FALL ON ROCK, ROPE SEVERED
New Hampshire, Eagle Cliff, Shape Shifters
Steve Dupuis and Jon Sykes, both experienced climbers, were attempting to free a climb they had put up as an A4 aid climb some time before. On October 14, they met at the parking lot to sort gear. They had a 60 meter, 10.2 mm and 60 meter, 9 mm ropes. It was cold and there was a little ice on the cliff as they walked in.
Jon led the first pitch and did a slight variation to the original. It was a slow lead and the rock was a little slick. He belayed at a two-bolt anchor about 100 feet up. He fixed the climbing rope and Steve jugged 30–40 feet to a stance at a ledge where he noticed that the sheath of the rope he was jugging on was frayed about ten feet above him. He reset the nut that Jon had placed, clipped in with a sling and Jon threw down an end of the 9 mm. After tying in, Steve free-climbed the remainder of the pitch. When he got to where the 10.2 rope was frayed, he tied in above it with a figure 8 knot and continued climbing, belayed on the 9 mm. At the belay he tied off and hauled up the 10.2. They observed that sheath was cut on the rope and there was about one inch of exposed core. At that time they looked the entire rope over, except where Jon was tied in, and it looked like there were no other problems. They cut the 10.2 above the fray and threw it down.
Steve tied back into the end of the 10.2 mm. At that time he was still tied into the 9 mm, but was not belayed on it; HOWEVER, the 9 mm was tied off to the anchor! They talked about where the bolt should go. On the original A4 version of the second pitch, Jon had taken a line that angled steeply off to the right. Steve free climbed three or four moves off the belay. He found what looked like a good bolt placement but there was no gear between it and the belay. He was 8-10 feet to the right and about a foot above the belay at a stance on a four to six inch ledge that was leaning out. He got into his aiders using a BD hook on an in-cut ledge about four feet above his feet. He tried to drill a bolt with a small electric hand drill, but couldn’t apply enough pressure using only one hand, so he sent the drill back to Jon on the 9 mm. Steve wanted to get a pin in a crack, but he was unable to reach it from his stance. They were talking to each other all the time and Steve was saying that he was going to move back to his left. As he was switching his feet in his aiders, the hook popped. Steve expected only a short fall and he anticipated hitting the ledge. As he pendulumned to his left, he felt a jerk and “saw the rope go white.” He knew he was falling.
He hit a ledge about 30 feet below the belay with his left side, somersaulted and tumbled, continuing another 70–90 feet to the ground, landing on his back. His Ecrin Roc helmet came off on impact and landed 40 feet away. Steve remained conscious both throughout the fall and after. He and Jon called back and forth to confirm that he was still alive. Steve was still tied into the 9 mm rope and had to untie it before Jon could rappel down to help. The rope was under a lot of tension and when Steve let it go, it jerked away. As he had tied into the 9 mm at least 30 feet up during the initial climbing on the first pitch, the stretch in the rope helped lessen his impact on the ground. In addition, he was wearing three layers of clothing, top and bottom, and had an almost-full Camelback HOG on his back containing additional gear.
Dupuis has been rock climbing for over 17 years. This was the first time he has fallen this far and this hard. “It’s all part of the hazards (of rock climbing),” Dupuis said. “The system was supposed to take the weight of the fall and I guess it’s an unlucky catastrophic failure. The rope was under two years old and in mint condition. It was babied.” Amazingly enough Steve only had relatively minor injuries and has completely recovered. He has returned to climbing and guiding.
So these were two strong climbers with many years of experience between them, but despite the fact that they had already had one rope badly cut, neither climber noticed that the belay ledge on the second pitch had extremely sharp edges. When Steve fell, his rope remained taut as he pendulumned, and that rope, under tension, scraped along the edge of the belay ledge and was cut as if by a serrated knife.
Forgetting to untie from the 9mm rope may have saved Steve’s life, though his helmet and clothing played a role too. However, we can’t say for sure that using double ropes would have prevented the accident. It’s possible that two ropes under tension from the fall could have cut as easily the one, with disastrous results.
If climbers know of or discover en route sharp edges that could slice a rope, they should pad the edge, or place protection that will direct the rope away from the edge. Trying to free an aid climb requires a bit of thought about protection and the line of the original route—especially if there are sharp edges to consider.
Finally, if you are freeing an aid route, tying into your haul line, and clipping the other end and middle of the rope to the belay (an old aid climber’s trick) as a worst-case backup, never hurts. (Sources: Al Hospers, Jed Eliades, and Alexander MacInnes, in The Caledonian Record, October 16, 2002)