American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock, Failure to Hear Warning, Inexperience with Area, Poor Position, No Hard Hat, Oregon, Smith Rocks

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987


Oregon, Smith Rocks

On April 5, 1986, there were three climbing groups on the same area in Smith Rocks. Party 1 (consisting of two), while climbing the upper section of Lycopodophyta, crossed a section of rotten rock. Party 1 warned the people of Party 3 (a Mazama advanced climbing group of five) that the route was full of rotten rock and rock falls are highly possible. Party 3 was on the Bookworm (two routes over from Lycopodophyta). Both the Bookworm and Lycopodophyta (as well as most climbs in this popular section of Smith Rocks) are just off a climber’s/hiker’s path. Party 2 (Debbie Tribe [28] and four others) approached the base of the climbs. Party 3 warned Party 2 that Party 1 is climbing above them and rock has fallen and that there is still potential of further rock fall. Party 2, unhelmeted, stays at the base of Lycopodophyta. Later Tribe said that she did not know of the warnings given to her party about the potential rock fall.

Party 1 completes the climb which tops out on pea gravel. Party 1 moves back ten meters onto solid rock to coil the ropes. As a rope is coiled, it dislodges a baseball sized rock which begins to roll toward the top of Lycopodophyta. Richard yells, “Rock.” John runs after it, and just misses catching it as it goes over the edge. John yells, “Rock.” Richard’s yell was not heard, John’s yell was heard a second before the rock just missed an unprotected head and hit Debbie Tribe in the lower left back and left elbow. The rock had at least a 40 meter unobstructed fall to Debbie’s back.

Party 1 hears the leader of Party 3 claim that there is an injured person. John begins to panic. When Party 1 reached the rappel point, John settles down. Richard rappels first. As Richard rappels, a person in Party 3 yells to him, “You could have killed someone.” It was heard as, “You’ve killed someone.” John did not hear the comment made by the person in Party 3.

When Richard reached the bottom, it was learned that the victim, Debbie, walked out under her own power. (Source: Richard Denker)


Smith Rocks, although one of the better places in the United States to climb, is full of rotten and loose rocks as well as pea gravel. Helmets are highly advisable.

Many climbs on Smith Rocks have two sections. Usually the upper section contains rotten rock and is not climbed while people are below. Party 1 did not realize this was true for Lycopodophyta. Awareness of this fact may have prevented Party 1 from climbing beyond the standard rappel point.

The climbers above, although aware of the potential danger of causing rock fall, failed to watch the ropes as they coiled them.

Party 2’s failure to watch out for potential rock fall, especially after being warned, was a contributing factor in the accident. They remained at the base of the route while debating about climbing it. (Source: Richard Denker)

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