American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Inadequate Belay, Fall on Rock, Wyoming, Devil's Tower

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


Wyoming, Devil’s Tower

On August 23, 1993, at 0830, Nate Beckwith (21), David Haagensen (23) and Jung Soo (21) were climbing the first pitch of Soler (5.8+). Beckwith was belaying Haagensen, who, approximately 100 feet up the climb, took a 25-35 foot lead fall. Haagensen sustained minor lacerations to his left elbow, and decided to back off the climb. After climbing back up to the .75 Camalot that he had fallen on, Haagensen, at Beckwith s request, backed up the piece with a #3 Metolious TCU before lowering. With Haagensen about 35 feet above the belay ledge, Beckwith allowed the rope to pass completely through the ATC he was belaying with, dropping Haagensen past the belay ledge, and onto a small ledge slightly to the left. A pair of climbers nearby, one of whom was a first responder, abandoned their climb to help assess Hasgensen s injuries, while Soo descended to the ranger station to report the accident. Almost a dozen rangers ended up hauling the necessary medical gear (02 tanks, KED board, litter, etc.) and ropes to treat and lower Haagensen the 300 feet to the base of the Tower, where he was driven by ambulance to the hospital in Sundance, Wyoming, and diagnosed with cuts and bruises. Upon review of his X-rays by a staff radiologist, a slight compression of his T-5 vertebre was also discovered.


It is necessary for the belayer to be tied into the rope on any climb, especially multipitch. At the very least, a safety knot would prohibit the rope end from passing through the belay device. I would like to note that the only reason my head was uninjured (I was not wearing a helmet) was the fact that when I hit the ledge, my head and shoulders were out past the edge and hit nothing but air. It would have been possible to safely lower me from the climb by either executing a knot pass (there were two ropes and two people at the belay), or lowering me to the end of the rope, allowing me to put in a suitable anchor and pull the rope through, and then lowering me the rest of the way to the belay. (Source: David Haagensen)

A few people suggested that a knot should have been tied in the end of the rope. I do not believe this is an adequate practice for safety. A double grapevine or figure of eight knot could slip through a figure eight belay device. I, as a second, should have been tied into the other end of the rope. I had done this many times before, but thought of it as optional on the first pitch. I did it only for convenience so the leader did not pull the rope out of my reach when preparing the higher belay. This situation was a little unusual; the leader is not usually lowered from a lead. Also, most pitches tend to be much less than a full rope length. For these reasons, people may often overlook this safety practice without consequence. (Source: Nathaniel Beckwith)

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