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Rappel Error — Inadequate Protection, Fall on Rock, Inexperience in Outdoor Climbing, Weather, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Symmetry Spire


Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Symmetry Spire

On July 7, around 1600, John Hehr (48) fell to his death when his rappel anchor on the Southwest Ridge route of Symmetry Spire failed. The rappel anchor failed while the climbing party (J. Hehr specifically) was descending the Southwest Ridge route after experiencing a significant storm about one rope length (50m) from the top of the route. He was accompanied on the route by two other climbers: his stepson, Demian Farnworth, and a friend, Kevin Kerwin. Angie Stika, the stepson's girlfriend, had accompanied them on the approach earlier that morning, but had turned around about 0730 because she was not feeling well. Two other climbers in the area, Mike Lanza and Gerald Prutsman, were the first to make contact with Hehr. (Farnworth and Kerwin were still descending.) After verifying that Hehr was dead and that Farnworth and Kerwin were all right, they departed the scene to report the accident. They encountered Ranger Julena Campbell on the Jenny Lake trail, reported the accident to her, and she radioed the initial report to Grand Teton National Park dispatch immediately. Grand Teton National Park climbing rangers were mobilized about 1900, and the Bridger-Teton contract helicopter was summoned. Rangers Jim Phillips and Ron Johnson were flown to the scene to confirm the fatality and check on the status of the other two climbing party members. Rangers Bill Alexander and Scott Guenther were dispatched to accompany and assist the descending party members. After consulting with Lanny Johnson, Medical Advisor, and verifying that Farnworth and Kerwin were still experiencing no problems on the descent, the decision was made to evacuate the body on the following day due to the approaching darkness.


Hehr fastened himself into the rappel system and just prior to weighting the system said, “I hope this flake holds.”

This incident is an example of a situation where technical climbing ability greatly exceeds experience in an actual mountain environment. Farnworth was a 5.11 climber in a gym and had no problem with the level of climbing on the Southwest Ridge (5.6 or 5.7). Yet he had difficulty in protecting the route, and he did not back up his rappel anchor with artificial protection because he “did not trust protection that he placed.” In a subsequent rappel, his partner noticed another anchor failure that occurred as Farnworth was just finishing his rappel. Sport climbers who turn to the mountains for additional adventure should note that altitude, weather, placement of protection, and so forth are all part of the activity.

When situations become complicated by intense weather, experience plays a major role in the decision-making process. After some discussion, the party made the reasonable decision to retreat by rappelling the route. Earlier they did have the opportunity to join up with another group above them, who were trailing a rope that had become stuck (for the second time). They simply “unstuck” the rope for them and never requested any assistance, such as a belay up the final pitch. In addition, once they had decided to retreat, perhaps a more reasonable approach would have been for Kerwin, who had more mountain experience and had climbed the route before, to play a more active role in setting up the rappel stations.

The group was making extremely slow progress on the approach. They were forced to circumnavigate the snow which they were not equipped to travel on. Most likely they did not begin climbing the route until after 1100. They should have been aware of the unstable weather since they had been stormed-off Guide's Wall the previous day, and of the strong afternoon thundershowers which had been forecast. They continued to climb even when the storm's arrival was imminent.

Early starts, proper attire, knowledge of weather, and solid decision making play a major role in preventing hypothermia, and this may have played a major role in the team's actions. They were forced to huddle and wait for breaks in an intense storm in a very exposed location subject to high winds along with the precipitation. Their attire in general was questionable as well. There was substantial confusion between Farnworth and Kerwin in setting up the rappel that failed for Hehr.

Although it mostly likely would not have made a difference in Hehr's demise, only Kerwin was wearing a helmet. The fact that Farnworth and Hehr were not using helmets reflects once again on their inexperience in the actual mountain environment. (Source: George Montopoli, Park Ranger)