American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall While Descending, Off Route, Inadequate Experience, Etc., West Virginia, Judy Gap Rocks

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


West Virginia, Judy Gap Rocks

On February 28, 1992, David Dugan (42), Dean Beal (36), Belinda Smith, and her son (10) set out to attempt climbs on some obvious rock pinnacles on the north side of Judy Gap, about 15 miles south of Seneca Rocks. (All are Grade 5, and although the rocks are not frequently climbed, various of the rescuers had climbed the pinnacles and faces over the last two decades.) There are a lot of loose rocks and slick footing, even in dry conditions. The formation is the same Tuscarora Sand that comprises Seneca Rocks and both the approach and the rock are similar. Weather was breezy, clear, and sub-freezing; there was no snow on the ground and the leaves were quite dry. The area is brushy and steep up to the exposed rock of the ridgetop.

The four had gotten into rock more difficult than they liked and turned back, missed their ascent route and pushed downward. Beal and Smith passed into the main descent gully, but Dugan and the youngster found themselves atop a system of brushy, sloped ledges and drops. Dugan tied the boy in (but not himself) and gave him an over the shoulder belay to the next ledge. When the rope went slightly slack, Dugan leaned over the edge to see whether the boy had made it down. (They didn’t have a call system.) The boy at that moment dropped the last foot, jerking Dugan in a complete flip down about 15 feet to the same ledge. He missed the boy.

Dugan landed on his right leg and then his hip. This ledge was also steeply sloped and buried in leaves, but he snagged on some brush and managed to stop his slide. Injuries were a broken right ankle and pain in the lower back/hip area. Beal descended to the van to send for the Rescue Squad and the State Police (about 1700) then returned with blankets. The father and two sons at the next farm were EMTs on the North Fork Squad, so response to the victim was fast. The guide school at Seneca Rocks and the Tactical Skills Team at Franklin were notified soon after and a team was fielded by 1800 in approaching darkness. In addition to his injuries, the victim was becoming hypothermic by the time rescuers arrived. Lowering the victim through the remaining ledges began about 1930; he came across the last steep gully on a high line about 2130.

Injuries were later determined to be a fractured right distal fibular epiphysis (ankle injury), compressed L1 vertebra, and massive abdominal bruising without internal organ injury.


It is not unusual hereabouts to hear someone claim that they “climb a lot,” meaning what climbers would call scrambling; and while the great faces of Seneca do not normally attract scramblers, smaller rocks do. It’s very easy, especially on descent among the ledges, to get beyond your skill and equipment levels. The rock faces around Pendleton County are deceptive; they are often covered with lots of brush and do not look very steep from a distance. However, the ledges are usually outsloping and covered thickly with old leaves, the brush is not securely rooted, and the faces between ledges are often unexpectedly high. Scramblers often do not perceive the true danger involved because the ground does not feel especially steep. Route finding down ledges is difficult even if you’ve been studying the return route during ascent.

In this case, the “climbers” had one carabiner and a 20 foot length of nylon clothesline. Dugan had a homemade seat harness with attached pack. They were dressed in basic outdoor clothes with lace up smooth-soled work boots of several kinds. Dugan said he and Beal had “climbed quite a bit” and that Belinda and her son had joined them for some easy scrambling to the top of the ridge.

In an interview at the hospital two days later, Dugan said he’d been climbing since he was 17 years old, first in the Catskills, later in the Adirondacks, and more recently in the Shenandoah National Park. (But he’d never heard of the Gunks, of known climbs in northern New York, and only recently had he heard of Seneca Bocks.) His preference in climbing rope runs to surplus military rappel (static) line and not much other gear, though he’s been working on a combination seat harness/rucksack. He’s a skydiver but said he can’t see sense in spending money on climbing gear. (Source: Jim Underwood, Tactical Skills Team, Franklin, WV)

(Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, this is one of those cases that can be picked up by the media, National Safety Council, federal and state agencies, etc., as an example of how dangerous the sport is—and how incompetent the participants are.)

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