arthur Perryman, Evan Donegan, James Giglinto, Benjamin Baldwin, Robert Praczkajlo, Thomas Gliddi, and Jamison Martin.

DEC would not release the victim’s name. The hospital said it could not comment on his medical status without a name.

For those planning on climbing Wallface or any remote cliff, Mecus offers the following advice:

  • Be knowledgeable in self-rescue techniques.
  • Have an evacuation plan.
  • Be aware that you might not have cell-phone service and plan accordingly.
  • The backcountry is no place to test your climbing limits. Stick to climbs you are comfortable leading.

Aerial photo of Wallface Mountain by Carl Heilman II.

Photo of climber at the top of the Diagonal route by Phil Brown.


Phil Brown

Since 1999, Phil Brown has been Editor of the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




5 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Good article. With rangers having a dual job of both protecting the resources and protecting the people who use it, and with so much land to protect and so much use, both of which are constantly increasing, why is the ranger staff always kept so small ?? Has anyone ever asked this ? Have you ever looked at the ranger annual report summaries on the DEC website ? They keep about ten years of annual report summaries posted online. It is crazy that so few rangers are tasked with such an important job. Any other agency charged with police, fire, and rescue that had its municipality size increase or had major population increase would hire more people. Have they not realized what adding another million acres of state lands means ? Why are the DEC rangers traditionally always so understaffed ???

    • NoTrace says:

      Funny how DEC has unlimited resources for hiring, say, people whose purpose is to conduct Gestapo-like investigations of employees and other non-productive purposes that do nothing to further its mission, but do everything to undermine the already rock-bottom morale at the agency. Only an ex-employee knows how very poorly managed the agency is, and how badly in need of re-structuring it is, with a focus on how every person contributes – or doesn’t – to the agency’s mission.

      Tear it down and re-build it – from scratch.

  2. Joshua Brock says:

    Wow…what a stellar, incredible group effort! That young climber is super lucky all played out as it did and those involved are of such a high caliber and dedicated to what they do.

    I’ve been to the ‘Dacks many times backpacking and canoeing…sadly I learned to climb after most of my trips there, but I’m quite familiar with the uniqueness of these mountain rescues. We had a climber break his hand from a falling rock at 13,000’ as we were climbing Meeker in RMNP almost to the summit, and with 6 of us students there and 3 instructors, it took hours just to reach a junction where Park personnel could walk us the rest of the way out.

    Scary stuff but sounds like there’s a great group of folks in place in that most stellar place, the ‘Dacks!

  3. MudRat says:

    Nice article, Phil. That was a fast response time and great effort by all parties involved. I’m glad the climber lived to climb another day. Wallface is definitely not an area to take lightly and things could have obviously been much worse in many ways.

  4. NoTrace says:

    As someone who was on the receiving end of a chopper rescue on Sawteeth nine years ago (ahem, Phil!) , I know all the hard work that goes into getting an injured person off the mountain; Wallface only multiplies the inherent difficulty, so kudos to everyone involved and especially the tight bonds of trust and cooperation between the Forest Rangers and the local climbing community that leverages the talents and resources that each has to offer, which allowed this rescue to have a happy (meaning “alive”) ending.