American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Protection Failed, Loose Rock, New Hampshire, Cannon Cliff, Whitney-Gilman

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

FALL ON ROCK, PROTECTION FAILED, LOOSE ROCK

New Hampshire, Cannon Cliff, Whitney-Gilman

On October 29, Daniel Becker (19) and Jonathan Waldman (19) were switching leads on a very crowded Whitney-Gilman with multiple parties above and below The party immediately ahead of Daniel and Jonathan were having a difficult time on the crux, the infamous “pipe pitch”. The steep and intimidating pipe pitch goes out right over the imposing north wall before veering left again onto the southeast face. Having had to retreat in the past due to crowds, Daniel saw a possible variation on the cliff that would hopefully allow them to pass the bottleneck on the pipe pitch. He was hoping to climb straight up and meet the normal route again at the end of the pitch. Starting from the belay at the end of the second pitch, Daniel climbed up a little and found a fixed piton, which he clipped as protection. Knowing the piton was of questionable security, he soon placed a camming unit in a crack which turned out to be the back of a refrigerator-sized block. He also placed a stopper in a crack that he knew was a poor placement, but trusted the camming unit just below. Climbing ten feet higher, he stopped to look for more protection when his foothold broke and he fell. The stopper failed and the camming unit began to arrest his fall, when the forces the cams placed on the rock became greater than the forces that held the rock on the cliff. The refrigerator-sized rock broke free, and Daniel was falling again. His belayer Jonathan described feeling the belay working. He could feel that he was stopping Daniels fall when all pull on the belay just stopped. This was the point when the big rock broke free. Luckily for Daniel and the parties below, the rock fell off to the left causing no harm. Daniel was tumbling and landed face first on a flat ledge breaking his jaw, nose and fracturing his skull. He continued to fall, but the pitons in a comer on the second pitch held, and he came to a stop hanging from his rope about 20 feet below and to the right of Jonathan. The total length of his fall was 60 to 70 feet.

The climbing party below, Dr. Josh Boverman and Christian Caslin initiated the rescue. Boverman used a cell telephone to call 911 at 11:48 am and NH Fish & Game was notified. A separate climber identified only as “Jay” lowered Dr. Boverman to Daniel while Caslin maintained contact with Fish & Game. Boverman assessed Daniels condition and the two were lowered to a ledge. From this ledge on the first pitch, they lowered Daniel to the ground. Dr. Boverman felt that Daniel's conditions could be life threatening and that he needed immediate medical care beyond what could be done at the foot of a cliff. Daniel had been unconscious for a period of time, but had regained consciousness by now.

Eight Fish and Game officers arrived on the scene by 1:00 pm and called for a National Guard Helicopter. Many climbers on the scene were able to help lower Daniel in a litter down the talus, away from the cliff where the helicopter was able to pick him up at 3:35 pm. He was flown to Littleton and then to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical center in Lebanon.

Analysis

Both climbers were experienced, and Daniel had climbed the route before. One could criticize Daniel and Jonathan for climbing below other parties on a route famous for big loose rocks, however that did not directly contribute to the accident. Daniels problem was that he either misjudged the structural integrity of the crack where he placed the cam or misjudged the ability of the camming unit to subject the rock to such high forces. As protection, camming units are able to hold a fall when placed in a parallel crack by pushing out against the crack more than they are pulled down by the falling climber. A climber can develop high forces in a fall, and the dynamic climbing rope will absorb most of this, but as much as 2600 lbs. can remain in the system. The remaining force is roughly doubled where the rope passes through the protection doing the catching; this is approximately 5000 lbs at the protection! The cams need to push out more than the 5000 lbs. is pulling them down in order to remain in the rock. This is a severe example, and Daniels fall could not have resulted in such high forces but evidently it was enough to get the large rock to break free. Good protection is more than the hardware staying in the rock, its also the rock staying on the cliff! (Sources: Jonathan Waldman, Daniel Becker, and other climbers on the scene)

(Editor's Note: Jonathan has recovered and is climbing again.)

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