The Pharaoh Accident: An Interview with Tom Chong and Jeff Mayhew

February 25, 2003

This is the first part of the interview with Tom Chong and Jeff Mayhew. This part of the interview is mainly with Tom Chong and it covers the climb, the accident, and Tom's escape from the grips of the Pharaoh.

Letís start with the day, what went onÖ Alex led the first pitch?

Tom: Yes. We did our equipment check. Not that it would have mattered... I always prodded and joked with him about getting a helmet. He was going to get a helmet before we went to Yosemite in last week of May.

We did the equipment check. I tied in for the belay. He led the first pitch without any problems. It was a little cold. He didnít say he was cold when he was leading. I was only cold when I was following. He said the same thing. I was taking pictures with one hand as he was going up. He was last visible about 1:10. So he was still on the first pitch a little after one. I could only guess what the times were after that Ėapproximately an hour a pitch.

I followed. I struggled a little but I didnít fall. We were having a good time and we didnít have any problems. We used my rope, a 60-meter rope.

How many photos did you take? Did you take photos just at the bottom?

Tom: Yes. I left the camera at the bottom because of the difficulty level. It wasnít an easy climb but it was just the right grade for us: not too easy and not too difficult. It was the perfect climb for usÖ

I led the second pitch. I anchored in with two slings on a double bolt anchor Ė two hangers and I belayed him up. He took all the gear. I had a quick-draw or two, and maybe a sling. He started leading up the crack off to the right (as you are looking at the rock). As he was going up he put in two pieces that I could see and then he was quickly out of sight. When he was out of sight, I didnít bother looking up any further. I would glance up occasionally and I wouldnít see him. I think I might have seen bits of his head but only paid attention to the rope because he was out of sight.

There were long pauses Ė nothing unusual when he was placing pro or reaching a difficult spot. Then he fell. It was a real surprise to see him pass by me Ė a real shock. He said, "Take!" like he says at any other time. I was close to the anchors and as far as I could tell, there wasnít any slack. I was just pulled up by a foot or two. I think my belay loop took the entire force of the fall. I didnít feel a thing except being pulled up. I fully expected him to be O.K.

After he fell past me, he was out of sight. I had to look over a sloping edge to see him. I was near the wall and in the air, so I had to let out a little slack. He wasnít lowered any distance. I looked over the edge and yelled out his name. He didnít answer. I knew it was a bad fall but I didnít think he was hurt that bad.

How far do you think he fell?

Tom: I think it was between eighty to ninety feet. It was all air. I didnít even hear anything or hear him hit. He must have hit at the same time I was pulled up. It was all air until the bottom.

He must have been caught by a piece if it pulled you up?

Tom: Yes, definitely. I later found out there was a gold cam that was the last piece of pro that caught him. That piece was visible to me. There was another piece of protection in the crack next to the gold cam. There was something funny about the way the slings were twistedÖ Did anything look unusual about those pieces when you took them out?

Jeff: No.

Tom: Maybe they were just twisted.

Jeff: The cam that most likely caught him was about twenty-five feet above the belay. He was about thirty feet below the belay. That was 55 feet right there and we were figuring double that (making it a 110 foot fall).

Tom: I think it might have been a little less than thirty feet. There is a lot of wear exactly thirty feet from the end of the rope. One of the things I did was to shake his end of the rope, just to try to get his attention. He didnít answer. When I looked down, he was in pretty much the same position as when you (Jeff) saw him. The drape of his jacketÖ I couldnít really see his face. His arms and legs were pointed below him. I couldnít tell if anything was going on. When I saw the blood coming out, then I knew it was bad.

Was it out of his head?

Tom: I couldnít tell where it was coming from but there was a lot of it. I started yelling his name and at that point, I knew it was very serious. He wasnít responding and I knew that we were done climbing for the day. At that point, I went into disbelief.

We always had this thing were we tell each other where our car keys are and our cell-phone. I knew his cell-phone was back at the Jeep. His keys were in his pack. I knew it would take a long time to get back to the jeep. This was on Wednesday. The best chance of getting help fast was to signal for help to some car below. When you are coming down the highway, if you were to look up, you would see the rock. I could see the cars so clearly, and driving in the car, they would be able to see me. From the position of the Pharaoh, the best opportunity to signal a car is when the car is coming down from the right (when you are looking down). The best opportunity, this is what I was thinking then, when the car first appears on the highway, becomes visible, that was the best chance because they wouldnít have to look too high to see us.

I didnít know how bad it was, I just knew it was bad and that he was losing blood so I wanted to get down there and help him. I didnít even think about cars at the time. I was just yelling for help. I had to escape the belay.

How did you escape the belay?

