FALL ON ROCK, INEXPERIENCE
New York, Shawangunks, Shockley’s Ceiling
On September 6, 1996, Robyn Williams (19) and I—Sean Hartman (21)—were climbing the classic climb Shockley’s Ceiling (5.6) at the Gunks. I had been climbing for about six months, and Robyn had taken a NOLS course which involved climbing and had done some climbing on her own, but not much in the way of multi-pitch. The third pitch has the ceiling about 20-30 feet above the belay ledge. After the ceiling, the route climbs a left-facing corner, traverses out to the right around the edge of the corner, and continues to the top. Communication is very difficult between the top and the belay ledge; simple communications are possible (e.g., “On belay,” etc...), but anything more just sounds like garbled shouts. I reached the top, set up an anchor, and put Robyn on belay. She fell several times attempting the roof. Each time, by feel, I lowered her back to the ledge to start over. (Falling as a follower on Shockley’s leaves you hanging away from the rock.) She managed to move over on the ledge to a point where we could actually talk; she said she was going to climb to the left of the ceiling and traverse back to the corner. I told her it was okay if she “felt safe” doing it. She said she did, and succeeded in placing herself in a position horizontal to the next piece of protection (about 15 feet up the corner over the roof), but still eight feet to the side of it, when she fell. She pendulumed hard into the corner, badly bruising her left ankle and opening a deep laceration to her left knee. (I didn’t know she was hurt.) This occurred around 1230. I also did not know that the sheath of the rope (a single 10.5) broke right above her tie-in knot, although the core remained fully intact. Not knowing where she was at this point, I left her hanging for a little while, hoping she could get back on the rock. Soon thereafter I lowered her back to the ledge. We were unable to communicate in a meaningful manner at this point. When I shouted down, “Are you okay?” I got back, “Yeah,” and then some garbled shouts; she was trying to tell me she wasn’t seriously injured, but couldn’t really climb.
To make a long story short, it was two hours (around 1430) before I tied her off to get help. (Those two hours were spent waiting and trying to communicate.) Help came in the form of a climbing instructor who was climbing with his son a few climbs over from us. We wound up rappelling, administering first aid (both he and Robyn were WFR’s) and lowering her off in a couple of pitches while I went to get the ranger. Robyn was carried from the base of the climb down to the ranger truck a couple of hundred feet over rocky terrain in a litter with the help of a couple of climbers who were in the area. We were back to our cars around 1600 or 1630.
Robyn actually had several full-length runners with her, which would have allowed her to prussik over the roof. She apparently did not know that she could use these to ascend the rope. Although she did know the prussik knot, she had forgotten her usual prussiking cord at home that morning. A couple of points came up in retrospective analysis of this incident:
If I had any doubt as to Robyn’s ability on the climb, I either should not have done it or set up a belay right after the roof to help coach her over.
I should have made sure she had the proper prussiking materials with her and knew how to use them.
After being lowered to the ledge, Robyn should have reestablished the anchor and clipped into it (especially given the condition of the rope), but she did not.
The lowering and rappelling that ensued, from what Robyn told me, took place from less than solid anchors.
She does not recall banging her head. We were both wearing helmets, which I think is always a good idea.
(Editor’s Note: What is implied here is that these two climbers did not know each other— at least not very well in terms of climbing. Picking up partners at climbing areas like this is quite commonly done. Often, as in this case, not enough information is communicated.)