FALL ON ROCK, FATIGUE, MISCOMMUNICATION
Washington, Icicle Creek, Eight Mile Buttress
On Sunday, April 16, Andy Tonning was participating in a rock climbing field trip as a student in the Seattle Mountaineers Intermediate Climbing Course. He was ascending the Tree Route on Eight Mile Buttress. This is a popular multi-pitch route which has been used by climbers for decades and is rated 5.6 or 5.7. The first pitch of the route may be started on the left as a chimney rated 5.6 or 5.5 or may be started on the right at a steep crack rated 5.7. Sam LeBarron was Andy’s instructor and was belaying him at the time of the fall. Three other students and one instructor were ahead of Andy and Sam on the route. Two of these had completed the first pitch, and the second rope team was on the pitch, followed by Andy, who was leading.
The climber who was climbing just ahead of Andy was having difficulty because he was wearing a heavy pack which seemed to be pulling him over backward and made it difficult for him to complete some of the harder moves. Andy, now on the route, waited behind this climber while he worked to overcome the difficulty.
In the meantime, two other climbers who were not in the course arrived at the base of the route, accompanied by their two dogs. Another instructor, Vera Dewey, was also at the base of the route, observing.
The climber ahead of Andy gave up on the 5.7 crack and moved to the easier chimney. At this point, Andy had been waiting 15 to 30 minutes at a resting point. He then started up the crack. He had difficulty at the crux of the crack, and spent longer than he felt he should getting through the move. As a result, he grew tired and felt that he should either down-climb to the resting point or hang from the rope to rest. Andy decided to use his remaining strength to add a piece of protection and then hang his weight on the rope to rest and shake out his tired arms prior to continuing the climb.
After adding the piece of protection, Andy felt that his strength was almost gone, so he called, “Falling,” three times, waiting approximately five seconds between each call. He did not call out his belayer's name in conjunction with yelling, “Falling.” Vera, who could see Andy, heard a call of “Falling” and directed Sam to “take up the slack.” Sam immediately began to take in some rope. At that time, Andy “released from the rock” for a short rest. The remaining slack in the system, together with normal rope stretch was sufficient to allow Andy to fall approximately ten to twelve feet onto a shelf before the rope grew taut enough to stop his fall. All of his protection held securely. Sam was not pulled tight against his anchor, and no rope slipped through his belay device.
Sam lowered Andy to a safe place. Andy had swelling in his right ankle, which was subsequently bandaged by Vera. Andy decided he could walk to the trailhead with assistance. He then drove to Seattle on his own where he was diagnosed with a fractured fifth metatarsal in several places, a hairline fracture of the ankle and a small chip to the outside ankle.
Several factors may have contributed to his accident, but predominately, it was one of poor communication between climber and belayer. Calling the belayer's name along with, “Falling,” might have helped reestablish communication. Also, Andy might have avoided the fall if he tested the system before committing his weight to it, or clipped directly into his protection. (Source: From a report written by a panel of five members of the Seattle Mountaineers and written statements from party members)