Tom: I know the way where you tie the prussik, but that took time. I havenít done that in a year or so. The fastest way I knew was to tie a clove hitch on the rope and attach that to the anchor. It wasnít that hard because I had a big locking carabiner on my belay device. I was able to get my whole hand on it and I was able to torque it out without any problems. It probably took about a minute to escape the belay. Then I tied another clove hitch to back up the anchor, to back up the strand that I was going to rap down. So on the other free end I did a single rope rap down to where he was. When I was there beside him, I tied the free end of the rope around my thigh.

I saw how bad it was. By the time I got there, he had stopped bleeding and there was quite a bit of blood on the rock. He was bleeding from the nose, at least one ear, and he had some blood coming out of his mouth. The blood was covering his nose and it was covering his mouth. I checked his pulse on his neck on both sides and on his wrist. I didnít feel anything.

If you saw the position he was inÖ My first reaction was to get him in an upright position where he would be able to breathe a little easier. It didnít work. I couldnít force it. I thought he might have some kind of spinal injury. I didnít want to move him around too much.

At that point, there were cars passing by. I was waving my arms and yelling. Nobody saw me. I donít think anybody saw me. I certainly saw some of the people in a truck or car. Throughout the whole time I was on the rock, except for when I was rapping down, I was yelling out occasionally. I remembered seeing two bikers going up the road when we were on the second pitch and I knew that they wouldnít be going too high because it was chilly. They did eventually come back down, I guess those were the same bikers, I knew that was my best chance so I pretty much blew my lungs out trying to get their attention. When I didnít get their attention, thatís when I decided the only way I would be able to get help was to get help myself.

So you rappelled down to where Alex was?

Tom: I did a single rope rap to where he was, what did I doÖ?

Jeff: You went back up to get the stuff to build an anchorÖ

Tom: No, all the stuff was between us. I had to go back up to undo the clove hitch.

I am trying to remember the sequence. When I replay it back in my mind so many times, it has always been the fall, in seeing him fall. I think I have told everything that happened afterwards about five times and that was in the first week or so.

At that point, I wanted to get help but I certainly didnít want to leave him there. I know now, in retrospect that I could have done a single rope rap down. Two hundred feet would have reached the bottom by about thirty feet. A single rope rap was out of the question to me at time because I thought we were too high up Ė based on how far up I thought we had gone on the first and second pitches. I thought about doing a rap from the top of the second pitch, with Alex, to the top of the first pitch. But I didnít know if the rope was going to reach it because in the guide, the descent is off the back. It doesnít say anything about coming back down the way you came. The rap isnít straight down either. There is a slight traverse to the top of the first pitch. It would have been bumpy. The rap isnít straight down.

There also was a risk that the rope wouldnít reach the top of the first pitch. I guess I could have gone back up if it didnít. I knew I had to get down and get help as soon as possible and the fastest way I knew was to try to rap down using the rope, and he was on the other end of the rope.

Fortunately, there was a crack. I think there is a route underneath the bottom of the third pitch. I will jump aroundÖ

When he fell, when you are at the top of the second pitch looking up, he fell to the right of me, about ten feet. I donít know if that is where he would be if he were going up and left towards the finish of the route. I guess someone who is more familiar with that route would be able to answer that question. I wonder if he was off-route, if he continued going up the crack instead of going left. I will have to climb it to know for sure.

I rapped down to where he was and I created an anchor with three cams. I think there were two slings. At this time, I was regretting tying a clove hitch because with the weight on one end, it is pretty much locked. I canít lower him so his weight transfers to the anchor. What I did, the only way I could think of at the time, the fastest way I could think of at the time, to transfer his weight from the rope to the anchor, was to twist the slings on the anchors with a biner. I kept twisting them with a biner until they slowly took up his weight. Three twists in and then I would clip that biner so the twists held. Then I would twist some more with another biner. Eventually I got his weight on the anchor.

At that point, he is hanging and you are hanging. You canít use your feet to lift him up.

Were you still hanging on the rope as a rappel or were you tied to the rope at that point?

Tom: I am on rappel. I just have the loose end around my leg.

Eventually, I got his weight on the anchor. This whole time I am talking to him because I am no medical expert, and I was thinking that his blood pressure might have been low and I might not have been able to feel a pulse. It was weird. There was a part of me that knew he was deadÖ I was in disbelief for the first dayÖ

I got his weight on the anchor, then there was the knot on his harness. I worked on it with the nut tool. I wished I had an awl. It was very frustrating. That was a struggle, even with a nut tool. I think next time, on a multi-pitch, I will carry a Swiss army knife with an awl on it.

Couldnít you just cut it?

Tom: I didnít have anything to cut it. I eventually got it out. It was extremely tough to get out. I went back up.

You climbed back up to the other knot?

Tom: Up to the belay anchors. I would climb up, take up slack on my rappel device. I guess the proper way to do it would be to prussik, but I was going for time.

What kind of belay device did you have?

