American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Failure—Mid-Mark on Rope Came Off, Distraction, California, Yosemite Valley, Reed's Pinnacle Area

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 1995

RAPPEL FAILURE—MID-MARK ON ROPE CAME OFF, DISTRACTION California, Yosemite Valley, Reed’s Pinnacle area

On September 13,1994, John Pinchott (31) and Joel O’Connell spent the day climbing short routes at Reeds Pinnacle. Pinchott finished by top-roping the center route on the Remnant—a little less than half a rope-length. When he reached the top, he derigged the top-rope and set up a one-rope rappel. He placed the midpoint of the rope (marked with a piece of tape) at the rappel anchor, threw the ends off, and began rappelling.

He was about 25 feet above the walk-off ledge at the start of the climb when he suddenly felt one end of the rope go through his brake hand. He instantly knew what was happening and tightened his grip with the upper hand but was unable to stop the rope. It pulled through the Figure Eight device and through his anchor. He fell past the walk-off ledge, 40 feet to the ground, landing hard on his left side.

He did not lose consciousness and immediately got up on his hands and knees, but his back hurt and he had trouble breathing. O’Connell ran to the road and sent a passing motorist for help. When the SAR team arrived they gave him oxygen, started an IV, and packaged him in the full-body vacuum splint and litter. He was carried to the road (a steep, loose, dark, belayed descent) and flown to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto.

Pinchott was diagnosed with four fractured lumbar vertebrae (the transverse processes), a fractured thumb, fractures of the left tibia, fibula, and foot, a contused kidney, and contusions to both left and right lungs—medically a very close call. After about ten days in the hospital and four months recovering, he is just starting back to work.

Analysis

When we examined Pinchott's rope after the accident, we found that the tape originally marking the midpoint was off-center by 25 ft. Apparently the adhesive had dried out and come loose, and pulling the rope through a sling or against the rock during the climbs had repositioned the tape.

Pinchott later said, “When I threw off the rope I had the vague feeling that one end seemed a little short, but I did not look down to check it. As I rappelled I stopped to look at the climb but it still didn’t occur to me to make sure both ends reached the ledge.”

Pinchott has fifteen years of climbing experience, including many hard climbs and big walls, and he is not normally careless. But this time he was busy thinking about the 12.a he’d just tried to climb: “I was more interested in looking at the climb than in my own safety.” (Source: John Dill and Keith Lober, NPS Rangers)

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