Account of Obelisk Accident
My name is Patrick Callery. Our friend David Shirley and I were climbing with Ishun Chan on the South Face route of the Obelisk when she was tragically killed on November 8, 2009. This report of the accident is provided with the hopeful intent to provide some answers for her many friends and loved ones, and with the hope that her tragic passing may in some way better inform the climbing community of potential dangers in our sport. While this is intended to generally be a technical account, I would first like to use this space to say a couple things about our friend, Ishun.
First, Ishun is an excellent climber, and quite experienced leading on backcountry trad routes. She has a solid understanding of protection and anchor dynamics and is a careful route finder. She is an exceptionally strong climber and shares my unhealthy enjoyment of suffering heavy packs over long approaches to reach remote backcountry gems. She had many long backcountry routes under her belt, most recently a 2-day outing to climb the South Face of Charlotte Dome, which we successfully completed in good style two weeks prior to the accident. She has demonstrated very solid capability leading sustained 5.8 trad routes, with raw technical ability well into the 5.10 range. I would like to emphasize my opinion that this accident was not a result of inexperience or exceeding abilities.
Second, and more important, Ishun is a great partner and wonderful friend. While I had only come to know her recently, we had become fast friends and I was fortunate to already consider her one of my closest friends. Sentiments expressed by her many other friends and loved ones clearly illustrate the tremendous impact she had on others’ lives and how dear she was to those close to her. She is quite honestly one of the finest human beings I’ve had the good fortune to know, and she will be missed more than words can describe.
Sometime in early October I pitched Ishun on a trip to the Obelisk. A classic backcountry rock with an arduous approach, the Obelisk had been on my to-do list for years, and Ishun was enthusiastic about joining me for it. We half expected we’d eventually cancel the trip plan given the lateness of the season, but continued fair and mild mountain weather throughout late October kept the window of opportunity open. As the weekend approached, David also joined in. We grew a little apprehensive about the forecast for cold temperatures, but it would be only marginally colder than we had comfortably dealt with on Charlotte Dome two weeks prior, and the weather was forecast to remain stable throughout the weekend and several days past. Out of the many fine routes on the peak, we chose the South Face as our objective given its comparatively low rating (5.6 per Secor and Vernon guides), fewer anticipated pitches, and sunny exposure. We knew it would be a long day and anticipated hiking out Sunday night in the dark, as we had done on the Charlotte Dome trip.
The three of us arrived at the Crown Valley trailhead near Wishon Reservoir Friday night and slept next to the car. We were up at first light and hiking by 7am. It was quite cold but comfortable on the long hike in to lower Geraldine Lake. The trail has a reputation for being difficult to follow, and as we proceeded above Statham Meadow found this to be quite true; the presence of numerous cattle trails easily lead one astray in non-descript forest sections with few visible landmarks. A little extra wandering in the woods set us off our schedule, and we arrived in camp around 12:30pm, too late to make a run at a short route on the Obelisk that afternoon. We hiked to the ridgeline above the lake that afternoon to scope out the approach and get our first view of the Obelisk in person. A simply stunning view of this majestic dome comes into view as one crests the top of the gully above Geraldine Lakes, dramatically placed above Kings Canyon with an impressive high country backdrop. I remember joking that the view alone was worth the hike in, and Ishun replied something witty about needing to climb the peak to properly appreciate it.
The next morning, we rose at 5:30am and started hiking at 6am. We made good time on the approach and arrived at the saddle NE of the Obelisk around 7:15am. We took our time changing shoes and gearing up, and found the approach down the east side of the Obelisk more tedious with bushes than expected. After poking around the base of the South Face and studying the topos and other route beta, we settled on the most obvious “vegetated gully” that appears at the base of the South Face route. Entering the gully appeared tricky and awkward, so I offered to lead a pitch on the face to the left and traversed in to the gully about 100 feet up. This first pitch was everything the Obelisk had promised: steep rock with an overabundance of knobs and chickenheads, offering fun, interesting climbing and easy protection. Ishun followed, and we belayed David up from the proper gully entrance to save time. Above here, the gully appeared easy and we unroped to climb the next 150-200 feet solo. We continually discussed whether we were really in the proper South Face “long, broken chimney” or rather the “recess” mentioned in the Vernon guide. Much of this part of the gully was 4th class, with a few steep and awkward stemming/chimney moves to get around chockstones and bulges. Upon reaching a particularly difficult bulge, we opted to rope up and continue climbing. It was now a little after 9am; our intent was to top out by noon so as to get a good start on the pack out before nightfall.
