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Loss of Control on Rappel, Fatigue, Inadequate Equipment, Improper Technique, Arizona, Oak Creek Canyon


Arizona Creek Canyon

On October 9,1986, Steve Herrman (32), while on a technical rescue practical drill, was rappelling off the 60 meter headwall of West Fork on a single 10.5 millimeter static rope using a CMI figure eight descending device. He was also using a perlon prusik as a safety. Steve had gloves and a hard hat on at the time. Bill Holman and Dave Seabrook were already down and rigging to ascend another rope. According to them, Steve lost control of his descent and free-fell approximately seven meters, where he landed on soft vegetation below. It was their feeling that Steve would have been at least minimally injured had the terrain been less hospitable. (Source: Reed Thorne, Captain—Technical Rescue, Sedona Fire Department)


On long rappels of this kind, it must be realized that as the rappeller descends, the friction caused by the balance of rope hanging below is always diminishing. As Steve began his descent at the top where I was talking with him, he commented about having too much friction-almost having to pull the rope up into the device. By the time he was nearing the bottom, he was apparently unable to deal with the opposite problem. Steve’s heavy gloves were probably contributory in that, after the fall, he complained about not being able to grip his braking hand sufficiently to stop. Lighter gloves would have been better. When Steve felt he was losing control, his reaction was to hang on with the guide hand thus not allowing the prusik back-up to perform its task. This natural reaction invali

dated its usefulness. (Source: Reed Thorne, Captain—Technical Rescue, Sedona Fire Department)

(Editor’s Note: As the friction decreases on the rappel, especially if only a single line is in use, the rappeller can pass the rope around the small of the back, switching brake hands. More friction, as in a hip belay, is thus created.)