American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock—Rappel Anchor Sling Not Tied, Distraction

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997


Colorado, Aspen, Die Hard

On October 12, Jake McNelly (23) set up a rappel on a short sport climbing route at a popular cliff called Die Hard. McNelly had walked around to the top of the cliff to set up a top-rope above a half-pitch 5.8 route called Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over. Two medium sized trees near the lip of the cliff typically are used for top rope anchors. According to the other climbers in the area, McNelly appeared to set his anchor and clip his rope into it, then tug on it before backing off the lip of the cliff, which forms a very clean, 90- degree break. At this point the climber began to free fall down the cliff. For most of the approximately 50-foot fall, he slid on his chest, ultimately landing on his right side at the base of the cliff and rolling approximately 20 feet downhill to stop at a tree.

The accident occurred about 1230. Other climbers rendered aid and were able to make a cell phone call for help within 15 minutes. Ambulance EMTs and an emergency room physician (also a member of Mountain Rescue-Aspen) were on the scene within 15 minutes of that call. An evacuation team arrived shortly thereafter. The victim, who was alert and oriented but inclined to perseverate (repeat himself), complained of back pain and difficulty breathing. He was placed on high-flow oxygen and intravenous fluids. He had no obvious deformities and showed good capillary refill. Spinal precautions were maintained to prevent further injury. He showed oxygen saturation rates of 90 percent or better and a heart rate of 90 during evacuation. The patient was littered 50 yards to the top of a scree slope, then lowered approximately 150 feet down the slope to an ambulance. The victim was loaded into the ambulance 30 minutes after the evac team arrived at the trailhead and 70 minutes after the first page was issued, departing the scene about 1430. The victim was continuing to complain of injuries at the time he was loaded into the ambulance.

McNelly was transported approximately ten miles to Aspen Valley Hospital, but died in the emergency room around 1530 of a ruptured aorta. Autopsy results suggested the aorta had been partially ruptured during the fall, developed a hematoma, and then ruptured fully. Also, there was noticeable bruising on the right temporal lobe, which could have led to the perseveration.


Discussions with other climbers on the scene and inspection of McNelly’s equipment suggest the following. First, McNelly set up a single rappel anchor, despite the fact that two anchors are located in close proximity. The sling used for this anchor reportedly fell to the bottom of the cliff with the climber, along with the single locking carabiner he had clipped in with, and his rappel device. Inspection of the sling revealed the following: three short sections of black, flat tubular webbing, tied together with water knots to form a sling about six feet long. Two single overhand knots were also present in the webbing, appearing by their tight configuration as if they had been left there for some time and been weighted. The sling was not tied. In each free end of the sling was the beginning of a loose water knot (the overhand tied before it is traced back with the second piece of sling), ruling out the possibility of a poorly tied knot pulling out. Rescuers concluded that McNelly wrapped the sling around the tree, started to tie the knot, became distracted, then started to tie it again with the other end of the sling, only to become distracted a second time. He then clipped in to the wrapped webbing and visually inspected it. A total of two full water knots and four half hitches were present in the webbing, making it possible that he looked at the sling and concluded that it was tied. When he tugged on it, the friction of the sling around the tree (which is about six inches in diameter, with low branches, making visual inspection difficult), could have confirmed his conclusion that the sling was tied. (Source: Mountain Rescue Aspen, Inc., compiled by Hal Clifford)

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