Ishun took the next lead, starting up and over a steep bulge that she adamantly noted was somewhat stiffer than 5.6. Yet another bulge higher up was similarly difficult, but also cleared in good style. About 70 feet up, the gully ended in a steep wall, and she found an awkward exit to the right, climbing out of our sight. Despite being out of sight, we had excellent voice communication here, and she relayed some of what she saw. The steep face directly above the top of the gully looked intimidating, and she thought she might traverse right to see what lay above. She was starting to move a little more slowly now, and I remember continually looking down at my watch, concerned about our pace. It was now about 9:45am. I shouted from below that if things didn’t look right, she should put in an anchor and bring us up to discuss our options. She proceeded a little further, and I hollered out that she had reached the halfway mark on the rope. She responded that she would climb another 10-20 feet and anchor. After a couple minutes, I heard the terrible scraping noise of a steep slab fall, and the rope fluttered as Ishun cried out.
Surprisingly, the rope did not come taut. In this brief moment I rationalized that she had either caught her fall or stopped on a ledge. David and I called up to see if she was OK. There was no reply. We shouted a few more times and heard nothing. Moving quickly, I pulled the rope tight, locked off the belay and backed it up. We fixed a klemheist to the rope and reinforced the anchor for upward pull, then tied off the rope to the anchor and stepped out of the belay. About half the rope was out, so we reasoned I could reach her on the other half. We also had a single twin rope (for the 3rd to climb on) and I tied this to my harness to trail up. David put me on belay and I proceeded upward on the free half of the lead rope, clipping the pieces Ishun had placed on lead. The climbing was difficult as she had said, and my heart was racing. I tried to climb quickly but deliberately. Eventually I reached the top of the gully and could see Ishun to my right.
At the top of the gully, she had exited right and climbed up and right over steep slabs about 10 feet to a tied-off knob. Much of this face was very modestly featured, and conspicuously lacking the copious chickenheads we had found on the first pitch far below. She was now resting about 20 feet to the right and slightly down from this last piece. She was oriented vertically with her back to me, and I could see a piece fixed to the rock directly above her. One arm was thrust upward and she was leaning against the wall. I continued to call out to her in as calm a voice as I could muster, trying to reassure her (and myself) that everything was going to be OK. I climbed up to clip the top piece, then down-climbed and proceeded to traverse out to her on steep and surprisingly blank friction, with a few small footholds for balance. As I got to within 10 feet of her, David called out from below that I was now out of rope; I’d misjudged the rope length and now couldn’t reach her. I inched back to the left to more secure footholds, tied into the haul line, climbed back up to the high knob and clipped it. After David put me on belay with the haul line, I untied from the lead rope and traversed back out. It’s hard to remember exactly, but by this point at least 30 minutes had passed since the fall.
When I reached Ishun I could see her gear sling was pulled tight under one shoulder and around the other side of her neck. The gear sling itself was hanging from a single cam, the trigger bar having caught and held on a small knob directly above her head. This is what had stopped her fall without loading the rope. There was a loose runner clipped to the rope, indicating she may have been trying to sling a knob when she fell. She did not appear to be breathing and I wasn’t sure if I was detecting a faint carotid pulse. There were red trauma marks on her neck and a thin white foam at her lips. I was horrified to find that I could not release the gear sling as it was holding her entire body weight; we were 20 feet out on a pendulum exposure and I could not find sufficient foot holds to apply enough leverage to pull off the sling or to lift the cam from the protrusion above. The surface features available (a few small, rounded knobs in inconvenient locations) presented only very marginal protection between our position and the last good piece. What followed was almost mechanical; somehow I was able to rig a lowering system near the previous good piece and release Ishun from her position without causing a further pendulum swing. I am wracked with doubts as to whether I made all the right decisions in administering emergency care while managing the anchoring in our precarious position; all I wanted was to get her off the rock safely and see her wake up. I tried to hold out high hopes throughout the ordeal, but deep in my heart I think I knew she was already gone.
Soon David was lowering us on belay, and by the time we reached his secure stance in the gully I completely broke down, my suppressed emotions rushing to the surface. Throughout our effort, David was a source of amazing strength and capability, both with solid and responsive belay on dual ropes while I moved back and forth on the sketchy slabs above and then throughout the lowering process. Over the next couple hours we lowered Ishun down another 4 half-rope lengths to the ground below. We would fix an anchor and lower David down to the next open stance. He would then lower Ishun and me on separate ropes, coaching me down while I carried Ishun in my arms. The lowering was extremely difficult, over the uneven and blocky terrain of the gully. Throughout this process we continued to try placing cell phone calls, but could not get a signal. Upon reaching the base of the route we carried Ishun to a flat, open space beneath a few trees and tried to make her warm and comfortable; she had remained unresponsive throughout. After a short discussion and accounting of our resources, we agreed that David would stay with her while I ran for help. Here and at the NE saddle (where we had changed shoes in the morning), they had a sufficient amount of food, a liter and a half of water, headlamps, a couple backpacks and down jackets, and a lighter with which to start a fire. We agreed that if things got out of control for any reason, David would hike the hour and a half back to our campsite at the lake where a tent, sleeping bags, and a camp stove awaited. I left them at 2:30pm. While we were still holding out hope when I left them for the trailhead, David feels that Ishun had passed away around 4pm, before nightfall.
