FALL ON ROCK, ROPE SEVERED, CARABINER BROKE
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On April 1, Matt Baxter (26), an experienced big-wall climber, set out alone to fix the first few pitches of Zenyatta Mondatta, a difficult multi-day aid route on El Capitan. The next morning, after he had failed to return home, friends found his body at the base of the route. He had apparently fixed the first two pitches and fallen while leading the third.
The first half of the third pitch slants up left at about 65 degrees on a vertical wall. The climbing is mostly on hooks and fixed copperheads, with an occasional camming device. Few placements offer bombproof protection. The equipment on Baxter’s body— harness, daisies, etriers, hardware racks, and rope—was properly rigged, but the rope, a new Mammut Flash 10.5mm, was severed about 25 feet from the clove hitch he was using for an adjustable self-belay.
The other end of the rope, 15-20 feet long, was anchored at the start of the pitch and then clipped through a TCU 10-12 feet above and left of the belay. From there the rope ran 5 feet left across the top of a 2-foot wide pedestal and was jammed into a 1/4- in. wide crack between the pedestal and the wall. It had broken where it exited the crack on the far side of the pedestal, and was stretched tight between the belay, the TCU, and the crack.
The next placement, five to six feet above and left of the TCU and 3-4 feet directly above the pedestal, was a fixed copperhead from which hung one of Baxter’s Quickdraws. The carabiner in the rope end of the Quickdraw, a Chouinard Bentgate Quicksilver, was broken, with the nose end missing. The route continued up and left from the copperhead, but the Quickdraw appeared to be the last of Baxter’s hardware still in place.
Based on the gear we found on the ground, and on the length of rope between the harness and the break, Baxter was probably 10-20 feet past the Quickdraw when he fell. An old fixed copperhead and possibly one or more hook placements failed, then a small camming device just above the Quickdraw pulled, followed by the failure of the carabiner. Since Baxter had fallen from a point to the left of the pedestal, and the TCU was to the right, the rope fell across the pedestal and into the crack.
Why did the rope break? A few inches of glazed, abraded, and ripped sheath on Baxter’s side of the break suggest that the rope had been partially cut by being compressed against the rough sides of the crack and pulled through it by the force of the fall. The high friction increased the fall factor, so the rope between Baxter and the crack now had to absorb most or all of the remaining energy; it was more than the damaged core could handle, and it broke.
Would an intact carabiner have kept the rope out of the crack, or at least prevented the break? Probably so, though we did not test this. The rope would still have swung against the pedestal, but from a safer angle. In fact, it must have been in this position while the carabiner was still whole and the force was increasing (a fraction of a second), yet that section of rope showed no damage.
Why did the carabiner break? Steve Nagode and Chris Harmston, the Quality Assurance Managers of REI and Black Diamond Equipment, respectively, examined the broken carabiner. They reported that the material in the carabiner was of good quality, there were no preexisting cracks or other flaws in the piece remaining, and the distortions present were typical of a break occurring while the gate was open.
They also felt that two or three fresh, deep gouges on the back and side of the spine of the carabiner indicated that the spine had struck the wall during the impact. This would have opened the gate, dropping the strength of the carabiner to roughly a third of its rated value, at the moment the peak force occurred. (Slap the spine of a carabiner against your palm, and listen for the “click” of the gate opening and snapping shut.)
The “spine impact” mechanism requires that the carabiner be clipped to the rope in the standard gate-out configuration. However, because of the orientation of the copperhead and the Quickdraw to the rock surface, we could not determine how the broken carabiner had been clipped at the time of the accident.
Baxter had clipped the previous carabiner (on the TCU) down-and-in, so, at the scene, I replaced the broken carabiner with an identical one and clipped my own rope through it down-and-in. When I yanked on my rope to simulate the direction of force from Baxter’s fall, the carabiner slid along the rope, seeking the equilibrium point, as expected. Since the rope held the gate against the rock, friction between the moving carabiner and the rock opened the gate and kept it open. I was surprised by how easily this occurred; however, if this had happened to Baxter’s carabiner we should have found scratches on the gate, and there were none. The gouges on the spine make “spine impact” the more likely culprit in this case. (A simple “sticky gate” scenario is not likely since the gate moved freely after the accident.)
Although we don’t know the actual force on the carabiner, Baxter and his gear weighed 225 pounds and his belay absorbed little energy—his clove hitch did not slip and there was no belayer or force-limiting belay device at the anchor to reduce the impact. The carabiner probably met its design specifications but, like the rope, was overwhelmed.
Carabiner failures are pretty rare. Harmston knows of only half-a-dozen out of several hundred thousand Chouinard and Black Diamond units sold, and they were all due to open gates. Nevertheless, current models, whether the traditional design or the newer wire gate type, seek to reduce the effects of “spine impact” by stiffening the gate spring and/or decreasing the mass of the gate.
While the chance of a carabiner failure or the rope unclipping is low, don’t hesitate to use two reversed and opposed carabiners if you suspect a critical situation like this one. Perhaps more important, back up the placement itself if you can—a fixed copperhead or piton is more likely to fail than the carabiner.
We are all eager to hear about equipment “failures”, but it’s important to get the facts right: preserve what’s left of the gear (don’t touch freshly broken surfaces, for example), get the names of participants, photograph or draw the scene if possible, and notify the manufacturer. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park; Steve Nagode, REI; Chris Harmston, Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd.)