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Fall on Rock, Rappel Error, Darkness, Utah, Zion National Park, Prodigal Son


Utah, Zion National Park, Prodigal Son

On New Years, 1997, John Christensen (36) died while soloing Prodigal Son in Zion National Park. Having fixed two pitches the previous day, he tried to complete the route in one push on December 31, New Year's Eve. I last saw him climbing by headlamp at 9 pm. I was bivied on the seventh pitch of the Lowe Route.


Judging from the speed he was climbing, it seems that he would have made it to the top. But for some reason, at night, he rappelled the route. The SAR team recovered his body January 2. (His watch had stopped at 1:34 am.) The SAR team believes that because he was rappelling on ropes of different diameter (7mm and 10.5 mm), he rappelled off the end of the thin rope after it slipped. But no one is sure.

He should not have rappelled. If he made it to the top, he should have walked off. There is a paved descent trail which takes one hour to walk down. If he did not make it to the top, it’s highly probable he made it to the bivy at the base of the last pitch. Perhaps he couldn’t free climb the sparsely protected 5.4 section in the dark. Then he should have bivied. There is a large dirt ledge (you can unrope) and trees and bushes for protection. It was cold, but above freezing, so he would have survived. He was climbing with full rain and cold weather gear.

Soloing is not to blame, although if he had had a partner, perhaps something would have been double checked.

This is the first climbing fatality in Zion National Park. There have been two previous deaths in Zion involving rappelling, but these from canyoneers, and were not considered to be “climbing” accidents by the Park. (Source: Dan Stih)