American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Ascenders Detached from Rope, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993


California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

On May 12, 1992, John McDonald (31) was cleaning an aid pitch on the Zodiac route (VI, 5.11, A3) on El Capitan, when his ascenders apparently became detached from his rope and he fell about 100 feet to the end of the rope. He suffered serious rope burns to his hands and had to stop the climb, but he was able to ascend a rope lowered from the summit by NPS rescuers. I interviewed him about the accident the following day and also on December 12.

McDonald stated to me, in essence, the following: At the time of his accident, McDonald had been rock climbing regularly for six years. He had climbed three Grade V walls and one Grade VI (the Nose on El Capitan). His partner at the time of the accident, Fred Berman, had five years of climbing experience, including one Grade VI (the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome). They fixed the first three pitches of the Zodiac on Friday, May 8, and started up for good on Sunday, climbing about three pitches per day with no problems.

On Tuesday morning Berman led the tenth, “Nipple,” pitch and hauled the bag while McDonald cleaned. McDonald climbed the 11 mm rope with two CMI Ultrascenders rigged in standard wall fashion, i.e., an etrier from each ascender to a foot and a daisy chain from each ascender to his seat harness. The left ascender was the upper one. The daisy chains were just snug at full reach and did not impair the positioning or function of the ascenders.

In addition to staying tied to his end of the rope, McDonald made a habit of tying in “short” as he ascended, to prevent a long fall if something went wrong. He tied to the rope just below his ascenders, with a clove hitch to a locking carabiner on his harness. As he climbed, he repeated the process whenever the loop of slack growing below him became dangerously long. He last tied in short just below the Nipple, and when he arrived at the final placement on the pitch, about 75 feet of slack rope hung beneath him. The last placement was a fixed piton with a single carabiner. From that carabiner the rope slanted up left at about 35-40 degrees from the vertical, to the belay five or six feet away.

McDonald saw that the carabiner's gate was against the wall, and that the sideways tension on the carabiner (from his weight on the rope below it, plus the change in direction of the rope) would make it difficult to unclip the rope. So he passed his upper (left) ascender around the carabiner, to put all his weight above it. He had a hard time reattaching the ascender to the rope. First, a bulge in the wall above the placement, plus his own weight still on the rope below the carabiner, held the rope tight against the rock. Second, having to reach above and to the left put his wrist at an awkward angle as he tried to scoop the rope into the channel of the ascender.

He felt that he had reattached the ascender properly, but it was hard to tell from his position, and the tension in the rope held the ascender tightly against the rock. He pushed it up the rope to get the slack out of the daisy chain, and looked at it. He doesn’t remember being able to see the position of the cam or the safety lever, but the ascender appeared to be oriented correctly, i.e., with the frame parallel to the rope, so he didn’t check it after that.

McDonald felt they were a little behind schedule so he was trying to clean as fast as possible. He was also feeling a bit bold, the wall was steep (nothing to hit, if he fell), and “the belay was right there.” So while he was aware of the big loop of slack, and while normally he might have tied in short again, he decided not to take the time—he would just go for it. If he just weighted the upper ascender, McDonald felt he would swing out of reach of the piton, so he gripped the rope above the carabiner with his left hand, taking some of his weight, hoping to keep himself near the piece. As he did so, he heard a click in the upper ascender and assumed that was the cam engaging.

He does not remember what, if anything, he did with the carabiner or the lower ascender at that time. The next thing he does know is that he suddenly began to fall. He gripped the rope with both hands, but he was unable to stop himself and the pain from the friction of the rope made him let go. He fell to the end of the rope, probably 100 feet including rope stretch. He hit nothing along the way and, other than his hands, was not hurt.

Full of adrenaline from the experience, he managed to re-rig and get up the rope to the belay. The palmar surfaces of several fingers on each hand were badly abraded, so he covered them with Neosporin and tape. He didn’t feel he could continue climbing, and rappelling seemed too difficult under the circumstances, so he and Berman yelled to a party at the base of the wall who contacted the Park Service. A rescue team flew to the summit and lowered a rescuer to them. McDonald was able to slowly climb the rescuer’s rope 700 feet to the top under his own power. With medical care, his hands have fully recovered.


McDonald does not remember whether the ascenders were on the rope after the fall. However, it seems likely they weren’t, for the following reasons: First, if he had been gripping the ascenders and holding the cams open, he would not have burned his hands, and if he had let go, the ascenders would have grabbed the rope, stopping the fall and/or possibly tearing the rope. Second, if the cams had been locked partially open, a brief contact with the rope during the fall might have been enough for them to unlock and grab the rope. We have not tested this possibility.

After the incident the rope showed no obvious surface damage. The ascenders—previously used only on the climbs mentioned above—appeared to be in good working condition. No rope fibers were caught in them, although their use during the rescue may have cleaned them. McDonald does not remember removing the lower ascender before the fall, but he guesses that he may have done so to keep it from jamming against the carabiner as he swung to the left. He also does not remember cleaning the placement (unclipping the carabiner from the rope and from the piton), but he is sure he was able to climb directly to the belay, after the fall, without cleaning anything. So he thinks he may have supported his weight partially with the upper ascender and partially with his left hand long enough to remove the lower ascender and to unclip the carabiner, before the fall.

Despite McDonalds attempt to check the upper ascender after moving it past the carabiner, it may have been sufficiently locked onto the rope. Possibly the rock caught and opened the safety lever as he pushed the ascender upward—he does not remember if the ascender was sticking out from the rock or laying flat against it. (I did not have an Ultrascender with which to test this possibility. However, I was able to get a Jumar to release the rope, by pushing it upward while its “open,” or “rope entry,” side was pressed flat against the rock. Rough spots on the wall caught the safety lever and held it back as I pushed the ascender upward, and pressure from the rope opened the cam. Since conditions had to be just right, I can’t estimate the probability of this happening in the field, and this characteristic does not necessarily hold true for the Ultrascender.)

McDonald stated that the Ultrascender can lock half-way open, when the cam catches on the first notch. He feels this is what led to the ascender coming off the rope. He has looked at other brands and feels that they don’t do that. Other than the test suggestions mentioned above, I have not tested this claim.

Suggestions to climbers (these may not apply in all situations):

Get to know your ascenders. Know the correct rope diameters to use. Be able to tell, by look and feel, when the ascenders are on the rope correctly. According to CMI, for example, you can feel the position of the safety lever of the Ultrascender when you grip the handle.

Make sure the rest of the rigging allows the ascenders to function properly. At least one death may have occurred when a too-short daisy chain prevented an ascender cam and its safety from locking onto the rope. (Schrattner, Yosemite, 9/24/87. The report is condensed in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, AAC, 1988, p. 36.)

Usually you do not need to completely remove the lower ascender from the rope when cleaning a traverse. With the right timing, you can open the cam of the lower ascender as your weight shifts to the upper one. (The safety is still engaged, so the rope won’t come out.) As you swing under the next piece, the rope will move through the lower ascender without jamming it into the piece to be cleaned. This method is fast and it keeps both ascenders on the rope. It is a bit dynamic, however, so I’m not sure I’d try it on a row of A4 placements!

The best insurance is to tie in short, any time you get into an awkward situation, e.g., cleaning a traverse. Do it even when there is nothing to hit in a long fall—there’s no sense in stressing—or breaking—your gear. (Source: John Dill, SAR Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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