Colorado, First Flatiron. On July 9, Gabe Lee (18), and Dave Roberts (18) attempted to climb the more difficult left side of the face, rather than the normal right-hand route. They had reached a point about four- fifths of the way up and Lee led a pitch on the 150-ft. rope. When he was about 80 ft. above, he called down to ask whether he should traverse to his left, since Roberts had had some experience with parts of this route. His position was out of sight, but from looking at the route beforehand Roberts thought Lee should be able to reach the top by continuing straight up. Nevertheless, Lee decided to traverse about 30 ft. to his left which involved rounding a corner. He then decided that to belay safely he should descend about 20 ft., which he did. As a result of his traverse, the rope passed around the comer, and it was apparent that as Roberts followed his route there was a danger of the rope’s catching on a protuberance; however, he thought they would be able to flip the rope loose if it did become stuck.
As he climbed the first 80 ft. of Lee’s route, the rope began to drag heavily behind and to the left. The rope did not appear to be stuck; therefore, he pulled out about 10 ft. of slack and continued upward. The second time he could not pull any slack. The rope apparently had wedged at the corner underneath a flake out of sight. They tried unsuccessfully to flip it loose. Since Roberts was not in a secure position, Lee decided the safest thing to do was to untie his end of the rope so that he could pull directly on his end while he climbed about 15 ft. of moderate difficulty to a place where he could sit down. The rope was still stuck. After a few minutes of thought Roberts suggested that Lee rappel from his belay point, single strand, to the point where the rope was stuck. Lee said, however, that this was unnecessary; he was confident he could climb to the point where it was stuck and loosen it, then climb directly up to Roberts. He climbed back successfully, freed the rope, and, still out of view of Roberts, started to climb straight up the corner from a point about 60 ft. below. About midway, Roberts asked him if he was coming all right, and he answered calmly, “Sure.” A few seconds later Roberts heard a slow scraping sound and then heard Lee yell, “Dave!” He slid a few feet, then rolled and bounced about 350 ft. to his death.
Source: Dave Roberts and Baker Armstrong.
Analysis: (Roberts) The immediate cause of the fall was probably simply a slip. Baker Armstrong, who witnessed the accident from the valley below through binoculars, saw no evidence that Lee had pulled loose a rock, or that the rope he was carrying had hampered him. Furthermore, had either of the latter taken place, Lee would most likely have yelled in surprise. As it was, he did not yell until a few moments after his fall had begun, as though he were fully aware of it and were consciously trying to stop himself.
There are perhaps three precautions that might have prevented the accident.
Had we been carrying tension equipment, when the rope jammed I might have been able to drive a bolt and rappel to the point where the rope was stuck. However, tension equipment is considered almost completely unnecessary on the faces of the Flatirons, and few parties carry it. This case suggests that carrying at least a small bolt kit is advisable on any rock climb.
Had Lee been able to drive a piton before starting his traverse, the rope could not have stuck. However, the slab, typical of the Flatirons, had absolutely no piton cracks at the point of the beginning of the traverse.
Had I been surer of the route, I might have more strongly recommended against the traverse. As it turned out, a correct route was straight up from my belay position. Nevertheless, it is not always possible to decide the best route from a distance, and I was fully aware that route finding would be required as much on the face as from below. Perhaps Lee’s decision to make the traverse was ill-advised, but he had definitely found another equally possible route through it.
It should be emphasized that, as far as I can judge, the rope’s getting stuck was not the cause of the fall, but it was probably the cause of Lee’s death, since a roped fall at the same place could almost surely have been stopped.
In summary, probably the greatest mistake we made was in route- finding, and in not fully recognizing the potential hazard of such a traverse. Contributory to the danger of getting the rope loose, once it stuck, were our lack of tension equipment and the lack of piton protection on the face. Our other error was in not correctly judging the difficulty of climbing up the corner, and whether it would not have been safer for Lee to have looked for a less direct route up to me.
Further Analysis (Armstrong): The only error that can be found in Roberts’ report is that after retrieving the rope, Lee did not follow the route taken by Roberts but traversed to his left. This was clearly seen from below with binoculars but could not be seen by Roberts. The suggestion in the report that expansion bolts be carried for emergency on all climbs whether indicated or not is an excellent one. The only other suggestion offered here is that in such a predicament the climbers should wait for help. It is recommended that all climbers carry whistles for use in summoning assistance. Also, Lee should have followed Roberts’ route instead of exploring a new one unroped.