Rappel Anchor Failure—Inadequate Knot and Protection, Fall on Rock, Haste, Inexperience, Slight Hangover
California, Tahquitz Rock
On August 11 around 1100, our party of four climbers in two groups proceeded up the route “The Uneventful” (5.5) at Tahquitz Rock. We did not plan to summit, only rappel down after completing four pitches. I led the first group up three pitches with no problems. The day was warm, so I decided to remove my helmet while I belayed my partner up. As I took in rope, a loop caught the helmet sitting loose on a rock next to me, whereupon it bounced to the bottom of the route. We continued on one more pitch to where we had lunch. We cut it short when we realized the time (1500) and wanted to get home at a reasonable hour. We set up our first rap anchor by using an older (three years) piece of webbing with a water knot (no backup knots) looped through a rap ring and then around a young but agreeably sturdy pine branch. The first two climbers rapped down to the next station without incident. My partner took a light fall onto a ledge after she had trouble with the rope, but made it down to the station also. I was about halfway down the pitch when I felt slack and looked up to see the rope falling toward me as I was falling backwards. I bounced once on my backside, then turned over, free-falling head first. Since I could see only air between myself and the base, I truly believed I would die. By miraculous fortune, I hit the same two foot wide ledge my partner had and stopped there, six meters below the initial falling point. I was very shaken, but suppressed my panic to maintain the safety of the whole party. I placed an SLCD and wire nut, then rappelled down to my companions. My injuries were not life threatening and I was able to continue the three more raps to the base as well as the walk down to Humber Park. We decided to postpone medical attention until we got home. The injuries turned out to be lacerations and contusions to the chin, lip, knee, and both arms, small fractures to the feet, and a sprained ankle.
This was my first multi-pitch experience, but I believed I was within my technical abilities, having led 5.9’s and with two years experience. The direct cause of the failure was slippage of the knot due to placement of the rap ring directly on the knot as well as not having backup knots. I questioned the arrangement silently as we placed it, but in our haste, we didn’t really scrutinize it. The ring was still attached to the rope after the fall.
But the real causes of the accident were inexperience, not placing redundant bombproof anchors, our haste to get down, and the desire to leave as little protection behind as necessary. In addition, the earlier loss of my helmet was just inexcusable. A light hangover most likely contributed to the lack of attentiveness overall. In retrospect, a more horrendous scenario could have unfolded if the first rappeller had fallen, since he was carrying the rope and there would have been no safe way down for those left behind. After the fall, we left behind double protection at every rap station with intense scrutiny of the systems before anyone ventured out. (Source: Grant Meisenholder)