Climber takes 35-foot fall; crushed by boulder

By Daniel Roca
Staff Writer

Inches from the ground, body dangling, her left leg limp to the side, spasming and contracting in fits against the broken femur, 21-year-old Elise Anderson just fell nearly 35 feet off a climb on Granite Mountain, pummeled by the boulder that was supposed to protect her.

These few seconds transformed the lives of Anderson and her two climbing partners, Jeffery Rome, 21, and Chris Shanehoffer, 26.

The day had started at 6:30 a.m. The group rallied at the house of Shanehoffer, hoping to arrive at the trailhead of the Granite Mountain Wilderness Area by 7 a.m.

“December 12 was a warm day,” Elise recalled. “I was in tights and a sports bra.” They gathered their gear and piled into Shanehoffer’s jeep.

By 7:15 a.m., finding the gates closed, Rome knocked on the door of the camp host, yelling, “Give me my wilderness experience!”

Be careful what you wish for.

They planned to climb routes in all the areas immediately surrounding Prescott: Granite Jungle to Chieu Hoi, Thumb Butte, and Co-Op Crack in the Granite Dells. It would be “The epic last day of the season.”

Anderson, having climbed the route before, decided to lead, with Rome belaying her. “I remember starting out the climb and thinking, wow, I feel really good,” Anderson said.

Granite Jungle begins as an enjoyable, well-protected crack formed by a thin suspended block. A boulder juts out of the crack about 35 feet from the base before the climb continues up a narrow chimney. The first pitch of the climb ends atop a large belay ledge just over 80 feet from the deck.

Anderson climbed the route, placing two pieces of protective gear along the crack before arriving at the boulder.

“Sling it! Sling it!” cried the boys, referring to the boulder lodged in the route. Known by locals to be a solid piece of protection, and having stood on it before herself, Anderson slung a piece of webbing around the stone and proceeded to climb. “I didn’t even think twice about it because I had stood on it before and the boys were like ‘Yea!’…. Then the last thing I think I said was ‘Oh, that’s boss!’”

But today the boulder was not solid. Anderson’s hands wrapped around the horn, an easy move she had done many times before. This would be her last vision before finding herself dangling at the bottom of the mountain. “I remember what my hands were like… and instead of seeing myself pull up, I just saw [the boulder] peel back.”

And in the confusing events that followed, Anderson and Rome remember only a blur of rock-fall and bodies tumbling.

Rome recounted the event. “The first sign that something was wrong [happened when] I was looking down at the slack in the rope. I heard this rumble.… And I don’t think I even recognized that something was going on. I remember seeing something move and seeing [Anderson] coming down…” Rome continued, “Then, I think I tripped and fell to the ground and the rock hit me on the hip.”

Struck by the boulder and knocked to the ground, Rome lost control of the rope, allowing it to pass freely through the protective belay plate, while Anderson continued to fall to the ground.

Except she did not hit the ground.

According to the report submitted to Accidents in North American Mountaineering, the 80-pound block dislodged, hitting Anderson laterally on her upper left leg as she fell. The block then continued, struck a ledge and split in two, before colliding with Rome at the base of the climb.

Her body dangled in the air, her loose and broken limb against the wall. Anderson recalls seeing Shanehoffer, who declined an interview, “looking up and being like ‘oh my god.’ And I just started screaming.”

Though no one is certain exactly how, the boulder that nearly killed Anderson also saved her life.

“The only thing we think happened is that the boulder de-sheathed the rope on the way down,” explained Anderson. As she fell, the severed and frayed rope most likely got caught in her last piece of protective hear. “That is what I think stopped me. I think…”

Normally, a severed rope while climbing means disaster or death, but because Rome had been knocked off his belay, Anderson should have fallen 35 feet directly onto a knife-blade ledge. Had the boulder not severed the rope attached to Anderson and snagged on the protective gear, her injuries would have been far worse.

“The muscles were spasming and contracting. It was moving the lower part of my leg but I had no control over it,” spoke Anderson of her injury. As she screamed in pain, called for help and yelled “I’m hurt! I’m hurt! I’m hurt,” Rome and Shanehoffer immediately “went into panic mode,” assisting her off the mountain and calling 911.

At 9:35 a.m., Rome made the call to 911 emergency. “[The dispatcher] started asking questions and asking what the injury was,” he commented. “This is where I messed up. Chris said ‘broken tib/fib-no-femur!’ But I just told them broken tib/fib. Then the phone cut out.”

