American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall From Rappel, Possible Miscommunication, No Hard Hat, New Hampshire, Cathedral Ledge

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


New Hampshire, Cathedral Ledge

On February 1, 1992, John High (mid 30s) and his partner walked to the top of the north end of Cathedral Ledge and set up both a rappel anchor and a belay anchor on a tree above the ice climb called “The Unicorn,” an NEI4+ which is above the well known rock route “They Died Laughing.” John planned to rappel on the two strands of rope which was doubled through the anchor carabiner(s); when he got to a ledge at the bottom of the ice, he was to tug three times on that strand of the rope which was to become his belay rope. His partner was to put that strand into a belay device and then give him a belay as he climbed The Unicorn.

John was killed when he and the rope fell to the bottom of the cliff. Exactly what happened is not known. The partner says that one end of the rope ran quickly through the anchor. One of the first people on the scene, Jim Shimberg, says that the two ends of the rope were still through the figure-of-8 on John's harness when Jim reached him at the bottom of the cliff. These two observations seem to be contradictory.

The partner saw John tie a knot in the ends of the rappel rope. Jim reports that there was no knot when he reached the body. (One end of rope was within several inches of the figure-of-8 and the other end of rope had a few feet to go before it reached the rappel device.)


If Jim misinterpreted what he saw when he looked at the rappel device, that is if in fact only one end of rope was still through the device, then John High may have rappelled off one end of his rope and pulled the other end through the anchor. If Jim is correct (and he is sure he is), then possibly John stopped on the ledge below the ice, untied the knot in his rappel rope in preparation for tying one end to his harness, and then fell. If his partner was at the same time preparing to put the rope into a belay device, it is possible that both sides of the rope got into the carabiner so that when the fall occurred, it was in the middle of the rope which ran through the anchor carabiner.

John's method for getting in position for his ice climb was dangerous. A better method would have been to have his partner lower him using a belay device; or, he could have been belayed on one half the rope while rappelling on the other half. (Source: George Hurley)

(Editor's Note: Jim Shimberg's observation from being on the scene indicate a few other problems. First, the communication system they were to use was confusing, especially given that his partner was not an experienced ice climber. Second, the ends of the rope were not tied together. While this did not make a difference in this case, it is an indication that the victim was not following normal precautions. Another factor that adds to the latter is that he was not wearing a helmet. Third, the system of top-roping he chose was not ordinary. A friend of both the victim and his partner wrote a letter in which she indicated that John High was both knowledgeable and careless. We would agree with her further observation that “careless accidents seem to happen far more frequently to very experienced climbers,” and that, “Confidence [can be] dangerous.”)

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