Rappel Failure—California, Pinnacles National Monument, Tombstone Rock

Publication Year: 1977.

RAPPEL FAILURE—California, Pinnacles National Monument, Tombstone Rock. On May 15, R. B. Fischer (27) and Mitchell R. Haydon (16) left the Chaparral Campground and followed the Juniper Canyon Trail one-half mile to the start of climbing on Tombstone Rock. The party roped up and, Fischer leading, ascended the short regular route (5.2) to the summit, without incident. After ten minutes rest, Fischer and Haydon decided to descend the overhanging West Face which they had examined on their approach. Descending this side of the rock involves a 130 foot rappel, initially vertical, until, halfway down, the face breaks back in an overhang, the rappel thereafter being free from some 80 feet to the trail.

New slings, with a rappel ring, were attached to the fixed summit bolt and the party’s 320 foot 9 mm. Mammut rope, on which they had climbed doubled for the ascent, was sent down—again doubled—for the rappel. Haydon started down first at 12:55 p.m. (all times by Fischer’s watch). His rappelling “system” was a standard 6 karabiner brake attached to a waist tie of 6 wraps of 1 inch tubular nylon webbing. This was backed by a Prusik knot tied to the rappel lines above the karabiner brake with a 5 mm. perlon sling and attached to the waist tie with a locking karabiner. The total length of the unknotted sling was 4 feet; when knotted, the Prusik itself, by demonstration, could not have been out of Haydon’s reach. Both climbers carefully checked this “system” and the anchor before Haydon started down.

Several minutes after starting (c. 1:00 p.m.), Haydon began calling for help. His Prusik had stuck and, despite several strenuous efforts, he had been unable to free it. Due to Haydon’s location beneath the lip of the overhang, Fischer was unable to hear him clearly and determine precisely what had happened. A passing hiker, Hugh V. Alderson, relayed messages between the two climbers. Haydon was unable to raise himself as Fischer instructed to release the Prusik. His breathing was being constricted by his waist tie, which had crept up around his chest. Fischer then shouted down to Alderson to run to the nearby Chaparral Ranger Station for assistance. Fischer himself downclimbed the route of ascent, reaching the base of the rappel at 1:10 p.m. Haydon was then too weak to act on Fischer’s instruction that he should take up the slack below him and stand in a footloop to relieve the chest constriction.

On his way to the Ranger Station, Alderson encountered two climbers, Dale Swinney and Linda Lester. Swinney, Lester and Alderson returned to the base of the rappel, arriving there c. 1:20 p.m., while another hiker continued on to the Ranger Station, where the alarm was given at 1:15 p.m. Swinney, belayed by Lester, climbed to the summit by the regular route, anchored his own rope and rappeled down to Haydon. In the meanwhile, Haydon had lapsed into unconsciousness at 1:25 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Fischer observed some convulsive choking. Swinney cut the jammed Prusik and, with Fischer’s assistance from below, lowered Haydon to the ground at 1:35 p.m.

CPR was immediately started but a clear airway could not be obtained due to Haydon’s having vomited. At 1:40 p.m., a party led by Ranger Jim Braggs arrived and took over the CPR efforts. At that time Haydon had dilated pupils, no breathing and no discernible pulse. At 1:45 p.m., he was assumed dead and CPR discontinued.

A subsequent autopsy performed at Hazel Hawkins Hospital attributed death to suffocation caused by the aspiration of vomited stomach contents into the lungs due to the chest constriction of the waist tie. (Source: John Kevin Fox from written and telephone communication with Fischer, excerpts of Superintendent Langford’s report in the December 1976, Off Belay, and the report of Deputy Coronor Meng.)

Analysis: Haydon was an enthusiastic and capable young climber. He and Fischer had made many climbs together in the Pinnacles and also many difficult rappel descents. They had, in fact, practiced differing methods of releasing a jammed Prusik in the free rappel situation. In this case, it is difficult to determine precisely how Haydon became hung up. A likely spot for trouble would have been the lip of the overhang. Passing this type of formation often causes a trailing Prusik to escape the climber’s grasp and set itself. Though Haydon was found stuck well below this point, he may have encountered difficulties at the lip and used up considerable strength there before freeing himself and continuing down. During the final lowering operation, the rappel lines were found to be crossed some 15-20 feet above the ground. It is possible—though not likely—that he deliberately set the Prusik lower down in order to hold himself while unsnarling a tangle in the ropes below.

Whatever the cause of the Prusik becoming jammed, it seems likely that Haydon became alarmed, exhausted himself in strenuous attempts to raise himself and release the Prusik and became progressively more agitated as his breathing was progressively constricted. This left him without the strength and presence of mind to adopt temporary measures for relieving the strain. He could have turned upside down to transfer the strain to his hips. By hooking his leg behind the taut rope (the “baboon hand”), he could have maintained this position for some minutes or, with a standard sling, improvised a seat. Perhaps the very shortness of his Prusik sling prevented him from doing this. Or, as Fischer instructed him from the ground, he could also have bent his knee, taken up some of the slack rope below the karabiner break and either tied a footloop or wrapped several coils around his foot. He would then have been able to stand and relieve some of the constriction.

An essential precaution when rappelling with a “system” is to carry a pocket knife. Not only may a Prusik jam, but clothing might be caught in the karabiner brake. It is clear that the ubiquitous Swiss Army knife could have saved Haydon’s life. Tragically, he had lent his knife to his brother just before starting his climb.

A major factor in this particular accident was the absence of a seat harness. After hanging free in a pure waist tie for any length of time at all, the strain on the waist and thoracic region rapidly becomes intolerable. This is as true for a leader fall as for a hung-up rappel. Yet, few climbers are properly prepared—either mentally or with the requisite equipment—to rescue a fallen leader or a stuck rappeller left dangling in a waist tie. If pressure is not rapidly relieved, unconsciousness can soon result. Though Haydon maintained consciousness for approximately 25 minutes after getting stuck, his functioning was obviously impaired well before this. (Source: John Kevin Fox)