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

February 25, 2003

This is the second part of the interview with Tom Chong and Jeff Mayhew. This part of the interview covers the subsequent body recovery from the face of the Pharaoh and the impact of Alex's death on his family and friends.

Jeff: I wasn't there with the initial team that went there on Wednesday night, the team that went out with Tom and hiked to the base of the rock. Did you go back with them to the base of the rock?

Tom: No, I didn't. I wanted to. The helicopter came in for a little bit, because it was windy, and someone on board had binoculars and they made their assessment. That is what I was told. From the blood loss and from my accounts someone decided that he was gone.

They decided not to do anything on Wednesday night?

Jeff: Right. It was starting to get dark and the wind was picking up. It would have been a very risky operation. It was a tough call for the team leader. The Sheriff's deputy in charge of the operation decided it was safest if we did not pursue the operation that evening. Basically, from all accounts, Alex was probably dead. If they had any big doubts on that they would have gotten the team to go in and get onto the rock. Usually, our teams can get to the top of rocks easily and then set up our systems and go down from there, but the Pharaoh, as you know, has to be technically climbed on all sides. That made it a little bit more complicated. For a night operation, it was just going to be too risky.

So when did you get pulled into it?

Jeff: There was an initial callout. Everybody who volunteers in the Southern Arizona Rescue Association (SARA) has a pager or gets notified by someone who has a pager. I had been out, I forget what I was doing, but I didn't have my pager with me until I came home and I found out that there was a callout. A buddy called to see if I was going. I hadn't heard anything up to that point. I turned on the radio and I heard them talking about the Pharaoh and trying to get information on the climbs there. I called in on the radio and talked with some people and a couple of folks by phone. They were talking with Eric Rhicard also, to get some information on the climbs in the area and how best to get up on the rock. I was told at that time that the operation was going to take place the following morning. They were looking for a couple of lead climbers to get up on the rock. I volunteered, as well as another guy named Jurgen Seidel, who is in the group. The operation was set to go the following morning.

It gave us time to think about how to do it and what route to take. I knew there were a couple of easier routes up the rock. There is the two-pitch 5.7 Standard Route and there is a one pitch 5.8 called On Ramp that's a pretty easy route. I talked to Eric Rhicard and he said that 4th classing up the back a little bit to the point where you could rappel down into an alcove would put you at the start of the second pitch of the Standard Route. The base of a chimney, I think, a 5.6 or 5.7 chimney. He said that if he had to get up there quickly, that is what he would do - an easy, quick way. So we decided to do that.

We made our usual rendezvous at Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway, gathered up teams, and planned our attack. Jurgen and I were going to be on the technical team with three support members. There was going to be a team that would take in the Stokes basket from the top also. Another team would try to find a good path from the road up to the base of the Pharaoh so that when we got the body off the wall we could just lower it down. It would be easier than rigging haul systems to get the body up to the upper road. Basically there were three separate teams.

We hiked in with our gear to the back of the Pharaoh. Jurgen and I 4th classed up and over as Eric had suggested and rappelled down into the alcove. I led the 5.7 chimney up to the top of the rock. I anchored to the rappel bolts off the back, which were off of the summit a little ways. I fixed a line there and then we hauled up two 300' static line ropes, ½ inch ropes, that we use for rescue. We left a line for the support members to come up. We brought up some more gear. Meanwhile, Jurgen was setting up an anchor up on the top, which was above the rappel anchors, just under the final roof on Cripple Creek. We went ahead and used my climbing rope. We secured the end to the rappel anchors and brought it under the roof there and backed it up with Jurgen’s anchors. We dropped the rope out front and rapped down to the belay anchors which Tom had been working off of, about 30' feet above the body.

We got the two 300' ropes and rappelled down to those two bolts at the top of the second pitch. Then we used my climbing rope that we had rappelled on to back up those bolts. We tossed an end of one of the 300' ropes down to the ground. I used that to rappel on. We lowered the other 300' rope, tied a figure-8 on the end of it and lowered it down below the body a ways. Jurgen rappelled on that line so we both went down together. We had a couple of body bags and got the body into them. It was kind of a tricky operation to do that. There was a lot of blood all over the rock. We wrapped it up with a sling to secure it.

