Daniel Frederick nursed his severely broken elbow and his fractured left foot while his friend, Michael Davis, attempted to calm him as the two hung suspended about 500 feet above the ground at the famed Lover’s Leap cliff.
The lifelong friends and climbing partners were perched on the ledge of the precipitous rock formation in South Lake Tahoe for about five hours May 11 before a collaborative rescue effort coordinated by the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office safely delivered Frederick from his close encounter with death.
“The fall was unlucky,” Frederick said. “But everything that happened after was extremely lucky.”
Frederick is referring to the 60-foot fall he took while near the top of a 600-foot-tall rock climbing route called Craven Image, a less frequently visited intermediate line on the far west side of Lover’s Leap.
During the tumble, Frederick crashed into a rock protrusion, incurring multiple breaks in his left foot and a compound fracture to his elbow, which bled profusely for about 40 minutes.
Davis, a former Smartsville firefighter who currently lives in Penn Valley, was able to stem the flow of blood from his friend’s arm using a compression bandage improvised out of a beanie, a sweater and some spare nylon cords typically used to build an anchor.
“Once I had time to observe the wound, I knew it was not an arterial bleed, and Dan wasn’t going to bleed out,” Davis said.
Frederick said he was scared of bleeding to death because of the profusion of blood in the immediate aftermath, but he was glad he was unsuccessful at convincing his friend to apply a tourniquet.
“I told him, ‘With the amount of time we are going to spend on this ledge, if we use a tourniquet, you’ll lose your arm,” Davis said.
For Frederick and Davis, the day began innocuously enough as the pair traveled from their respective homes (Frederick maintains a home in Sacramento.)
The two friends went to high school together in Southern California, slowly lost touch, then reconnected about seven years ago through Facebook and began attacking climbs throughout the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges in the American West.
Lover’s Leap is a steep granite cliff with international renown among the climbing community.
Its popularity is due to steep, challenging routes; the spectacular and expansive scenery; easy accessibility; and unique rock features, such as horizontal dikes that protrude slightly from the rock, providing purchase for hands and feet.
Frederick and Davis have been rock climbing on and off for 27 years and principally participate in lead climbing.
In lead climbing, the lead climber ascends the cliff with a rope attached to a harness, placing gear to protect from a fall as the climb proceeds. The second climber belays the first climber from below (either the ground or a ledge on the cliff), then follows the lead climber, collecting the pieces of protection. The second climber is belayed from above and assumes significantly less risk.
On Saturday, the two men decided to climb Craven Image, a moderately difficult three-pitch climb that tops out on the true summit of the 600-foot-tall granitic cliff.
“It was a pretty normal, adventurous day,” Davis said.
The pair of climbers successfully ascended a two-pitch climb called The Groove to reach the Main Ledge, about 200 feet off the ground, traversed right and began climbing Craven Image, a three-pitch climb first established by Royal Robbins in 1969.
After two pitches, Frederick began leading the third and final pitch.
“One of the things I love about climbing is how personal it is,” Frederick said. “You assume your own risk. It’s all in my control, and I take full responsibility.”
Before making one move on The Groove, Frederick realized he forgot his helmet and his first-aid kit back in the car, but the two men wanted to proceed with the climb rather than head back.
“I’m just bummed,” Frederick said. “I just feel like I let the whole sport down.”
Despite being under-prepared, Frederick headed his way up the third pitch of Craven Image without a hitch until he was about 120 feet above Davis, who was belaying from a cliff ledge.
Frederick had placed a nut — a piece of protection consisting of a metal wedge threaded on wire that is crammed into the crack of a rock — and moved above and slightly to the left of the protection before realizing he was off-route.
Moving back down past the protection, then up to the right, Frederick neglected to reset the nut, which is common practice for lead climbers.
“I should have reset that protection, but I didn’t even look at the gear,” Frederick said. “It’s just so textbook, but I was 20 feet from the finish, and I thought I would take a small calculated risk.”
Davis, who was watching intently from 120 feet below, saw the nut come loose from the rock just below Frederick.
“I knew the potential for a fall was large, as he was pretty run out,” Davis said. “Then I saw his foot slip, and I just pulled in as much slack as I could.”
Davis said his ability to pull about 12 feet of slack may have saved his friend’s life. When Davis next saw Frederick, he was hanging upside down with his head about 6 inches above a ledge.
Frederick remembers the slip and remembers thinking he would catch on the protection after about 5 or 6 feet.
Instead, he began picking up speed and crashed into a dike before coming to rest horizontal to the ledge, he said.
What Frederick replays in his mind the most, as he recovers at his home in Sacramento, is not the intense fear of the fall — the type of fear that wakes people out of their sleep — but how he forgot to check that one piece of protection, how finishing fever just 20 feet from the top resulted in the worst fall of his rock climbing career.
When Frederick came to rest, Davis called out to him, asking if he was OK.
Frederick replied in the affirmative and Davis was just about to chide him for escaping the difficult situation unscathed when Frederick said he could see the bone in his right arm.
Davis used the rope belay system to lower Frederick to the same ledge upon which he was standing. Despite his wounds and the onset of shock, Frederick traversed right along the ledge to Davis, whose experience as a firefighter vested him with experience assessing wounds and performing triage.
Davis called 911 before applying pressure to the wound, using materials at hand.
Then the men had to wait it out while rescuers marshalled forces to execute a rescue.
“I was getting a little breathy,” Frederick said. “But Mike kept my focus on my breath and away from the pain.”
Davis said Frederick is a mentally strong individual and that most people faced with a similar situation would likely hyperventilate.
“He maintained really good composure,” Davis said.
After five hours, two members of the Lake Valley Fire Protection District, Matt Nerdahl and Jan Bojsen-Moller, were lowered from an anchor built on top of the cliff.
Greg Almos of the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue said often the agency will execute a helicopter hoist, where the aircraft will hover and a rescuer will retrieve the victim and attach him or her to a hoist line.
But that day, the helicopter pilot decided such an approach was unsafe, so rescuers repaired to the top of the cliff. When Nerdahl arrived at the ledge where Frederick and Davis were waiting, Frederick was confronted with one last difficult decision.
The rescuers did not have a rescue basket, which is typically used to stabilize a patient as they are hauled up a cliff.
Frederick was given the choice to wait for the piece of equipment to be retrieved or to be cradled by the rescuer as they were pulled slowly.
The first option was longer, the second more painful.
“I just decided to suffer through it,” said Frederick, who added the pain was intense. “It was a good move. I was in surgery before dark.”
The doctors found granitic grit tattooed in Frederick’s bone, but accounting for all the factors, he considers himself lucky to be alive.
“I already have dexterity in my left hand,” Frederick said. “I’m just looking forward to healing and start climbing again.”
Frederick said that as soon as he is able, the first route he intends to climb is Craven Image.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.