American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Error—No Back-Up on Rappel, Fall on Rock, Being in a Hurry, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton, Owen-Spalding

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2002

RAPPEL ERROR–NO BACK-UP ON RAPPEL, FALL ON ROCK, BEING IN A HURRY

Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Teton, Owen-Spalding

On July 18, Ryan Sasser (27) and I, Holly Beck (26), got a late start out of our Moraine Camp on the Grand Teton due to an early morning rainstorm. Hiking up to the Lower Saddle, we reached the base of the Petzoldt Ridge around 8:00 a.m. We topped out on the Petzoldt Ridge before noon and continued to the Upper Exum Ridge to complete our route. We had climbed the entire Petzoldt Ridge in coats and gloves, and by the time we started up the Exum Ridge, we were climbing in intermittent snow and rain. At the bottom of the Windtunnel pitch we had to hide out for about twenty minutes while a brief hailstorm beat down. We finally summited just after 3:00 p.m. We had seen parties on the Upper Exum that day, so we were surprised to have the summit to ourselves. We had brought a topo and a photo of the Owen-Spalding route for the descent. It was clear that a storm was coming in when we headed down.

On our way down we were never really sure if we were actually following the “official” descent route. When we got to a spot that looked like an anchor for a big rappel on the often-guided climb we decided that was our rappel to the Upper Saddle. Ryan rigged the rappel, tied knots in the end of the rope and tossed the rope straight down. We could see that the rope was not touching the ground, but we had been told by more than one climber to expect this and that we would only reach the ground with rope stretch. Even though Ryan weighs more than I, we decided that I should go down first since I was a more experienced climber. I felt that if we had to do a second rappel, I would be able to set it up more easily. I took some gear with me in case I needed it and went down the rope. I chose to rappel without an auto-block, since I rarely use this type of backup.

The farther I got on rappel the more I could see that I was not going to get to the ground. Since this was a free-hanging rappel, I was kicking against the wall to keep myself moving and my options open. Looking around, I spotted a ledge to the left that I thought I could drop onto from above. I planned to get a handhold with my left hand and get my feet on the wall, and then down- climb or drop onto the ledge. In order to make it to the ledge, I decided to untie the knots in my rope to prevent them from becoming stuck in my belay device before I reached the ledge. With this plan in mind, I untied the knots and started kicking towards the wall above the ledge. I found a handhold with my left hand that felt promising. On my next swing in I grabbed it again just to see if it was good. As I did so, I lost control of my brake hand, probably as my left hand was holding me in to the wall but my momentum was swinging me back to the right.

As I was falling, I felt my helmet hit the rock several times before I crashed to the ground. I lay there for a few moments wondering if I didn’t hurt too badly yet just because I was in shock. I had fallen about twenty feet. I sat up and tried to assess my condition. My arm hurt and I felt moisture in my sleeve. I managed to get my shell off and saw blood on my left arm coming through my fleece shirt. Within a couple minutes Ryan was on rappel. I yelled to him in mid-rappel that I had fallen. He made the jump to the ledge and came to check me out. Based on the amount of pain I was in and the obvious trauma to my arm, Ryan was concerned about the possibility of fractures. He moved me to a somewhat sheltered spot and went for help. Three hours later, Exum guide David Bowers reached me, having hiked up from the Lower Saddle, and started administering first aid. He was followed closely behind by Ranger Scott Gunther, who had been flown to the scene, and fellow Exum Guides Pete Delannoy and Miles Smart. The plan was to take me out by helicopter if possible. However, just as help reached the scene, the storm started and it was not safe for the helicopter to be so close to the Upper Saddle.

Instead, we hiked and scrambled down to the Lower Saddle in intense whi- teout conditions complete with lightening. Members of the party at times could feel strike, although no one was hit. It took us about two hours to reach the Lower Saddle with Scott and David navigating the way down and me moving mostly on my own power, but helped by a short-rope through the scrambling sections. We were greeted with more help at the Eye of the Needle and made it safely back to the huts at the Lower Saddle.

I received amazing medical care there under the supervision of Rangers Dan Burgette and Ron Johnson. Ranger Craig Holm watched over me all night long. In the morning I was evacuated by helicopter to St. John’s Hospital where I underwent surgery to clean and close the large wound I had received in my arm. Luckily I had avoided injuring any muscles or nerves and had not broken any bones. The doctors were amazed at the quality of care I had received on the mountain, calling it real hospital care.

I was able to start climbing again in just a few weeks, although it took a couple of outings to be ready to lead and rappel again. Wthin two months I was fully recovered and back climbing at Smith Rock and in Yosemite. I am so grateful for the quick response and amazing care I received from my rescuers. This could have easily have been a more serious accident and I feel fortunate to have recovered from it so quickly and easily.

Analysis

I believe the biggest contributing factor to this accident was being in a hurry. I was tired from the climb and nervous about the storm coming in. Mentally I was focused just on getting off the rock as fast as possible. This led me to take a chance on swinging onto the ledge without any backup, or without considering other options like ascending the ropes and re-rigging the rappel. As it turns out, we were rappelling in the correct location, but needed to throw the rope to the left in order to reach higher ground. In this situation I took a chance that ended up working for my partner but not for me. (Source: Holly Beck)

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