Sparing details of the hike out, I moved as fast as my legs would carry and arrived at the trailhead at 6:20pm, about an hour after dark. Still no cell signal, I got in the car and drove the 30+ miles to Shaver Lake, arriving shortly after 7pm. The first sign of humanity I encountered was the CDF fire station in Shaver Lake, where the firefighters on duty heard me out and immediately set to work in initiating the rescue operation. The operation ultimately fell under the leadership of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue team, with medical support from the Star Rescue Team. I remain in awe and deep gratitude of the professionalism, capability, and kindness of everyone that responded and put themselves at risk in this operation.
A ground team of 6 rescuers was dispatched from the base at Wishon Reservoir around 1:15am to the Spanish Lakes jeep trail, transported out the 4WD trail by a pair of volunteer jeep drivers. They would strike out on foot from Spanish Lakes to our campsite at lower Geraldine Lake, where 2 of the team would continue on the approach trail to the peak. Throughout the night, David had managed to stay relatively warm thanks to the gear we had on hand and by maintaining a small fire. The two ground rescuers arrived at the Obelisk shortly after dawn, about the same time the CHP helicopter also arrived. Due to the rugged terrain, the helicopter apparently had to try a couple different landing sites before they found a safe landing to which the rescuers could carry Ishun. The rescue medic reported her deceased on site, and later offered the assessment that she was likely killed instantly given the nature and severity of her injuries. Over the next several hours, Ishun was flown back to Fresno, and David and the rescuers returned to the base of operations at Wishon Reservoir.
People involved in accidents have often warned, in retrospect, about bad feelings in their gut before something terrible happened. I’ve been looking back on the whole trip and can’t think of a moment when my gut gave me any foreboding or cause for concern. Ishun seemed her usual upbeat self as well, up until the morning of the climb. She woke up complaining of a sore neck, and was pretty reserved on the hike in. I remember commenting to her as she reached the first belay that she didn’t seem to be smiling much. Maybe I should have picked up that something was amiss, but I never pressed her on it. We should always take care to not only be honest with ourselves, but also focus on the vibes given off by our climbing partners.
Throughout our brief climb I was not certain whether we were on the true South Face route. We studied the topo and guidebook photos carefully, and were confident but not at all certain that what we ascended sufficiently matched what we saw on paper. The gully we ascended was too wide to truly be considered a chimney, but it did have a handful of stem/chimney moves required within, and seemed the most obvious line for a first ascent party in 1948. The climbers’ trail around the south side of the peak seemed to converge on this spot, and we thought we recognized an adjacent route on the face immediately to the left as noted in guidebook photos. The gully/chimney ended in a steep face as suggested in the route guides, and this is where the accident occurred. Given the magnitude of the situation, when I reached Ishun it did not occur to me to look above for what may have been the best continued route upward, or to get a good look at the area above where she fell from. It was clear that she had continued an upward right traverse from the last high piece. The rock was steep and holds were not plentiful on this face. I’ve since returned to the base of the rock to pay respects and to more carefully reconcile the route guides to what we climbed. I’m now fairly confident that we were indeed climbing the proper South Face route, and that the chimney appears to continue directly up a short, vertical section rather than traversing out onto the face as we did. As her partner it was equally my responsibility to help keep her on route, and I feel I’ve failed her in this regard. While the climbing was not easy on this face, I don’t believe she had wandered into anything beyond her ability to climb. It appears she may have simply slipped and come off her stance, perhaps while trying to place protection. She should have taken a swinging pendulum fall on the steep slab, with the likely consequence some scraped limbs, a possible bonk on her (helmeted) head, and at worst maybe a sprained ankle. The cam catching on a small knob and stopping her fall was an extremely unlikely occurrence with a devastating outcome.
A small rock memorial exists under some trees at the base of the route, where Ishun rested while waiting for the rescue. For climbers approaching routes on the South side of the Obelisk in the future, please feel welcome to stop by this spot to say hello and pay respects, I’m sure Ishun would appreciate the visit.