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Fall on Rock, Rope Cut, Inadequate Protection, California, Yosemite Valley


California, Yosemite Valley

On September 2, 1989, Manuel Afonso (24) suffered multiple fractures when he fell approximately 12 meters to the ground from the Outer Limits climbing route (I,5.10a) at Cookie Cliff. An interview with witnesses revealed the following details.

Rubio Rocabert led the first pitch of Outer Limits. The anchor at the top of the pitch—about 35 meters above the ground—consisted of two bolts side-by-side, each with a hanger and two lap (chain-repair) links. Rubio clipped a separate nonlocking carabiner to the lowest gap link of each bolt and clipped a short (38 cm) sling between the two carabiners.

Escorihuela Imagrina wan ted to climb the pitch with a top-rope belay. Rubio decided to belay him from the ground, so he tied two ropes together and clipped them through the right-hand carabiner. He could rappel on these ropes and then belay Rubio with the same setup.

Guillermo Garcia and Josetro Rodriguez were planning to lead the route after Escorihuela finished. Afonso wanted to photograph them from above, so before rappelling, Rubio fixed another rope to the anchor for Afonso to climb. To do so, Rubio tied an overhand loop in the end of the rope and clipped it into the same carabiner that held the rappel–belay rope. I do not know which rope he clipped in first.

Afonso climbed his rope using mechanical ascenders. He stopped about ten meters above the ground, intending to take photos from there. He was completely supported by the fixed rope.

While Afonso waited there, Escorihuela climbed, belayed by Rubio and the other rope. After about 25 meters he could go no further, so Rubio lowered him to the ground and then retrieved that rope by pulling it through the carabiner at the anchor above. One minute or so after Escorihuela’s rope was retrieved, Afonso suddenly fell to the ground. His entire rope came down with him. (Source: John Dill, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)


Since the carabiner may have flipped over when the rope broke, I don’t know for certain how it was oriented before the failure. Regardless of its orientation, the shape of the carabiner and the direction the ropes took to the ground when weighted would have forced both ropes together into one of the bends at the spine. In addition, the moving rope could have lain directly on top of the fixed line. If it had been trapped under the fixed-and weighted-line, Rubio would not have been able to take in slack as Escorihuela climbed.

Without repeating the events, any effort on my part to explain the clean cut would only be a guess. When one rope cuts another, the cut is often ragged, with lots of melted material stuck to the edges of the cut. Therefore, there’s a slim chance that some other mechanism is involved. In the absence of contradictory evidence, however, it’s most likely that Afonso’s rope was cut by Escoriheula’s.

Either of two actions should have prevented this accident: (1) the two ropes should have been separated at the anchor; (2) Afonso and Escoriheula should not have accepted Rubio’s rigging. Either they did not understand the danger, or they did not ask him how it was arranged. Safety is the responsibility of the user as well as of the rigger; anyone about to rely on a belay system should first ask how it was rigged and then consciously accept or reject it. If possible, the user should check it personally. There were two other rigging errors, although they did not play a role in this accident:

The ropes were clipped to a single non-locking carabiner. This is not a secure belay, since ropes can be accidentally unclipped in this circumstance. A locking carabiner or two non-locking carabiners rigged in the “mirror image” form are necessary.

Both climbers were supported by the same single bolt. While Escorihuela was being lowered, the force on the bolt was approximately two and one-half or three body-weights, about 180-200 kg. Had Escorihuela fallen during this climb, the force might have been higher. The bolt is probably much stronger than the potential force, but there is no way to know, and a failure would have shock-loaded the other bolt. The load should be equalized between the two bolts, and done in such a way that failure of one bolt produces minimal shock loads on the other. (Source: John Dill, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)