Jurgen went back up to the two bolt anchor. We had clipped the end of that second 300' foot- rope into Alex's harness, his carabiner right there. So Jurgen went back up that rope and put that line through a rappell rack. I was able to lift the body up off the anchors that Tom had set and put it onto the weight of the rope with the rappel rack. I rappelled down as Jurgen lowered the body. I just kept the body away from the rock. There was a point, probably about 30 or 40' below the body, there was a slight bulge and I was able to stand there and have Jurgen keep lowering the body as I held the rope out. It was clear of the rock all the way down until about 10' above the ground. It slid easily along the rock down to the team that was waiting at the base of the rock. It was actually a pretty straightforward deal.

Did someone go and check the cams at that point? Did you do that? It sounded like they held his fall?

Jeff: After that, we cleaned up the anchors that Tom had set for Alex's body.

This is after you already lowered the body down?

Jeff: Correct. I went back up and cleaned out those anchors. We dropped the two 300' ropes down to the team below for them to deal with. We ascended my lead line back up to the anchors at the top and as I went up, as I ascended, I swung over and took out the two pieces that were left from Alex's lead.

Tom: Were they both cams?

Jeff: The top one was that gold cam. I don't recall… Maybe the bottom one was a stopper. I am not sure. The gold cam was the top piece. It didn't look like it had been gouged or a severe fall had been taken on it. It must have been the one that caught him. That one cam there,(pointing to a cam Tom had brought,) that is all twisted up, that may have been close to the gold cam and maybe that took the main force of the fall and popped out right at the end.

Tom: Maybe the gold cam was placed well?

Jeff: Yes. Both those pieces were still in really well. I would have thought it would have shown more wear on it, biting into the rock. That's what makes me wonder if that cam that you have there, that looks pretty torqued up, if that had been ripped out pretty close above the gold cam and it had taken the main force of the fall and then popped out. It all happened so fast that you wouldn't notice something like that.

Tom: Right, I definitely didn't notice anything like that.

Jeff: And then at that point, the rope going up to our anchors was at such an angle that it was pretty difficult for me to stay in line with where the climb goes. In order to inspect where pieces might have popped out, I would have had to go back up and set up some directionals. It just wasn't a major concern at that time. The Sheriff's deputy was comfortable with what had been done. So we just went back up the rope, packed up and left.

When the body got to the ground, they put it in a Stokes basket, Then they used three separate lower points to get him down through the forest to the road. By time they had the body at the road, we were back up at the trucks.

Tom: Do you have any guess at where he might have been on the route at the point of his fall?

Jeff: You were saying you had talked to people about how the climb could get a little easier as it diagonals left. It has been a long time since I have done the route, but I seem to remember the point where you start diagonalling under the roof, I don't remember being really run out, but it gets easier. To get more protection, I think you have to climb up into that roof and that's harder climbing than continuing left.

Tom: Is there is any chance you think he might have gone off route? Instead of going to the left, he went straight up? Is it pretty obvious where it goes?

Jeff: I don't recall it that well. I know the topo shows the crack going straight up to where you are supposed to cut left. Did you have the book with you?

Tom: Yes. He knew that, well, I told him that it was unclear whether you go left or up. I just told him to take the easiest way.

Jeff: I don't remember having trouble with that decision when I was up there. It would be interesting to go back up there and look at it again. I think it gets steeper so that you would want to go left.

Tom: Is that overhang directly above the top of the second belay?

Jeff: The final roof?

Tom: Yes.

Jeff: Yes, pretty much. Because we came rappelling down right from underneath that roof and the ropes hung pretty straight to the belay.

Tom: When I saw him in my field of view, he was about 10' to the right.

Jeff: He was probably just starting on the diagonal.

Tom: I remember looking up, that roof was somewhat directly above me. Unless he might have swung over. I have no idea. When he fell, I saw it for a split second, he was mostly feet first, just like any other typical fall.

Jeff: He just hit his head.

Tom: I would think that the rope caught him, his body must have rotated with the back of his head hitting the rock, I suppose.

Jeff: That's happened to me on shorter falls. I get a little momentum going and rotate. Who knows where the rope was in relation to his legs. That can happen too, you get flipped over backwards if the rope is behind your legs.

Everybody on the team was commenting on how good a job Tom did in extricating himself from the situation, in light of the personal trauma.

It is amazing to be able to think that clear-headed and be able to get out of that situation, especially under the pressure.

Tom: I think if I had realized he had died, it would have been much worse. I think the shock helped me get through it - the detachment from the shock.

Twisting slings to get the weight off the rope, to do that under pressure is incredible.

Jeff: You sure got focussed in on completing your task.

Tom: How else would you be able to transfer his weight to an anchor from a hanging position?

