American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Slingshot Belay Anchor Failure, Fall on Rock, Falling Rock, Arizona, Superstition Mountains, Bark Canyon

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

SLINGSHOT BELAY ANCHOR FAILURE, FALL ON ROCK FALLING ROCK

Arizona, Superstition Mountains, Bark Canyon

On November 11, 1993, a small group went into Bark Canyon to do some climbing. All but one of the group had six months to two years of scattered experience, and all had taken basic instruction previously. Heading toward the canyon, they spotted a chimney problem in a small side canyon, which the guide led for the group. Reportedly, a two point, load sharing anchor—a horn and a natural chockstone—had been set up on lead for sling shot belays. Three people climbed the 60 foot 5.3 problem and were each successfully lowered to the ground. The guide was inspecting another nearby site within viewing distance. Two people were in a pocketed overhung belay stance below the problem, and three people were apparently at the bottom of the formation. The fourth to climb on the system, also the heaviest, was being lowered after finishing the problem when something at or near the anchor failed. The male climber (40) was possibly hit by falling boulders, and fell to the belay stance, some 20 feet. He did not remember the entire fall. “Rock,” and other warnings had been called out immediately. Boulder debris showered the area, hitting a female (30) who was at the bottom attempting to get to cover. The group called for help, and some hikers on a trail below were able to make the first report of the incident by cellular phone, before a member of the party was even able to get out.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety and Maricopa County Sheriff's Office helicopters responded on request of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, and they subsequently requested the Central Arizona Mountain Rescue Association (Maricopa County Sheriff's Mountain Rescue). Due to the remote area, close canyon walls, and severity of the injuries, and faced with a several hour lowering and ground evacuation, helicopter short haul was the option employed for both patients. Rescue mountaineers from CAMRA were placed near the scene via hazardous one-skid and lowhover methods. Each patient was flown via an attended “Short Haul, Long Line” extraction under the helicopter to a nearby command post and each was transferred to awaiting AirEvac helicopters about 1530.

The female died of her head and internal injuries the next morning. The male had reconstructive surgery of his jaw, tom shoulder tendons and a concussion and was released to home convalescence within ten days.

All helmets were reportedly accounted for and found to be intact. Boulder debris found in the area were small to four feet or more in diameter. The male’s Bod Harness and locking carabiners were intact.

Analysis

This area has some quality rock and excellent climbing. However, it also has some apparent shifting of formations, along with some deteriorating rock. An on-site inspection showed a massive amount of rock from the general anchor area to be gone, making specific conclusions anything but definitive. A variety of possibilities exist. However, these presumptory safety messages appear worthwhile.

Each climber should inspect a slingshot anchor upon reaching it. Test a slingshot anchor between each climber by pulling substantial force on it.

Recall that a slingshot setup creates more force than is generally realized. The climbers AND belayer's weight and forces are felt on the anchor.

Check a prospective, otherwise unknown climb from above and/or “on rappel” when in an area of unknown quality or questionable integrity.

Consider climbing established, known routes when with novices.

Always be aware of people or hiking trails above your planned climbs and take appropriate safety measures. (Source: Central Arizona Mountain Rescue Association)

(Editor’s Note: There was some speculation that the anchors may have come loose because hikers higher up had caused a rock fall.)

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