American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Failure of Rappel—Failure to Check System, British Columbia, Squamish, Smoke Bluffs

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1990


British Columbia, Squamish, Smoke Bluffs

On May 28, 1989, Deborah Richards and I were finishing up three days of climbing in the Squamish area. I had just finished a lead on Cat’s Crack (5.7 or 5.8, not sure). Deborah wanted to top rope Pink Flamingo which is easily accessed by rappelling off the ledge below. I set up the anchors for the rope. We had a bombproof tree to anchor to, but I decided to set up a safety anchor (just to keep practicing safe climbing techniques) and I know how dangerous rappelling is.

Anyway, Deborah went down first, after we checked her rappel set up. I agreed to go second as I had been climbing more than she that spring and was having a great day. After Deborah was through, I rechecked the anchors and put on the pack to bring down the gear. My helmet was hanging from the back of my pack. I decided at the last minute to put it on because I didn’t want it flopping around, and rappelling is dangerous. I looped the rope through my figure-eight, locked my locking carabiner and began backing down the face. About two meters into the rappel, I noticed one strand of my rope being quickly pulled over my head. I grabbed for it to stop it, but I was already falling. I remember bouncing three times and being certain I would die, as people don’t survive 20 meters plus free falls.

My helmet was seriously damaged. I have no doubt that it saved my life, while wearing the pack minimized the severity of my injuries. (They were severe enough with it.) Please tell people to wear their helmets. I kept mine in the hospital with me for a month on my IV stand and plan to have it bronzed! I just had put mine on at the last second.

I regret to say I had done many rappels the weekend of the fall without it.

My shoulder, which received one of 13 total fractures, is permanently damaged, but I am still planning to climb. As of today, I have rappelled again and done a little top roping. I need to get the rod out of my leg before I lead again. Fortunately, my orthopedist climbs and has been most supportive during a tough rehabilitation period. Deborah does not want to climb again as a result of this accident. (Source: Shawn Kenderdine, 37)


It was really difficult to figure out what happened. Rescue workers checked the anchors and they were fine; my harness was fine and the locking ’biner was locked, but the rope was pulled down and still connected to my ’biner. After talking to highly experienced climbers and setting up the system as it was that day, what appears to have happened is that I clipped only one of the rope loops through my my locking carabiner instead of both. This would account for the strand of rope moving very quickly above me and the fact that the rope was still attached to it after the fall. (It was completely pulled down with me.)

I have been climbing for seven years and am known to be careful and very safety conscious. I don't know how I could have changed it. I will always check three times to make sure both rope loops are in the locking ’biner. I checked twice and that wasn’t enough. This was an easy error to make. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more.

One more thing: we could have scrambled down but the downclimbing has one scary move, which could result in a possible three-meter fall.

Sorry this is so late. It is very difficult to write about this stuff, even though I am a Ph.D. psychologist with four years of experience dealing with trauma victims). (Source: Shawn Kenderdine)

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