American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Improper Rappel Anchor Replacement, Inexperience, California, Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches—Devil's Bathtub

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992


California, Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches—Devil’s Bathtub

On October 16, 1991, James Murphy (25) fell over 100 feet when his rappel anchor came loose from the tree around which it had been placed. An interview with Mike Poulin (27), Murphy’s climbing partner, revealed the following:

Poulin got down the route with the help of some other climbers. According to Poulin, they started climbing the Fine Line route at 1200. Murphy was leading and Poulin was his belayer. Murphy placed protection as he went up the first pitch. A couple times he fell and had to belayed by Poulin. The top of the first pitch was a bush about 63 feet up. Once Murphy was there, Poulin started climbing and cleaning the protection as Murphy belayed. As he climbed he had to be belayed, and there were a couple pieces of protection Poulin could not get out so he left them. Once he got to the top of the pitch, he rested. Then he belayed Murphy as he climbed to the top of the second pitch to a tree which had a piece of pink tubular webbing on it. Poulin then climbed 118 feet to the top of the second pitch. They clipped carabiners into the webbing, rested, and talked. The rappel rope was connected to the webbing on the tree. After a rest Poulin attached the rope through a small figure 8 attached to his seat harness and rappelled down to the bush at the top of the first pitch. Poulin then got off the rappel rope and tied into the bush. Then Murphy got his figure 8 attached to the rappel rope. After this Poulin remembers looking up and seeing Murphy coming down the face land of sideways and yelling, “Oh, shit!” Murphy passed to the east of Poulin and then went out of sight below. Poulin was stranded since the rappel rope went down with Murphy. An English climber went up the route with a rope and helped Poulin down.

Poulin has been climbing for about one or two years in the Valley but is not real experienced. When I asked him specifics about knots or anchor points, he was very unsure about the exact setup. It appears Murphy was the more experienced person and did most of the technical rigging. When both men were at the top of the second pitch, Poulin described the pink webbing as girth hitched around the tree. He and Murphy had a discussion on where he should clip into it with his carabiner. The way he described it to me was the incorrect portion of the hitch. When he rappelled he also threaded the rope improperly through the figure 8; however, it worked because he safely rappelled to the top of the first pitch. The pink webbing that he tied into at the top of the second pitch showed signs of weathering and a few burn marks. These were pointed out to Poulin by SAR Ranger John Dill.

Murphy was in critical condition for several weeks. His recovery has required a lot of physical rehabilitation. (Source: David Panebaker, Park Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

(Editors Note: This was the second rappel accident which occurred in this area in 1991. The first involved two rappellers; El-Tannir and El-Farra—no other name information available—using a 15 mm rope through a figure 8 belay device. El-Tannir had begun to gain speed, so he let go of the rope with his braking hand and tried to grab the rope above his belay device. He slid 15 feet to the ground. This kind of accident to a nonclimber is not uncommon, but it results in fueling the belief that this sport is dangerous.)

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