A Free Soloist Remembers His Yosemite Free Fall
Josh Ourada fell 200 feet while free-soloing in Yosemite this spring, and lived to talk about it
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On April 10, 2021, Josh Ourada, a 31-year-old climber from the San Francisco Bay Area, fell while free-soloing the Nutcracker, a straightforward, five-pitch route in Yosemite he had climbed—both on rope and free solo—before. He confidently sent the first three pitches, but on the fourth, he slipped, falling nearly 200 feet to a rock ledge. He was gravely injured but survived.
Ourada, a former Marine who has been climbing for a decade, was primarily a boulderer until about two years ago, when he shifted his focus to trad climbing and big walls. Around the same time, he started to experiment with free soloing, which he considers a meditative practice. On this trip to Yosemite, he intended to spend his time free-climbing bigger, more challenging routes than he had before, with some solos in between.
Ourada told Outside the story of his accident while recovering in the hospital. Here’s what happened, in his own words.
That morning, I’d set out to meet up with some friends for a chill day of cragging. We had been together in the park for three weeks, and the attitude was casual. We usually made spur-of-the-moment plans, unless we had a big objective for the day. Two days prior, I had climbed Lurking Fear on El Capitan, so I was still in recovery mode. I slept in and got a later start, and by the time I drove into the park, the parking lot at the Church Bowl—a popular picnic area where the rest of my party was making breakfast—was full. Instead of waiting around for a spot to open up, I thought about what I could reasonably climb on my own. That’s when I settled on heading out to the Nutcracker, a five-pitch 5.8 on the Manure Pile Buttress, a granite crag in the park with moderate routes.
I let my friends at the Church Bowl know my rough plan, and went off to climb. Early spring is prime climbing season in Yosemite—a good time to beat crowds and get on the walls before the temperatures get too high—and the weather that day was nice, reaching up in the seventies. So, predictably, there were quite a few climbing parties at the Buttress. There were two parties of two already climbing and nearing a ledge at the top of the second pitch of the Nutcracker. To kill time while I waited for the Nutcracker to open up, I decided to wander and check out other routes. All the other routes that would have been reasonable free solos were occupied, so I waited until I could climb my first choice.
I was starting to get a little antsy, and with all the other routes full, I decided to ask some of the climbers on the wall if I could climb behind them rather than wait for them to top out. I knew I’d quickly meet them on that ledge since I didn’t have to do any belaying or waiting for partners. Hindsight is 20/20 of course: I was definitely making decisions out of impatience.
To me it felt like a pretty normal climb, even with the groups on the wall, so I had no reason to be nervous while ascending. I pretty quickly got up to where a climber was on a larger ledge where you can stop and stand. I spoke with the belayer and asked if I could keep climbing with them, and they gave me the OK, so after a quick rest, I jumped back on the wall.
I was just past the top of the third pitch, and there were three climbers on the wall ahead of me and the belayer still on the ledge below me—that was something I was aware of, but since things were going smoothly and they were friendly, I wasn’t concerned about being so close to them.
Before long I was halfway up the fourth pitch, at the crux of the route—a mantle move that is the most technically challenging section of the whole climb—so I was taking decent care in how I climbed in that moment, moving slower and more intentionally. The last thing I remember is slipping. I’m not sure whether it was my hand or foot. I can’t remember the exact movement before the fall.
The fall, however, I remember well. I was plummeting feetfirst with my back toward the rock. The route isn’t quite vertical, so I wasn’t free-falling. I was digging my heels into the rock as I fell, and my hands were on the wall behind me, searching for anything I could grab to catch myself or even just slow down. At that moment, it was all fear running through me.
Below, I could see the person on the ledge. I was falling right toward them. I remember thinking, OK, I need to find a spot to fall so that hopefully I don’t hurt anyone. I have a lot of guilt about how my accident put those climbers in harm’s way. It was my first thought once I realized where I was falling. I was also aware that I needed to try and land in a way that protected me from injury to whatever degree I could, and also to ensure that I stopped at the ledge instead of falling all the way to the ground.
After falling somewhere between 150 and 200 feet, and thankfully avoiding the belayer below me, I landed in a seated position on the ledge between the second and third pitches, next to him.
At that point after landing, I can only remember things in bits and pieces, and the time frame is a bit unclear. I was battling a lot of pain. Of my many injuries, the biggest was a collapsed lung, which made it very challenging to breathe. The belayer called Yosemite Search and Rescue for help, and looked out for me while we waited. He kept me out of shock and tried to distract me from the pain. I asked him to put on music and eventually to play a television show I had downloaded on my phone while waiting, all to make sure I didn’t hyperventilate or pass out.
It took about two hours before the YOSAR team arrived. It was a huge relief to see them. After getting looked over medically, the rescue team had to figure out how to best take me down from the wall, which was tricky—they first wanted to lower me to the ground with ropes, but decided that it was too risky with my injuries. Using a helicopter with a stretcher attached, they picked me up from the ledge and flew me to nearby El Capitan Meadow, where they planned to transfer me to a larger helicopter that could transport me to a hospital in Fresno.
From there my memories are pretty hazy—I asked for pain medication once on board, which might have been the extent of my treatment at that moment. I don’t remember anything between that and waking up from surgery at Fresno’s Community Regional Medical Center.
I spent 37 days there. I had fractured my right heel so badly it actually disintegrated in parts. My left heel had a wound that needed 20 stitches. I fractured the left side of my pelvis, as well as my spine in several places—a severe crushing in my L1 vertebra and a handful of smaller fractures in other vertebrae. I fractured my sternum, broke some ribs, collapsed my right lung, and broke my left thumb. I’ve had two surgeries—a spinal fusion and one to put pins in my hands and feet—and done extensive rehabilitation for muscle recovery.
Due to the spinal-cord injury, I can’t feel or move anything from my ankles down. There’s a decent chance that will never change, meaning I’ll have paralyzed feet for the rest of my life. This entire experience was traumatic, but the thought of permanent paralysis is by far the hardest part to get my head around. The rest of my injuries will hopefully heal. I know that things could have been much worse.
This accident changed my entire life. I had planned to spend the next month training to climb the Nose on El Cap. On an emotional level, I’m going to be processing this event for a long time. The feelings are still really raw—regret, naturally, comes to the forefront. I regret putting other climbers at risk, and I regret the impatience I felt.
My life lately has revolved around climbing and being active outdoors. I’m struggling to understand what it’s going to look like now. But I don’t think this has changed my perspective on—or love for—climbing. I don’t look at free soloing the same way anymore on a personal level. I’ll watch videos of free soloers and just feel uneasy thinking about my own experience. But I still don’t think of climbing as reckless or unnecessarily risky.
Now I’m discharged and heading to stay with my dad in Burwell, Nebraska, as I continue to recover. I’m taking stock of what I can do now and trying to be as independent as I can. I’ll do my best to live a somewhat normal life, and I’m holding out hope that I’ll climb again. But for now, I’m slowing down on those kinds of plans and focusing on how lucky I am—and how I want to move forward.