Jeff: If you could set up a little z-rig system, a little 3:1 haul system* Have you ever done that?

Tom: No.

Jeff: That's probably what your friend, who’s teaching the self-rescue class, will get into. You can do that with slings and prussik knots. A lot of us don't carry actual prussik cord, but you can tie a prussik knot with a sling on a rope and use carabiners instead of pulleys. Of course, the mechanical advantage is less, but it helps. If you have a load that you want to lift, you can tie the end of the rope or cord some place above it. Then you loop it down and through a carabiner on your load, and then by pulling up on that other side, that's a 2:1 advantage right there. Even if it's a carabiner, it's not quite 2:1, but that gives you some advantage.

Tom: If you just loop that again downwards, that makes it a 3:1?

Jeff: No, at that point, that would just be a change of direction. That would be a quick little 2:1 deal that you could probably do with a body. If you were able to get yourself into a better position, you might have even been able to lift it over. But then you have to be able to clip, too, as you are lifting. It's a double whammy there. It gets more complicated, but it's the same idea, running the rope through carabiners and using prussiks.

On big walls when you are hauling a bag, a lot of times you are just using a change of direction, not necessarily using a mechanical advantage. Using the advantage of your legs, say, with an etrier and an ascender, where you are pulling the load up over a pulley. You obviously were able to figure out something. It probably wasn't as efficient as you had hoped, but you sure got the job done.

Tom: Instead of escaping the belay, if I had forethought (I had no idea what would transpire when I escaped the belay), if I was to do it again, would be to tie a Munter hitch at the anchor. Then I would anchor that it with a clove hitch because that's the fastest thing I know how to do. That would hold. I could later come up and lower his weight onto the anchor. Would there be any better way to do that, after escaping the belay, to tie the end*

Jeff: Yes. To escape the belay you can use load-releasing hitches, prussik knots, klemheist knots, and/or Munter hitches. If you don't use them a lot, they are hard to remember.

Tom: At least for me, that would have been the easiest thing, the quickest thing.

Jeff: Yes. There are some good self-rescue books out that talk about different systems but all of those are things that you have to keep practicing. If you don't, they are hard to be proficient at.

Tom: I first learned escaping the belay from a friend who held a local lead climbing seminar, when I was first starting out. Before my first multi-pitch lead, I checked out that self-rescue book called "Self-Rescue" from the "How to Climb" series. So that wasn't a new concept.

Jeff: I think a lot of climbers these days would have trouble doing that. It is obviously a basic skill that is good to know and practice.


It is still pretty hard to believe.

I think that's why it is so scary. It has shaken up a lot of people. A lot of times in these climbing accidents, people were obviously doing some extreme things, but in this one, you guys were doing everything right. He took a normal fall and he was killed.

Tom: I wouldn't say that was a normal fall. You normally never fall anything close to that distance.

I am sure he thought he was well protected at the time. It sounds like he was a safe climber.

Tom: He was very good under pressure. He has backed down before. He knew his limits. We were well equipped. There was no single piece of gear that he would have needed. We had all the sizes of nuts and cams. Otherwise, it would eat me to the rest of my life. Gear-wise, we were equipped.

It sounds like your gear held, it did stop him.

Jeff: No one knows what the angle of the forces was on the pieces. They might have been placed well for a downward fall. Maybe he hadn't anticipated diagonalling. Just the act of climbing by them, moving the rope a little, can cause a piece to move.

Tom: Especially nuts.

Jeff: If he took a swinging fall onto a piece that torqued it the wrong way - it could have popped it out. You don't know if a piece broke?

Tom: I don't recall seeing anything fall - I mean rock or anything like that. At some point, someone asked if wind might have been a factor. At the time that we were climbing, it was calm. We have climbed in really heavy winds in Cochise, on Rockfellow. It was like a gale but we were having a good time.

Jeff: Anytime I am involved with a rescue or recovery of a rock climber (We get called a lot for what the media reports as a climber falling and getting hurt, but most of the time, it is not a real climber. Usually it is just someone walking around on the rocks.) Anytime I do go on calls where climbers are involved, it makes me re-evaluate the next time I go climbing. Everything about how I am placing gear, how much I am running it out, all of my systems.

When I first joined Search and Rescue, I had just started climbing. I went to the call-out for Ben, Ben Burham when he fell and hit his head. I went down there to the scene and we all thought he was going to die. That set me for wearing my helmet for the rest of my climbing career right there.

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