Rappel Failure, Exposure, California, Tuolumne Meadows

Publication Year: 1980.


California, Tuolumne Meadows

I regret to report that an accident occurred on September 1, at the Sierra Club’s Tuolumne Meadows Climb that resulted in the death of Ray Beal. Ray, who had been a member for two years and climbed with the section for four years, fell 270 feet while rappelling from the top of the second pitch of South Crack on Polly Dome.

Dick DeRusha and Mindy Bagdon were a rope of two climbing above Ray and Ed Missen, the second team. Ray and Ed arrived at the top of the second pitch and were waiting for Dick and Mindy to clear the belay stance at the top of the third pitch. Ray, who was wearing a light, short-sleeved shirt, decided to abandon the climb because he became cold. He was going to rappel down and get a second rope to facilitate retrieving the equipment from the broad ledge that he and Ed were on. He clipped a carabiner into one of two fixed 1½-inch angle pitons that had been deeply placed in a funnel-shaped crack that ran across the ledge from the edge to the wall behind, a distance of about four feet. The eye of the piton was several inches below the surface of the surrounding rock. He tied a figure-eight knot into one end of the 165-foot rappel rope and clipped this into the carabiner. Another figure-eight knot was tied into the other end of the rope, to prevent rappelling off the end, and the rope was deployed down the face. Dick and Mindy, who were having route-finding problems, also decided to retreat. Dick suggested to Ray and Ed that they wait until all four were at the ledge and could rappel together. Dick downclimbed the third pitch to them, clipped into the rear piton, and after checking the anchors began to belay Mindy. By this time Ray and Ed had been on the ledge for an hour and a half. Ray, because he was cold, decided to rappel off. Dick again suggested he wait but Ray prepared to descend and fastened the single-line rappel rope into his CMI figure-eight descender. He began to tie a safety prusik incorrectly, which Dick corrected. Ray crossed the ledge from the left side around Ed, who was left of the crack, and passed on the outside of Dick who was standing facing the wall to the right of the crack belaying Mindy. At this time, Dick heard a “click” and looking behind saw Ray and the rope tumbling over the edge and down the face.

Larry Tidball, who was at the road near the base of the climb, rushed to Ray and began first aid. The paramedics arrived within 15 minutes and, with a doctor who was passing by, began CPR and other efforts. Ray never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.

Andy Fried and Randy McDonald climbed up the route the next day to investigate the anchors. They tried several types of carabiners in the lower piton on the ledge. With a rope in the carabiner, they were able to demonstrate that the gate would open against the rock or against the rope jammed between the rock and the carabiner. The gate would open against either wall of the crack. (Source: Jim Campbell in The Mugelnoos)


The major cause of the accident, in my opinion, was that Ray was rappelling from a single piton with a single carabiner, where the piton placement was such that this was a hazardous procedure. The placement of the piton was such that, either the rope opened the gate as force was applied to the rope or that the gate was opened against the rock as a force was applied, the rope slipped out. Later examination of the rope showed the figure-eight knots to be intact and not tightened.

Contributing causes were: (1) Ray, while waiting on the ledge, said he usually carried a sweater while climbing, but that day had left it in the car. (2) The rappel was rigged to a single point of protection using a single carabiner, rather than using the second piton which was available or placing a back-up anchor. (3) He apparently did not double check and, test the system before beginning his descent. (Source: Jim Campbell in The Mugelnoos