American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock While Being Lowered, Inadequate Rope Length, No Hard Hat, Misperception, Idaho, City of Rocks

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


Idaho, City of Rocks

The following excerpts are from, an article written by Thomas Dewell, sent by a member—but without reference to the newspaper it appeared in.)

Luke Kellam had no problem climbing “Fall Line,” a technically difficult route at the City of Rocks recreation area in Idaho.

Kellam had six years’ climbing experience, had made an attempt on Denali in Alaska, and scaled the Grand Teton twice. He spent many hours at the Hoback Shield and had climbed in Nevada and Colorado with his friend and partner Mike Tetreault.

After Kellam reached the top of the 95-foot Fall Line climb, he began the process of taking hardware off the 5.10c route. Tetreault, the belayer, lowered Kellam, who removed climbing protection from the rock.

With Kellam 25 to 30 feet off the ground, Tetreault felt a dreaded sensation. “I was looking up at Luke, lowering him slowly and preparing to stop him at the next bolt when I felt the end of the rope pass through my brake hand and the belay device,” Tetreault said.

Without support Kellam fell, landing his feet first and rolling to his side. He tumbled down a boulder-strewn rock slab and stopped eight feet below Tetreault.

Kellam suffered serious head injuries in the May 16 fall. He has only recently emerged from a coma.


Tetreault agreed to tell the story of his partner’s fall in an effort to educate people about sport climbing dangers.

“One thing I’ve realized,” Tetreault said, “is that people often treat sport climbing differently from backcountry climbing. Hopefully people... will investigate, question and assess their practices while sport climbing...”

When descending by rappel, it is common for climbers to tie a knot in the ends of the rope so the ends don’t inadvertently slip through the rappel device. Tetreault thinks the practice of knotting the end should be incorporated into sport climbing.

Tetreault and Kellam also made an inaccurate judgment on the length of the climb. “I was not really concentrating on the amount of rope behind me because I saw the group in front of us use one rope on the same climb,” Tetreault said.

Tetreault later discovered that the preceding group used a 55-meter rope while Tetreault and Kellam's was 50 meters long.

What makes this accident even more serious is that Kellam and Tetreault were not brash climbers free soloing. They were used to taking precautions.

Kellam taught outdoor education for five years and was safety conscious.

“Luke has always been an extremely safe climber and a teacher of safe climbing,” Tetreault said. “But accidents can happen, and the problem with climbing is when they do happen, the consequences can be severe.”

After replaying the accident many times in his head, and thinking over every angle, Tetreault has come up with a list of suggestions for sport climbers.

Know the area you’re climbing, he says. “The City or Rocks isn’t really a sport climbing area. A lot of the routes are longer than half a rope length.”

Wear a helmet, he advises.

Knot the end of the rope and know how much you have. “When you’re lowering someone, you have to be aware of the climber and cognizant of the amount of rope left for belaying.”

(While it seems obvious, the climbing ranger at the City of Rocks says some people sport climb with their ropes still in the rope bag and invisible.)

“Be aware of the amount of reliance you have on guide books. The book for City of Rocks has relatively little detail.”

Know first aid. “Most people who go into the backcountry know some first aid,” Tetreault said. “It’s a good thing so many people around us did.”

“We were fortunate,” Tetreault said. “There were three EMTs within ten, 15 minutes and a doctor was there half an hour later.”

They stopped the bleeding and monitored Kellam’s breathing and circulation. A backboard that would stabilize Kellam's spine and neck was made from the interior of a custom van, and the climber was carried to the parking lot.

Paramedics from Burley, Idaho, arrived on the scene and evacuated Kellam to the closest landing zone for the Life Flight helicopter that flew the injured climber to the Bannock Medical Center in Pocatello.

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