American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Handhold Came Off—Fall on Rock, Inadequate Belay, Inexperience, Faulty Instruction, Washington, Wilkeson

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002


Washington, Wilkeson

On July 7, I (25) took S.P. (22), my girlfriend of a year, for a day of instructional rock climbing and rappelling. I have been rock climbing for four years and mountaineering on a half-dozen Cascade volcanoes. She had no experience doing either. S.P. is about 25 pounds lighter than I am.

After getting into harnesses, establishing an anchor, and setting a top rope, I began instruction on rappelling. Fifteen minutes later we successfully rappelled the 30 feet, and spirits were high. I was to climb first, and she was going to watch and belay me. As she was lighter, I tied her into a large, solid, dead log at the base of the climb, with webbing that ran four feet or so to her. She was using a figure-8 as a base-plate to belay from her harness. We established signals, and I began to climb.

About 20 feet up, while talking to her, I lost my handhold and began to fall. S.P. was at this point only two or three feet from the log, and the weight of my fall pulled the rest of the slack between her and the log tight, yanking her towards the wall. She instinctively put her hand up in front of her to protect herself from the wall before the webbing halted her. I felt myself begin to go from a slowing motion to picking up more speed. S.P. quickly recovered and grabbed the rope, squeezing it tight before remembering to lock it down. By the time I had reached the ground, she had received second degree burns to her hands, and they had begun to contract.


I had taught several people to climb and rappel, but this was slightly different, as this was someone I had an emotional attachment to. Whether this affected my decision making abilities I do not know, but it is a possibility. There is little substitute for proper instruction from an unattached person. I had anchored her to the log, but I had failed to mention to her to keep the anchor line to her harness taut. A better possibility may have been to establish the anchor and belay from the log. As she was new to the sport, she was not prepared for the jerk when I began to fall. After losing control of the rope, she did her best to regain a handhold, unfortunately gripping it above the belay device. I am happy to say since then S.P. and I have climbed in several other areas, to include the Gunks, without incident, and she and I have grown to enjoy the sport together. (Source: 1LT Michael Wissemann, 86th Combat Support Hospital)

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