American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Anchor Inadequate, No Belay, No Hard Hat, West Virginia, Cooper's Rock State Forest

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991


West Virginia, Cooper’s Rock State Forest

On Saturday, July 21, 1990, Dan Audley (31), Marty Donahue and six Boy Scouts stopped on their way home from Camp Mountaineer to do some rappelling. They were joined by Scott Gray and Adam Dugas. The cliff where they planned to do the rappelling is 18 meters at its highest point. It offers a good vertical surface on which to rappel.

Two rappel ropes were placed, both secured to trees. Donahue went down the rope first followed by three of the Boy Scouts. Audley then attempted to descent on the same rope. Donahue is quoted as saying, “And somehow the carabiner snapped and the rope came down.” Audley fell the full 18 meters.

Dugas climbed back to the highway where he flagged down Deputy Sheriff Mark Ralston and a process server Darris Summers. Dugas and Summers remained at the highway to await Emergency Medical Service units to arrive. Ralston proceeded to the scene where he performed CPR on Audley for about 25 minutes. According to the newspaper four ambulances and over 25 rescue personnel responded to the accident as well as some members of the Cheat Lake Volunteer Fire Department. The EMS crews were practicing vertical rescue techniques at the time at a quarry when the call came. Upon arrival they “performed full advanced life support procedures.” The CPR and other measures were to no avail. He died of massive head injuries. (Source: Compiled from the July 22, 1990, Sunday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper (Morgantown, WV) and a telephone interview with Chief Bran Dean, Rescue Chief of the Monongalia County EMS, who was present on the scene of the accident and investigated the death. Submitted by Dr. James Patrick Mace)


According to Bran Dean, Rescue Chief of the Monongalia County EMS, Audley was the leader of the party and professed knowledge of climbing. It was he who rigged the two rappels, one 15 meters and the other 18 meters. Only one rappel setup was intact when the rescue team arrived. This was not the rappel that failed. The fatal rappel was taken apart by persons on the scene before the rescue team arrived. However, the intact rigging indicated the procedures used by the victim when he rigged the ropes. According to Dean, this rappel was rigged with a single doubled sling wrapped around a tree with the end loops secured with a single non-locking carabiner. The sling was tied together with a single square knot without the ends being tied and was not tied around the tree. The rope was attached to this rigging with a figure eight on a bight knot clipped to the sling with another single non-locking carabiner. There was no secondary anchor or sling placed as a backup to this rappel rigging.

Chief Dean and his colleagues believe the accident was caused by a bad anchor setup. The fatal rappel came completely away from the tree on which it was rigged. According to the report of the other rappellers, the victim wrapped a doubled sling several times around a tree at the top of the rappel. He tied a figure eight on a bight into the middle of the rappel rope and clipped into the sling on the tree using a “locking” carabiner.

Several people used the rappel prior to the victim. They were young Boy Scouts and another adult who weighed considerably less than the victim, who weighed about 114 kg. The rappel rig came away when the victim tried it for the first time. It was reported that the entire anchor was still attached to the victim when the other adult came to his aid at the bottom of the cliff. Somehow the anchor sling detached from the tree.

Three possible reasons could have resulted in the sling detaching from the tree: (1) The “locking” carabiner was not properly closed and locked or it worked loose while the other rappellers used the system. It opened and released the sling when Audley put his weight on it. (2) No locking carabiner was used (none was used on the rappel left intact). The system failed when a carabiner opened from rope movement. (3) It is possible that in placing the webbing around the tree the victim wrapped it several times but did not connect the end loops together with the carabiner. He may have only clipped the carabiner through the wraps around the tree, thus leaving the sling open to be pulled off the tree. With the sling wrapped several times around the tree, friction held the rope for the others who were lighter than the victim. The sling’s friction could not support his weight as it did for the others and it unwrapped when he placed his full weight on it.

It is debatable whether or not a helmet could have saved Audley’s life, but people have survived falls of that height before because of this precaution.

Tying the sling around the tree with proper knots, tying a second sling as a backup and tying the rope directly into the two slings would have greatly improved the safety of the system. As the rappel was going to be used over and over, it would have also been wise to tie into another anchor. If non-locking carabiners are used then two cara- biners should be used, and their gates opposed in order to prevent the rope from slipping out. (Source: Dr. James Patrick Mace)

(Editor’s Note: It is an accepted and common practice to belay all rappels—especially in group exercises of this type. Even leaders and guides are belayed unless there is an emergency, or the guide is the last one down, as would occur in descending a mountain.)

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