American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Off Unequal Ropes, Washington, Index Town Wall

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

RAPPEL OFF UNEQUAL ROPES

Washington, Index Town Wall

In early August, Greg Child had one of the more exciting rappelling experiences possible. He reported it as follows:

If I had a penny for every rappel I’d done, I’d be a rich man. After 22 years of climbing, my rappel odometer has rolled over a few times. And every descent of that nylon spider-line—be it at night, in rain or blizzard, at 8000 meters when you can’t think straight, on tatty 6 mm bootlace, down all kinds of rock and ice and snow, often for thousands of consecutive feet—has been uneventful. Until this summer, when percentages caught up with me...

I was alone, rappelling down the Upper Town Wall of Index, having just completed a multi-pitch, multi-day orgy of rappel bolting and moss scrubbing. At the last rappel (which I’d made a dozen times in recent weeks), I threaded the rope through the anchors, tossed the ends off, clipped a rappel device to the rope and set off. My mental checklist for any rappel includes making sure that the rope ends are equalized and reach the ground or the next anchors, as well as examining my harness buckle, anchor and rappel device. If I can’t see whether the rope reaches, I always tie the ends on the rope together.

But not this time. I was tired, weighed down with gear and preoccupation. I failed to look down this familiar rappel and didn’t notice that one end of the rope was 40 feet shorter than the other. But when I felt the rope slip through my rappel device and felt the rush of acceleration, I knew what had happened—and that the next few moments could dramatically affect my life.

Falling happens quickly, but the release of those fear-triggered chemicals— adrenalin, endorphins, etc.—slows the experience so that you have time to think, though seldom to react. Primarily, I thought about the bony crunch I knew was fast approaching. I anticipated it as an ugly, jarring sensation that would explode through the top of my skull like a starburst. I was right. My ankle buckled on a ledge and my knees folded into my face, splitting my upper lip. Then I catapulted backwards into the air and began ripping through trees, over boulders and down a steep gully. The karma of rappel bolting had caught up with me.

(Editor’s Note: Child figured out that he has done about 410,000 feet of rappelling in the last decade, and has therefore set up 3,733 rappels. He estimates his casualty rate at .036%. He calls this “food for thought”)

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