FALL ON ROCK, PROTECTION PULLED, CARABINER BROKE, EXCEEDING ABILITIES
Washington, Frenchman' s Coulee, Air Guitar
On September 30, the famed Swedish adventurer Goran Kropp died from a fall while rock climbing. He was leading Air Guitar, a 65-foot 5.10a crack that requires precise nut and cam placements. Kropp was near the top of the route when he fell some 60 feet to a rock ledge. Though wearing a helmet, he sustained fatal head injuries.
During the morning and early afternoon of that day, Kropp and his partner took turns leading sport routes. After climbing four or five bolted aretes, Kropp took advantage of an opportunity to toprope a crack, Pony Keg (5.10a). Although Kropp looked solid in the crack, he told his partner that he found the climb challenging. Kropp then decided to lead Air Guitar.
Kropp started up the route, placing, in order, a small nut, two microcams and three small to medium cams. He fell near the top of the climb— the crux, shortly after placing a three-inch cam. That cam pulled, and the wire-gate carabiner clipped to the rope on the next cam broke, resulting in Kropp’s fall all the way to the ledge.
This accident resulted from a series of combined incidents. Kropp was relatively inexperienced at placing natural gear, and though a powerful athlete, was at his lead limit. The fact that the top cam pulled indicates that it was either placed incorrectly or walked to an insecure position, which is possible since he clipped all of his protection with short, stiff quickdraws. Another scenario is that Kropp dislodged the piece himself by kicking it with his foot when he climbed past it. Regardless of either event, experienced natural-gear leaders are able to get solid protection at or near the same place Kropp’s cam pulled.
Subsequent studies of the broken carabiner revealed that the the wire gate was not distressed; in other words, the carabiner appears to have failed because its gate was open. While a gate-closed carabiner failure is rare, carabiners with their gates open lose as much as two thirds of their strength, making failure in a fall a real possibility.
What caused the carabiner gate to open? It could have become wedged or constricted inside the crack because its short quickdraw would not let it lie outside the crack. Jammed in the crack, the carabiner could have had its gate pinned open. The short, stiff quickdraw could also have let the carabiner to rotate into a cross-loading orientation, another extremely weak position.
Leading Air Guitar pushed Kropp’s crack climbing abilities that day. Air Guitar, and other 5.10a basalt column cracks like it, are steep and require technical crack-climbing skills. Mastering good crack-climbing skills takes extensive practice and training, which Kropp did not have.
Air Guitar also requires the precise placement of natural protection. Learning how to size and place rock protection properly before attempting routes with hazardous fall exposure is important. Short quickdraws are best suited for sport climbing. When using natural protection, many climbers prefer slightly longer and more flexible quickdraws or slings, which provide for smoother rope movement and decrease the chance of protection being displaced.
Get in the habit of placing two pieces of protection just below crux moves, and anywhere your protection is suspect, place two or more pieces. Doubling up gives you an extra measure of safety in the event one piece fails in a fall. Also, when you place gear in a crack, be sure its quickdraw or sling is long enough to let the rope-end track outside of the crack. This will help keep the carabiner from getting wedged in the crack. (Source: Mike Gauthier—Climbing Ranger, Mount Rainier NP, Duane Raleigh—Group Publisher at Rock and Ice, and Jed Williamson)