American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Error—No Backup/Belay, Inexperience, Weather, British Columbia, Park Range, Watchtower Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994


The Watchtower (2543 meters) is a grade 5.7 rock climb in Yoho National Park. On August 14, 1993, N.W. and J.O. set out from the Lake O’Hara road at 1500 to climb it. They hiked to the base of the peak and ascended the technical pitches on its south side, reaching the summit at 1930, with darkness 2.5 hours away. The weather was cloudy and it rained for most of the last pitch.

They started to descend right away, by rappelling. N.W., the more experienced climber, set up all the rappels, and as they had only one 50 meter rope, they used it doubled for a maximum descent of 25 meters per station. Both climbers rappelled on a friction brake but did not use a safety device in their systems. N.W also had to build or replace rappel stations as they descended the north side of the Watchtower. For the first three rappels, J.O. went first and N.W. followed, then set up the next rappel. On the fourth rappel, N.W went first, as he had to pendulum over to the fifth and last rappel station before J.O. joined him. J.O. started her rappel but, due to a rock flake above her, had difficulty in penduluming over to N.W. at the last anchor.

As she tried to swing over, she gradually slipped lower than the station and became tired and frustrated. She saw a ledge just above her, and released the control rope with her braking hand to pull herself up the main rope to the ledge. As she did so, her weight was transferred from her rappel device to her arms, and then she was hanging on the rope with her hands. J.O. panicked and froze on the rope. N.W. called to her to move her braking hand back to the control rope, but she did not respond. Finally, as she tired, she attempted to grab the control rope but missed, lost her grip, and slid off the end of the rappel rope, falling about ten vertical meters to a steep scree and boulder slope, where she tumbled another 50 to 100 meters.

N.W managed to retrieve the rope, and descended to J.O., who was conscious and alert, but could not stand or walk. He carried her to a safer and more comfortable location, administered first aid, and gave her food and as much clothing as he could spare before leaving for help. He reached authorities at 0130, and a ground rescue team led by Parks Canada wardens hiked in to the site. They traversed very steep, rain-soaked terrain, and reached the victim at 0500 to find that she had not survived. A second Parks Canada team flew in to the scene by helicopter at first light and evacuated J.O.'s body and the other personnel already there.

The coroners report indicates that J.O. survived no longer than 1.5 hours after the accident because of extensive internal bleeding. She also sustained a fractured pelvis and femur.


The main issue is that no safety device, such as a short prussik sling on the ropes above the rappel brake, was used. Also, the ends of the rappel ropes were not knotted to prevent this exact type of accident, and the victim lost control of her rappel. Contributing factors were the lateness in the day, J.O.'s inexperience (this was reported to be her first multi-pitch rappel), and the difficulty of having to pendulum to the last rappel station, and weather. (Source: Yoho National Park Warden Service)

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