FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, NO HARD HAT
Connecticut, Ragged Mountain, Valhalla
There was a fatal accident on September 16 at the “Small Cliff” at Ragged Mountain in Connecticut. Following is the account of what I believe happened. At 1910, my climbing partner and I were walking down the Brierly’s driveway on our way back to our car when we came across the belayer (whose name was John), who was visibly disturbed. We quizzed him and found that an accident had occurred. The leader had fallen about 40 feet from near the top of the cliff after running it out. He was alone at the base of the right end of the cliff, unconscious but breathing. John had just phoned the police from someone’s house and was waiting to lead them up. We knew that the situation demanded our help so we grabbed a blanket from my car and sprinted to the Small Cliff. My partner stayed on the driveway at the shortest trailhead to the Small Cliff to show the rescue workers where to go and I ran to the victim.
It was obvious that the victim had sustained massive blows to the head. He had a weak pulse when I got there, but by the time the rescue workers arrived at the base of the cliff (probably five to ten minutes later), he did not. They performed CPR and evacuated him by ambulance and then helicopter. He did not survive.
When I arrived, the victim (I believe his name was Paul) was face down at the base of the cliff. As near as I can tell, he had been leading a route called Valhalla (5.7) and had run it out to somewhere near the top of the cliff (50 feet in this area) before falling. Valhalla goes up about 15 feet to a large sloping ledge, then goes over a small overhang to a face with a thin crack to the top. He had very few pieces in (either three or four), and the highest one was about half way up in the overhang. The rope was still attached to his harness when I arrived and there was nothing attached to it between the leader and the last piece of protection, so no pieces pulled. In addition, there was no protection in the crack above the last piece so it wasn’t a case of a ’biner failing either. I’m not sure whether the leader fell and was initially stopped short of the ground (in which case he would have hit the large ledge) and then lowered, or whether he grounded out, but his knot was disturbingly easy to untie, suggesting that the rope had not held a great deal of force.
There are some lessons. Whatever led to this accident, my completely uneducated opinion is that he would have lived if he had been wearing a helmet. Certainly his head wounds would have been much less. Know the rock you are climbing on. These fellows had not done much climbing (if any) at Ragged. Leading on Traprock is VERY serious business. There is no fixed protection here and many of the routes demand subtle protection. A “G” protection rating may be conditional on your knowing or finding the one place where a particular brand and size of micro-nut fits. If you don’t own that brand and size, it’s “R” for you. In addition, the rock is soft and very fractured giving it the tendency to break when you least expect it. This may cause you to fall on easy terrain and cause your “bomber” protection to fail. I’m not sure I’ve ever backed off a Gunks route due to fear, but I’ve backed off many a Traprock route, as has almost everyone I know who climbs here. (Source: Lanier Benkard, Yale University)