After reconnecting with 911 dispatch, Rome took off to seek help while Shanehoffer tended to Anderson. Remembering the excruciating pain, Anderson said, “I knew that all I could do was breathe and wait. Chris had to hold up my leg with me because when my femur broke, my thigh just wanted to fall down, sag, and collapse.” She continued in detail, “In my tights, my leg [was] just ballooning and getting huge and deformed and sideways.”

Unknown to the party, friends of Anderson’s were already on the trail to Granite Mountain at the time of the accident. Viren Perumal, a Prescott College instructor and Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, and his wife Julie were a relief for Anderson to see. “He was the person I trusted more than anyone,” said Anderson. “I knew everything was going to be okay, and I was happy that Julie was there, because Julie had broken her back in a climbing accident and was holding me the whole time close to her body and talking to me. Having her there was really awesome.”

Perumal immediately assessed the situation, taking her vitals and noting that Anderson was not exhibiting symptoms of shock. He then exposed the wound and confirmed the mid-shaft femur fracture.

By 11:30 a.m., medical attention was present or on its way, and Anderson’s situation slowly became more manageable. However, as Central Yavapai Fire Chief Cougan Carothers arrived, he immediately realized the miscommunication of the injury, having believed that Anderson had sustained a lower-leg, tibia/fibula injury instead of an upper-thigh femur fracture. It would not be until 1 p.m. before any equipment for a femur fracture and emergency personnel from Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office-Backcountry Unit would reach Anderson via helicopter.

By 2 p.m., a helicopter arrived to airlift Anderson out of the scene and transfer her to an air ambulance for Flagstaff Medical Center. “The hardest part was when she was airlifted out,” recalled Rome.

As the helicopter approached, the group needed to find shelter from potential falling rocks and debris. Crouching in the distance, Rome watched the helicopter airlift Anderson from the scene. “When it started to take off, Chris and I were both bawling. It was going back and forth between crying and laughing because we had snot all over our faces. It was a big emotional release…. She was gone and we weren’t going to see her for a while.”

Two months after the accident, Anderson and Rome sat together in a cafe going over, in heavy detail, the events of Dec. 12. And though the discussion is casual, honest and often humorous, there were some heavy words, deep breaths, and watery eyes.

“We hadn’t had a discussion like this. Not an in-depth one,” commented Rome.
Anderson’s near-fatal accident was an emotional event for more than just the climbers present that day. Family and friends all flooded her hospital room at Flagstaff Medical Center.
“Being in the hospital was really hard, but I was surrounded by people 24/7,” said Anderson. “So I felt supported by everyone.”
The third night in the hospital was the hardest for Anderson. Due to some miscommunication, she was left alone for the night. “It was three days after the accident and I was just trying to find meaning behind it. I was crying and crying and wondering why the mountain wanted to hurt me. Then my friend told me over the phone, and this was really helpful, ‘that within every extreme lies the seed of its opposite.’ And that started the real journey for me.”

When asked about what he went through, Rome shared,“I have doubts as to whether I let go of the rope before the rock hit me or as the rock hit me… I thought the reason [Anderson] was on the ground was because I dropped [her]…. I’m not a very emotional person, but that was emotional for me…. I’m just hoping for more people to be more solid on anchors and doing what they can do to be safe.”

Anderson now has a hollow titanium rod inside of her femur. The side of her hip was sliced open to allow for the rod, two bolts and two screws.  She also has a screw through her talus to support two breaks in her ankle.
“When it happened, I remember looking down at my leg… and thinking to myself, OK, I’m going to lose my leg. It’s OK. I’m going to live. Cool. Detaching from it completely, it was a really strange process.”

Shortly after the accident, Anderson went on to sign up for a climbing trip to Peru, explaining, “I had [decided] to sell my life and soul and everything I have to this passion.” After more contemplation, she withdrew from the program.
“What if I had placed that number two [protection] a foot below where I placed it? Or, what if it didn’t de-sheath the rope at all and I just took a 30 foot ground fall? I was contemplating risk and reward and how I could have died that day…. And I didn’t!” Anderson remarked.

Now in a boot, learning to walk again with physical therapy, Anderson is adamant about continuing to climb. She has plans to return to Indian Creek, Utah this summer after her boot comes off. “That’s where it all started and I feel I should go back to the beginning.” Despite her ambitions to return to the mountain, Anderson is still driven about discovering what other opportunities life has in store for her.
“I am deciding that I want climbing to be a part of my life and not my life. Let’s see what plans life has for me because it basically crushed them with a boulder. I’m done making plans. It is a surrender to a greater force than myself.”

This article appeared in the March 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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