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.
The 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.