Climber on El Capitan In Yosemite National Park Loses His Thumb, Only To Have It Reattached

Yosemite National Park Rangers Jeff Webb and Dave Pope are short-hauled onto El Capitan via helicopter to rescue a Austrian climber who severed his thumb in a climbing accident on Monday. Photo by Tom Evans, NPS.

Big wall climbing is hard enough, but to do it without a thumb...well, it would be difficult at best. Fortunately, when an Austrian climber lost his right thumb in a fall, Yosemite National Park rangers sprang into action with a rescue that reunited the climber with his thumb.

The unidentified climber was leading a climb up "The Nose Route" on El Capitan on Monday when he took a fall. While his belay saved him from falling roughly 1,000 feet to the valley floor below, his rope looped around his thumb and severed it cleanly.

Amazingly, the appendage landed on a 2-foot by 1-foot ledge some 80 feet below him. His Climbing partner was able to recover the thumb and called the Yosemite National Park Emergency Communication Center seeking emergency assistance.

Shortly before 4 p.m. the park's contract helicopter, carrying Helitec crewmembers Jeff Pirog and Eric Small, and Yosemite Rangers Jeff Webb and Dave Pope, flew from Yosemite Valley to assess the situation. Although the weather was favorable with light winds, impending darkness was an issue and Incident Commander, Yosemite Valley District Ranger Eric Gabriel, made the decision to attempt to extract the climber via a short-haul, in which the injured climber was suspended by a rope below the helicopter, a park release said.

The helicopter hovered near the climbers and Rangers Webb and Pope successfully got the injured climber roped in for the short-haul and transported him to El Capitan Meadow. Once on the ground, he was transferred to another air medical helicopter and flown to a San Francisco hospital.

Later that evening, the injured climber underwent surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center, Davies Campus, in San Francisco, where his thumb was successfully reattached, park officials said.

"This was an incredibly technical and complex rescue mission with a lot of inherent risk. However, knowing that the thumb could be reattached, coupled with the confidence I have in my team, I made the decision to attempt this rescue," said Ranger Gabriel. "I was relieved, and thrilled, that this ended successfully and we were able to make a positive difference in this person's life."

As for the other climber, Ranger Webb stayed with him on the rockface overnight and was able to get him off El Capitan the next day.