Tom: Just an ATC. I got the rope. At that point, I had pretty much given up signaling. It was a Wednesday and there werenít many cars on the road. My throat was blown out at that point after yelling at those two bikers. So I did a rap from the top of the second pitch to the top of the first pitch. I think that there was maybe a couple feet of rope left Ė it barely made it. It would have been tough if I brought Alex along because of the sideways traverse at the end Ė it is not straight down. That would have been difficult.

You had enough rope to go all the way to the ground?

Tom: No. I had to do another rap off of the top of the first pitch. I think I had maybe fifteen to twenty feet left on both strands.

So you doubled the rope?

Tom: I did two single rope raps. As soon as I threw down the rope at the top of the first pitch, I realized I could have done a single rope rap to the ground. It was close. Even if you throw the rope off of the top of the second pitch, you donít see the ground. Itís up there. That would have been a toss up.

You did two rappels Ė did you have any problem finding the keys his car?

Tom: I knew exactly where they were. He told me and I remembered. You should have seen me zip down that last rappel. I usually go slow to take it easy on my ropeÖ When I was going from the top of the second pitch to the top of the first pitch and I got close to the first belay station, I saw how the rope was Ė that there were some frayed sections. The core strands were still good but some of the sheath had been worn off.

When I got to the bottom of the climb, I ran back to the top.

Your car was above the Pharaoh?

Tom: Yes, it was above. I knew that we came in the wrong way and I knew that the alternate approach was along the ridge Ė the saddle between the Ripple wall and the Pharaoh wall. I headed for the saddle, going along the south end. I ran up the saddle and then the ridge going up to the road. I was on the trail most of the time but at the end I was off-trail but I made it up. I left my harness and my helmet along the trail. I mentioned, I picked up my harness two weeks after.

Once you got to the jeep, you called 911?

Tom: I called 911 from his Jeep, and they told me that someone had already called in a couple of minutes beforehand. It was some hiker who had heard me. I never found out who this hiker was or where he was. I did recall that when I was yelling, during one of my yelling intervals, I thought I heard someone. I couldnít make out a voice. I couldnít make out what the person was saying. I didnít think that anyone heard me. He must not have had a cell-phone with him because it took a while for him to call.

At the Jeep, you just sat there and waited for the rescue?

Tom: Yes. I was actually on the road. They had to find me.

The medical examiner said he died instantly because of a severe skull fracture, head traumas. I donít know why I thought otherwise, but it was quite evident when I first saw him. Before I left, on my rap down, I passed by him, his limbs were cold and his face was purplish, I was still in shock. It didnít really register. He was gone.

He wasnít suffering. It was instant. Sometimes people fool themselves and tell people that they died instantly, just to make you feel better about things, but he really did. I think he went in a way that he would have wanted. Doing something that he loved doing.

Are you still going to keep climbing?

Tom: Yes, because I have to disassociate this tragedy and loss from climbing. When I went back to the Pharaoh, re-lived it so many times in my mind since then, this was two weeks after, that actually being there didnít bring anything back Ė bring back any flashbacks or memories. It was a very nice morning.

So you havenít been climbing since?

Tom: I went to the gym once and I would like to do, as a first climb, I am thinking of doing the easy way up the Pharaoh - a two-pitch 5.7. I might be able to rap down and be able to look at that third pitch. What do you think? Is that possible?

Jeff: I would go up there too, if you want to.

Tom: I donít know what I could have done if he wasnít dead. I guess I would have done exactly the same thing. Search and rescue would have tried the operation at night. If I would have been more experienced, I am sure I could have found a way to bring him down safely. I guess that would have been in a different situation.

He wasnít wearing a helmet, not that it mattered. I computed that for a 75í fall, he was going almost 50 miles per hour at the bottom. It was a factor 1.4 fall for a 75 Ė 80í fall. That is not taking the rope stretch into account. People were saying that he died instantly. I knew that they really didnít know that because they didnít know how far he fell or what his condition.

I have heard people who have done that climb say that they could see how the fall could have happened. I am piecing together what other people said... There is an easy section after this steep crack where he had his last pieces in, the pieces that held. He could have run out that easy section, which, I guess anyone would have, until it started getting questionable. I have no idea how long those sections might be or when he might have run into problems.

He had two biners full of wedges with him and this one was the one that was on my harness. I am almost certain he used it as pro because I wouldnít have had it with me. I am not as certain that he used these two for pro, but these were both my cams. The trigger certainly wasnít bent like this before and these other two cams were with me on my harness. I grabbed a bunch of biners and gear from him to clip on my harness before I rapped because I didnít know if the rope would reach.

Damaged Rope The damaged rope.
Damaged Rope Another view of the damaged rope.
Damaged Cam Damaged Cam.
Damaged Cam Another view of the damaged Cam.
Damaged Cam Another view of the damaged Cam.

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Copyright ©: 2003, Thomas Chong, Jeff Mayhew, and RAHutchins
Revised: June 7, 2003