American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock-Uncontrolled Rappel, Inadequate Backup, Colorado, Clear Creak Canyon

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003


Colorado, Clear Creak Canyon

On October 20, I took a friend out to climb. It was her very first time, so I wanted to toprope something that was fairly easy. The climb is called Countersuit, a 5.9 toprope. She’s very athletic so I thought a 5.9 would be a good challenge. The anchors (a set of bolts, each bolt with a chain) were on the vertical portion of the cliff; the ends of the chains were about two feet down the vertical cliff. The cliff edge was very prominent, I mean that the horizontal area above the cliff edge was very flat and the cliff edge was basically a 90-degree angle. The cliff-face directly over the edge was fairly featureless and about ten feet down became a little overhanging. I sat on the edge of the cliff and set up the toprope. I used quickdraws, one on each chain with the gates opposing. This made the point of rope anchorage to the cliff edge about 2.5 feet. I then setup a directional anchor down the cliff edge about 15 feet. When the toprope was set up, it was basically a big upside-down U. This would make it possible for us to toprope two climbs with the same rope.

I had my friend on the ground anchor one end of the rope so that I could rappel off a single rope. I rappelled off the anchors that I originally discussed. I would need to lower myself over the edge of the cliff and down about three feet before my belay device (an ATC) would become active and hold me. I set up an anchor in the cracks of the horizontal portion of the rock cliff and attached to them a four-foot sling. With the sling I could lower myself over the edge of the cliff hand over hand until my belay device became taught and then I would be able to rappel. Additional information: I would have to rappel with my pack and a ton of gear I had brought. The pack probably weighed about 25–30 pounds.

I got ready to rappel. I ran the single rope through my belay device (an ATC) with a locking carabiner. Everything with my harness and belay device was set up fine. The toprope was set up fine. I lowered myself over the edge of the cliff so that I was facing the cliff. My pack was hanging below me. It was attached to the belay loop on my harness and hanging between my legs. What happened next happened very quickly. I somehow managed to lose control and did not grab the brake rope. I fell completely uncontrolled and without the aid of friction created by the belay device and rope. I hit the ground after about a 50 foot fall.


I did not back up my rappel with a prusik knot. I didn’t even wrap the brake end of the rope around my leg a few times. (This little technique could have saved me from this whole situation.)

Some other factors:

Single rope rappels create significantly less braking friction in an ATC belay device.

I was rappelling on a 10.3mm—fairly new (not very frayed) rope.

The actual point where the rope was anchored was about 2.5 feet down the cliff face—which meant that I would have to lower myself over the cliff edge quite a ways before my belay device became active and weightbearing.

The added weight of my pack (25-30 pounds) caused a significant pulling effect on me and as I lowered myself over the edge of the cliff, the added weight became quite disruptive. I had trouble with the dexterity I needed to move my body around and get into position for the rappel

I believe people could learn a few things from this accident. Back up a rappel, even if it’s with the brake rope wrapped around the leg. Be very conscious of rappelling on one rope. If one must “back” off a cliff in order to make the anchors and belay device active (which everyone does), be very conscious of a backup system and how the whole rappel is going to unfold.

I believe that I am a very good climber. I’m not talking about what rating I can climb but my understanding of anchors, roped systems, climbing techniques, climbing safety and all that. I read, on a regular basis, about all these types of climbing techniques. I’ve been climbing since I was 17 years old, 11 years ago. I’ve climbed a lot and I take it very seriously. I can’t believe this happened to me. I’ve been in very, very similar situations and understood what was required. [It] seems to me to be a culmination of overlooked, small but important points that led to a very serious accident. I guess that’s a definition of an accident. (Source: Mike Porowski)

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.