American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Failure—Inadequate Anchor Equipment, No Hard Hat, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 1996

RAPPEL FAILURE—INADEQUATE ANCHOR EQUIPMENT, NO HARD HAT

California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan

About 1800 on July 31, Ik Tae Choi (23) died in a fall on the East Ledges descent route on El Capitan. Choi led 5.11, A3 and had six years climbing experience, including the Matterhorn, the Eiger North Face and the West Face of the Dru. On this, his first trip to Yosemite, he had climbed the Prow, and he was descending from a successful ascent of the Nose at the time of the accident. The other members of this Korean party were Sang Jun Jung (23) Yeon Soo Park (34) and Myong Hoon Kim (18). Jung and Park were experienced climbers, while this was Kim s first year.

There are several variations to the East Ledges descent. Chois group followed one requiring three 150-foot rappels: 1) down a low-angle face, past a ledge with a live oak tree and several blocks, to a sloping ledge with bolts, 2) to a large, tree-covered pedestal, and 3) to the ground.

Park and Kim had completed all three rappels at the time of the accident, and Jung was about half-way down the second. Choi was on the sloping ledge at the top of the second, lowering the team’s haulbag. The bag was six to ten feet above Jung, when Choi called down that the haul bags rope was stuck above him, in the blocks on the first rappel. About ten seconds later, Jung saw the haul bag drop ten to fifteen feet and stop. A couple of seconds later Choi fell past him, landing on the ledge at the base of the second rappel.

Jung finished his rappel, disentangled Choi from a tree, and pulled him to a flat spot. Park came up the lines from the ground, saw that Choi was unconscious and seriously injured, and sent Kim and then Jung for help. Kim reported the accident to the park dispatcher at 1900.

Choi was bleeding from the mouth; when Park turned him over to allow the blood to drain, he saw a large wound on the back of his head. Choi was not wearing his helmet, having given it to Kim to use on the descent.

Ranger Chris Robinson, a paramedic, ascended the rappel line to Choi at about 2030. Based on his radio report, the clinic staff pronounced Choi dead at 2045.

The next morning Choi's body was removed from the scene by helicopter sling-load, and rescue team members Steve Yu and Lance Allred inspected the rappel route.

Analysis

Allred and Yu found no clues to the accident above or below the ledge from which Choi had apparently fallen, but at the ledge they found the following: A quick-draw was clipped to the anchor. Attached to the quick-draw were 1) a sling with a loop tied in the free end, apparently Chois tie-in, and 2) a friction device (brand unknown), through which the haul line was rigged. Both ends of the haul line hung down the face. The haul bag hung from one end; the other end was free but the two ends were twisted around each other. When Yu and Allred untwisted the rope it began feeding easily through the friction device, lowering the bag.

Two of the three carabiners in the belay chain were non-locking types. The third was a locker, but was unlocked. None were doubled for security. There was no carabiner in the free end of the sling. Choi had probably anchored himself by clipping the free end of this sling to a carabiner in his harness. Jung later stated that he had found only a single non-locking carabiner in Choi's harness after the fall.

Apparently Choi managed to free the stuck haul line, and the suddenly slack rope allowed the bag to drop a short distance until the rope twisted around itself. We don’t know why Choi fell, but he fell the whole pitch because either 1) he had deliberately disconnected from his anchor sling to work on the stuck rope, or 2) the sling had accidently unclipped from his harness.

Whether or not the latter occurred, Choi had set himself up for an accident by relying on four separate unlocked carabiners. The belay chain should always use locked carabiners or reversed and opposed non-locking carabiners. Furthermore, by girth-hitching the anchor sling to the harness, one carabiner can be eliminated.

The stuck rope did not cause the accident but, like some past cases, it may have led to impatience and shortcuts in safety. The tree and blocks on the first rappel are easily recognized as traps for a pulled rappel line; many climbers break that rappel into two for that reason. We never learned why the party did not pull the haul line before all members were past the potential snags. Possibly they had used it as a rappel line. (Source: Mark Harvey, Steve Yu, John Dill, NPS Rangers)

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