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Failure of Rappel Setup (Protection Pulled Out), Inadequate Equipment, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park



Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park

On May 7, 1989, Robert Johnston (30) was attempting to lead Conan’s Gonads, a 5.9 crack climb on Twin Owls Crag. After 12 meters of rock climbing, Johnston decided that he was incapable of continuing the lead. He anchored his rappel from a single hexcentric which had been left in place by a previous climber, and pulled the rope free of his own protection. Upon weighting, the rope to begin the rappel, the hexcentric pulled out.

Johnston fell 12 meters to the ground, sustaining head lacerations, tenderness to back and abdomen, and abrasions on arms and legs. He was unconscious for approximately five minutes after the impact. Johnston was evacuated by the Rocky Mountain National Park Search and Rescue rangers, Estes Park ambulance personnel, and local climbers. (Source: David Essex, Chief Park Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park)


Testing single placements by visual observation and tugging in the direction of the intended force may indicate the superficial soundness of a placement but may not be reliable. If Johnston had augmented the rappel anchor with additional chocks from his rack, he could’ve later retrieved all placements by rappelling from the top of the route, easily accessed via a walk up the Roosting Ledge. (The route is a single pitch in length.)

If forced to rappel or lower off a single placement, one should not pull the rope through lower intermediate placements before descending. Failure of the uppermost anchor may place a stress loading upon the next placement, but this is bettter than no backup at all! (Source: David Essex, Chief Park Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park)