Stranded, Inadequate Belay, Hair Caught in Rappel Device, Inexperience, Arizona, Camelback Mountain

Publication Year: 1995.


Arizona, Camelback Mountain

Tracy Hemphill (19), who said she had gone rock climbing only once before, was rappelling down a rock face on Camelback Mountain about 0930 on January 16, 1994, when her hair got caught in her rappel device.

Jared Thompson (19) and David Hansen (19), both of Phoenix and experienced rock climbers, already were on the ground.

Hemphill said she had been wearing her hair up while climbing, but let it down when she decided to quit. After letting it down, she changed her mind and decided to rappel one last time.

To make matters worse, she said well-meaning hikers heard her screaming and yelling and tried to help by tugging at her rope, hoping to free her.

“But each time they pulled, I slid down and my head hurt even more,” Hemphill said, adding that her legs went numb after about 15 minutes because the harness was cutting off the circulation.

Authorities said an area hiker apparently used a portable telephone to call for help.

Jim Walter of the Phoenix Fire Department's Technical Rescue Team rappelled down to Hemphill, hooked her to his equipment and cut her line to free her hair. Other crew members then threw down a second line and lowered her to the ground.

“She was very novice at rappelling, she may have been too close to the rope or not known the technical maneuvers,” Walter said of Hemphill. “She was in a position where she was almost scalping herself.”

Walter said rescuers considered cutting Hemphills hair, but the rescue would have taken longer. The woman had minimal hair loss, he said.

Hemphill said that although it was “scary,” she plans to go climbing again. (Source: from an article by Lourdes Medrano Leslie in The Arizona Republic, January 17, 1994)


It is common practice to belay novice rappellers. With a second rope, it is possible to relieve the strain on the rappel rope—or even cut it or free it if necessary. Otherwise, a self-belay, such as attaching a prusik sling to the rappel rope, can assist the climber in this kind of predicament.

It is interesting to note that the victim's legs were numb after 15 minutes of hang time in her harness. Recent studies on the effect of hang time in sit harnesses—done by caving instructors—indicate that one will go unconscious after not too much more time than this. (Source: Jed Williamson)